COVID-19: Busting Bogus Immunity Boosting Claims

Toolbox: It’s all we can think and search about right now. As the grip of the new COVID-19 outbreak begins to reach unexpected proportions through the globe that go beyond postponing the cycling classics and the Giro d’Italia, the internet gets once again filled with false claims and hype around supplements to boost your immunity. And as good followers of pseudoscience, we succumb.

Training in China over a month ago – Now everywhere

And here we are again. Boosting our immunity is not something new in the list of quackery in nutrition by popular influencers and sellers of colorful shakes. The ways of doing this are once again predicable and rely on oversimplifying something as complex as the immune system so that they can sell their useless dietary supplements. This is ladies and gentlemen, no matter how you want to put it, is pseudoscience.

But please, don’t get me wrong. These are tough times in which every citizen around the globe has an important role in following the protocols stablished by their own countries. These include following the basic things we can control and that have significant impact in containing the spread of COVID-19: Share Facts About COVID-19.

While its comprehensive that people try their best to look out for additional ways to protect themselves and their families, the current state of health-related bad information which (ironically) has the same capacity of spreading like a virus, has reach a point of mayhem that led the World Health Organization (WHO) to issue a series of infographics to debunk some “creative” theories that include: Hot and cold weather eliminate the virus? Can an ultraviolet disinfection lamp kill the new coronavirus? (and my favorite) Can garlic prevent coronavirus*; Check all the infographics here.

*Spoiler alert: It won’t prevent it but it will surely keep everyone away from you.

The immune system is indeed very complex and involves the interaction of millions of molecules, cells, tissues that work in harmony. And it’s quite resilient. If the immune system was as simple as its usually portrayed, humans would have succumbed millions of years ago.

In Harvard Medical School’s webpage, you can read: “The idea of boosting your immunity is enticing, but the ability to do so has proved elusive for several reasons. The immune system is precisely that — a system, not a single entity. To function well, it requires balance and harmony.”

Besides, a “boosted” immune could be a bad idea as over reactive immune systems can cause allergic reactions and could become misdirected and start attacking the cells of the host body. Examples of such conditions are arthritis and Type 1 diabetes. So, boost your immune system is not always a good idea, even if you could (and you surely can’t).

The problem here is, quantification. When faced with a problem like the one we’re facing, focusing our attention on shiny, attractive and alternative ideas for ways of boosting our immunity might sound tempting. But the true impact of focusing our attention on such insignificant details that might not result in any measurable benefit, gives us a false sense of control and distracts us for the strategies we should be focusing on.

Having said that, when considering elite athletes like pro cyclists, things can change as they’re exposed to increased challenges to their immune system constantly. These include:

Credit to Prof. Neil Walsh
But again, don’t get me wrong. There are indeed strategies to maintain immune function. Not boost it, nor increasing it, but maintain it. And these don’t include taking mega doses of vitamin C (yet to be proven effective), immune boosting formulas or garlic. The immune system requires essentially appropriate energy and macronutrient intake (perhaps not the best time for low carb right now) and perhaps ensuring micronutrient deficiencies. Prof. Neil Walsh, one of the leading researchers on this topic summarized it on 10 recommendations (article here):

In an era that constantly fails in quantify the effects of certain approaches, It may be important to highlight that the first 5 steps would be the ones with the most impact in maintaining (not boosting) our normal immunity. The other steps may have a much smaller effect.

But one thing is for sure, you can follow all 10 recommendations, but if an infected person sneezes close to you and you breathe their droplets, if you shake the hand of an infected person and take your hand to your mouth and or nose, you will get infected, no matter how good your nutrition is.


In summary:
● The immune system is an extremely complex interaction of organs, cells, proteins, other biochemicals, and tissues.

● The immune system basically works well as a result of hundreds of millions of years of evolution. Only a chronic disease or malnutrition can make it work less than ideal.

● No, we can’t boost the immune system with a handful of supplements or eating organic foods.

● You cannot boost your immune system to protect yourself against the coronavirus.

● If you really could boost the immune system, it’s probably a bad idea to do so.

● The one way we make the immune system work better is through the vaccination, based on evidence that vaccines make our immune systems think that it has fought off a disease when in reality it has not. Then it is ready to fight the disease when it does actually show up.

● Just relax. Your immune system is powerful; you really don’t have to worry about it. In almost every healthy individual, the immune system is running nearly perfect levels without you worrying about it.

Credits to SkepticalRaptor for an excellent overview of this topic.

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