Last week, during a nutrition counselling session with a woman in her late 30s, we discussed her dietary and lifestyle habits.
Her physician had advised her to make a few lifestyle changes to reduce risk of developing a chronic condition.
When I asked her if she is on any medication or supplement, she reached for her bag and took out a big brown envelope.
In it were six different types of supplements, four of them self-prescribed. Why I asked? To boost her immune system, she said.
The idea of boosting the immune system is not new. The immune booster market has been there for ages, providing vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, probiotics and functional foods. However, this idea has spread widely with the onset of Covid-19 pandemic.
I asked the woman why she was boosting her immunity. Prevention is better and cheaper than cure she responded.
The truth is, just like my patient, no one wants to become sick and many will go for anything that promises protection. We however think of the immune system the wrong way.
We look at it as a muscle or an organ that we can strengthen by eating or drinking something. But this is not how it works.
Although immunity can be suppressed by some chronic conditions or intensive treatment, the opposite is hard to achieve. There are two types of immunity; innate and adaptive or acquired immunity.
Innate immunity is our first line of defence which everyone is born with. It includes external barriers like skin, mucous membrane, stomach acids and white blood cells that help the body fight pathogens.
If a pathogen manages to escape the first line of defence, adaptive immunity kicks in. As we are exposed to different pathogens and infections, the body produces antibodies and increases the number of immune system cells specific to that pathogen, attacks and destroys it.
The immune system also keeps a memory of this pathogen so that if it enters the body again, these specific antibodies and cells are released quickly and destroy it before it can cause any harm.
Despite being such a tempting concept, the ability to boost one’s immunity is almost impossible and may not be necessarily a good thing. You see, the immune system is exactly that.
A system, not a single organ or a single entity. It is a complex network of intricate stages and pathways made up of cells, tissues and organs that work together to help the body fight infections and other diseases. So when trying to boost the immune system, which cells, tissues or organs do you focus on?
Due to its intricate nature, the immune system requires balance and harmony of all its components to work effectively. It doesn’t need to be stronger but balanced.
This balance is regulated through many processes and factors. So instead of thinking of the immune system as a single entity, think of it as a garden with different types of plants.
Each plant is unique and needs specific amounts of sunlight, water and nutrients. Increasing the amount of water may be good for some plants but may destroy others.
A balanced diet is the best way to provide your body with all the nutrients it requires. Taking a vitamin or mineral supplement won’t help your immune system function better.
Actually, when you take vitamins and minerals in excess, your body gets rid of the surplus as waste. At times, the excess can have negative effects on health.
Even though you cannot boost your immune system, which you don’t need to, you can support it to maintain the balance it needs to work effectively.
The best thing you can do for your immune system is to choose a healthy lifestyle. Eat balanced meals, be physically active, don’t smoke, avoid or moderate alcohol intake, manage stress, observe personal hygiene and keep up with recommended vaccines.
And just as I told my patient, live a healthy lifestyle and let your immune system do its thing!
Faith Biongo is a registered nutritionist with Afya Bora