Boost Your Immune System?

This post is a wee bit of a cheat in that it is a rewrite of a Quackcast, but I have three lectures and board certification in the near future, so sometimes you have to cook the wolf.

What does that mean: boost the immune system? Most people apparently think that the immune system is like a muscle, and by working it, giving it supplements and vitamins,  the immune system will become stronger. Bigger. More impressive, bulging like Mr. Universe’s  bicep. That’s the body part I am thinking about. What they are boosting is vague, on par with chi/qi or innate intelligence. They never really say what is being boosted.

The other popular phrase is “support”.  A product supports prostate health, or breast health or supports the immune system.  It sounds like the immune system is sagging against gravity due to age and needs a lift.

The immune system, if you are otherwise healthy, cannot be boosted, and doing those things you learned in Kindergarten health  (reasonable diet, exercise and sleep), will provide the immune system all the boosting or  support it needs.

Someone is going to write in and say Americans have a lousy diet and don’t exercise and  can benefit from better food and exercise.  And that’s true.  If you are not taking care of your self, your immune function can be improved to its best function.  But if you are at your optimal baseline you cannot make your immune function better.

What is the immune system? The immune system is a mind boggling complex set of coordinated cells and proteins.

There are antibodies: , IgG, IgA, IgM, IgE and IgM further divided into 5 subtypes of IgG and 2 of IgA, each with a different affinity for different parts of pathogens.

There is complement, a series of proteins that can be activated by two separate pathways and are important in killing some kinds of bacteria and attracting white cells to infection.

There are blood components: Polymorphonuclear leukocytes, also known as white cells. And monocytes. And eosinophils and macrophages. And the lymphocytes oh my, of which there are an multiple types and with different functions.  Each cell line can have either a specific task or a general task in the attempt to prevent you from dying from infection. If you are infected by a virus, there is one response, a bacteria, and a different response, a parasite, yet another response, and within each response there are subsets of types of response depending on the pathogen and whether or not you have been exposed to the infectious agent in the past.

There are all the proteins and their receptors that regulate the response to infection: chemokines and interferons and interleukins, a hodgepodge of letters and numbers: IL6 and TNF and CCR5 and on and on and on.

There is the Toll system, a wing of the immune system so ancient it is found in plants.

And there all the non specific parts of immunity that help prevent infection: platelets and cilia that sweep potential pathogens out and iron metabolism that keeps iron away from bacteria and the list goes on and on and on.  The above is the briefest of overviews of the constituents of the immune system.  It is almost like saying you have described the works of Shakespeare by noting it contains the words ‘the’, ‘and’, ‘of’, ‘verily’, and ‘forsooth.’ But the purpose of this post is not to describe the immune system in detail as I would soon embarrass myself.

So when something allegedly boosts the immune system, I have to ask what part. How? What is it strengthening/boosting/supporting? Antibodies? Complement? White cells? Are the results from test tubes (often meaningless), animal studies or human studies? And if in human studies, what was the study population. Are the results even meaningful? Or small, barely statistically significant, outcomes in poorly done studies?

The answer, as we shall see, is usually nothing. It is the usual making a Mt. Everest out of a molehill, and a small molehill at that. If you google the phrase “boost the immune system” you will find over 288,000 pages that give advice on how to give that old immune system a lift. Curiously, a Pubmed search with the same phase yields 1100 references, most concerning vaccination. If you Pubmed ‘enhanced immune system’ you get 41,000 references mostly concerning immunology. None of the references concern taking a normal person and making the immune system work better than its baseline to prevent or treat infection.    I have yet to see a quality clinical study that demonstrates that, in normal, not nutritionally or otherwise compromised people, that some intervention can lead to a meaningful increase in immune function and as a result have fewer infections. Maybe such a study exists.  I can’t find it. Send me the reference. I suppose the comment section will soon flood me with examples.

If you are normal and in good health, there is nothing you can do to make your baseline better.

Randomly reading some of the advice on boosting the immune system yields Dr Phil level inanities that are trivial yet true. Get a good nights sleep. Duh. Exercise regularly. Double duh. Avoid being a a fat ass couch potato American whose idea of exercise is driving to Burger King for a triple whopper with extra large fries. What a concept. Don’t smoke or drink.  These sites often intermix common, well known beneficial life style changes with all sorts of nonsense.

By the way, I need a life style. Best as I can tell, I just have a life. I live it, and someday I won’t. But I need style. That is the problem of being from Portland: no style. Its the old joke: whats the difference between yogurt and Portland Oregon? Yogurt has culture. Sigh.

There are numerous quack nostrums that allegedly boost your immune system. Exactly what is boosted and how is a mystery.  Perhaps you are filled with toxins, then any number of detoxification regimens can improve your immune function. How precisely? Another mystery.

All the classic quack interventions: chiropractic, homeopathy, acupuncture, can also boost your immune system by, you know, changing some energy vibration or unblocking something or other. In fact one of the amazing things is that as best I can tell, there is no quack practice that someone, somewhere, says will boost your immune system.

“People who receive regular chiropractic adjustments have immune system competency that is 200% greater than those who don’t.”

“Homeopathic remedies stimulate the immune system to assist the body in repairing any imbalances that may have occurred.”

“The following acupressure points are effective for dealing with a condition that may be caused by a weak immune system. Elegant Mansion (K 27) reinforces immune system functioning by strengthening the respiratory system. Steady, firm pressure on the Sea Of Vitality points (B 23 and B 47) fortifies the immune system, rejuvenates the internal organs, and relieves pain associated with lower back problems. The Sea of Energy (CV 6) tones the abdominal muscles and intestines, and helps fortify the immune, urinary, and reproductive systems. Firm pressure on the Three Mile Point (St 36) immediately boosts the immune system with renewed energy. It helps tone and strengthen the major muscle groups, providing greater endurance. Bigger Stream (K 3) on the inside of the ankle helps balance the kidney meridian and strengthen the immune system. Bigger Rushing (Lv 3) and Crooked Pond (LI 11),ire important points for relieving pain and strengthening the immune system. The Outer Gate point (TW 5) helps to balance the immune system and strengthen the whole body. Hoku (LI 4) is a famous decongestant and anti-inflammatory point; it relieves arthritic pain and strengthens the immune system Last, and most important of all, the Sea of Tranquility (CV 17) governs the body’s resistance to illness and decreases anxiety by regulating the thymus gland. Each of these important points benefits the immune system by enabling the internal organs to function at optimal levels. “

I suspect that if one were to do all these interventions as once, your immune system would be raised to such a high level of activation that you would probably spontaneously combust. You heard it here first: the reason for spontaneous combustion is multiple, simultaneous boostings of the immune system.

This kind of nonsense is successful in part because that we all are aware that chance of illness increases with the number of stressors in your life, and the worse you life or lifestyle, the worse you are likely to feel and the more likely you are to have an illness.  This phenomena is real for groups of people. The more stressors, the higher the likelihood something will bad will happen with your life. This effect is harder to quantify for an individual. If you don’t sleep well, eat poorly, don’t exercise, get a divorce and a parent dies, in the next year you are more likely to have a medical problem. I remember toting up my stress score in medical school and based on my number I should have been dead three months earlier.

I would bet that when people turn to these quack nostrums, they do feel better, but not because of the nostrums, but because, for however short a period of time, they are no longer participating in the less than optimal habits that define American diet and activity.  What they are probably  doing is getting back towards a baseline of optimal health, not improving their health past what it is capable of.

I would bet 6 million years of evolution have more or less tuned our immune system to be running optimally, as long as we do the basics of eating well, exercising etc. All the stuff we failed to learn in kindergarten. You can be deficient in vitamins or sleep, etc, which will make you prone to illness, but if you are at baseline, you can’t improve your immune system in any meaningful way.

When reading the literature on the immune boosting properties of various products you find there are several kinds of results that they use to justify their claims, all with a thick coating of exaggeration and hyperbole.

The first is just made up. Somebody somewhere decided that this product enhanced immune function. Often the claim is based on ancient wisdom. You know, ancient wisdom, the same ancient wisdom that gave us the flat earth and slavery and women as inferior, that ancient wisdom. Always a reliable indicator. Most of the time there is no data to support the claims of immune boosting.

Then there are test tube tests for boosting immune system,

The immune system is always looking to distinguish between self and not self. All the cells of your body are labeled with proteins, the major histocompatabilty complex for those of you keeping score, that are, in part, signals to the immune system. This protein on my cell surface identifies me as me to me. And no I am not preparing to sing opera. It tells the immune system,  don’t shoot, I’m one of you.  Other peoples tissue don’t have the same labels. Bacteria and other pathogens not only lack these signals, they have constituents in their cells that the body has evolved very specific responses against.

For example, E. coli has a toxin, called lipopolysaccaride in its cell walls that the body very specifically recognizes with a wing of the immune system, called the Toll like receptor. If you incubate cells in a test tube with chemicals or non self life (bacteria, virus etc) the cells react. That is what they are supposed to do. In medicine we call it the inflammatory response.

Oh look: Virus. Fungus. New chemical. Is it part of us? Nope. Respond. Kill kill kill. Here is a point I have made in the past. If you take a cell from the immune system and expose it to some chemicals or bacteria, you activate it, you get an inflammatory response. Its primed. And if you then challenge that activated cell with another pathogen, it will kill that pathogen better than if the cell was not primed. It only works with some pathogens, usually those that are killed by non specific cell medicated immunity.

Listeria and Candida are always popular pathogens that the immune system responds with a non specific i.e. cellular rather than a specific i.e. humoral or antibody response, probably because they are unusual enough pathogens that it made no sense evolutionarily to develop a specific response like we see to more common pathogens.

Some organisms, often unusual ones, are killed with a nonspecific response of the immune system, where as others, such as virus’s, which are killed by very specific antibody, or meningococcus, which really needs complement for optimal killing.  This response is used to suggest that the immune system is being boosted and they imply that this boosting is to your benefit. Other test tube studies may show that mediators of inflammation, such as TNF or Il-1 are increased, which is what one would expect if you expose the immune system to a pathogen or a probiotic organism.

Those who say that that their product, for example probiotics, boost the immune system, point to studies such as these that show that in response to bacteria, cells of the immune system are activated, they are exhibiting the expected inflammatory response to a foreign invader. They call it boosting. I call it the inflammatory response. What could be better than priming your immune system so that it is better able to respond to a pathogen? This preamble leads us to the meat of this post: Is it good to have the immune system activated? Is it good to have your immune system primed? Or boosted? Maybe not. It does explain why taking a probiotic helps increase the antibody response to influenza vaccine in the elderly and decrease the duration of respiratory infections.  A short term, inflammatory response may be of benefit, but it may not be an effect you want to have persist.

But here is some recent, interesting literature, about the effects of having an inflammatory response to acute and chronic infections. Chronic inflammation of all types is associated with atherosclerosis i.e. hardening of the arteries, nicely reviewed in Circulation Inflammation and Atherosclerosis (Circulation. 2002;105:1135-1143).  An inflammatory state can occur from many things, not just infections.

First up: theNEJM, Periodontal Disease and Treatment of Periodontitis and Endothelial Function from 2007.

Periodontitis is gum infection and endothelial cells are them what line the arteries of the body. So they took a 120 people in England with bad periodontal disease (insert your own English dentition joke here, I don’t stoop to those kind of cheap shots) to either aggressive treatment of their disease or standard treatment.

” Aggressive treatment consisted of scenes from the movie marathon man Patients in the intensive-treatment group underwent the adjunctive full-mouth intensive removal of subgingival dental plaque biofilms with the use of scaling and root planing after the administration of local anesthesia; teeth that could not be saved were ex- tracted, and microspheres of minocycline were delivered locally into the periodontal pocket. “

What they looked at in this study, however, were markers of inflammation and endothelial function. Initially, when they were really reefing and scraping the teeth, which is going to cause bacteremia and bleeding, the aggressively treated group had a big spike in signs of inflammation, but long term, as their gums healed, they had a decrease markers of inflammation and better measured arterial flow. Those in the standard group did not get the same long term response; they continued to have signs of inflammation and endothelial cell activation. And this means?

Chronic exposure to bacteria leads to an inflammatory state and has detrimental effects on arteries. Taking lots of probiotics, or other substances that cause an inflammatory response, or boosting the immune system in the parlance of the quacks, should act like chronic periodontitis with chronic sustained signs of inflammation. Who cares?

Maybe you, if you are taking immune boosters that could really activate the immune system, that should lead to chronic inflammation, which is associated with hardening of the arteries.

But wait. There’s more The inflammatory state is a prothombotic state. Infected people make blood clots, and they can make these clots for a long time. Clot can manifest several common ways: heart attack, stroke and pulmonary embolism i.e. blood clot to the lung. There are now several studies out there demonstrate an epidemiological link between a recent infection and a thrombotic event. For example Lancet 2006.

“7278 deep vein thrombosis patients and 3755 pulmonary embolism patients who were registered in a UK general practice database from 1987 to 2004. In the 2 weeks after a urinary tract infection, the risks of deep vein thrombosis and pulmonary embolism increased by 2.1-fold each, the report indicates. It took longer than 1 year for these elevated risks to return to baseline values.”

Urinary tract infections increase your risk of blood clots and pulmonary embolism for up to a year.

Hows about heart attack? Well, in  Clinical Infectious Diseases 2007; 45:158-65 they looked at acute myocardial infarction and acute pneumococcal pneumonia and found an association, which had been noted since early last century. Acute pneumonia leads to heart attack.

Stroke?  In the European heart journal they looked at a database of strokes and heart attacks and found that

“There was strong evidence of an increased risk of both events in the seven days following infection — for MI, the adjusted odds ratio (OR) was 2.10, and for stroke, the OR was 1.92. The risk was highest in the three days following infection (OR 3.75 for MI and 4.07 for stroke). The risk of events was reduced over time, so there was little excess risk beyond one month after infection. “

And a simple community acquired pneumonia decreases  5 year life expectancy in a VA population from 84 months to 34 months.

“Although the cause of the decreased long-term survival is not yet clear, it may be that the systemic inflammatory response produced by CAP accelerates the natural course of medical comorbidities such as atherosclerosis, Dr. Peyrani suggested. This hypothesis, she said, is bolstered by a recent study that showed reduced long-term survival in CAP+ patients who were clinically cured but had increased interleukin 6 and interleukin 10 levels at the time of hospital discharge.”

So chronic inflammation and acute inflammation both increase your risk of thrombosis and vascular events. What are probiotics and immune boosters do? If they really worked?  They would cause acute and chronic inflammation.  For those who may think I am talking about vaccines, not here. Vaccines cause the development of a specific antibody against whatever you are immunizing against, but it does not cause a generalized inflammatory response.

Now I am well aware that association is not causality, and I am also well aware of the issues with epidemiological data to prove causality. But I submit for your consideration that if some product is really boosting your immune system, it is really activating your inflammatory response, perhaps it may not be such a good idea.

Whenever I listen to skeptics talk about ID, they always complain how ID cannot make any predictions. Now I have been practicing ID for 23 years, and it is a science and I can make predictions.  To suggest that ID is somehow inferior is. Huh? What? ID is intelligent design? Not Infectious Diseases?  Oh. Thats different. Never mind.

But I will make a prediction: people who use probiotics or other substances that can measurably lead to an inflammatory response, or, have their immune system boosted, will have more strokes, heart attacks and pulmonary embolisms. So when you read that some product or other boosts the immune system, ask 1) says who 1) what part of the immune system and 2) are they calling an inflammatory response a boosting of the immune system.

If the answer to number three is a big yes, perhaps you should avoid the product. When it comes to your immune system, if you are normal, leaving good enough alone is probably the way to go.

Posted in: Science and Medicine

Leave a Comment (31) ↓

31 thoughts on “Boost Your Immune System?

  1. Jules says:

    One must also ask, “How do you know your immune system is boosted?”

    I think that question alone kills about 90% of the schlock out there :-)

  2. Chrtowsky says:

    How do adjuvants in the vaccine boost the immune system?

  3. Calli Arcale says:

    They don’t. They just poke it a bunch so it gets annoyed and mounts a response to the antigen. (This is a gross oversimplification, I’m sure, but that’s the basic idea.)

    You really don’t want your immune system boosted. Considering that many of the symptoms of a disease are actually the product of your own immune system fighting the disease, I can’t imagine why anybody would want a stronger-than-human immune system. You don’t want it boosted; you want it to be more specific.

    Here’s an analogy: military explosives. You can boost the hell of out them, with the nuclear fusion bomb being among the prime examples of this. But it’s crude, and the trend lately has been away from stupendously huge bombs that can destroy entire cities and towards “smart bombs” which are capable of targeting, say, an individual shed even if dropped from 11,000 ft. The explosive yield of one of these weapons is pitiful compared to a nuke, but the military really likes them, because they don’t blow up millions of civilians that way.

    So you don’t need to make your immune system stronger; if you’re in good health, it’s strong enough already. What you want is to make it *smarter*. So far, the most effective means of doing this is through vaccination, which is basically a training program for your immune system.

  4. micheleinmichigan says:

    The argument I’ve always heard for probiotic (in yogurt) is to replenish the good bacteria in your GI that is killed of by antibiotics. I have also heard (I think it was a NYT article) that our ultra clean (sanitizer ridden) culture my be preventing people from consuming enough of the normal dirt and crude that our GI functions best on and that has possibly led to increased allergies in the population.

    I that a separete aurgument or one you are disputing as well?

    Since I have auto-immune thyroid disease, I have always been against “immunity booster” on the ground that I’m not going to give the bas#$@d anything more to more with. But I’ve never heard of probiotic in yogurt actually boosting the immune response. I don’t want that.

  5. micheleinmichigan says:

    whoops, sorry forgot to spell check.

  6. kausikdatta says:

    Very interesting post this morning, Mark. That the balance between no immunity (immune deficiency) and excessive immunity (expressed as hyper-inflammation) is essential for good health has been well established in immunology literature. In fact, a few years back the concept of Damage-Response framework of microbial pathogenesis and infectious disease came about for this very purpose. A lot of diseases of infectious origin show their effect by creating an imbalance in this framework, either in a pathogen-driven or in a host-driven manner.

    Calli above has it exactly right:

    You don’t want it boosted; you want it to be more specific.

    For the past several years, a part of the search for better adjuvants for vaccines has turned to CpG oligonucleotides, developed by Arther Krieg. When initially they appeared, they were great adjuvants but non-specific. Now, his company has found out a way to make them specific for specific cell types, such as B-cells or T-cells. Some companies are also developing lipid-micelle based delivery systems that would deliver the vaccine antigen in a more specific manner to target cells.

  7. tgobbi says:

    This all reminds me of the “more is better” mindset. If 1 unit of vitamin “H” is good for you then 2 units must be twice as good. A few years ago a good friend with MS, now deceased, was presented by a well-meaning family member with a supplement program to boost her immune system. She knew of my interest in medical nonsense asked me what I thought of the plan. I’m a layman; I don’t go around prescribing treatments. I had no idea of: A – that MS is an immune system problem which would have been made worse by such treatment or: B – that the supplements would even actually have the hoped-for effect. Naturally I insisted that she discuss this with her MD before trying it and he warned her against it. Bottom line is that everybody wants to help and makes recommendations no matter whether he/she knows anything about it or not. “I know someone who tried XYZ treatment for ZYX condition and he felt better right away.” Therefore it must work and everybody should try it. It’s a perfect example of general ignorance of what science is all about.


  8. kausikdatta says:

    Further, on the subject of “boosting immunity”, I recently came across a news website where the luminaries of four Alternative Medicine centers associated with universities across the country have weighed in on how to treat cold and flu in the ‘holistic way’, with gems such as: (emphasis mine)

    Cold prevention:… not getting overstressed (to control cortisol, that can “weaken the immune system over time”, drinking lots of water and “eating multicolored whole foods that were recently alive or came out of the ground”; Cold treatment: … attack the virus early… drink more green tea… (drink) orange juice to get more vitamin C… take 20-30mg of zinc acetate lozenges twice a day to improve immunity… add (to all these) andrographis, called “Indian echinacea”… 400mg of this “immune-stimulating herb” three times a day; Flu prevention: … gets the yearly (flu) shot, (but)… main concern is that the vaccine has very small amounts of the preservative thimerosal in it; Flu treatment: … doesn’t recommend Tamiflu, the prescription antiviral drug. Instead … uses a black elderberry extract… one tablespoon, four times a day (David Rakel, MD, Director, University of Wisconsin-Madison Center for Integrative Medicine)
    Cold prevention: … believes that for people who get frequent colds, it’s an indication that their immune system is sub par… (also) too much sugar can weaken immunity… take 500- 1000mg of vitamin C every few hours… (but warns that) taking too much of it too quickly can lead to diarrhea… take one or two capsules daily of a combination Chinese remedy containing the herb astragalus – thought to stimulate the immune system; Cold treatment: … let it run its course… (take) miso soup with shiitake mushrooms, fungi known for their immune-strengthening compounds; “these approaches may make the symptoms feel better, she admits, but they likely won’t make a cold go away faster”; Flu prevention: … doesn’t get the flu shot and neither does her young daughter. “I’m not opposed to it, but we’re very healthy people and don’t get sick a lot”; Flu treatment: … same treatment advice for a cold… (if) sinuses are congested, she turns to an “old naturopathic therapy” thought to stimulate the immune system… ‘hydrotherapy’ – sticks bare feet in hot water for three minutes then in ice-cold water for 30 seconds, repeats this hot-cold sequence three times (Lynne Shinto, ND, naturopathic physician for the Neurology Wellness Clinic at the Oregon Health & Science University in Portland, Oregon)
    Cold prevention: … big believer in meditation and has found this mind-body approach helps increase his awareness of subtle body shifts… a sore throat is his early warning sign of a cold, his cue to start taking echinacea… feels that some researchers tested an inadequate dosage (in studies that showed mixed results with this herb)… take 500-1000mg, three or four times a day… also (add) a few finely cut up cloves of raw garlic… (though he) admits that few research studies exist on whether garlic actually helps a cold; Cold treatment: … 250mg of vitamin C every couple of hours… also take at least 500mg of echinacea “if the cold is mainly in his nose”… does a nasal rinse with a neti pot twice a day to cleanse and soothe these passageways; Flu prevention: … gets a flu shot, which he feels is safe and has few side effects… not a big fan of Tamiflu; Flu treatment: … avoid sinus problems by doing the neti pot… likes elderberry syrup as a remedy for kids… there’s less evidence for it in adults, but is worth trying (Kevin Barrows, MD, Director, Group programs at the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine at UCSF)
    Cold prevention: … keep yourself in better physical condition… getting enough sleep, keeping a lid on stress and eating predominantly plant-based foods; Cold treatment: … treat symptoms extremely aggressively… takes zinc gluconate lozenges, drinks plenty of herbal tea and also uses a liquid tincture of echinacea… head to the gym to break a sweat, because “Low-level exercise simulates a fever and makes it harder for the virus to live”; Flu prevention: … gets the annual shot… (if) exposed to influenza, would take Tamiflu; Flu treatment: … take 500mg of vitamin C three times a day… likes either andrographis or Siberian ginseng (David Leopold, MD, Director, Integrative medical education at the Scripps Center for Integrative Medicine in La Jolla, CA)

    Someone please tell me, how did these people get their MDs again (the ‘ND’ I can understand)? What is the going rate nowadays?

  9. kausikdatta says:

    Sorry about the confused mark up style. I did not realize – until after the post appeared – that SBM commenting does not allow the code for line breaks (), and that I had to do it manually by using a hard carriage return.

  10. Archangl508 says:

    “Listeria and Candida are always popular pathogens that the immune system responds with a non specific i.e. cellular rather than a specific i.e. humoral or antibody response,”

    I’ve seen this difference between cellular and specific immunity referred to in several comments and postings on this site at times and, being an immunologist, wanted to make some suggestions on some better terminology.

    I think that the general consensus in the immunology community is less cellular versus specific and more innate versus acquired. Both systems have both cellular and humoral components to them.

    The innate system is often triggered by certain molecular patterns found in multiple pathogens, such as LPS (lipopolysaccharide) or CpG DNA. These patterns signal through pattern recognition receptors like the Toll receptor family. The innate response is controlled by a multitude of cell types including mast cells, macrophages, neutrophils, and NK (natural killer) cells. The innate response has a very rapid onset and also confers no long-term immunity to any specific pathogen.

    The acquired system is marshalled by those wonderful cells known as lymphocytes, your B and T cells. These are the cells responsible for the acquired or adaptive immunity and both cell types respond specifically to antigens and can produce both humoral (antibody) or cellular (cytotoxic) responses to the invader. T cells are also capable of using signals from the innate system to drive an immune response either towards a more humoral, cellular, or balanced response, depending of the type of pathogen. Furthermore, B and T cells can also become memory cells which gives them enhanced long term survival and leaves them primed to mount a much stronger response should they encounter the same antigen again.

    Sorry if I’m being nitpicky, just wanted to point that out.

  11. tariqata says:

    Calli: my dad used to tell that if I exercised more, I’d boost my immune system and that would help my chronic spring and fall plant allergies.

    I think I’ve finally persuaded him that even if exercise “boosts” one’s immune system, that’s really not the way to deal with my allergies.

  12. Zetetic says:

    If you encounter, as I did yesterday, an enthusiastic supporter of “boosting” the immune system, tell them about the likely cause of the rapid demise of young and very healthy victims of the pandemic flu almost 100 years ago. Over activated (boosted?) cytokines, a vital component of the immune system, attacked healthy tissue in bodies – liquefying the lungs! Oh – She was an RN!

  13. Archangl508 says:


    Overactive immune systems are responsible for a whole spetrum of diseases including rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, lupus, asthma, psoriasis, Crohn’s disease, and many more. Too much of anything, including the immune system, is always a bad thing!

  14. kausikdatta says:

    Great point, Archangl508! To your list, I would like to add IRIS (the immune reconstitution inflammatory syndrome) – very common in HIV positive individuals under HAART, when their CD4 levels start bouncing back. Similar situation is also seen in case of disease caused in immune-competent healthy individuals by certain mycopathogens. It cannot be overemphasized that immune system in health runs on a fine balance, and perturbations therein, beyond a limit, are not kindly taken to. Which is why I can’t understand this entire ‘boost your immunity’ business!

  15. Mark Crislip says:

    Nitpick away.

    Vaccine make the immune system smarter; love it. Going to steal that one.

  16. gmrath says:

    In ref. the “more is better” mindset mentioned above: I have to deal with this on an almost daily basis (this kind of thinking seems to be almost contagious).

    I’ve refined it to:

    “If some is good,
    and more is better,
    then absolutely too much should be just about right.”

    And I’m sure most know of other little ditties reflecting this somewhat puzzling, misguided sentiment.

  17. nitpicking says:


    The argument I’ve always heard for probiotic (in yogurt) is to replenish the good bacteria in your GI that is killed of by antibiotics.

    Dr. Crislip actually did a podcast on this one, too. Essentially: the bacteria in yogurt aren’t naturally found in your gut, and even if they were they’re only one of many constituents of the normal flora.

    Hey, he wrote about it here too.

  18. Kim Barron says:

    Michele, thanks for mentioning about not wanting to boost your immune system. My husband has a couple immune system disorders and I hadn’t thought of the idea of trying to boost it causing more problems. We worry about him getting other infections and such. He has had a liver transplant so is immunosupressed.
    I don’t suppose someone has done research on that idea, if it would cause problems?

  19. Archangl508 says:


    I did a quick pubmed search and did not find any reports on immune system boosting following transplantation. But I would guess that is an extremely fine line that his doctors are trying to walk. Trying to find the dose of immunosuppressives that will prevent rejection while not completely wiping out his ability to respond to pathogens. I don’t think it would be wise to try too much on your own as that could lead to complications. The transplantation rejection response can be very rapid once it starts and can very quickly cause the organ to fail. Even the most closely matched organ will most likely be recognized as foreign since it is almost impossible to find a complete histocompatability match, unless you have an identical twin.

  20. micheleinmichigan says:

    # nitpicking

    Thanks for the link on probiotics. Very interesting article.

  21. karlSPA says:

    You’ve made an excellent and much-needed case against immme boosting claims. Thank you.

    Worth a mention I think that for cancer-treatment-related immune deficiency, growth factors (neupogen / leukine) are sometimes used to boost production of of granulcytes to reduce risk of infection and to keep you on schedule for treatment.

    – However, this kind of immune support (highly specific to the cells it stimulates) is done when the immune system is in a deficient state and the treatment is not extended once those cells reach safe levels … and it’s not used as therapy for cancer so far as I know.

    Other biologics can modulate immunity signfincantly, such as interferons, but also have signficant side effects as you know.

  22. buttonwillowsf says:

    “Aggressive treatment consisted of scenes from the movie marathon man”… orly?
    i’ll mention this to my dentist next visit.

  23. Calli Arcale says:

    Mark Crislip:
    [quote]Vaccine make the immune system smarter; love it. Going to steal that one.[/quote]

    I’m flattered! Thank you!


    Calli: my dad used to tell that if I exercised more, I’d boost my immune system and that would help my chronic spring and fall plant allergies.

    I think I’ve finally persuaded him that even if exercise “boosts” one’s immune system, that’s really not the way to deal with my allergies.

    It’s astonishing how often alties will suggest boosting the immune system to fix an autoimmune problem. It’s depressing how often people buy the argument. I mean, it’s common sense: if your immune system is freaking out and attacking your healthy tissues, why on earth would you want to make it stronger? It might make *some* sense if they offered an alternative theory (and a few do, like Hulda Clark’s invisible liver flukes), but most don’t. “Boost the immune system” is typically just used as meaningless advertising copy, right up there with “all natural”.

  24. kausikdatta says:

    Hmmm… is someone in NY Times paying extra attention to this thread? After all that discussion on Probiotics, suddenly there is this article on Sep 28 – Probiotics: Looking Underneath the Yogurt Label – in NY Times! :D

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