Can you really boost your immune system?
Boosting the immune system is something that is popular no matter where you are.
In times when people are working longer hours than usual, it’s easy to look for quick ways to stop us from getting sick. A simple Google search will turn up a host of articles and guides on how we can boost our immune systems using supplements, diet improvements and exercise.
However, how proven are these claims?
When we look for health information on the internet, do we stop to consider the source? Do we think about the intentions of who’s telling us how to boost our immune system? Do we consider whether a news website is interested in helping people or attracting traffic for monetary gain?
First, it’s important to note that our immune systems are the backbone of the way our bodies protect us from infections.
Per an article in Frontiers in Medicine, a group of researchers decided to analyse information available online to examine why boosting immunity is such a common concept when so far, the only scientifically proven way of doing so is vaccination.
There is growing resistance to vaccinations with people now increasingly looking to natural and easy ways to ‘boost’ their immune systems.
The researchers note that one of the most common suggestions is taking Vitamin C to prevent infection such as common cold.
However, the link between the two is still tenuous and in need of further investigation.
To analyse the information available online, the researchers used two different Health Information Quality tools:
– Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) score, a widely used HIQ tool where the transparency/trustworthiness of a webpage is assessed for the presence or absence of the following information: author, date, external references, and ownership of the website
– Health On the Net (HON) code certification provided by an independent organization, the HON Foundation, based on a code of conduct comprising several criteria of quality and transparency
Using Google, they searched for the term ‘boost immunity’ and transferred the URLs of pages found to a spreadsheet. Following this, they read the contents of each page and used the HIQ tools to analyse them.
They found that 32% of the results mentioning ‘boost immunity’ were on commercial websites that didn’t enter the top 10 search results with 32% being on news websites – six of which did make the top 10 results. That’s in contrast to health portals and medical journals which accounted for 5% and 2% respectively. Additionally, 10% of the results were blogs.
Healthy diet and the consumption of fruit and vegetables was the ‘boost’ that came up most – they’re mentioned in 36% of the results. Vaccinations feature in 12%.
Overall news websites were found to mention supplements, minerals, vitamins and seafood as ‘boosters’ more while hardly mentioning hygiene, vaccines and fruit.
On the other hand, commercial websites – which generate money – mentioned hygiene, vaccines, lifestyle, relaxation and fruits more.
The findings show that most of the information on immunity that is widely accessible is found on news and commercial websites because they’re often the first ones that come up. Additionally, Google tends to give more visibility to news websites.
This may not seem like anything out of the ordinary, but the authors of the paper note that most of the information available doesn’t answer how people can boost their immunity. This is because boost in this sense means – improve or enhance. However, the information supplied is on how to prevent a weakened immune system instead of boosting it. While Vitamin C is mentioned a lot but there is no clinical evidence to suggest that it ‘boosts’ immunity. This goes for other vitamins and supplements that make such claims.
So, why do so many believe that there are products and lifestyle measures that can ‘boost’ their immune system?
It could be that in this context, the terms ‘immunity’ and ‘immune response’ aren’t well understood by the public. Another reason is that experts overgeneralise when explaining how people can support normal immune function
Overall, it appears that boosting immunity is a myth driven by commercial and news websites. Commercial websites are biased, with monetary gain causing them to promote the use and purchase of supplements and products, most of which have not been scientifically proven to do what they claim. Whereas news websites are ranked higher by Google and more likely to be seen, but bear no real responsibility in providing accurate scientific evidence.
One solution could be the promotion of science-based information via news websites through a direct partnership between them and scientific researchers.
Cassa Macedo A, Oliveira Vilela de Faria A, Ghezzi P. Boosting the Immune System, From Science to Myth: Analysis the Infosphere With Google. Front Med (Lausanne). 2019;6:165. Published 2019 Jul 25. doi:10.3389/fmed.2019.00165
Hemilä H. Vitamin C and Infections. Nutrients. 2017;9(4):339. Published 2017 Mar 29. doi:10.3390/nu9040339
Nichols, H., 2018. Can The Immune System Be Boosted?. [online] Medicalnewstoday.com. Available at: <https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/320721#Diet-and-the-immune-system> [Accessed 2 June 2020].
Primaryimmune.org. 2020. General Care | Immune Deficiency Foundation. [online] Available at: <https://primaryimmune.org/general-care> [Accessed 2 June 2020].