Scroll through social media and you'll run across "wellness" companies pushing pills, potions and tinctures to "boost" immunity against COVID-19. But is that even possible?
With cases of the novel coronavirus on the rise, you can't blame people for holding out hope that a healthy lifestyle will give them an edge against the infection. Unfortunately, staving off this modern-day scourge isn't as simple as popping a handful of supplements.
Here's what you should know about supporting your immune system, according to experts — and what you can actually do to decrease your risk of catching COVID.
Get tips on how to stay healthy, safe and sane during the novel coronavirus pandemic.
Your Immune System and COVID-19
The immune system — a network of organs, white blood cells and antibodies — is your body's personal militia. It's activated any time it detects viruses, bacteria, fungi or other pathogens that pose a threat to your health, per the National Library of Medicine (NLM).
The immune system consists of two parts. The innate immune system swoops in when a germ or harmful substance enters the body. It's the body's first line of defense, according to the NLM. If that doesn't wipe out the threat, the so-called adaptive immune system takes over. It acts as a special forces unit, making antibodies to specifically target and neutralize foreign invaders.
A well-functioning immune system operates under the radar, quietly protecting you from harm, per the NLM. But if your immune system is weak, or if it encounters a bug that's new or particularly aggressive, you can become ill.
Such is the case with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. It's called a "novel" coronavirus precisely because it hadn't been seen prior to December 2019, when a troubling cluster of respiratory illnesses in Wuhan, China, first came to light, reports the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
The adaptive immune system can commit new threats to memory, so the next time you're exposed, your body will recognize and fight off the intruder. But the first time you have a brush with an unknown invader, it takes time for your immune system to mount a defense.
In the case of SARS-CoV-2, it takes seven to 10 days for your adaptive immunity to respond, according to a September 2020 JAMA article by infectious disease researchers at Emory University. If there were an effective vaccine, though, you could develop immunity without having to get sick, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Can You Really 'Boost' Your Immune System?
Immune cells require energy and nutrients to function properly, according to an August 2019 Nutrients review. Your immune system can satisfy these needs through dietary sources or via the body's own energy stores, the authors point out. So, yes, proper nutrition clearly plays a role in supporting the body's immune system.
"Studies do indicate that a healthy diet and adequate intake of micronutrients may improve function of the immune system, and this could reduce risk of infection or lessen severity," Adrian Gombart, PhD, professor of biochemistry and biophysics and a principal investigator at the Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University, tells LIVESTRONG.com.
Dietary supplements aren't meant to prevent or treat COVID, per the CDC. But certain vitamins and minerals may have effects on the immune system — specifically, how well it fights infections, inflammation and swelling, the agency adds. If your diet is deficient in the recommended levels of essential vitamins and minerals, supplements may help fill that gap.
"In reality, not everyone gets everything they need through diet, and a multivitamin/mineral supplement can help meet basic micronutrient needs," Gombart says.
The Linus Pauling Institute recommends adults consider supplementing their vitamin C and D intake for immune health — 400 milligrams daily of vitamin C and 2,000 international units of vitamin D, amounts that exceed the federal government's recommended dietary allowance (that's 75 to 90 milligrams of vitamin C and 600 IU of vitamin D, according to the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans).
In addition to a healthy diet, the Cleveland Clinic cites a plethora of lifestyle changes proven to keep your immune system running smoothly. They include:
- Quitting smoking
- Maintaining a healthy weight
- Avoiding alcohol or using it in moderation
- Getting plenty of sleep
- Staying physically active
- Reducing stress
- Washing hands frequently
- Staying up to date on vaccines
But the notion that you can somehow supercharge your immune system to defend against infectious diseases, such as COVID-19, just doesn't add up. Scientists don't even know which immune cells in your body to boost — or to what level — to optimize immunity, according to Harvard Health Publishing.
As for taking herbs and other nutritional supplements, there's no evidence that these things "bolster immunity to the point where you are better protected against infection and disease," per Harvard Health.
Bottom line: A healthy immune system won't necessarily protect you from becoming infected with COVID-19, nor has any supplement been shown to prevent or cure the disease. And some products may be downright dangerous.
"Popping supplements is not going to do the trick," Gombart says.
Beware of Unproven Therapies
You know the saying, "buyer beware." Well, you ought to keep that in mind when you run across blogs and social media posts advertising products to boost your immunity against COVID-19.
Since early on in 2020, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has warned hundreds of marketers about making such unsubstantiated claims. It's illegal to advertise a product as preventing, treating or curing a disease "unless you possess competent and reliable scientific evidence, including, when appropriate, well-controlled human clinical studies, substantiating that the claims are true at the time they are made," the FTC cautions.
Some of the warnings come from both the FTC and the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA), which bans the sale of misbranded or unapproved new drugs. The list of products claiming to boost immunity against COVID is a mishmash of intravenous therapies, herbs, dietary supplements, essential oils, colloidal silver therapies and so on. The latest offender: a company that had marketed an eyelid and eyelash solution as a coronavirus killer.
Immunity Against COVID-19
Many of us are concerned about contracting SARS-CoV-2, and rightly so.
"This is a virus that no one in the world has seen, and we have zero immunity," Kirsten Lyke, MD, an infectious disease specialist and professor of medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore, tells LIVESTRONG.com.
If you happen to get coronavirus and recover, your immune system will produce infection-fighting antibodies targeting the virus. The hope is those antibodies will protect you against future infection, but that's not a given.
Even if you do develop immunity, scientists don't yet know how long it may last. According to Gombart, some studies show that you'll be immune from infection for three months. However, he also cites an October 2020 study in Immunity suggesting that neutralizing and "spike-specific" (targeting spike proteins on the surface of the virus) antibodies persist for five to seven months.
Another way to gain immunity is to be vaccinated against the virus. Vaccines prep the immune system for battle by giving it a sneak peak of what to look for, according to the University of Colorado Health. Should you cross paths with the actual virus, your immune system will recognize it and begin its assault.
Vaccine trials are underway and at least one, developed by Pfizer in partnership with the German company BioNTech, appears promising. Early data show people who got the experimental vaccine had 95 percent fewer symptomatic infections than people who got a placebo.
Lowering Your COVID Risk
Having a healthy immune system is no substitute for masking up or taking other measures to lower your risk of getting COVID-19. "We've all heard the anecdotes about super-healthy people dying from COVID," Dr. Lyke says.
What's more, while a healthy diet and exercise is good for your health, "it will not stop the spread of disease" Gombart says. "Everyone should follow the guidelines of social distancing, hand-washing and wearing a mask."
Concerned About COVID-19?
Read more stories to help you navigate the novel coronavirus pandemic:
Is This an Emergency?
- National Library of Medicine: "How Does the Immune System Work?"
- National Library of Medicine: "The Innate and Adaptive Immune Systems"
- National Institutes of Health: "Novel Coronavirus Structure Reveals Targets for Vaccines and Treatments"
- JAMA: "COVID-19 and the Path to Immunity"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Understanding How COVID-19 Vaccines Work"
- Nutrients: "Diet and Immune Function"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Food and Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19)"
- Linus Pauling Institute: "Vitamin C"
- Linus Pauling Institute: "Vitamin D"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "How to Boost Your Immune System
- Federal Trade Commission: "Warning Letters"
- FTC: "20 More Warning Letters Tell Companies to Cut Out Unproven COVID-19 Claims"
- U.S. Food & Drug Administration: "Fraudulent Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) Products"
- Immunity: "Orthogonal SARS-CoV-2 Serological Assays Enable Surveillance of Low-Prevalence Communities and Reveal Durable Humoral Immunity"
- University of Colorado Health: "Coronavirus Vaccines 101: What You Need to Know"
- Pfizer: "Pfizer and BioNTech Conclude Phase 3 Study of COVID-19 Vaccine Candidate, Meeting All Primary Efficacy Endpoints"
- Cleveland Clinic: "Immune System: Parts & Common Problems"
- Department of Health and Human Services: "2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans"