Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Myth or Fact?: Boosting Your Immune System

Ever since I started working in hospitals I have been acutely aware of the relentless contagiousness of the common cold and more prominently this year, the flu. I have always been religious in wiping my machines down at the gym and using hand sanitizer throughout the day.
But I wouldn’t consider myself a germiphobe: I will share sips of drinks with friends and often while at home, I am spill prone, and have eaten chips that fell on the floor. However, this year especially, I have been hyper aware of people coughing and sneezing near me. In class, in coffee shops, and pretty much everywhere else germs are flying all around us and we don’t think much of it until we get sick and we get annoyed that we weren’t more careful. As run down and tired college students we are prone to illness but nevertheless we simply power through it every time. We dump three packets of emergen c in our water bottles, pop a few Advil, and struggle through the day.

            So I did some research on how, if it was even possible, that I could evade cold and flu season. Unfortunately based upon what I read there really isn’t a secret trick or a magic fruit to boost the immune system; there is no hard and fast science to cheating the common cold. Our immune systems are so tightly regulated that we just don’t have the tools to boost them specifically. Everyone’s immune system machinery is essentially the same, it is divided into two cell types: innate and adaptive. The innate is for nonspecific protein cells that help in general injury and illness of really any type. The adaptive immune system is what we want to zero in on, it is responsible in the more specifics of illness, it’s cells work quickly to correctly identify a sickness once you contract it and then engineer immune cells to find and kill off the infection. Adaptive cells are clever in that they remain in the body and are ready at any time so when you inevitably get the cold or strep again (or any bacteria or virus you have had in the past) your immune system knows what to do and can respond faster and more effectively. The body is pretty smart, but it isn’t super human; the immune system follows set steps to help you fight off infection (see infection, fight, then memory cells) and there’s nothing anyone can do to make sure they are immune to an illness before the body has seen it. That’s why we keep getting the “common” cold, there are so many different strains of it that our body hasn’t seen yet (it’s a brand new virus) even though it feels the same to us every time. This finding is also related to why the flu shot is not guaranteed to work one hundred percent of the time. Although the flu shot is extremely effective and every year scientists and researchers analyze past flu strains to make estimated guesses on what combination of strains the new flu could be. So it’s still really important to get flu shots, even if they make you sick following the vaccine injection.

            Our immune systems need to maintain the right ratio of cells to work properly. Theoretically if we had the ability to manipulate the numbers of certain immune cell types (during times of no infection) it could lead to negative effects. Some of these being: overall body inflammation or the development of an autoimmune disease. So then you may be asking, if I can’t boost my immune system why can’t it just be turned on or awake at all times to be alert for imminent disease. Well we don’t really want this either: If our immune systems were constantly active, then they would be less quick and effective in the event of an infection.

            Ok so at this point it feels like our bodies know what to do and we really shouldn’t try to mess with their honed skills and innate abilities in helping us function but there are some things we can do to help them out a little in the long run. It’s really simple: eat a well-balanced diet and get a good night’s sleep. Studies have shown that adults need at least eight hours of sleep to achieve peak immune system wellness. When you sleep (when you are sick) the immune system works to distribute the correct immune cells to your lymph nodes (why they get so swollen) and in the long run this helps your body produce close to two times the amount of antibodies. In one case, participants were injected with Hep A vaccine and split up so half had a good night’s sleep and half pulled all-nighters. They were asked to come back four weeks later and the group who slept had significantly more antibodies that the group that were kept up. A well balanced diet also places a key role in immune system health. Eating protein is important because it contains amino acids which have L-arginine in them. L-arginine has been shown to help in the generation of helper T-cells. Helper T-cells are memory cells, tasked with showing the body what the virus looks like so the immune system can make cells to fight it next time. If you are reading this and you happen to already be sick, take a zinc lozenge. They taste gross and make your tongue feel like its buzzing but it can decrease the duration and severity of a cold. Zinc acts as a blocker and has the unique ability to attach itself to the virus and prevent it from infecting a person further. You probably eat foods with zinc in them on a regular basis (red meats, seafood, whole grains, and cereals) and have no idea it was even in there or the health effects that you are reaping from it.

            So I guess the takeaway here is that our bodies are engineered to fight off foreign matter in order to protect us. And that we shouldn’t try to game our bodies systems that it has been using pretty effectively and adapting to and evolving over the years.

Article referenced:

Posted By: Zoe Israel 
Blog 1, Group 1 
Wed. Feb 14th 


  1. I think if one were to expand this article an in depth explanation of how vaccines work, and how exposing oneself to antigens actually helps the immune system could be beneficial to the reader.
    One could also go into the explanation of how hand sanitizer although killing 99.99% of germs leaves some behind, which creates space for procreation and prosperity for the .01% .

    -Brooke Sullivan

    1. Yes I agree with your first point. This is a really good way to look at it that I hadn't really thought about.

  2. Although we can't necessarily "boost" our own immune system, we can (and do!) ensure that our offspring have a better immune system than our own. Without even realizing it, we as humans are attracted to mates who have a different microbiome than our own and mates whose immune system has been exposed to different pathogens than our own. This is done through pheromones. This variability in the microbiome and immune system of two parents combines within the offspring, providing it with a response system better adapted for more pathogens. (I learned about this in my Bio288 class last semester)

    -Michael Magnant

    1. I remember leaning that in class too! Yes this is definitely true, I hadn't even thought to look at it in this way. If I were to expand my blog post I would put in a paragraph about how we can indirectly boost our immune systems, and cite this idea.

  3. I found this to be all very interesting. This because I learned a lot from it. I've always heard of ways that people boost their immune systems to avoid getting sick. Learning that trying to boost your immune system effects how our body reacts when it is trying to protect you is all very shocking. I remember learning about antibodies but I never thought about it when is comes to common sicknesses such as the cold or the flu. One question I have is it necessarily bad that people do try to boost their immune systems?

    - Tatiana Silveira

    1. I had the same question while reading the article, however, they don't directly address it. Personally I think that trying to boost the immune system by eating better and exercising more is good for the body in general as long as you aren't trying out new crazy supplements that could potentially have negative side effects.

  4. I find it interesting that although "boosting" our immune system is always advertised as a positive and helpful preventative measure, it may not be as beneficial as we assume. I wonder if this applies to Vitamin C supplements as well. I know I always add those into my drinks when some sort of illness is going around, to try and avoid catching it.

    Sunaina Sharma (3)

  5. Does this coincide with how you treat you illness? For instance, a friend of mine frequently gets head colds. And everytime she get's them, she sleeps them away while taking frequent amounts of nyquil and emergency-c. I, on the other hand, usually don't try to medicate my illnesses, and try to work through them naturally, and I have found i get sick a significant amount less. Are we weakening our immune systems by over using over the counter medication?