If you are like me, you have noticed the seemingly greater-than-normal prevalence of illnesses circulating this winter, and perhaps you have suffered some of them yourself, too. No wonder people are looking for foods, nutrients, and supplements that can help them get or stay well.
So which ones help? Well, admittedly, this piece has taken a very different shape than I expected it to when I first started writing. It would be straightforward, I figured; just research the most popular immunity boosters and summarize which ones work and which ones do not. However, my expectation stemmed from having fallen into the trap of oversimplification that so often affects how our culture sees foods.
In reality, there is nuance, as I quickly remembered, and the moving parts are numerous. To suggest blanket statements about effectiveness is a variation of the oversimplified good/bad food dichotomies that are so prevalent in our culture, yet they are nonsensical without specific context.
Consider some of the variables:
What does “boosting” our immune system really mean? Our immune systems are comprised of various structures and mechanisms, so when one talks of “boosting” the system, what specifically is supposedly being increased and by how much? Furthermore, do we really want to turn the dial up on our immune systems, which theoretically could result in an autoimmune disease?
When people say they want to boost their immune systems, really what they are expressing is a desire to get over an illness faster, or experience a sickness milder than what they otherwise would have, or avoid getting sick in the first place. However, these three goals are different from one another, as are the bacterial and viral invaders that exist in a wide array, so any potential immune system booster could differ in effectiveness in achieving each of the three outcomes for each of the numerous potential illnesses. Therefore, a study that demonstrates biological responses to garlic does not tell us much about bottom-line effectiveness, but rather paves the way for further study.
The administration of a potential immune system booster has within it its own set of variables, including how much, how frequently, and which delivery method. Further complicating matters is the potential for dosage variation from person to person.
A study on vitamin C found that plasma levels of the vitamin measuring 100-200 mg/day were required for effective prevention of potential infections, but how many oranges must one consume to reach such serum levels? One, five, maybe more?
Effectiveness and dosage may depend on age, weight, physical activity, hydration level, health conditions, or any of the other factors that vary from person to person. Zinc, for example, has been shown to significantly reduce the duration of cold symptoms in adults, but not children.
Looking to a food, nutrient, or supplement to help fight off an illness has potential downsides. Zinc can cause nausea when consumed orally, and it can trigger a copper deficiency if taken excessively because the two minerals compete for the same absorption sites. Meanwhile, more subjects taking echinacea dropped out of double-blind prevention trials than those taking placebos due to adverse effects. Because supplements are unregulated, we have no way of knowing if the bottle of echinacea that we purchase even contains the herb as advertised.
Somewhere out there lies a truth, but discovering it is a more difficult proposition than some realize. With so many variables at play, designing and conducting informative studies is a monumental challenge. We need large bodies of well-constructed research and replication of results from one study to the next with similar parameters, and all of that takes time, money, and effort.
The current research may yield little more than a shrug of the shoulders, but meanwhile, the population at large still yearns for an answer. “It’s terrifying to live in a place where the causes of diseases like Alzheimer’s, autism, or ADHD, or the causes of weight gain, are mysterious,” says Professor Levinovitz, a religion professor who has taken to writing about nutrition in recent years because of the intersectionality between spirituality and food. “So what we do is come up with certain causes for the things that we fear. If we’re trying to avoid things that we fear, why would we invent a world full of toxins that don’t really exist? Again, it’s about control. After all, if there are things that we’re scared of, then at least we know what to avoid. If there is a sacred diet, and if there are foods that are really taboo, yeah, it’s scary, but it’s also empowering, because we can readily identify culinary good and evil, and then we have a path that we can follow that’s salvific.”
Dr. Levinovitz’s words remain true regarding ailments ranging from the coronavirus to the common cold. Nobody wants to hear that the answers are complex, nuanced, or blatantly unknown when they are anxious and looking for control over their fate.
In order to fill the void, in step those looking to gain notoriety or money. In the eyes of desperate people, the accuracy of an answer seems far less important than being able to provide one. This dynamic likely explains why so much of the misleading and biased information online regarding immunity boosting stems from commercial websites.
So which foods, nutrients, and supplements actually do help us to have shorter and milder illnesses or help us to avoid getting sick altogether? Truthfully, I have no idea. Now excuse me while I go take my elderberry syrup.