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BOOSTing your immunity- does it work?

Riding through the waves of corona virus has raised our awareness about "immunity" for good.

Let's admit it- we had googled "How to boost our immunity" at least a couple of times during the pandemic.

The internet, and specifically, the social media (facebook, instagram etc.) had been filled with celebrities, and influencers talking about 'Immunity Booster' drinks, pills, and so on.

While the awareness about immunity increased amongst the populace, the information space was (and is) also filled with a lot of wrong ideas about this concept. So, let's try to ask some relevant questions, and dig out some "facts" about immunity , and the widely popular immunity boosters through this blog post.

So, what are these immunity boosters, and do they actually work?

In order to explore this, let's take a step back to understand the term 'immunity'.

Immunity is the body's ability to fight diseases/ pathogens such as viruses, and bacteria.
A normal human being is endowed with a fully functioning immune system that works across the clock to protect the body from infections; this means that the body is naturally equipped to fight diseases...

How does the body fight diseases?

The mechanism is complex- a number of cells, and proteins are involved in protecting the body against infections. But, for our understanding, let's just stick to the 2 main types of immunity viz:

Innate Immunity-

  • This type of immunity naturally exists in the form of physical and chemical barriers within the body. For instance,

    • The Skin- it protects harmful substances from entering into the body by acting as a physical barrier;

    • The mucus lining in the nose, and respiratory tract- this lining prevents harmful germs in the air from entering into the lungs/ the body;

    • The acidic juices produced by the stomach, and so on...

Acquired Immunity-

  • It is developed during the course of a person's lifetime;

  • It gets developed through exposure to a certain disease, through vaccination, or is transmitted from the mother to the baby (via mother's milk) etc.

    • How does this happen?

    • Whenever the body recognises harmful substances (pathogens), it creates antibodies to fight them off. It also remembers these pathogens (in its memory), and is better prepared to fight them off, the next time they attack.

    • This is why it is said that once you suffer from chicken pox, you will not contract it again( the body has the memory of fighting it effectively); this is exactly how vaccines work on developing resistance towards diseases too.

So, the human body is intelligent enough to fight off diseases using the innate, and acquired immunity mechanisms.

However, this natural ability tends to weaken under certain circumstances.

So, what causes the weakening of the immune system?

Lack of sleep:

  • Our body restores itself during sleep;

  • Research also points to the fact that cytokines- messengers that enable the innate immune system to respond to an infection- are released during sleep. This in turn enables the body to better fight infections;

Unhealthy lifestyle habits such as smoking, drinking alcohol etc.;

  • Smoking causes inflammation in areas such as the lungs, respiratory tract and so on, thereby making the innate immune system less effective against fighting all kinds of infections.

  • The components in cigarette such as nicotine are immunosuppressive, thereby reducing the body's ability to fight off infections naturally;

  • Alcohol consumption also produces a similar effect on the immune system- suppressing the capabilities of the white blood cells (under high doses);

Lack of Exercise

  • Exercise is known to improve the overall health of the body, and therefore has an impact on maintaining the healthy functioning of the immune system.

Lack of proper nutrition

  • Micronutrients deficiencies have been shown to alter immune responses in animals;

  • To maintain a healthy immune system, the body needs to be well nourished;

  • Instead of focusing on singular nutrients (through taking large does of immunity boosting supplements etc.), it is a better idea to focus on a balanced diet.

Therefore, some of the best ways to help the immune system are rather simple, and require adoption of "healthy habits".

What about old age?

Would "boosters" actually work in the case of a weakened immunity system such as that which arises out of old age?

With old age, it is believed that the production of T-cells (that play a vital role in fighting off infections) decreases. The bone marrow that produces the stem cells is also believed to weaken with age, and therefore seems to play a role in decreasing the overall immunity of the body. This is probably why old people are at a greater risk of contracting infections. In such cases, taking supplements to support the weak immunity system might work , but, this needs to be done in consultation with a doctor only.

Therefore, to wrap this discussion up:

  • The body has a natural ability to fight off infections.

  • This ability needs to be supported by a healthy lifestyle-complete with exercise, sleep, healthy habits, and a balanced diet.

  • For the aged/for those with weak immunity (owing to several factors), supplements, or other external support systems might work ;however, these need to be done in consultation with a doctor only.

  • Immunity boosting concoction that you consume is probably only a short term placebo, and not a long term solution to fix your weak immune system; at least, these concoctions are not backed up by scientific research that points to proven improvements in immunity!

  • Instant immunity boosters, and other magic pills are nothing but mere marketing tools that focus on minting money out of people's fears.

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