Mind & Body

You Can't Boost Your Immune System, and You Really Don't Want to

Walk through a pharmacy, and you're likely to see plenty of products claiming to boost your immune system. There are a few problems with that: It's not really possible, and even if it was, you wouldn't like it. Here's why.

Related Video: How Going Outside Can Make Your Immune System Healthier

I'll Take the Force of the Blow

Despite the way it's portrayed, the immune system is not one thing: It's a complex network that incorporates multiple cells, organs, and biological functions. In the simplest terms, the immune system has two jobs: the innate response and the acquired response. The innate response is what you notice when you get sick. It attacks infection with mucus, fever, coughing, and, in general, inflammation. What it lacks in specificity, it makes up for in speed.

But the innate response doesn't actually drive infection out of the body. That's up to the acquired response: the antibodies your system collects from past illnesses and vaccines. In fact, vaccinations could be considered the exception to the immunity rule — they're the only known way to improve your immune system. Even still, a vaccine can't boost the system's overall response; just its ability to fight the bug it's designed for.

Since over-the-counter immunity boosters aren't vaccines, they must claim to boost the innate response — that is, the one that can't actually drive away infection but does cause inflammation, giving you inconvenient symptoms like a runny nose and fever. Even if you could boost your innate immune system and suffered through those symptoms, it wouldn't be good for you. Long-term inflammation is associated with all sorts of ill health effects, including hardening of the arteries and heart attacks.

What's There to Do?

You can, however, put your body in the best possible shape for the next time infection strikes. Eat a balanced diet, get enough rest, drink enough water, and exercise, and your plain old garden-variety immune system will be ready to fight off invaders. And if you do get sick, opt for a little bit of immune suppression: that's how ibuprofen and antihistamines make you feel better, after all.

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Learn more about the science of the immune system from Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times journalist Matt Richtel in "An Elegant Defense: The Extraordinary New Science of the Immune System: A Tale in Four Lives," available for pre-order now. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Ashley Hamer September 29, 2016

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