Home / Blog / Why Boosting Your Immune System Is Bad Advice

Summer’s wrapping up. When cooler temperatures are imminent, we commence our seasonal plan to avoid colds and flus. Some clear out the shelves of the vitamin store, stocking up on a winter’s worth of “immune system supplements”. Others make homemade elderberry syrup or bone broth. Turmeric, oscillococcinum, essential oils, vitamins C and D — we all have our own methods of attempting to manage susceptibility to illness. Staying healthy is on everyone’s minds. And that was true even before COVID. Just this month alone, there were nearly 10,000 Google searches for the phrase “how to boost your immune system”. 

Research shows that certain supplements like zinc can help shorten the duration of a cold. But that’s in very specific amounts taken at very specific times, and it doesn’t help prevent a cold in the first place. (1) Can elderberry extract fight viruses? Studies suggest it very well can help. (2) But not without the caveat that it can overstimulate the immune system.

I’m not knocking what makes you feel safe and healthy. Kudos for taking responsibility for your well-being! But rather than “boosting” your immune system, I’m making the case for “modulating” it instead — through taking good care of your gut year-round.

The Problem With Boosting The Immune System 

Are “immune boosters” helpful, or are we actually tinkering with a system that’s already perfectly designed for our unique bodies and environments? The truth is that science doesn’t know the answer yet. Many questions remain unanswered.

As this Harvard Health post explains,

Attempting to boost the cells of your immune system is especially complicated because there are so many different kinds of cells in the immune system that respond to so many different microbes in so many ways. Which cells should you boost, and to what number?

So are there ways to make your immune system smarter? More resilient? Absolutely. And it starts with a healthy gut. 

Immune System and Gut Health

Eighty percent of your immune system lives in your “gut”. Your gut makes up your entire gastrointestinal tract (from your head to your colon) plus what’s called the gut-associated lymphoid tissue (GALT). The various strains of bacteria and other organisms that live in your gut make up the “microbiome”. A healthy body and mind start with a microbiome that’s populated with the right balance of beneficial strains of organisms. That’s why people all over the world, since antiquity, have incorporated cultured foods into their diets. Nowadays, we can also take probiotics to achieve similar ends.

Probiotic Supplements

So let’s talk about the importance of a balanced gut in the context of staying healthy during cold and flu (and now COVID) season. While “boosting” the immune system might be misguided advice, there are tried-and-true common-sense strategies for feeling well no matter the season or the situation.
  • Maintain a varied, healthy diet that includes lots of vegetables, enough good quality protein, and cultured foods

  • Get between 7-9 hours of sleep per night

  • Move your body

  • Keep calm and try to have a reasonable response to stress (as hard as it can be at times)

  • Reach or maintain a healthy body weight

Probiotics For Immune System Support

Probiotics are live organisms — usually bacteria or yeasts — that are consumed for the purpose of having health benefits. There’s a good reason why every culture’s developed some kind of fermented food staple. These foods contain beneficial organisms that have long been known to promote health and well-being. 

Research is catching up to what people have always known. Here’s what studies show. Probiotics:

Modulate the immune system 
We don’t want a trigger-happy immune system. That leads to things like autoimmune conditions and allergies. Probiotics help our bodies discern the difference between a real threat and something that’s not necessarily harmful, like pollen. (3)

Reduce the incidence, severity of respiratory infections
Beneficial probiotic strains keep the lining of the GI tract healthy where they compete with germs for nutrients and space. Some strains even produce substances that kill microbes directly. Besides helping your body recover from infections faster, probiotics have been shown to help prevent them in the first place. Unlike zinc or elderberry. (4, 5, 6)

Helps You Stick to Healthy Habits
You know those common-sense lifestyle habits that are important for fighting germs? Probiotics create the internal environment that helps you stick to them.
  • Reduce food cravings so you can choose better foods with less effort.

  • Maintain a healthier weight because you eat better, your insulin response is optimized, and your digestive system absorbs and eliminates as it was designed.

  • Sleep better - whether it’s a stuffy nose, itchy skin, anxiety, or a stomach ache keeping you up, probiotics can help all of that.

  • Handle stress better - 95% of your body’s serotonin (your natural “happy drug”) is found in the gut. A balanced microbiome helps you handle stress better.

Tip: Pasteurized versions of these foods kill the good bacteria, which defeats the purpose. Look for “raw” versions or try your hand at making them yourself!

Supplements are a great alternative too. But not all probiotics supplements are created alike. They vary in quality, number of CFUs (“colony forming units”), and types of strains. Many probiotic supplements also need to be kept refrigerated so if you’re purchasing one like this, especially online, make sure it’s from a retailer you trust to keep it cool during storage and shipping.

Then there’s the  The Skinny Probiotic Powder It’s a pharmaceutical-grade probiotic with 8 strains (50 billion live cultures) that have been thoroughly checked out by research to benefit the immune system, digestion, the nervous system, and weight management.

When temps cool and we migrate indoors, keep calm, drink your bone broth, and remember that the good life starts with a good gut.

Questions about probiotics? Leave one in the comments below or send a message here. I do my best to answer every question so be on the lookout!

Hopefully this give you an idea on the role of the gut in the immune system. Want more help? Please reach out! 

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