I am not a medical doctor. I just look at the science and listen to other medical doctors when they talk about important issues. Most if not all of this post is from a podcast from “Body Stuff with Dr. Jen Gunter” from TED.com. Check it out, it’s pretty good if not a little silly at times. Silly doesn’t mean bad by the way.
First thing I want to tell you as you may not even know, but supplements are NOT regulated by any government agency. You are literally on your own when it comes to the buying and using of supplements. And some supplements may not even have what’s on the label OR/AND have things that aren’t on the label that could hurt and harm you!
When you see something that claims to be good for your immune system, what goes through your mind? What does that mean exactly to you? Why would you buy something that would boost your immune system or is good for it? Take a moment to think about that.
WHAT EVEN IS your immune system and how does it actually work? Do you know? I didn’t.
Dr. Katherine Gundling is an immunologist, a doctor who is an expert on this intricate, complex, and elegant system that’s constantly operating in our bodies.
I like to joke with my colleagues that the purpose of all the other organs in the body is really only to support the immune system’s work. I mean, why else do you need a heart than to circulate some of the most important parts of the cells of the immune system and really everything involves the immune system. Whenever we take a breath in, we’re also inhaling organisms that might be dangerous to us. So the cells in the immune system right within the respiratory tract are processing those immediately. Another example might be when we eat food, of course, it has a variety of airborne bacteria, viruses, fungi on it. why don’t you have a big reaction every morning when you eat your bagel, why does your bagel not kill you? We don’t sterilize our breakfast before we eat it. Right? But our gastrointestinal tract is processing that every time we put something in our mouths. In fact, it’s located virtually everywhere in the body. So there’s immune system and function in the bone marrow, in a gland in the neck called the thymus, in an organ in the belly called the spleen.Dr. Katherine Gundling
Remember the movie “War of the Worlds” Remember how it ends, how the aliens finally died? I won’t actually spoil it for anyone, so let’s use the same comparison as the podcast did; an orchestra. When all of the pieces work together you get this beautiful sound that can uplift you, make you cry and maybe make you think. As someone who played the viola in school I know that every person is important and we all need to be literally on the same page. What good are loud horns or clanging cymbals during a lullaby? Apparently you don’t want the wrong parts of your immune system to be doing things when other parts should be the one doing the job and apparently trying to boost your immune system may just screw that up – and that’s not good.
One of the causes of death in people who have COVID-19 is that part of the immune system might become overactive. And that overactivity creates tremendous inflammation all over the body that leads to a variety of problems and ultimately death. So the immune system is not about boosting. The immune system is about balance.Dr. Katherine Gundling
Can you hear the advertisers everywhere screaming at me to shut my mouth? Yeah, they don’t want us not to know that boosting our immune systems isn’t actually a thing. That’s why we are always bombarded by advertising crap. They use certain words, usually ones we’re not familiar with or know the meanings of so we think they are really smart and know what they are talking about. But usually they are literally full of shit. So ignore them.
And we always should be asking the question. Okay. You’re saying it boosts my immunity, please specify what part of my immune system is this supplement going to boost. And is that going to give me what I need to be healthier? And that’s the big question that many of the supplements, especially those that have a lot of different ingredients in them, can’t really help with.Dr. Katherine Gundling
If you think of your immune system like a multi-part bucket, once all the parts are filled you cannot put more into the bucket, so you are wasting your money trying to fill it up even more. But sometimes you can have a vitamin deficiency, meaning your bucket is low for that vitamin, then you may need a specific replacement for that vitamin or possibly a change in diet. And that’s something to discuss with your healthcare provider. But generally, if you have a balanced diet and you don’t have any issues absorbing nutrients, you can get the vitamins you need without supplements.
Supplements are regulated as “food” which means they are not subject to the same testing and scrutiny that prescription medications go through. I briefly mentioned this at the beginning. There is a disturbing study on a supplement called black cohosh, a plant marketed as a treatment for hot flushes. This study tested a bunch of commercially available black cohosh supplements and found ONE QUARTER, 25 PERCENT didn’t even have black cohosh at all! That would be like grabbing a can of corn and having a 1 in 4 chance of it NOT being filled with corn. That would really be upsetting!
Best case scenario is that the supplement you’re buying has what it lists on the label. Even so that supplement probably did not go through a lot of testing or any studies that back up their so called claims (even if they say they do, have you ever been able to find them?) Some of these supplements are adulterated. The worst case scenario is they’re adulterated with something dangerous to you.
Yep. You could actually take a supplement and it could harm you. Supplements may have medications that are not listed on the label. And if you are allergic to any family of medications, or take medications that react badly to other medications….
There was a study done in the city of San Francisco a number of years ago where a variety of supplements that were advertised for inflammatory joint conditions, some of which were advertised to be healing Chinese herbs, were purchased and then studied to see what was actually in them. So yes, you might feel better with some of these, but not be actually taking what you’re thinking you’re taking or what’s on the label and that can just be downright dangerous.Dr. Katherine Gundling
Supplements are like what the US Justice system is suppose to be. Innocent until proven guilty, or rather Healthy until proven not. This is government policy, it’s up to the buyer to be wary. No one is watching out for you here. So what are you putting into your body when you take supplements?
I had a patient who presented with blood pressure out of control. She had always had normal blood pressure. And I could not figure out why this was happening. But I also sat down with her. And said, let’s take a better history. What do you do when you get out of bed in the morning and then what do you do? And she said, ‘Well, I take my supplements and then I..’, and I said, stop, what supplements do you take? And it turned out that she was taking a supplement, from a plant, all natural called Ma Huang. And, um, it is related to ephedrine, which can cause blood vessels to constrict, so I learned about it and discovered that it has these properties that can actually raise blood pressure. And I thought, Oh my goodness, what else are my patients taking that might actually be causing problems?Dr. Katherine Gundling
It is absolutely important to talk with your doctor about ALL the supplements you take. ESPECIALLY if something unusual starts happening to you. Supplements are known to cause 20% of liver damage in the US today. Over 20,000 emergency departments visits in the US annually are attributed to dietary supplement adverse events; these commonly involve cardiovascular manifestations from weight loss or energy products in younger adults, micronutrient ingestions by unsupervised children, and swallowing problems, usually from micronutrients, in older adults.
If you have a doctor who is suggesting supplements with a lot of ingredients or even one who is selling their own supplements (because they are totally bias right?) GET A SECOND OPIONION! I do realize that can be easier said than done, but your life is too important.
This innate immune system is kind of like a well-organized military it’s as if you might have marines or soldiers, right at the front lines that are responsible to make an initial attack, but also responsible to communicate to the back lines so that the leaders can make decisions about how to coordinate the best response. We produce probably a liter of mucus per day, that is constantly enabling us to clear our throats, blow our nose, and even cough. Coughing helps us to blow things out that don’t belong there. The response is coordinated by cells that we call lymphocytes.
And these are like conductors of a magnificent orchestra, if you will. The lymphocytes instruct the many complex parts of the immune system when to turn on, when to turn off, where to go, what to do. So we think of the innate and the adaptive immune system as being prepared initially and following up with a strong, coordinated response that ultimately has good memory. So with the example of coronavirus, the innate immune system sees it, it talks with the adaptive immune system and some of the cells in the adaptive immune system provide specific instructions about how to then go about creating antibodies that are capable of neutralizing that specific virus. And it’s just incredible that all this happens with our not even knowing about it. If a little bell did go off every time we have successfully mounted recognition and response, we would be hearing bells all day long.Dr. Katherine Gundling
So why the hell is everyone tripping over themselves to boost their immune system and falling for the hype? Tim Caulfield is a health law and policy researcher, a bigtime debunker of medical misinformation, and an expert in how misinformation spreads online says “It’s everywhere. It’s absolutely, it’s everywhere! And it was sorta everywhere before we were in the middle of a pandemic. Of course, post pandemic, the idea’s just exploded. And it’s actually become I think more complicated. And then there’s also, celebrity brands have moved into this space and celebrity culture helped to make pseudoscience a big business.”
His study that examined some of the most popular Instagram posts with the hashtag “immunebooster.” found that not one of them were scientifically accurate.
One claimed a dinner recipe “helps boost your Microbiome and immunity.” One said apple cider vinegar “provides immunity boosting which I think we could all use a little extra of right now!” Another post featured someone holding a jar of juice that was advertised as “ORGANIC IMMUNE BOOSTING TONIC, a naturally FRESH homemade immune booster.” And one post even promoted a yoga pose that “powers our immunity.” There are a crap TON of other horrible things you can find at that hashtag. It’s difficult to not comment on them all and call them frauds.
He then did a study examining hundreds of web-sites; “We found that 85.5% of the websites portrayed immune boosting as beneficial to battling COVID and less than 10% of the websites had any critique.” The study found that these Instagram marketers and websites use science-ish buzzwords to promote their so-called immune boosting products.
Science-ploitation: using real science words and concepts in a completely inaccurate or misleading way. These people are counting on the fact that you may not know what these words mean to create the illusion that they know more than you do.
So you have things like the microbiome and genetics and stem cells and people are exploiting the excitement of these interesting areas of research in order to sell bunk. They’re saying that this supplement this practice works because it has an impact on your microbiome and then it gives a reference to the microbiome or it helps regenerate your cells. And then it’ll give a reference to stem cells and that just creates this legitimacy. So I think we’re seeing. increasingly the use of, of tokens of legitimacy. I’ll put it that way. And that’s making a lot of these things a lot stickier.Tim Caulfield
Now you have people who firmly believe you can boost your immune system and trying to tell them otherwise, apparently even as a medical doctor is an uphill battle that many doctors do not win easily. Words like natural, organic, and immune-boosting are known as “God words.” We automatically have assigned positive/good things to these words and when you see them in the store or in ads your first thought is “That is good for me.” We don’t even need to hear something specific about what exactly a “Natural” or “organic” or “immune-boosting” product will do for us.
Guess who knows this and uses it without shame? Yeah, those marketers who have been yelling at their screens as they read this – perhaps they’ll even try commenting and saying I’m full of shit and don’t know what I am talking about. Don’t worry, I’ll approve those comment so you know what assholes these people are when their money makers are being put on the truth block.
Even nationally known medical organizations like the Mayo Clinic and the Cleveland Clinic use the words immune-boosting. For example, in a 2020 article from the Cleveland Clinic, in big bold font, it says Get ready to boost your immune system. And this is a big problem!! “So you get these reputable organizations using the phrase because they know it’s a hook to bring people in. So they’ll talk about immune boosting and then the article will be about exercise and sleep and nutrition. And that’s really problematic, I think because it legitimizes that idea of immune boosting. So then the hucksters can use it to sell supplements, to sell, you know, crazy exercise to sell colonics or whatever.” Tim enlightened.
And like I just mentioned, just try to tell the people who absolutely believe this hyper-bole that they’re wrong. It’s a lot like Qnon believers….
Today I got two long bits of hate mail. About supplements and the idea that, you know, supplements can boost your immune system. So all the hate mail has a similar pattern and you get, we could compare our notes but the first, the first paragraph is usually you’re an idiot. I hate you. Or, or, or it’s, or it’s one of those, uh, I’m not against science, but dot dot. And then it’s something about big pharma. If you are against supplements or, if you are against immune boosting, somehow you’re for big pharma. It’s like there are these two camps…you’re with us or you’re against us. You really want to aim your your debunking or your battling of misinformation to the general public. You want your message to be constructive and you don’t want your message to have a shaming element to it.Tim Caulfield
Like Jen says in the podcast, we’ve all been there; something is ailing someone we love and we’d easily empty our bank accounts to find that miracle that will work quickly. And at times like that you are at your most vulnerable. Just think how many of those immune boosting frauds made A LOT of money in the early months of 2020. So when you ARE in that desperate mode of mind, looking for answers, keep a few things at the font of your mind:
- Just because a post or ad uses science-ish words, doesn’t mean it’s actually based on science.
- Always ask yourself if someone is trying to sell you something! You can’t trust health information from someone selling you a product.
- Be skeptical of anecdotes and testimonials. They are not evidence. Instead, look for information from reliable sources like the National Institute of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the World Health Organization.
- Stop and think before you share something. Misinformation is like a virus. If you stop sharing it, you stop the spread.
Speaking of viruses, vaccinations use our immune system’s memory to keep us safe. The first time your body encounters an infection in the wild, it takes 2 to 4 WEEKS for your adaptive immune system to really get into FULL gear and produce those antibodies. And during this time, you are sick – hopefully in bed resting but sadly not always – but the next time you encounter that little infection your immune system is ready. They already have the plans to make the antibodies that killed it before so it’s quick in taking care of it this time.
Vaccines skip that 2 to 4 weeks of you being sick with the infection/virus. They make your adaptive immune system THINK you’ve been exposed to a specific pathogen, meaning a virus or bacteria. But really it is a killed or weakened pathogen or just part of it, but your body doesn’t know the difference.
Some of the COVID-19 vaccines are mRNA or messenger RNA vaccines, which are really cool. MRNA vaccines take a step back and give our cells the instructions to make a protein found on the surface of the virus Once our cells make that protein, the immune system recognizes it as foreign and produces antibodies to fight it.
But don’t worry, that mRNA isn’t going to be used for anything else or damage your DNA It’s like IKEA instructions! It’s good for one thing, and then it’s thrown away when you’re done. Now, here’s the thing about antibodies — they don’t always protect forever.
We’re all different and react differently to things around us. COVID-19 is so new that while we know a vaccine now will protect us, we don’t know how long that will last or if it will end up like the flu vaccine where you’ll need those boosters every so often. Science hasn’t found out why some vaccines are long lasting while others need boosters. The immune system is complex! So while you can be vaccinated once for something and be protected from it for life, others you’ll need a boost. And since viruses mutate, the boosters are generally different each time you get one.
Many things that grandma told us about are in fact, correct. It’s actually good to get a good night’s sleep. Exercise is good for the immune system. There’s no television show called prevention, right? Because it’s, it’s not exciting. No bell goes off when your immune system improves and balances because you’ve gotten moderate exercise, you do feel better. And that’s the benefit that you gain. Another thing that we can do is to make sure that chronic medical conditions are treated. And oh my goodness, stopping smoking and stopping vaping. These are habits that are so difficult to stop, but your doctor will be happy as all get out to help you quit these habits because they have such immediate and long-term benefit.
[On if being cold make it more likely you’ll catch a cold] Everyone has wondered about that for so long. So I think it’s very difficult to say any one thing can make you sick. That said I saw the most recent interesting study that showed that in very cold weather there may be changes to some of the cells that line our respiratory tract. So in fact, grandma may have been right. That if you’re in cold enough weather for long enough, you may become a little bit more susceptible to becoming infected. So it doesn’t cause us to be infected, but it may change our susceptibility to infection.Dr. Katherine Gundling
Resting when you are sick is really important. It gives your body the time to focus on creating the anti-bodies and getting them out into your body. You can’t boost your immune system, you are more likely to mess up the balance it needs to keep you healthy and going. While it is tempting to use supplements to feel like you are in control of what happens to your body, truth of the matter is you may be doing more to harm your body then strengthen it. So listen to the experts that aren’t trying to sell you anything. Sometimes the best thing you can do is what you’ve already been doing; eating a healthy balanced diet – does not mean a doughnut in each hand – , washing those hands after handling anything you do not know where it’s been, get a good night’s sleep, exercise if you’re up to it – but don’t over due it -, make sure to treat those chronic medical conditions, and most of all, be gentle to yourself.
Thank you to all the debunkers out there, both medical and non that keep those of us who are suspicious about everything in line. Although we’re most of the time correct!
Until next time, I don’t know what possessed me to want to blog about this particular episode, but there you have it. Some cut and paste, some straight from my poor brain that has had a low key throb of a headache all day. Allergies will be the death of me. Keep it regal!