This topic is on my mind because several people I know were unfortunate enough to feel ill over the holiday season. I noticed my inbox was flooded daily with January sales advertisements.
Every January there is a huge surge in promotional advertising aimed at helping people ‘detox’ so they can ‘boost their immune system’. If we think about what our immune system does, we don’t REALLY want to do that – we would feel MISERABLE a lot of the time. As ‘unpopular’ as it might be to modern media driven health culture, we feel better because we are toning down certain parts of our immune response which are not helpful to us in the future. While this is going on, the crucial part of our immune response ‘learns’ about the bacterial or viral invasion we’re experiencing – so we can be naturally more resistant in the future (with fewer of the nasty miserable symptoms).
Innate immunity is the part of our immune system that reacts to everything very generally and very excitedly and very randomly.
This innate immunity responds to EVERYTHING that the body feels is an invasion. Every bacteria, every virus. When this happens, inflammation occurs and you feel terrible – you get fevers, running noses, coughs and aches. We don’t want to feel rotten every time we have a run in with pretty much anything that wasn’t looking like our cells – bacteria, viruses, other people’s cells, all tissue damage within our own bodies etc. You kind of get the picture. There are even diseases of that nature that kill people. When we feel badly with a bit of a ‘bug’, and take something to make us feel better, those medicines are taking the edge off this innate immune response, but are not affecting our ability to respond specifically in the future.
The real powerhouse of the immune system are those cells that interact with specific infectious organisms in a very specific way and ‘learn’ to protect us again in the future. We get some of this immune system ‘charge’ from our mothers and from breastfeeding – but most come from being exposed to an infection that trains our system to recognise the invader. Once that part of the immune system has ‘seen’ a particular infection before, it can wipe it out very quickly. When those cells seeing something new, it gets there in the end, but takes a bit longer as it needs to create just the right proteins to do the job. We feel unwell for longer because the innate immunity is busy trying to help out with the acquired immunity’s new project until it sees it through to completion (like a building project!), but the next time, the innate immunity can just relax and leave us alone a little bit while the acquired immunity tackles it’s well remembered enemy in shorter order. Sometimes before we even notice it is responding to anything at all.
There is no proof that any supplement can boost this specific, strategic acquired immunity. There is also no proof that supplements can improve your innate immunity – but as the job of the innate system is to make us inflammatory and miserable, why would we want it to? We’d feel perpetually ill, feverish, flu-ey and also – total speculation here – being ‘constantly boosted’ might increase our lifetime risk for chronic illness through our entire body being chronically ‘inflammatory’.
If you’re feeling unwell, make yourself feel a bit better with whatever works for you – and let your immune system do the job it does best – respond and prepare.