“Boosting” your immune system to fight COVID-19: Fact or Myth?

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How can you boost your immune system to help fight COVID-19?

That’s the million-dollar question. As fears grow about COVID-19, we see a spike in online searches for ways to boost the immune system.

Nobody wants to get sick whether it’s the common cold or the much-feared COVID-19. We are bombarded with constant news updates on vaccine and treatment. While some news is hopeful, many of us still seek better protection against the disease.

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The idea of boosting your immune system by taking certain supplements, following a certain diet plan, or doing certain activities is a tempting prospect.

You’ve likely seen ads for products or diets that claim to strengthen your immune system, especially during flu seasons.

Many retailers and suppliers have reported a surge in sales of vitamin C and immunity products.

On the net, you can find many health sites recommending various ways to boost the immune system from taking curcumin supplements to eating raw garlic. The fact is there is no shortcut to a healthy immune system.

In general, your immune system is doing a bang-up job of defending you against the invasion of germs. Every now and then, you do get sick and your immune system will elicit various responses to help your body fight the infection.

First, let’s understand how our immune system works.

How does your immune system work?

Think of the immune system not as a single entity, but as an intricate system. An effective immune system requires various cells and organs working in unison protecting the body from invading germs. 

The key to an immune system’s defense mechanism is its ability to recognize non-self (foreign) entities. There are two main components of our immune system. 

Innate Immunity

The first is the nonspecific innate immunity. Innate immunity is your first line of defense. The word innate means that they are built-in mechanisms of the body.

The defense mechanisms are nonspecific because they do not target any particular pathogens (viruses, bacteria, etc.). Instead, they defend against a broad range of pathogens. 

The defense mechanisms can be identified as physical, chemical, and cellular.

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For example, your skin and mucous membranes that line your body’s openings such as your mouth and nose are the physical defenses. The mucous membranes produce sticky and moist mucus trap the foreign matter and can be expelled from the body via mechanical actions such as sneezing and coughing.

Once the pathogen gets past these physical barriers, chemical and cellular innate immune response will kick in. Chemical mediators such as antimicrobial peptides, plasma protein mediators, various cytokines, and inflammatory factors are released by various cell types. 

These chemical signals may work alone or together to curb infection. You also have various white blood cells in your blood circulation. These cells can communicate with each other via chemical signals. Their common goal is to seek out and destroy pathogens and infected cells.

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Some of the symptoms you may experience when you are sick or injured such as fever, runny nose, swelling, and inflammation are all thanks to your innate immune system. 

Adaptive Immunity

Unlike innate immune response, the adaptive (or called acquired) system is far more specific. This involves the ability of immune cells to recognize the antigens of specific pathogens based on its “memory”.

In an adaptive immune response, specific antibodies are produced. These antibodies bind to antigens of pathogens and signal for immune cells to come and destroy the pathogens or infected cells.

However, it generally takes 5 to 10 days to produce antibodies. Meanwhile, the innate immune system continues to fight the active infection.  

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This acquired memory system is exactly why vaccination can boost immunity. Upon vaccination, your body received information about the pathogen without going through a full-blown infection. The next time you come into contact with the pathogen again, your body will produce the specific antibodies to help fight the infection.

Unfortunately, for you to acquire adaptive immunity, your body has to come in contact with the virus first either via vaccination or an active infection.  

Broadly speaking, your innate defenses provide a rapid response against invaders. However, it is not foolproof. And that’s where your adaptive immune response comes in to fight against pathogens that evade the defenses of innate immunity. 

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What does it mean by boosting your immune system?

Let’s presume boosting your immune system means ramping up your innate and adaptive immune responses.

A supercharged innate immune response could translate into intensified symptoms of infection. Take the symptoms of flu- runny nose, fever, body aches, phlegm, and coughing. These symptoms are part of your innate immune response. 

As for your adaptive immunity, it could be unpleasant if it is hyperactive. For example, an allergy is your immune system responding to a foreign substance that’s not typically harmful such as certain foods or pollen. Allergies can manifest a variety of symptoms from mild skin rashes to life-threatening anaphylaxis. The severity of symptoms depends on how active your immune response is. 

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In general, having an increased number of immune cells and chemical mediators is not a good idea. If there is no active infection, an overactive immune response only leads to unnecessary inflammation and autoimmunity issues. 

As for COVID-19, an immune system in overdrive is the reason behind the cytokine storm. Cytokine storm happens when the body’s immune system overreacts, triggering the release of excessive cytokines, resulting in hyperinflammation. This complication can be fatal. 

In reality, what you want is not a boost but to have a balanced healthy immune system. During an active infection, you want your immune system to elicit the right amount of responses to help rid your body of the infection. Ultimately, you just need your immune system to be able to act quickly and effectively when required. 

In a nutshell, before you rush to buy immunity supplements, think twice. That being said, what we eat, and our habits can impact our overall health including our immune systems. 

Stay tuned for part 2 to find out more about helpful ways to maintain a healthy immune system. 

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About the Author

Ameline Lim, Ph.D.
Ameline Lim, Ph.D., is a research scientist and biologist. She received her PhD from the University of New South Wales at Sydney, Australia. She has broad interests in medicine, history of science, and behavioural science. She is particularly interested in science education and the public understanding of scientific research. Her blog 'Science with Amy' celebrates the pleasures of finding things out and general curiosity.