How do I boost my immune system? The real deal on echinacea, vitamin C and other stuff

Right now, cold and flu season is in full force and is particularly brutal this year. Every day in clinic I have at least 2-3 patients calling or coming to the office because they’re suffering from the body aches, sniffles, congestion and cough that come with a nasty respiratory infection. So no wonder I’m getting so many requests for advice on what people can take or do to boost their immune system, so they can avoid catching the cold/ flu in the first place.

Fact is, our immune system naturally wanes with age, pregnancy and certain medical conditions. But there are clinically proven things you can do to optimize your body’s natural immunity. Note, I say “clinically proven” because there are a ton of websites out there touting ingredients and products that are natural immune boosters, but as a practitioner of evidence-based medicine I like to stick with the data that has been rigorously studied through clinical trials.

So this post will review ways to boost the immune system to PREVENT cold/ flu. In the next post, I’ll give you the scoop on cold/ flu treatment.

First, I want to talk about what HAS NOT been proven to actually help. Meaning; when these substances have been studied in rigorous clinical trials, there was no significant difference in the prevention of cold/flu in people that took the ingredient compared to people that did. Maybe more, larger studies need to be done before some benefit is found. But for right now, I’d say skip the following:

  • Echinacea
  • Vitamin C
  • Ginseng
  • Garlic
  • Vitamin D
  • Vitamin E

Just to note, there are many people who still swear up and down that these ingredients help their immune systems (anecdotal evidence), and may continue to take  these natural ingredients sound pretty harmless to take just in case it may benefit them. But to give you an example, garlic can interact with certain medications (blood thinners for example). So just because it’s natural doesn’t mean it is safe to take in large quantities. Double check with your doctor before any self-medication including natural supplements.

However, there IS some promising data for the following things:

  • Sleep: Catching your zzz’s is clearly associated with a healthy immune system. Think about it this way; lack of sleep actually stresses your body, and the chemicals produced by the body (cortisol, cytokines) cause a low-grade inflammation in the body. And inflammation =bad.  Moreover, studies show that the blood of sleep-deprived people tend to have lower numbers of blood cells that work to fight off infections, like T cells and NK cells.
  • Meditation: Along the same vein, since stress is associated with lower immunity it makes sense that things which reduce stress, like meditation, can help boost immunity. A small study actually showed that people who meditated during the study were less likely to catch a cold/ flu than people that didn’t. More studies need to be done to strengthen the data, but in the meantime, meditation (and other stress relievers like massage/acupuncture/exercise) can’t hurt!
  • Hygiene: Washing your hands, using hand sanitizer, sneezing in the crook of your elbow instead of your hands, wearing a mask if you’re sneezing or coughing (or if you want to protect yourself from someone who is). If you’re in a public place like a grocery store, beware of objects that are touched by everyone: not just shopping cart handles, but also doorknobs, credit card swiping machines…anywhere a virus can linger and stay alive up to 48 hours. All these practices can help prevent spread of these highly contagious bugs.
  • Getting your flu shot!!! : I’ve already dedicated an entire post to this (click for link), so nuff said.

Now that you’re armed with this knowledge, go forth and stay healthy! And stay tuned for the next post, where we review clinically proven ways to tackle cold and flu symptoms.



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