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Immunity Boosters Are A Myth - Why You Shouldn't Believe Claims That Promise To Fight Covid

Immunity Boosters Are A Myth - Why You Shouldn't Believe Claims That Promise To Fight Covid


Bengaluru/New Delhi, 30 July 2020: 

With no scientifically established treatment for Covid-19 yet and a vaccine still in the trial stage, the buzzword during the past eight months has been ‘immune system’.
 
Since the coronavirus pandemic struck, over 6.5 lakh people have died across the world, while lakhs of others have been infected. Recovery in most cases has largely been reliant on the human body’s natural defence, the immune system.
 
Ayurvedic concoctions, fruit juices, vitamin pills, zinc tablets, hand sanitisers, face masks — despite the lockdown, the market has been flooded with an array of products that claim to boost one’s immunity.
 
Advertisers’ messages seem to indicate that the body’s natural defences can be strengthened or enhanced by the consumption of certain foods or the use of specific products. But can these products really protect you from Covid-19? Or, can functional food or nutraceuticals (dietary supplements) boost your immunity?
 
This is what the science says:
 
Can the immune system be ‘boosted’?

The short answer is no. Immunology experts say there is no way for healthy adults to improve their immunity through foods or products.
 
“Immunity is a much abused word that people do not fully understand. The immune system is very complex. These claims about boosting immunity are irrational and unscientific,” said Ram Vishwakarma, a noted immunologist and former director of the Council of Scientific & Industrial Research’s Indian Institute of Integrative Medicine.
 
The immune system is activated by things in the body that the body doesn’t recognise as its own, such as bacteria, viruses or even particles that cause allergy, like pollen. Most pathogens have a surface protein on them that the immune system recognises as foreign. These are called antigens.
 
There are two kinds of immune responses in the human body. The innate immune response is the first to kick in and is common among all animals. It is non-specific and immune cells mount an immediate attack on antigens. The response is subsequently replaced by the adaptive immune response, which tailors defences based on the kind of pathogen that is being encountered.
 
The innate immune response consists of white blood cells like neutrophils, macrophages, and monocytes, while the adaptive response involves T cells and B cells, as well as antibodies.
 
The production of these cells and their mechanisms are controlled by cytokines, which are proteins that mediate signalling between immune cells. Their functioning and creation is not controlled or modulated or even improved by foods or products.
 
“Immunity is not one thing. There is a range of molecules and cells in the body that don’t do anything until they are triggered by some outside stimulus,” Satyajit Rath, immunologist at IISER Pune, told ThePrint.
 
If by saying that a person has low immunity, one is implying that there is not enough of these (cells and molecules) being produced by the body, by and large it is not true of any healthy adult, Rath said. “A deficiency in any of these leads to major childhood diseases. But in ordinarily healthy people, this is not a problem — so what exactly are we trying to boost?”
 
One of the consequences of stimulating or activating any of these components in the absence of an infection is inflammation, he added. Inflammation occurs when a site of infection or illness or cellular damage gets swollen, red, warm, sore, and painful.
 
Stimulated immune systems release pro-inflammatory cytokines in large numbers, which can cause soreness and pain. “So if someone says that they are boosting my immunity, I would be very worried,” said Rath.
 
What builds an immune system
 
Meta analysis of studies and articles on the internet have found that the myth of “boosting immunity” is extremely pervasive. One such study found that of the 37 approaches that claimed to boost immunity, the top ones recorded were diet (77 per cent of webpages), fruit (69 per cent), vitamins (67 per cent), antioxidants (52 per cent), probiotics (51 per cent), minerals (50 per cent), and vitamin C (49 per cent). Interestingly, vaccines ranked 27th, with only 12 per cent of web pages mentioning them.
 
The root of one of the biggest misconceptions, which is that consuming more vitamins than required helps the immune system, was the speculative and incorrect theories put forth by pioneering chemist Linus Pauling.
 
While the double Nobel Laureate (Chemistry 1954, Peace 1962) excelled in his field of specialisation, he was criticised for his unproven theories on the immune system even during his time. Most notoriously, Pauling was directly responsible for the myth that Vitamin C can help prevent or cure colds.
 
It has been proven since, time and again, that mega-doses of Vitamin C or of any kind of vitamin are not effective on the body at all.
 
Another misconception doing the rounds is that zinc tablets can play a role in mitigating Covid-19. However, this isn’t backed by evidence either.
 
“Zinc is not an immunity booster. It is an essential mineral for the body which is a ‘cofactor’ for a large number of proteins and enzymes,” Vishwakarma said.
 
Like zinc, vitamin C is also a cofactor, and is important for the body to function.
 
In biochemistry, cofactors are non-proteins and can be thought of as helper molecules. They are usually a compound or a metallic ion that is required for an enzyme to act. Cofactors are catalysts — a substance that increases the rate of a chemical reaction — to many of the body’s essential functions.
 
“If you have a deficiency of these essential micronutrients, you will face a problem,” Vishwakarma said. But, if a person does not have any such deficiency, an excess amount of the vitamin molecules in the body does not improve one’s chances of fighting off a virus.
 
“Earlier, when famines were rampant, zinc and vitamin C deficiencies used to be common. Now (they are) rare as both are found in many food sources,” said Sunil K Noothi, a former postdoctoral fellow at the Department of Pathology at University of Alabama in Birmingham.
 
Unless someone is starving or following an extreme diet depleted of nutrients, zinc and vitamin C deficiencies are rare, he added.
 
Micronutrient deficiencies are prevalent in India, iron and iodine deficiencies most of all. For such deficiencies, doctors diagnose and prescribe supplements. However, restoring the levels of micronutrients in the body through supplements takes time and will not provide an immediate protection from Covid-19.
 
An extremely “boosted” immune system, in the context of no scientific definition for ‘boosting’, can also be problematic.
 
In severe Covid-19 cases, the body launches an aggressive immune response resulting in the release of a large amount of pro-inflammatory proteins. This is known as a cytokine storm and is one of the common causes of death in Covid-19 patients.
 
A cytokine storm occurs when the body’s immune system goes into an overdrive, killing healthy cells and causing organ failures. Several research studies suggest that the cytokine storm causes lung injury and multi-organ failure.
 
“Why would anyone want to boost the immune system when the culprit behind Covid-19 fatalities is the overactive immune system?” Noothi pointed out. The Print