I keep track of articles that claim that they have THE METHOD for immune system boosting. There are so many of them, but I find them all amusing and filled with pseudoscience.
Why do I do this? Outside of those individuals who have some chronic disease or chronic malnutrition who require special treatment, the only methods for immune system boosting are vaccines.
Recently, I ran across a blog post on a woo-filled website called Nature Moms. As you can imagine, science isn’t exactly the standard of evidence. The post that caught my eye was entitled, “15 Ways to Boost Immunity and Keep Illness Away Without Vaccines.”
As you can imagine, out of the 15 ways, only 3 or 4 may be useful for immune system boosting. I know, you’re shocked.
OK, time to do what I do – debunk (or confirm) the 15 ways to boost immunity, so I’ll do that in order.
Immune system boosting – a 10-minute class
I’m going to insult everyone, including myself, who has taken real immunology courses in real research or medical schools by trying to compress all of that knowledge into 10 minutes.
I have written a 30-minute article on the immune system, and despite it being very complicated and dense, it barely scratches the surface of the science of the immune system.
Simply, the science of immunology encompasses the study of the development, anatomy functions and malfunctions of the immune system, all of which are of fundamental importance to the understanding of human diseases.
The immune system is made up of many types of molecules and cells that are distributed in every tissue of the body, as well as specialized lymphoid organs, which act in a coordinated manner to prevent or eliminate microbial infections, to suppress the growth of tumors, and to initiate repair of damaged tissues.
The immune system normally recognizes and responds to foreign molecules or damaged self, but not healthy host cells and tissues.
The immune system is a complex network of cells (like lymphocytes), biochemicals (like complements, antibodies, and other factors), and organs. Despite the claims of junk medicine believers in the anti-vaccine religion, there is not a single point in these infinite interactions of the immune system that can be affected by anything you do or consume.
Moreover, the immune system works perfectly well for most people (again, with the big exception of those suffering from chronic malnutrition or some sort of disease that affects the immune system). In fact, the immune system mostly self-regulates, so boosting is difficult, because an overactive immune system could lead to autoimmune diseases or allergies.
Vaccines are very specific. They cause the adaptive immune system to “remember” a pathogen so that if it tries to invade, the immune system can react more quickly than it could if it had no encounter with the pathogen in the past.
Pathogens are deadly because they can cause harm before the immune system can react. And there are no supplements or a kale-blueberry smoothie that is going to help the immune system react faster.
It takes time for the immune system to recognize a pathogen, then to respond quickly. Once again I’ll oversimplify the science of vaccinology – a vaccine allows the immune system to respond more quickly because it is prepared for that pathogen.
It’s a war between pathogens and the immune system, and if the immune system can attack those pathogens within hours, rather than days, then the immune system can win.
There’s one more point – there is little robust, repeated, peer-reviewed published evidence that there are supplements or foods that has any ability for immune system boosting. Just to be clear, if you eat a diet of Cheetos and Mountain Dew, you probably are going to be severely deficient in nutrients that allow the immune system to work at peak efficiency.
Let’s hope none of my readers are fans of Cheetos and Mountain Dew diets.
Now it’s time to debunk Nature Moms’ bogus claims about immune system boosting to avoid the flu vaccine.
Number 1 – Use an air purifier to clean indoor air
There’s not much to say here except that unless you’re willing to set up a CDC-level clean room, which costs hundreds of thousands of dollars and includes filters that remove viruses, a small home air purifier is next to worthless. But Big Air Purifier is very happy to have people like Nature Moms recommend buying it.
This is nearly useless.
Number 2 – Breastfeed your babies and toddlers
OK, this one is partially true, for a couple of reasons. First, mothers who breastfeed have a significantly lower risk of some cancers. That’s a good thing.
However, Nature Moms claim that “you get exposed to something your body starts making antibodies to help protect the baby.” That is not even close to being true.
As I wrote before, breastfeeding helps in passive immunity, preventing certain pathogens from entering the baby through the digestive tract. This is obviously important.
However, it does not confer immunity to pathogens that enter through wounds and the respiratory system, like influenza. The mother does transfer antibodies to the baby in utero, but that lasts for just a few weeks or months until the baby can produce antibodies from its own adaptive immune system.
Any antibodies in the mother’s milk do not pass from the digestive tract into the bloodstream of the baby to cause it to develop an immune response. That’s not how it works.
Number 3 – Take fish oil supplements
Although there is some weak evidence that fish oil may or may not have some effect on cardiovascular health, a systematic review (the pinnacle of the hierarchy of scientific research) showed no change to the immune system function as a result of fish oil supplements.
Of course, given how complicated the immune system is, I would reject any claims that fish oil (or any supplement) has on the immune system unless it was in a large, published clinical trial.
Number 4 – Use probiotics
Once again, this claim has some evidence supporting it, but not in the way they think. There is some research (another systematic review) that some probiotics may have some effect on the innate immune system of the gut.
This doesn’t mean that it has an effect on the adaptive immune system, which protects us from airborne pathogens like the flu. Or measles.
I’m not sold on the whole gut biome claims that seem to be overhyped, but if you have excess money for these supplements, they might not help, but they don’t do much harm. But they’re going to do nothing for immune system boosting against the flu.
Number 5 – Use natural remedies like Oscillococcinum
Oscillococcinum is a homeopathic preparation, derived from Muscovy duck liver and heart (yes, you read that right), that is claimed to treat the flu. Because of the dilution, there are simply no molecules of duck guts in the homeopathic pill.
Based on this ridiculous figurative and literal quackery (get it), one would not be surprised by a Cochrane systematic review that concludes, “There is insufficient good evidence to enable robust conclusions to be made about Oscillococcinum in the prevention or treatment of influenza and influenza-like illness.”
Homeopathy is pseudoscientific quackery.
Number 6 – take echinacea
Echinacea has received a substantial marketing effort, based on hype and anecdotes, supporting its use as a supplement to treat colds and flu. However, a systematic review has shown us that it has no effect on colds.
A highly biased, poorly designed study was published in a low impact factor journal that appears to show that echinacea may have an effect on the treatment of the flu.
However, the evidence is unpersuasive, and there is no biological plausibility that echinacea has any effect on the flu.
Number 7 – Avoid grains and sugar
Natures Mom claims that “sugar suppresses the immune system and leaves a door wide open for illness.” Citations, please!
Although “sugar” has a lot of deleterious effects on humans, there is no robust evidence that shows it has any effect on the immune system. If you avoid all grains and sugar, you will still contract the flu. Or measles. Or whatever other circulating pathogens that harm babies.
By the way, breast milk contains about 17 g of carbohydrates per 250 ml. So, there’s that. And please don’t use the argument that breast milk carbs are somehow superior to sugar that people throw into their coffee – they all break down to four simple sugars that are absorbed into the bloodstream from the gut.
Number 8 – Eat plenty of garlic
Unless you want to keep away mythical vampires, this claim again lacks any supporting scientific evidence. There is no robust epidemiological or clinical evidence that garlic has any effect on preventing or treating the flu.
Number 9 – Exercise
I’m not sure how this will help a little baby, but a lot of people claim that exercise prevents diseases like the flu or colds. There doesn’t appear to be much evidence supporting this belief, but it’s possible that it hasn’t been researched.
On the other hand, another systematic review shows that exercise prior to a flu vaccination does no effect on effectiveness.
Number 10 – Get rid of germs
Sure this helps, like washing hands frequently during flu season, but getting rid of all “germs” is difficult. Just how is one supposed to destroy all of the germs that are expelled when someone sneezes on the subway? Oh wait, just carry that air purifier, I suppose.
Number 11 – Eat ginger
Number 12 – Take elderberry
Elderberry – a review of the research on elderberry treatment finds that there is only weak and limited evidence that it has an effect on the flu.
Let’s not fall for the argument from ignorance and claim it “may” have an effect. It’s certainly not superior to the flu vaccines for immune system boosting.
Number 13 – Get outside a little bit each day
This pretty innocuous. But if you go outside and other unvaccinated people are coughing and sneezing their pathogens all over you, it might be better to stay inside.
Of course, this is part of the myth that we are all deficient in vitamin D which has something to do with the immune system, according to the woomeisters.
Vitamin D may be deficient in some individuals, especially during the winter. A recent meta-review found that “no association was observed between VDD and immunogenic response to influenza vaccination.” Another review of the literature concluded that “The survey of the literature data generates some controversies and doubts about the possible role of vitamin D in the prevention of influenzavirus.”
Number 14 – Get plenty of rest!
Sure, why not. I’m not sure it has any effect on reducing the risk of flu, but there are a number of studies that show that getting more sleep is important for a lot of health risks.
Number 15 – Eat less processed food.
Again, the pseudoscience crowd likes to overstate the value of diet in our overall health. Sure, there is some good evidence that a Mediterranean diet may lower the risk of all cancers and cardiovascular disease. But is it critical to immune system boosting? No evidence.
Here’s an adage that maybe we should all follow – eat food, not too much, mostly plants.
So, we get another anti-vaccine nutjob claiming that she knows more than brilliant scientists across the world about the safety and effectiveness of the flu vaccines.
She has no clue how the immune system works.
She has no clue about how homeopathy is worthless.
She has no clue about the dangers of flu, especially for little babies.
She has no clue about the lack of evidence for these supplements.
It’s too bad that people read her blog because her pseudoscience puts children at risk of harm. Innocent babies don’t deserve this level of Dunning-Kruger ignorance.
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