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The Myth of ‘Boosting’ The Immune System

In today's world we are constantly bombarded with claims that the newest superfoods and supplements will improve the functionality of our immune systems, but can these things really make a difference?

The immune system is made up of lots of different things ranging from your skin to act as a barrier to infection, changing your temperature to protect against bacteria, developing antibodies and its main job which is to recognise and defend against bacteria, viruses and pathogens.

Unfortunately, the whole concept of ‘boosting’ your immune system doesn’t actually have any scientific meaning, and the idea that the immune system can be improved by pills, superfoods and wellness habits is a myth.

 Dr Paula Finnegan of Cork University Hospital said, “The majority of the evidence is just about having a healthy well-balanced diet.”

A balanced diet means maxing out on vegetables, salad and fruit aiming for seven servings a day and limiting your intake of high fats, salts and sugars.  

“A balanced diet should be adequate to give you all the nutrients that you require for the immune system to work so that’s all your vitamins like Vitamin A, D, C, E, folate, zinc iron and copper.” according to Dr Finnegan. 

As stated by various ‘Healthy Lifestyle’ social media pages taking cayenne pepper, garlic and ginger can all help to ‘boost’ the immune system. However, there is no scientific evidence to support this.

“In terms of supplements the only one that is recommended at the moment and there isn't massive evidence about it would be Vitamin C. It’s been shown in some trials that it can reduce the symptoms and duration of a common cold”, spoke Dr Finnegan.

The European Food Standard Authority has approved Vitamin C to be used in the fight against the common cold and links the vitamin to reducing fatigue. 

Physical health also affects how your immune system performs. The current recommendations are 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise five days a week or 150 minutes in a week in total.

“I always say if exercise was a pill, we would be prescribing it for every patient”, said Dr Finnegan. 

On the other hand, studies have shown that very vigorous exercise in excess of the recommended amount can also leave the body prone to infections.

“There are different theories about why that is. They think it might be linked to mental stress, like with extreme athletes or maybe undernourishment. So, they’re not eating a balanced diet, they’re eating too many carbs or too much protein”, noted Dr Finnegan.  

This is an area of growing interest in the medical field and has been given its own speciality called exercise immunology.

Dr Finnegan said, “A lot of studies have looked into the effect of stress on the immune system. They feel that it probably suppresses the immune system to a certain extent, which is why sometimes when people are under a lot of stress or overwhelmed, they tend to catch a cold or seem more vulnerable to it.”

“Sleep is also very important for your immune system. When you’re sick you spend a lot of time in bed and you tend to sleep a lot more and that’s because it helps the immune system work better and fight against the bug, balance the inflammation in the body and keep everything in check,” said Dr Finnegan.

Other than a balanced diet, moderate exercise and a good night's sleep vaccines are the only things seen as a booster to the immune system.

Dr Finnegan says, “They are a simple safe and effective way of protecting everyone from the age of two months up against all sorts of illnesses that in the 19th century would have killed us.”

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