It’s cold and flu season and you’ll do almost anything to avoid getting sick. But is the answer to boost your immune system?
[Image source: iStockPhoto | KatarzynaBialasiewicz]
You had the flu last year and it was awful. It meant days in bed, time off work, calling in favours from family and friends and a cough that lasted weeks.
So this year you want to avoid getting sick and there’s no shortage of vitamins and supplements claiming to help you do so.
But how useful are these in helping prevent colds and flu? And is there anything else you can do to boost your immune system?
It’s about recovery
Dr Penny Burns is a GP in Sydney’s Inner Western suburbs who sees plenty of people with season illnesses and she says getting sick doesn’t mean your immune system isn’t doing its job.
“When we talk about boosting our immune system, what we really mean is we want to get sick less.” But she says it’s normal and natural to have a number of colds every year (most of us get about four each year) and this doesn’t mean your immune system has failed.
“Because you get coughs, colds and flu, it doesn’t mean your immune system is not working. Every time you recover your immune system has done a great job. It’s recovery that shows the immune system is working well.”
She likens the concept of boosting your immune system to wanting to improve the performance of your car. “There are so many components to your car. Which aspect do you mean? Is it tyre pressure or brake fluid? If it’s tyre pressure, then you need to know if it’s right for this particular road.”
So it’s hard to pin down what the concept of boosting the immune system really means, she says, or even what the best level of functioning is. “It’s an impossible question to answer.”
But you don’t want your immune system working overtime either, as that’s when you can run into problems, such as allergies, anaphylaxis or autoimmune diseases. “You don’t want your immune system to be too good because it can kill.”
So it’s a fine balance. “Similar to the concept of ‘good enough’ parenting. We need a good enough immune system to keep us well in the environment we live in. We don’t know what perfect is.”
Boosting your immune system beyond Vitamin C
But that doesn’t mean you can’t do anything, maintaining good health can help your immune system, Burns says. This includes:
- getting adequate sleep
- getting regular exercise
- eating a good healthy diet with lots of micronutrients. Malnutrition is known to affect immunity.
- drinking alcohol in moderation and quitting smoking
Stress can also have an impact on your immunity, studies have shown that chronic stress can affect the immune system and increase the chance of some diseases, so it’s important to do what you can to manage stress.
Vaccinations are an important way to boost your immunity and they do not weaken the immune system, Burns says. Vaccinations give you a “jump-start” on fighting infections. “We know immunity weakens with age, which is why people over 65 are given free flu vaccination.”
“Herbs and vitamins are important to include in a healthy diet, but we don’t know if supplements work,” Burns says.
Also it’s important to take care when taking vitamins and supplements, it’s possible to overdose on them.
There is some evidence that taking zinc tablets within 24 hours of cold symptoms starting may help reduce the severity of symptoms and how long they last. But no-one knows the best dose, formulation or how long you should take it.
“Echinacea has long been talked about as an immune booster, but the proof is not there”, Burns says. There is some evidence that echinacea may be helpful in treating or preventing colds. But there’s no clear evidence on the best to take, what dose to take or how long it needs to be taken in order to be effective.