Updated 17 June 2015

Can you really boost your immune system?

Can any product really boost your immune system, or are you being taken for a ride?

Walk into any pharmacy and you will see several posters and pamphlets on stuff you should take to boost your immune system. But is it possible to do this?

Your immune system is a very complex thing. It has many different components, all of which are aimed at protecting your body against invading pathogens (micro-organisms generally known as germs

) which cause disease in the host, namely you.

These micro-organisms can be bacteria, viruses or fungi to name the most widespread three.

Take a look: Bacteria under the microscope (slideshow)

Good and bad bacteria

There are also good bacteria, such as those in your digestive system, without which you wouldn’t be alive. But many bacteria have no such honourable intentions concerning you. In short, your body is at war all the time. You sneeze – that’s an immune response. A mosquito bites you and you start itching – that’s an immune response. You have diarrhoea – that could be an immune response.

A quick look at how different parts of your body protects your from pathogens
These are the ones you should individually protect against invading pathogens. By doing so you strengthen the entire body. 

Is it that simple?

The exact workings of the immune system are still a bit of mystery, according to a report from Harvard Health Publications. It’s an amazing system, but exactly how it works is still the subject of much worldwide research.

And precisely because there are so many different types of cells in your immune system, fighting off so many different pathogens, it is difficult to decide exactly which part of the system needs boosting, if any, say the Harvard researchers.

And conclusive evidence on the immune-boosting capabilities of any specific supplement is still very much a future dream.

Don't overstimulate your immune system

Experts say that an overactive immune system can be responsible for many diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis, or allergic reactions. Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease in which your immune system mistakenly attacks your own body’s tissues, mainly in the joints of the hands or the feet. 

When you have an allergy (such as asthma or eczema), it means your immune system is wrongly identifying a substance as a dangerous invading pathogen. These are not responses you want to encourage.

All systems in your body, from your digestive system to your immune system to your blood circulation obviously will function more effectively if you lead a healthy lifestyle.

Read: How to boost your health with the right foods and why they work

But is there any magic substance in particular that you should be taking? Not according to the researchers.

Your body needs a variety of vitamins and minerals, exercise, decent rest and hygienic living in order to help your immune system fight the good fight against invading pathogens. No single product or action can protect you completely.

Of course there are certain things that will predispose you to illness and infections.

Things that compromise your immunity

If you smoke or drink heavily, are constantly under a huge amount of stress, or never get any exercise, or eat an unhealthy diet, obviously you will be putting all systems in your body under unnecessary stress – not just your immune system.

Nothing will be able to function optimally, and of course you will become more susceptible to opportunistic infections.

It will be a bit like a car that is never taken for a service, or has the wrong petrol put into it. It will go for a while, and then shudder to a halt.

Other factors that also influence immune response

These include your medical history, immune system disorders, your genetic makeup, and your age. It is thought that immune response does weaken with age – but then, so do many other systems in the body.

Read: People from different ethnic backgrounds respond differently TB

The one truly effective immune system booster is vaccination

The introduction of antibodies into your system can prevent or weaken certain viruses, such as measles or polio.

Read: In 2014 the world faces a global polio outbreak

By all means get a flu shot (the virus changes every year, alas, so once isn't enough), but there is no magic bullet to kick start your immune system into action.

So ignore the ads, and rather spend your energy and time and money on living a balanced and healthy life. Your immune system is most probably doing a brilliant job without any outside help.

By: Susan Erasmus, freelance writer

Read more: A natural approach to treating respiratory infections

Everything you need to know about vaccines and vaccinations

Signs and symptoms of immune system problems or disorders

Sources: Harvard Health Publications;
Image: Shutterstock


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