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Immunity boosters in times of corona: fact or fad??

In these times of COVID, everybody is scared. Parents are rightly worried for their children in terms of their health and safety. Almost every parent that has visited my clinic asks me the same question: What should they give to boost the immunity of their child so that they don’t contract the infection?

With crisis comes opportunity. Many products and companies claim to boost immunity and people are consuming them like anything. Like with other products, sorry to say but people are cashing in on this immunity thing and making heaps of money by selling products which might not actually help apart from working as a placebo.

This “immune boosters” market is huge and includes vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, probiotics, and “functional foods” as well as other complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) approaches (no offense to any particular field) and plenty of questionable medicinal concoctions/folk remedies.

Is immunity boosting actually required and is it beneficial?

At the outset I will say that this terminology of immune boosting is incorrect (i.e. you can’t actually “boost” the immune system, nor do you want to- which we will discuss later), and there’s really no good scientific evidence to support any particular food or nutrient in boosting immune function. Immune system however can be and should be kept healthy but not with things claiming to be boosters.

Now before I move on further to explain why I say this, we have to first understand

What exactly is immune system?

The immune system is the body’s defense against infections. It is composed of a number of specialized cells, tissues, organs and proteins which have different functions. These all work in sync to offer the body protection against diseases and keep us healthy. This protection is what is called as immunity. Fortunately for most of us, the immune system is 24 by 7 on call to knock heads with bugs that could put us out of commission. Yes, it is constantly fighting to keep us healthy. But sometimes this infection overwhelms the system and we fall sick. But that does not mean that our immune system is weak. It only means that the load of infection was much more than what our system could handle.

We humans have basically three types of immunity — innate, adaptive, and passive.

I will describe each of these in brief so that we understand exactly how things work.

Natural/Innate immunity: Everyone is born with innate immunity, a type of general protection. Our immune system recognizes when certain invaders are foreign and can be dangerous. Then this innate response acts quickly to try and flush out/kill the invader by producing extra mucus or producing fever.

Active/Adaptive immunity: This comes in action after the innate immunity. It develops throughout our lives when we’re exposed to diseases or when we’re immunized against them with vaccines. The adaptive system spots an enemy and produces the specific weapons called as antibodies — these are required to destroy and eliminate the invader from the body.

The adaptive system can take between 1 to 2 weeks to identify the antibodies that are needed and produce them in the numbers required to attack an invader successfully. In that time, the innate system keeps the pathogen at bay and prevents it from increasing.

Passive immunity: Passive immunity is “borrowed” from another source and it lasts for a short time. For example, antibodies in a mother’s breast milk give a baby temporary immunity to diseases the mother has been exposed to, thereby keeping them safe.

Newborns immune system is immature and takes a while to develop and hence they are more susceptible to develop diseases.

So now the million dollar question:

Can this immune system be boosted and do we really need to boost it??

The concept of boosting immunity makes little sense scientifically. Attempting to boost the cells of your immune system is difficult and mind boggling because the immune system is very complex. It has variety of components each of which responds to so many different bugs in so many ways. Which component should be boosted, and to what number? Nobody knows the answer. No one knows what is the best proprotion of cells, the immune system needs to function at its optimum level.

In fact, boosting the number of immune cells — is not necessarily a good thing.

Scientifically, boosting will mean your immune system is made overactive. And overactive immune systems lead to various disorders.

Actually you just want the immune system to function normally in a healthy way, so it helps prevent infection

Take for e.g. common cold – the typical symptoms include body aches, a fever, copious amounts of phlegm/mucus. Most of these problems aren’t actually caused by the virus itself. Instead, they are triggered by our own body, on purpose: they’re part of the immune response.

In this case, the mucus helps to flush out the pathogen, the fever helps to make your body an uncomfortably hot environment in which it’s harder for the virus to multiply, and the body aches and that feeling of fatigue are by-products of the chemicals produced in response to this infection, that course through your body, telling immune cells what to do and where to go. (These symptoms also send signal to your brain that it’s time to slow down and rest and let your body recover).

This is a healthy immune response.

So now do you want to increase it up by taking something which claims to boost this response. It will not be tolerated by you. And most viruses, including Covid-19, will trigger this response anyway. If any of the various “immune-boosting” concoctions on the market really had any impact, they wouldn’t give you relief as they claim: they’d give you an increase in runny nose.

The efficiency of the adaptive response can be increased with what we call as vaccinations. A vaccine contains a harmless version of the germ from which you need protection. The system remembers the invader so that the next time it comes into contact with the germ, it can act quickly to launch an attack.

But to make it active again is not good. Take for e.g. allergies. Most people feel allergies are because of poor/weak immune system. It takes me a lot of effort to make them understand that allergies occur because of a hyperactive immune system. Your body is reacting to things which it would normally won’t react to. So in this instance if you plan to increase the immunity, will it help you or worsen your symptoms… can think yourself.

What is actually weak immune system?

I have almost every parent telling me that their kid has weak immunity. Reason given is that they catch frequent colds. Catching frequent colds is not a sign of poor immunity. In fact on an average a healthy child will have at least 6 to 8 episodes of common cold per year and unless it is complicated ( for e.g. sinusitis) or prolonged episode of more than 2 weeks, its usually not a reason for concern and loading up your child with supplements.

But almost 90% of common pediatric illnesses which we witness in our practice are blamed to poor immunity and poor immune system.

Weakened immune system actually means your immune system lacks the mechanism to fight certain infections which it would have normally fought. This is called as immunodeficiency in medical terms and it can be primary (meaning the system is not developed since birth only and has no chance of developing) or secondary ( meaning the immune system became ineffective due to certain diseases or drugs etc.). These kids require special care and lifelong treatments. So please stop blaming immunity for regular infections and justifying the use of supplements.

Coming back to the question that should parents give any form of supplements or immune boosters to their kids especially for corona? The answer is no.

While it is true that some parts of the immune system require vitamins and minerals (such as vitamins A, C, D and zinc) to function normally, higher doses have not been shown to make the system function better. Vitamin supplements generally don’t work in already healthy people – and some may even be harmful if taken without advice of a doctor.

The only exception is Vitamin D. Many immune cells can actively recognize vitamin D, and it’s thought to play an important role in both the innate and acquired immune response – though exactly how it works is unknown.

Vitamin D is required and can be taken as a supplement because we don’t get exposure to enough sunlight (but only advise by your doctor). Please don’t self-medicate as Vitamin D toxicity is significant.

Same goes for anti-oxidants, probiotics and many other products etc. Probiotic supplements won’t prevent infections from happening, and the small risk in taking them is that each and every probiotic strain has a specific use and may actually suppress the immune system, which could cause problems.

Although some of the above preparations have been found to alter some components of immune function, but till now there is no substantial evidence that they actually strengthen immunity to the point where you are better protected against infection and disease.

Remember, more of these does not mean a stronger immune system

Otherwise most of these products are relatively harmless barring few and might not cause any damage per se – but the danger is that falling for them might give you a false sense of security.

What to do instead?

Every part of your body, including your immune system, functions better when protected from environmental assaults and supported by healthy-living strategies. There are some time tested approaches you can take to help support your immune system which are proven to work – and they don’t require spending your hard-earned money.

These include: get enough sleep, exercise and maintain a healthy weight, eat a balanced diet, and try not to be stressed.

Keep the supplements aside.

Nutrition-wise, shift your focus away from loading them up with certain nutrients or one supposedly “immune-boosting food” during this time of corona or any other time, because there is no such thing. Don’t stress too much and focus on keeping your child stay nourished with these things instead and automatically their body will fight of infections till the time it can.

  • Encourage brightly coloured fruits and veggies during meals and snacks like bell peppers, oranges and other citrus foods, strawberries, carrots, lemons, leafy greens, and apples which will provide lots of vitamin A and C 
  • Increase proteins in diet
  • Vitamin D supplementation as already explained
  • Include healthy fats like nuts and seeds in diet
  • Increase consumption of curd/yoghurt and drink lots of water.
  • Add more of whole grains and millets.

If you are not getting the range of vitamins and minerals you need from food because of poor diet, multivitamin can be given. But be wary of unregulated supplement claims.

Failing that, there is only one sure shot way for protection against certain pathogens: vaccination, which unfortunately for COVID is still under production.

The bottom line is that there is no magic pill or a specific food guaranteed to bolster your child’s immune system and protect them from the coronavirus. Don’t fall for all marketing gimmicks.

A healthy lifestyle along with a balance nutritious diet will help their immune system fight the virus with full force.

Stay indoors, stay safe!!

Healthy Kids, Happy kids!!

Dr Garima| themoppetsclinic 🙂

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