Attempting to boost our immune system by taking large doses of single vitamins and supplements may disrupt the balance of cells 

By Nadine Halili | Photo by Brian McGowan/Unsplash

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, stories have been going around about boosting immunity as our best bet against diseases. But can we actually boost our immune system? Will taking supplements and eating specific foods actually make a difference in how our body fends off pathogens?

In the US, dietary supplement sales have surged, with panicked customers stocking up on vitamins, herbs and cold and flu remedies. However, no studies have confirmed that these products actually lower the probability of contracting the coronavirus, raising concerns among health experts.

Taking large doses of vitamins and supplements may disrupt the balance of our body’s essential nutrients. For instance, consuming excessive levels of zinc may induce anemia because it disrupts the body’s ingestion of copper. We’ve all heard the advice that eating more fruits and vegetables or popping vitamin C pills will prevent us from getting sick. And in a way, there is some truth to it because they are excellent sources of vitamins and minerals and diets high in these plants can help protect our health. But scientist and professor Marc Pellegrini, an infectious disease expert at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, adds that vaccines are another solution against infections. 

Because a coronavirus vaccine hasn’t been approved yet, people have turned to alternatives they believe would strengthen their defenses. But we need to first understand how our immune system works and how it defends our bodies from illnesses

“[Vaccines] boost the capacity of the immune system to fight an infection, because you’re exposing it to a pathogen that it will recognize next time,” Pellegrini told ABC News.

Because a coronavirus vaccine hasn’t been approved yet, people have turned to alternatives they believe would strengthen their defenses. But we need to first understand how our immune system works and how it defends our bodies from illnesses. 

Our immune system is an entity composed of cells and molecules such as antibodies. The system’s defense mechanism consists of two types: innate and adaptive. Innate immunity refers to the body’s capability to flush out intruder cells the moment they enter our bodies. 

Meanwhile, adaptive immunity refers to the protection we gain through the exposure of infected cells, which then prompts the immune system to produce antibodies. Both consist of different types of white blood cells that detect and kill invaders. The problem with the coronavirus is that it is still unclear whether our immune system has developed the antibodies that can recognize it. 

Aim for balance

Attempting to boost our immune system by taking large doses of single vitamins and supplements may disrupt the balance of cells. Our body continuously makes different types of white blood cells needed against infected cells and then the excess cells destroy themselves through natural cell death. Researchers still haven’t discovered the ideal mix of cells for our immune system to work best so for now, the best course of action is to maintain a healthy lifestyle. 

Although no studies have proven the direct relationship between exercise and an improved immune system, some have considered that it may be linked to better circulation of the antibodies for more efficient resistance

We need to practice balance and harmony. Since malnourishment has been recognized as one of the main factors that makes our body vulnerable to infection, proper nutrition from a balanced diet is needed for our bodies to naturally produce antibodies. Eating foods rich in antioxidants and healthy fats over saturated fats is said to help regulate immunity and combat chemical byproducts that damage DNA. In this case, experts suggest taking multivitamins if we feel that our existing diet is insufficient—for instance, if access to fruits and vegetables is limited. But, again, taking megadoses of single vitamins isn’t necessary. 

How else to improve immune health

Similarly, exercise also contributes to overall health since it lowers blood pressure, helps control body weight and protects against a variety of diseases. Although no studies have proven the direct relationship between exercise and an improved immune system, some have considered that it may be linked to better circulation of the antibodies for more efficient resistance. 

Getting enough sleep is another good practice. Sleep deprivation has been observed to weaken the immune system’s response and slowed the circulation of white blood cells. On the other hand, deep and adequate sleep improves the system’s memory of foreign cells, which prompts the body to build resistance.

Lastly, good mental health is also part of an overall healthy lifestyle. Studies have shown that chronic stress from stressors like work woes or the uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus crisis may take a toll on the body’s immune system. Try including meditation to calm down and improve your mood. Simple activities like singing, for example, was reported to reduce stress, improve mood and increase levels of immune proteins among cancer patients and their caregivers. 

Although many questions still stand on how we can improve our immune system, it’s clear that sticking to the basics of a healthy lifestyle can go a long way. Additionally, we must also be vigilant in responding to the information we read regarding the virus and its remedies. You could be risking your health more than you think.

Subscribe to our newsletter to receive the latest sports news and active lifestyle and fitness features you need