One of the favourite themes of CAM and natural food promoters is the concept of boosting your immune system. According to them, we are all endangering our health because our immune systems just aren’t up to snuff. Almost every website devoted to these topics will reference immune system boosting, usually in bold letters, and often with a reference to mainstream medicine keeping the information from you.
The Skeptical Raptor has primer on this topic and discusses some of the common fallacies of the pseudoscience involved.
- The ‘scientifically proven’ subterfuge
- Empty edicts – absence of empirical evidence
- Anecdotes, testimonials and urban legends
- Stressing status and appealing to authority
- Devious deception in displaying data: Cherry picking
- Duplicity and distraction
- Appeals to ancient wisdom – trusting traditional trickery
- Technobabble and tenuous terminology: the use of pseudo scientific language
- Conflating correlation with causation: rooster syndrome
- Banishing boundaries and pushing panaceas – applying models where they don’t belong
- Appeal to nature – the authenticity axiom
The Raptor then moves onto a description of the innate and adaptive components of the human immune system and how they interact to protect us from disease.
Adaptive or Acquired immunity:
To put this into perspective:
- There are some chronic condition, such as stress and malnutrition, can reduce the performance of your immune system. There are a few chronic diseases that may have an impact on the quality of the immune response, diabetes being one of the more prevalent.
- Some people are born with impaired immune systems. Some may acquire an immune deficiency as a result of certain diseases (HIV/AIDS being the most famous). Even some medical treatments, like chemotherapy or immunosuppresive therapies, can weaken or even destroy the immune system.
- An infection does not weaken the immune system; in fact, the sick feeling you have during a cold or other disease, can be a part of the immune response.
- Almost everyone has a perfect and highly effective immune systems–there is no way to make it better.
- In fact, there are reasons why we shouldn’t have a too powerful immune systems. For example, overactive immune systems are responsible for allergic conditions such as asthma and eczema. And there’s a runaway immune response known as a ‘cytokine storm‘ is responsible for causing deaths in severe flu pandemics.
- The immune system can become misdirected and start attacking our own cells. This causes autoimmune diseases such as arthritis and Type 1 diabetes.
- There is little evidence that a normally functioning immune system can be ‘boosted’.
- ‘Boosting’ the immune system is probably not a good idea. Allergic reactions give us an indication of what happens when our immune systems are overactive.
The best, probably the only way to ‘boost’ our immune systems? Vaccination. Our adaptive mechanisms recognize the pathogen and generate a response that is retained in memory cells that are available to quickly respond to a subsequent exposure.
So, as a general rule of thumb, if you read an ad or hear someone claim that a food, supplement, or product can boost your immune system, just walk away. They are either uninformed, or trying to sell you something you don’t need.