Debunking the 7 Most Common Myths About Immune Health
Everybody gets sick from time to time, and when we do, there's usually nothing in the world we want more than to be well again.
When it comes to maintaining good health though, it can be much easier said than done. There are some common myths and misunderstandings that can often lead us astray, and focussing on one fix—like supplements or superfoods—can cause us to neglect the basic principles of good health.
To help us unpack and debunk the misconceptions about our immune system, we've enlisted the help of nutritionist and accredited practising dietitian Hollie James. "The way our immune system functions is commonly misunderstood," Hollie explains. "There are many things that can contribute to us getting sick, and sometimes it really is just bad luck.
"Catching a cold doesn't innately mean you are unhealthy, while diet and lifestyle factors can influence the strength/functioning of the immune system."
So, before we debunk eight of the most common misunderstandings about immune health, let's recap what exactly the immune system is and how it works—because it's easy to underestimate how complex and multifaceted the human body really is.
What is the immune system?
The immune system is a complex network of cells, tissues, organs and substances that helps the body fight infection and disease.
"Our immune system is used to defend our body from any possible harmful invaders i.e. viruses, bacteria, fungi," Hollie explains. "It's an incredibly complex system made up of many different parts, all doing their bit."
There are two lines of defence when it comes to how the body protects itself from infection.
"Our first line of defence is our innate immune system," Hollie says. "This process is an immediate response to invaders. It includes physicals barriers like skin, eyelashes and the lining of your gastrointestinal system and secretions like mucous, tears and saliva, all looking to prevent the invaders from surviving and entering your body.
"There are also special cells that attack any invaders, like neutrophils, macrophages and natural killer cells (which sound too cool not to include on this list). These guys act quickly to kill invaders.
"However, the innate immune system is not always enough. This is where the next line of defence, the adaptive immune system, comes into play after a few days. This system is more specialised, using different methods to rid your body of the invaders. It consists of white blood cells, like T-cells and B-cells that try to kill infected cells, or produce antibodies to neutralise the invader's effect, or coat them so they're easily found and destroyed by other cells. This system adapts and remembers this invader, so if we encounter it again, it's able to destroy it efficiently."
Read on to find out what the most common misunderstandings about immunity are, and remember to speak to your doctor before making any decisions about how to support your immune health.
Myth #1: Symptoms are the illness
Fever, runny nose, muscle aches—these aren't the illness itself. Rather, these symptoms are actually the immune system fighting the infection that causes them. Hollie explains:
"Say you have a cold: cells infected with a virus in your nasal passages and sinus will start to produce cytokines—these are chemical messengers which trigger inflammation—while your white blood cells rush to help in the area. All giving you the familiar stuffy and sore airways.
"Once your body has been able to clear the infection, it is generally quite good at continuing business as usual—maybe even better than before if you encounter the same virus. Some illnesses can take a toll on your body, meaning it may struggle if you get sick at the same time or near after, but it is difficult to put a time frame on this. There are so many variables, including the type and duration of the illness, our age, existing medical conditions... the list goes on."
Myth #2: Supplements and superfoods will keep illness at bay
It's important to remember that while supplements can help when you are deficient in a specific nutrient, they can't do all the work. According to Hollie, it's common for people to get "tunnel-vision" with supplements, as well as other tonics and "superfoods", and can end up spending exorbitant amounts of money trying to support their own health as well as that of their families.
"In turn, people can tend to overlook the basics," she explains. "None of this is good for our immune function, though I understand it's just us trying our best."
"Beyond diet, I really think the impact of lack of sleep and stress is forgotten when it comes to our immune function. We're all working so hard, keeping busy and don't have time to get sick. Though not looking after ourselves in simple ways like this, when possible, really can make a big difference."
Myth #3: You can "boost" your immune system
The idea that you can "boost" your immune system is problematic. Instead, health experts stress that it's really only possible to support the immune system so that it can do its thing without interference.
"I understand how the idea may sound appealing, and I know it works well when it comes to selling supplements, but it's not something you can do," Hollie explains. "I appreciate that in some cases, the phrase is used to mean a quick recovery or reducing your risk of illness, though I think this year has really highlighted that it is easily used to mislead those feeling vulnerable.
"If we were able to boost our immune system, this would mean having your immune system overreacting consistently. So, you would have those horrible symptoms you have when unwell—like a fever and runny nose. A common example of this is in those who experience seasonal allergies, while a more severe example is in those with auto-immune conditions like multiple sclerosis, where your body literally attacks itself. This obviously isn't what we want.
According to Hollie, a functioning human body is quite clever on its own and has the ability to destroy excess immune cells, keeping the immune system healthy and preventing excessive inflammation.
"The only way we can actually 'boost' our immune system is via vaccinations, which aim to speed up the process of the adaptive immune system by exposure to a minute amount of an 'invader' to create antibodies and be ready to respond should you come in contact with it again.
"So, while we can't boost our immune system as often stated, we can support it to function optimally. Sometimes, this can include supplementation, but not as often as you'd expect."
Myth #4: Immune support is the same for everyone
While there are some constants when it comes to good immune support, it's not a one-size-fits-all situation—like anything health-related.
"While we can say certain nutrients are needed for immune function or that sleep deprivation can weaken immune function, immune support still varies by individual and by population group," Hollie explains. "We do find that immune function tends to decline as we age, but even within the same age bracket what could be missing or required will differ. This is also why general supplements aren't often useful, unless that individual has that specific deficiency, or a higher need for that nutrient, for example."
"Yes, a specific nutrient deficiency will impair our immune systems ability to function. However, it is the deficiency that is required here. Some supplements can also lead to a harmful and excessive intake of nutrients. Only take a supplement if you've been advised by your doctor or dietitian to do so."
Myth #5: Vitamin C supplements will cure and prevent the common cold
Vitamin C is great, but it's not enough to take a daily tablet to keep sickess at bay. In fact, it won't do as much as you think if you're not actually deficient in vitamin C.
"Unless you're deficient (as with all vitamin supplements)," Hollie says, "a vitamin C supplement is not useful. Studies have found that vitamin C supplementation does not reduce risk of infection or prevent the common cold. At most, supplementation may reduce the duration of a cold by one day. There's no need to take it all year round, if at all.
"Vitamin C is actually a water-soluble vitamin, meaning you excrete any excess you don't need. Up to 200mg, the vitamin C supplement is well absorbed, but beyond this the absorption is increasingly less. Most supplements you see in stores are greater than 500mg."
Myth #6: Echinacea prevents colds and flus
Like everything, there is plenty in the realm of immune support that is not 100 per cent proven, with new evidence being uncovered as time goes on. You may have heard that echinacea is a great tool to prevent cold and flu, but it really all depends on which type and which part of the echinacea plant a supplement is made from. Hollie explains:
"This is quite a confusing area of research as the evidence is still conflicting. This is mainly due to there being different species of echinacea, different parts of the plant used and varying doses. If it doesn't interact with your medications and you want to take it, it's up to you, but it's a bit of a supplement roulette at the moment."
Myth #7: Lemon, honey and ginger tonics as immune cure-alls
The placebo effect of a delicious lemon, honey and ginger tea might be enough to sooth you momentarily, but the science behind whether these ingredients actually do much to fight infection.
"There isn't scientific evidence to support the claims this trio can cure you of an infection," Hollie says, "though there might be something to this time-surviving mix: there is evidence supporting honey as a cough suppressant, and as we all know, having a hot drink can soothe a sore throat and keep us hydrated—all important to how we feel and recover."
So, while these ingredients are over-hyped in regards to fighting a cold, they are unlikely to do any harm. And they taste good!
Always seek the guidance of your doctor or other qualified health professional with any questions you may have regarding your health or a medical condition.
For more from Hollie James, follow @holliejamesdietitian on Instagram or visit her website.
Enjoyed this? Here's What a Doctor, Nutritionist & Naturopath Want You to Know About Boosting Your Immunity.