'Immune Boosting' Supplements Are All Over the Internet—But Can They Really Keep You Healthy?
Here's what experts say about them.
In a normal cold and flu season, you’d expect to see a few “immunity-boosting” products pop up in stores and in your social media ads. But this year, the immunity-boosting bandwagon has been packed.
On the cusp of a cold and flu season complicated by the coronavirus pandemic, companies, celebrities, and so-called wellness influencers are hawking drinks, shots, powders, patches, tablets, tinctures, teas, and more that claim to boost your immunity. The immune-boosting craze got a big push in May, when Tom Brady launched a $45, non-FDA-approved vitamin supplement (containing not just vitamin C and zinc, but fiber-rich larch tree extract and antioxidant-rich elderberry powder) that will allegedly “activate your immune system.”
That same month, a YouTuber posted a video to her 1.25 million subscribers recommending specific vitamins and supplements she believes will “help prevent the infection.” In April, an Instagram influencer posted an image promoting a new “Vitality Immune Booster” and another photo hawking gummies that “support a healthy immune system” to her 110,000 followers.
Most are careful not to link their products directly to COVID-19. In fact, in early March, the FDA and Federal Trade Commission actually sent warning letters to at least seven companies advertising fraudulent cures and treatments for coronavirus. The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health under the National Institute for Health (NIH) also released a statement in response to the increased interest in "purported remedies" for coronavirus—which include "herbal therapies, teas, essential oils, tinctures, and silver products such as colloidal silver”—explaining that not only is there no scientific evidence that any of these alternative remedies can prevent or cure COVID-19, but that some of them may not even be safe to consume.
Still, Google searches for the phrases “immune boost” and “immune boosting” jumped significantly in February 2020, and the hashtag #immunebooster increased on Instagram posts by over 46% between April 15 and May 15, according to an open letter published in September in the journal Allergy, Asthma & Clinical Immunology.
The catch: You can’t actually “boost” or “activate” your immune system. The reason? It's not how your immune system—your body’s first line of defense against viruses, bacteria, and other pathogens—works.
“There are two parts: innate immunity, which you’re born with (that includes physical barriers like your skin), and adaptive immunity, which adapts to environmental exposures by creating antibodies,” Rebin Kader, DO, an internal medicine doctor at the UCHealth Allergy and Immunology Clinic at UCHealth Cherry Creek Medical Center in Denver, tells Health. “The only way to ‘boost’ your immunity is by creating a vaccine and letting your body produce antibodies against it,” he adds. “To selectively boost your immune system...you just can’t do that.”
Without a vaccine for something like COVID-19, though, people without a solid understanding of the way the immune system works are getting caught up in the hype. “It’s very difficult to not be swayed by the promise of a magic bullet,” Katherine Basbaum, RD, a registered dietitian at University of Virginia Medical Center, tells Health. “People want a gimmick; they want to feel like they’re beating the system.”
Of course, your body does need certain vitamins and minerals to perform optimally. But “our diets pretty much contain all the macronutrients (carbohydrates, fat, and protein) and micronutrients we need,” says Dr. Kader. “And they’re called 'micronutrients' for a reason: You need very small amounts of them.”
But the idea behind many of these immunity supplements seems to be that if a little bit of something works, a lot will work better. “That’s just 100 percent not true,” says Basbaum. In some cases, if you consume more than what your body can handle, your body is just going to get rid of the excess—i.e. if you take massive amounts of a water-soluble vitamin like vitamin C, your body will take what it needs and you’re just going to pee out what’s left, she explains. In more serious cases, taking more than has been deemed safe can lead to dangerous side effects (ODing on vitamin A, for example, is toxic and can lead to liver damage).
Then there’s the other big issue: Unlike medication, supplements are not regulated by any laws or organization. “When the FDA is looking at new drugs, they’re considered unsafe until proven safe,” says Basbaum. “Supplements are the opposite: They’re considered safe until the complaints start coming in.” That means companies can make nebulous health claims, including claims based on indirect research. (For example, we know turmeric has anti-inflammatory properties, but that doesn’t mean it’s been proven to help inflammation caused by COVID-19).
Instead of “boosting” your immune system, what you want to do is support your immune system. Yes, supplements—i.e. supplemental nutrition—can help fill in the gaps if someone is deficient in certain nutrients, says Dr. Kader. “But there’s nothing that you can overnight to have this superhuman immune system that will help you fight off infection.”
It’s the bigger picture health steps you take that matter most. You can start with eating an anti-inflammatory, antioxidant-rich diet (you know the one, full of fruits and vegetables and whole grains). “These foods are packed with vitamins and minerals, they’re high in fiber and water content, and they’re low in calories, so they’re not contributing to any problematic issues,” says Basbaum.
But even a healthy diet can’t make up for poor lifestyle choices. “When there are high amounts of stress in the body and when the body isn’t getting enough restorative sleep, that can weaken the immune system,” says Basbaum. And when it comes to COVID-19, “the things that have the most impact in preventing infection are really the most simple: washing your hands, wearing a mask, maintaining social distance, isolating yourself if you feel sick,” says Dr. Kader.
These marketing campaigns may be catchy (hey, if it works for Tom Brady…). Unfortunately, there’s no quick, bottled fix when it comes to protecting yourself against the coronavirus. As frustrating as it may feel, especially heading into cold and flu season, it’s a case of slow and steady wins the race. For now, that’s the only proven way to stay healthy.