We have been living in pandemic times for about two years. We see lessons learnt and mentality shifts… well, at least in some cases. Today’s topic is the relevant trend to ‘boost your immunity’. Sounds great if you think that immunity means protection, right? Add in the equation some potentially serious infection risk, and boosting your immunity becomes a priority.
Even in this era of tremendous progress of humanity, we don’t know everything about the immune system. But it is a complex and marvellous part of us, without which we couldn’t be alive.
Boost your immunity, but be mindful that people are different
According to the European Academy of Allergy and Clinical Immunology (1), there are over 150 million European citizens suffering from chronic allergic disease, and it is estimated that by year 2025, over 50% of all Europeans will suffer from allergy. And these figures do not even account for the approximately 45% of patients who are never properly diagnosed.
How about autoimmunity? Around 100 autoimmune diseases have been recognised to date, affecting up to 20% of the population (2). Due to the system of disease classification, the impact of autoimmunity is difficult to assess and likely underestimated, as it can affect so many parts of our body. Even so, autoimmune disease has been identified as a leading cause of death for women in England and Wales (3).
How is that relevant? What would these people with allergic and autoimmune conditions – that is, those diagnosed, who know why they actually suffer – think about the advice to ‘boost your immunity’? Their immune system is already overactive. It attacks their own body as if it were a foreign structure in autoimmunity, and their reaction to otherwise harmless stimuli alters their wellbeing in allergy. Perhaps they would be more interested in taming their immunity.
What do we know about boosting immunity?
As ever when we are targeting exquisitely complicated systems such as the immune system, we need a very careful and knowledgeable approach, with lots of nuances and cautions.
Some of the popular advice to ‘boost your immunity’ is common sense promotion of healthy habits. It is hard to argue against adequate sleep, active lifestyle, stress management.
Playing with fire – when to boost your immunity may not serve you
And then, there is the ‘healthy diet’, or even supplements which presumably are good for everyone. Yes, a diet should be healthy, but what this means is actually very individualised.
It is quite obvious that one should avoid foods they are allergic to. How about if someone has a pollen allergy known as hay fever – foods should be safe, right? Not necessarily. From oranges and kiwis to the everyday apple, and from almonds and garlic to parsley, there is a host of healthy foods that may not be so well-tolerated by some pollen-allergic patients. Many may experience minor discomfort as an oral allergy syndrome, but serious reactions are possible (4). That is one immunity boost you may not choose.
Let’s say you are not allergic to anything. However, your immune system has managed to create antibodies against a number of ‘healthy foods’. Well, as long as there is no obviously threatening allergy, that immune reaction is not relevant. Or, is it?
We have known for a long time that similarities between foreign substances and structures of self may lead to an unwanted attack that falls in the autoimmunity domain. Unfortunately, foods could be those foreign structures that cause antibody production, and these antibodies have been shown to cross-react with human tissues (5), thus potentially contributing to autoimmunity.
What is good to eat?
Should you then avoid any foods that might cause problems? Certainly not, if they are not problematic for you. The reputation of healthy food is usually earned. If you are healthy, then a whole-foods, diverse and balanced diet is one of the best things you can do for your continued wellbeing.
How can you tell if something may be problematic?
If you have allergies, then chances are you have already discussed your diet with your consultant or GP.
In the autoimmunity realm, the traditional medical dogma has started to shift. Unfortunately though, it will take a while before we completely overcome the ‘it’s your genes’ mentality. One day, common practice will see interventions aimed at controlling the essential input of the environment in autoimmune disease progression. The Functional Medicine approach, which we also apply in our clinic, already uses a comprehensive assessment and planning to support autoimmune patients. We won’t necessarily boost your immunity, but we’ll definitely aim to optimise it.
How to prepare for a professional diet overhaul
If you have not had access to such a clinic so far, then pay attention to any link between certain foods and your symptoms. Best practice is to get professional advice before eliminating foods from your diet. That is because some tests become irrelevant once a food is eliminated, thus diagnoses can be missed. Furthermore, you should make sure you still get all the necessary nutrients. However, you will at least come prepared with potentially valuable information that your healthcare practitioner can use to design your personalised plan. If nothing seems to make you feel better or worse, then don’t worry, they will know where to look and what to test first.
More vs. Balanced; immunity boost vs. immunity optimisation
Everybody has learnt an important lesson in COVID-19: more is not necessarily better. Immunologists have known for a long time that the immune response has to be strong enough to overcome an attack, and self-limited to avoid host damage. Unfortunately, many of the victims of the COVID-19 pandemic can be attributed to an over-reacting immune system (6), creating hyperinflammation or the cytokine storm many may have heard about. Sometimes we need to use therapeutic strategies to dampen the immune response to the Sars-CoV-2 infection and thus prevent severe disease and deaths. Doctors and scientists have worked (7) on identifying early clues that an exaggerated immune response may develop and endanger patients’ lives. However, there is probably some way to go until we can pinpoint pre-disease immune function parameters that would be either protective or a risk factor for negative COVID-19 outcomes.
Hence, rather than ‘boosting your immunity’, we should better try and balance the immune function. When you know which assessments to perform, there are clues as to how well the immune system’s function serves a patient’s health and wellbeing.
The bottom line
In conclusion, be aware that your immune system is a sophisticated beast that needs to be approached with appreciation and wisdom. Whilst it is essential to keep you alive and thriving, it also has the tremendous power to significantly alter your health and lifespan.
Show your immune system the care it deserves, and do boost your immunity in a targeted way that makes sense and works for you as a unique person.
A headache may have many causes. It could be dehydration in one person, a sinus infection in another, eyesight problems in somebody else, etc. How you approach a health problem can have significant long-term impact on your wellbeing. Likewise, how you address your immune optimisation cannot be an umbrella recommendation.
Get help here
There is not a one-size-fits-all and it will never be. In our clinic at The Allergy-Immunology Doctor, we look at you as a unique individual. We can access cutting-edge tests that can give essential information on how to address your immune optimisation plan. Most importantly, we draw on solid medical knowledge to make decisions as to what are the best recommendations for you. This will start with choosing tests, and culminate in the health plan that will be completely tailored to you, your needs and choices.
You may want to book a free discovery call to find out how suitable our approach is for your current goals.
- Bonini S. News From the European Academy of Allergology and Clinical Immunology. Allergy Clin Immunol Int – J World Allergy Organ. 2000;12(4):0186–7.
3. Thomas SL, Griffiths C, Smeeth L, Rooney C, Hall AJ. Burden of mortality associated with autoimmune diseases among females in the United Kingdom. Am J Public Health. 2010;100(11):2279–87.
4. Skypala IJ. Can patients with oral allergy syndrome be at risk of anaphylaxis? Curr Opin Allergy Clin Immunol. 2020 Oct;20(5):459–64.
5. Vojdani A. Reaction of food-specific antibodies with different tissue antigens. Int J Food Sci Technol. 2020;55(4):1800–15.
6. Manson JJ, Crooks C, Naja M, Ledlie A, Goulden B, Liddle T, et al. COVID-19-associated hyperinflammation and escalation of patient care: a retrospective longitudinal cohort study. Lancet Rheumatol [Internet]. 2020;2(10):e594–602. Available from: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S2665-9913(20)30275-7
7. Gustine JN, Jones D. Immunopathology of Hyperinflammation in COVID-19. Am J Pathol. 2021;191(1):4–17.