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I often hear claims that some activities, nutrients, ... "boost" your immune system. My understanding of the immune system is that it is a finely tuned machine with enormous destructive power. If unconditionally activated it is at least as dangerous, if not more, than the diseases it protects us from. The best evidence for that is the large variety of autoimmune diseases.

So I'm wondering if there is evidence that some activities, food or substances really "boost" the immune system? And I'm also wondering whether boosting the immune system would be a good idea in the first place, considering the destructive potential of it?

  • That sounds very reasonable, but I don't have scientific sources, to underline it. – user unknown Feb 25 '11 at 0:55
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    Your immune system requires resources in order to perform certain tasks. A lack of these resources might mean your immune system can only perform that task in a reduced capacity. Taking vitamins and other such "resources" could plausibly enable a higher number of white blood cells to do the job they need to do, and win the numbers war against the invading bodies. I think "boost" could be translated to "restore to full power", allowing the supply of white blood cells to fall below the demand for the resources which they require. – Marcus Whybrow Feb 25 '11 at 1:07
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    The problem with attempting to "boost" your immune system is as long as you're eating a healthy diet, you're likely getting all fo the nutrients you need for your immune system to function. Anything more than what it needs, and your body dumps the excess. – Mike Mar 11 '11 at 16:07
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    Isn't the term "boost to your immune system" just a phrase that the vitamin industry coined as a sales term to woo the public into buying products of questionable scientific merit, as opposed to a phrase used by the medical community? I think before looking for evidence of whether there is a boost, you first need to accurately assess exactly who is making this claim and whether that reflects a bias towards selling a product for health reasons, rather than helping people to choose a healthy product. Would be great to see some hard science on "boosting the immune system" through vitamins etc. I' – Anonymous Type Mar 23 '11 at 0:01
  • This claim is clearly notable, but not well defined in the OP, so we run into definition problems. If "boost the immune system" means activate immune mediators independent of an infection, then the final sentence is relevant. If it means improve the resistance or response to infectious disease, than the final sentence is not relevant. In both cases, there are certainly activities and substances that boost the immune system, but perhaps not what the OP had in mind. – De Novo supports GoFundMonica Oct 16 '18 at 19:25
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Of course it's possible through vaccination. That's exactly what vaccination is, giving you a fake or attenuated version of a disease to stimulate your immune system to produce antibodies and immunize you against it.

Other "immune system" boosters are very very flaky, if not generally bogus.

  • A lack of vitamins, is bad for your immune system, but does a large dose boost it? Apparently not.
  • A lack of sleep is bad for it, but over sleeping?

Furthermore, the immune system is not something you always want to "boost". There are a lot of auto-immune diseases, which basically are due to the immune system being a bit too zealous. The most common are allergies. So people with allergies actually take immunosupressants to relieve the worst of their symptoms. The fact that basically any alt med completely forgets to mention this (a real immune booster would be bad for people with allergies), makes me think really seriously that it's all quackery.

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    +1 good answer (especially the vitamin part) but it’s worth noting that the immune system is very resource intensive (which is partly why the specific immune system is not always “on” and needs approximately three days to power up) so food in general is actually very important. – Konrad Rudolph Feb 28 '11 at 21:40
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    @Christian That’s why I wrote “the specific immune system”, which is a distinct mechanism. – Konrad Rudolph Mar 8 '11 at 17:26
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    An immune system is much more complex than simply "working poorly, working well, or working too well" as this answer implies. It's not Star Trek ("Immune system at 85%, Captian!"). If an IS is over-reacting to certain stimulants, then it seems possible that a "boost" would cause it to no longer over-react. Of course this all depends on the definition of a marketing term--which is often impossible to pin down. – Flimzy May 17 '12 at 5:01
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    @Flimzy that would take a very liberal definition of boost where it means the opposite of what it is typically understood to mean. – Ryathal Oct 8 '12 at 14:21
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    @Ryathal I take the word boost to mean "make better." It is a gross simplification. In medical literature, they use support instead. The marketers have gotten a hold of that lately, though. "imuno-support." – fredsbend Nov 26 '14 at 8:55
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It's very important to refuse to get lost in semantics. The body is a complex system. Like zoo animals we don't live in a way that's comparable to the environment in which we evolved. Our genes for Vitamin C production might have been fall victim to gene drift.

Just like the perfectly rational participants don't exist in economics the human body isn't running perfect. Both are ideals that hide the inherent ambiguity of the real world. It's not a good idea to pretend that things that one doesn't understand can't exist.

Take Vitamin E in elderly subjects. Meydani et al published a peer reviewed paper that showed a placebo controlled double blind study various boosts the immune system in various ways:

Subjects consuming 200 mg/d of vitamin E had a 65% increase in [delayed-type hypersensitivity skin response] and a 6-fold increase in antibody titer to hepatitis B compared with placebo (17% and 3-fold, respectively)

Take Vitamin D. In a recent meta study Grant et al came to the conclusion:

One can estimate the effect of having all Europeans reach the 40-ng/mL 25(OH)D level as the product of the economic burden of each disease and the fraction of the burden that daily intake of 2000–3000 IU of vitamin D3 could reduce for some diseases, leading to reduced mortality rates and longer healthy life expectancy. [...]That would increase life expectancy by about 2–3 years.

There no scientific reason to demonise all Vitamin supplements as pseudoscience.

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    Vitamin E has been shown to increase mortality and should be avoided unless you are deficient in it. – Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 May 6 '11 at 13:13
  • This is a good answer, but it would be nice to see a declaration on the actual question: Can you boost the immune system? Yes, no, maybe, probably, it depends (on what)? – fredsbend Oct 15 '18 at 15:17
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    @Mr.Shiny "High dosage" is a pretty big qualifier that you neglect in your comment (which that study puts at higher than 18 times rda[400IU, RDA is 22]), and that doesn't imply detrimental effects for more reasonable dosages (i.e. don't take unless your deficient). – fredsbend Oct 15 '18 at 16:28
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    Wait a second... isn't "delayed-type hypersensitivity skin response (DTH)" a bad thing? – Laurel Oct 17 '18 at 0:27
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    @Laurel not in this case. Here it's a marker for appropriate T cell activity (in response to antigens from a set of 7 pathogens). Elderly individuals show decreased response, indicating immunosenescence. Increased response indicates rescue of immunosenescence. – De Novo supports GoFundMonica Oct 17 '18 at 6:19
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Yes, there are treatments that are specifically designed to boost the immune system. One such is intravenous immunoglobulin therapy, where antibodies are infused into the bloodstream to increase immune function (ironically--talk about having your cake and eating it too-- it also can repress autoimmune diseases!).

Gamma globulin injections have been used for a long time (since the 1930s), one brand is described here.

  • I think the whole spirit of the question is a focus on nutrients and "activities" (which I take to mean non-medical things like exercise, not things like intravenous injection). You don't really focus on that in this answer. You lightly mention two medical interventions (i.e. requires a doctor), but give no information at all regarding the use of these things in valid medical practice. I think at least, you should explain what those things are and when they are typically used (e.g. is it usually for AIDS treatment, or can I request it from my doctor just because I want it?). – fredsbend Oct 15 '18 at 21:51
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Yes, there are drugs which boost the immune system. TGN1412 is an example where this was an unexpected side-effect. The results were catastrophic for the people involved. Boosting the immune system in healthy people is generally not a good idea!

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    A summary of what happened with TGN and why they relates to this would complete this answer. – fredsbend Oct 15 '18 at 15:19

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