Boosting the Immune System

Boosting the Immune System- Can it be done?

A common questions we are asked is, "What can I do to boost my child's immune system?"

It turns out to be an important and challenging question.

To answer it, first we should talk about two key items:
1.  What does boosting mean?
2.  What is the immune system?

Boosting means making stronger, and likely what we all seek when we talk about boosting the immune system is getting stronger in 3 ways:
1.  A boosted immune system will decrease the number of infections and illnesses our child will get.
2.  A boosted immune system will make any infection our child has much milder- last many fewer days,cause fewer symptoms, and what symptoms occur will be far milder.
3.  And, hopefully, a boosted immune system will somehow make one much healthier over all- stronger, better rested, live longer, etc.

The Immune System
For many of us, the immune system is the most mysterious of all the systems in the body.   Most systems are easy to think about.  The digestive system is the stomach and gut, the circulatory system is the heart and its vessels, the skeletal system is the bones.

But what is the immune system?  There is no structure that makes it easy to point to and say, yes, there it is.

So to understand how to boost it, we need to start with knowing what it is.

The immune system are all the cells in the body that respond to dangerous cells and viruses by destroying them. Most of the time these dangers are things that cause infections: parasites, bacteria, and viruses.  But more often that we like to think, the immune system also eliminates our own cells that are dangerous- these would be cells that could go on to become cancers.  But the main point here is that the immune system are all the cells that destroy cells and viruses that could harm us.

Those cells are in every part of our body, and also organized in 4 key structures:  the lymph nodes, the spleen, the bone marrow, and a relatively unknown structure, the thymus.

The bone marrow is where all the cells of the immune system are made.

The spleen is where all circulating cells, like our blood cells, pass through an inspection looking for signs of dangerous cells and viruses.  

The lymph nodes are little lumps of immune system tissue that ramp up production of immune system cells and antibodies in response to a need.  There are literally thousands of them across our body, and they get big when activated.   Some are very near the surface, especially in the neck and groin, and when they get activated and get big we call them swollen glands.

And, the thymus is an organ in the chest that matures a special set of immune system cells, the T-cells.  The T-cells are the brains of the operation.  They decide whether to attack any item in our body, or not.  And if an attack is made, it is the T-cell that orchestrates it.  Curiously, the thymus shrinks dramatically during puberty, most adults have almost no thymus.

Can you Boost the Immune System?

Now that we know a little about boosting and the immune system, we can talk about how, or even whether it can be done.

The American marketplace has a very loud answer to this question- YES!

Manufacturers make, and we buy, billions of dollars worth of stuff to boost our immune system.

There are vitamins, and nutritional supplements, and oils.  There are special exercises and manipulations.

So how would one know if you took one of these items, or participated in one of these activities, that your immune system actually got boosted or not?

It's a much harder question to answer than asking if an intervention works to lose weight.  For that, all you need to do is step on a scale.  

It turns out that the way to know is to see, do you actually see any of the promised boosting effects, the ones listed at the top of this article.

That is, if you take the eat a certain diet, take a particular pill, or do a prescribed exercise, do you actually experience:
  • Fewer infections
  • Milder infections
  • Longer life
So far, there are no proven immune boosting pills or strategies that have proven to do any of these three things.

Again, many products promise that your immune system will be boosted.   Why not?   The law in the United States specifically releases a whole category of products from ever having to show they work.
The category the law in the US has created is called "Dietary Supplements."  So if anyone creates a food, nutrient, pill, or herbal preparation that can be categorized as a dietary supplement, it is released from having to do any work to see if it does anything, by law.

And as for exercise, or other activities, there has never been any requirement that such activities prove any impact or effect.

And so, we have very little evidence that anything people have created to take, eat, or do, actually boosts the immune system.

There is no evidence that the industry that creates products that boost the immune system have in fact prevented infections, made infections milder, or extended life times.

What to Do

It should be said that we are all for boosting the immune system.  If something, safely, could eliminate infections, reduce the severity of infections, and help us live healthier and longer lives by boosting the immune system, we would love to see it happen.

But for now, until such remedies are actually invented, we recommend staying away from false claims, and not take pills and supplements that claim to boost the immune system.

No need to despair, though.   There are a few things that can indeed lead to be better health.
They are all things our grandmothers have been telling to do for many centuries:
  • Eat fruits and vegetables.  Those who eat at least 5 servings of 2 ounces a day live about 7 years longer than those who do not.
  • Exercise.  This makes every organ in the body work better and reduces the chance of a huge range of illnesses.
  • Sleep.  Sleep actually has a big impact on physical and mental health.
  • Socialize.  People who have social experiences, that is friends and family, live longer than those who do not.
And, when it comes to infections, nothing prevents them more dramatically than immunization.  Diseases for which we have immunizations are essentially eliminated from our world when we immunize- polio is an excellent example.   Immunizations do not boost the immune system overall, but they do block one from having whatever illness the immunization is for.

BOTTOM LINE It's a great idea to boost the immune system.  But when you think about what that really is about, it turns out nothing has yet been created that does this.

Meanwhile, there are very real steps one can take to improve the chance of living a longer, and healthier, life.

To a good and long life!

Dr. Arthur Lavin 

*Disclaimer* The comments contained in this electronic source of information do not constitute and are not designed to imply that they constitute any form of individual medical advice. The information provided is purely for informational purposes only and not relevant to any person's particular medical condition or situation. If you have any medical concerns about yourself or your family please contact your physician immediately. In order to provide our patients the best uninfluenced information that science has to offer,we do not accept samples of drugs, advertising tchotchkes, money, food, or any item from outside vendors.

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