Immunity has become a common word in the pandemic. Supermarket shelves are now full of products that promise to “boost immunity” and make the body fit enough to fight various ailments. But can you really ‘boost’ immunity? If experts are to be believed, the idea itself is “misleading and scientifically inaccurate”.
“Biomedical jargon and authoritative signaling are commonly used to give credibility to scientifically unsound ideas around boosting one’s immunity. In nearly every post, commercial endeavours are highlighted implicitly and explicitly,” noted a 2020 study published in Allergy, Asthma and Clinical Immunology.
From kadhas to milk-based concoctions and chocolates, so-called immunity boosters have been believed to help increase the working of the immune system and reduce the risk of infections. But is it so?
Much recently, Dr Drabby Philips, a liver specialist, pointed out in a Twitter thread about how misleading the usage of the phrase “boost immunity” is. “Would you tell which immunity gets ‘boosted’ – cellular or humoral? Does this also affect tissue level immunity, example the mucosal associated lymphoid immune system? How does one ‘boost’ that?”
So, what actually is immunity?
In simple terms, immunity refers to the body’s ability to fight infections and/or prevent the invasion of pathogens, whether bacteria or virus. The immune system, in fact, is a complex network of cells, tissues, and organs which together help the body fight infections and other diseases.
According to medlineplus.gov, the immune system has many different parts, including the skin, which can help prevent germs from getting into the body; mucous membranes, the moist, inner linings of some organs and body cavities that make mucus and other substances, which can trap and fight germs; white blood cells which fight germs; organs and tissues of the lymph system, such as the thymus, spleen, tonsils, lymph nodes, lymph vessels, and bone marrow that produce, store, and carry white blood cells.
Can you actually boost immunity?
Immunity plays a major role in fighting infections, but it cannot be boosted by having certain products, said Dr Manoj Sharma, senior consultant, Internal Medicine, Fortis Hospital, Vasant Kunj, New Delhi. “Immunity building, boosting are all hypothetical terms. These are not medical terms. These are being promoted by market-driven companies,” he told indianexpress.com.
Dr Samrat Shah, consultant internist at Bhatia Hospital said that as there are many different kinds of cells in the immune system that respond to different microbes, knowing which cells you should “boost” and to what number is extremely “complicated”.
“It’s not something that can be done with celery juice and a vitamin supplement. Scientists don’t even know the answer for sure. What is known, is that the body is continually generating immune cells. It produces more lymphocytes (white blood cells that are also one of the body’s main types of immune cells) than it can possibly use. The extra cells naturally remove themselves through the process of cell death called apoptosis – some before they see any action, others after the battle is won. There is no definitive answer on how many cells or what the best mix of cells in the immune system is in order to function at optimal level,” he said.
How does the immune system work?
The body’s immune system defends the body against substances it deems harmful or foreign. “The strength of our immune system is mainly determined by non-inheritable factors. This means that the germs we are exposed throughout our lives, as well as individual lifestyle factors such as stress, sleep, diet and exercise, all, play an important role in the strength of our body’s defense system, Dr Shah mentioned.
According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are two types of immunity — active and passive. Active immunity results when exposure to a disease organism triggers the immune system to produce antibodies to that disease whereas passive immunity is provided when a person is given antibodies to a disease rather than producing them through his or her own immune system.
“Immunity can be of two types. One is cell mediated; in this your body has cells like monocytes. Neutrophils and certain lymphocytes which go and directly attack the invading bug – bacteria or virus or fungi and try to kill it. Also certain cells which are infected can get killed. The second type of immunity is antibody mediated immunity, and this is done by plasma cells. This happens after three to five days of infection as your body learns about the infection and produces specific antibodies to fight it. If you have had the same infection earlier or are vaccinated this process is sped up, explained Dr Gaurav Jain, consultant, Internal Medicine, Dharamshila Narayana Superspeciality Hospital.
What’s the final word?
Instead of looking at specific products to boost one’s immunity, experts suggest one should adopt healthy strategies. “Researchers continue to explore the effects of these lifestyle factors on the immune response. Healthy living strategies are always recommended as your first line of defense in giving your immune system the upper hand in the fight against invading germs. Every part of your body, not just your immune system, functions better when it’s bolstered by healthy living strategies such as these tried and true basics,” said Dr Shah.
What can be done?
*Eat a colourful diet rich in fruits and vegetables
*Maintain a healthy body weight
*If you drink alcohol, only do so in moderation
*Get enough sleep
*Wash your hands frequently
*Try to minimise stress
*Have a good laugh. “Laughter isn’t just a quick pick me up. It has longer lasting effects as well. Laughter has the ability to reduce your stress levels and as a result can potentially help you fight off illness,” shared Dr Shah.