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The ‘immune-boosting products’ that ACTUALLY work

With many of us thinking more about our health than ever before, the question of how we can boost our immune system has never been more relevant. 

From superfoods to supplements and exercise regimes, there are plenty of products and programmes that claim to improve our immune health and improve our chances of fighting off infection. But how many of them actually work? 

This is the question Dr Ronx Ikharia, an emergency medicine specialist, seeks to answer in the documentary The Truth About… Boosting Your Immune System, which airs on BBC1 tonight at 9pm. 

Together with leading experts in the field, Dr Ikaria reveals the practical steps everyone can take to give our body the tools it needs to defeat the common cold and flu. And perhaps even Covid. 

Dr Ronx Ikharia, an emergency medicine specialist, investigates immune boosters in the documentary The Truth About… Boosting Your Immune System, which airs on BBC1 tonight

IMMUNE-BOOSTING SUPPLEMENTS 

Do they work? Yes, some 

It is estimated British shoppers spend £1billion every year on supplements, with boosting immunity one of the top concerns. ‘But I want to know is, do any of them actually work?,’ asks Dr Ikharia.

She meets up with Professor Michael Heinrich of UCL’s School of Pharmacy to discuss which vitamin and mineral supplements actually have any immune-boosting properties.   

ELDERBERRY & GARLIC PRODUCTS

There's no evidence that garlic products help boost the immune system

There’s no evidence that garlic products help boost the immune system

Products derived from so-called ‘superfoods’ like elderberry and garlic claim to have a range of benefits, including boosting immunity. 

However Professor Heinrich warned there is unlikely to be any concrete health benefits. ‘They can help your immune system in a very minor way,’ he said. ‘They are beneficial as food items but don’t expect any therapeutic effect.’

ECHINACEA  

Among the best studied natural supplements is echinacea, which has been shown to have an effect on the way the body responds to viruses but is still not a miracle cure. 

Professor Heinrich said: ‘The evidence is reasonable. I think it makes therapeutic sense to prevent and in many cases treat symptoms of the common cold and mild cases of the flu.  

However he warned shoppers that some echinacea supplements hardly had any echinacea in them. Analysing two different brands, which were not named, he revealed that in one case there appeared to be ‘close to nothing’ in it. 

Professor Heinrich advised seeking out products that have been given the Traditional Herbal Registration (THR) mark as a sign of quality ingredients. 

Natural wonder: Echinacea has been shown to treat some symptoms of cold and mild flu

Natural wonder: Echinacea has been shown to treat some symptoms of cold and mild flu

VITAMIN SUPPLEMENTS 

‘It is unlikely that if you take any high dose of a supplement that it has any specific health benefits,’ Professor Heinrich explained. ‘It will simply go through your body. That’s not very useful.’ 

Vitamin C should be taken from the diet rather than in a supplement, experts said

Vitamin C should be taken from the diet rather than in a supplement, experts said

Most people should be able to get almost everything they need from a healthy diet. 

Zinc, for example, which helps the body produce new immune cells, can be found in cheese, meat and a wide range of seeds and kernels like pumpkin seeds. 

Meanwhile vitamin B, which helps provide energy to immune cells, is found in dark green vegetables, like spinach and kale, as well as meat, milk and cheese. The best source is seafood, which is packed with vitamin B.

The one vitamin supplement Professor Heinrich did advise taking is Vitamin D, as people can struggle to get outside enough to benefit from our natural source, the sun, particularly in the winter. Dr Ikharia recommended taking 10mg a day throughout winter.

A COLD SHOWER

Does it work? Maybe

Brief stress:  While long-term stress is generally considered harmful, a short, sharp dose of stress like a cold shower can help bolster our defences, Dr Ikharia explains

Brief stress:  While long-term stress is generally considered harmful, a short, sharp dose of stress like a cold shower can help bolster our defences, Dr Ikharia explains

While long-term stress is generally considered harmful, a short, sharp dose of stress can help bolster our defences, Dr Ikharia explains.

When we perceive danger, it triggers the release of a cascade of hormones and other compounds in the body that make us more alert and ready for physical action.

It also stimulates the production of neutrophils and other basic fighter cells – an evolutionary explanation is that, should we be wounded, which opens the body to potential infection, it would help better protect us.

Dr Ronx tests this by holding a tarantula – an experiment that leads to a 10 per cent increase in her white blood cells – but there are simpler ways to mimic the same effects – and benefits. 

A Netherlands study found that, over a period of a year, people who had a normal shower and then for the final 30 seconds switched it to cold, were 30 per cent less likely to have sick days from work. Scientists believe this is linked to the body’s stress response. 

GUT-FRIENDLY DIET AND REGULAR EXERCISE

Does it work? Yes  

Exercise does make a difference. A British study in 2011 found that people who did aerobic exercises five or more days a week were 40 per cent less likely to have a cold, over three months, than those who did one day of exercise a week

Exercise does make a difference. A British study in 2011 found that people who did aerobic exercises five or more days a week were 40 per cent less likely to have a cold, over three months, than those who did one day of exercise a week

Dr Ikharia speaks to Professor Sheena Cruickshank, an immunologist at the University of Manchester, to run a unique experiment on six volunteers who undergo a six-week crash course designed to turn around their underperforming immune systems.

Their new diet is one that aims to build ‘gut diversity’ – the variety within the make-up of the organisms that live in the gut and form part of the immune system. Studies show a diet high in meat, saturated fats and sugar can, as alcohol does, create imbalances in the kinds of bacteria in the gut. 

Why fibre is so important for our immune system  

A fibre-rich diet supports good gut diversity, which promotes the development of antibody-producing lymphocytes, and help balance immune cells in the blood.

A new study has also found that fibre might give our immune defenses more of a killer instinct, providing vital ammunition that allow our immune cells to fight off infection. 

Foods rich in fibre like dark green veg can help boost our immune systems

Foods rich in fibre like dark green veg can help boost our immune systems 

This can lead to weakened or abnormally behaving immune system cells in the blood. 

Meanwhile, diets rich in fibre – vegetables, wholegrains, beans, pulses such as lentils and cereals – can support good gut diversity, promote the development of antibody-producing lymphocytes, and help balance immune cells in the blood. 

A new study has also found that fibre might give our immune defenses more of a killer instinct, providing vital ammunition that allow our immune cells to fight off infection.  

The volunteers were also given fitness trackers and asked to do either 75 minutes of vigorous exercise or 150 minutes of moderate exercise each week.

Scientists believe that exercise boosts our immune system because it helps regulate the flow of immune cells around the body. As our blood flow increases with the heart rate, immune cells move more rapidly into our veins and are able to roam the body at the higher rate and in higher numbers.

A British study in 2011 found that people who did aerobic exercises five or more days a week were 40 per cent less likely to have a cold, over three months, than those who did one day of exercise a week.

The rest of the volunteers underwent a blood test to take another look at their neutrophil and lymphocyte levels and the results were staggering. In all but one of them, there was a drop in neutrophils to more normal levels, and a rise in antibody-producing lymphocytes. 

Why alcohol is a blow to your immune system and YOU should avoid drinking it if getting the Covid-19 vaccine 

Alcohol seems to have a wholly negative impact, even in relatively small amounts. Clinicians have long known that heavy drinking in the long term is associated with a raised risk of immune-related illness, such a pneumonia, slow recovery from illness and poor healing of wounds. 

But, in fact, the effects can be near-instantaneous. When it enters the gut, alcohol alters the make-up of our gut microbiome – the trillions of microorganisms that live in our gut which play an important role in immunity.

This, in turn, damages immune cells in the blood, including our lymphocytes, which are responsible for sending out antibodies.

Antibodies play a vital role in immunity, attacking and destroying invaders such as viruses.

In an experiment, with blood samples taken before and after drinking, presenter Dr Ronx Ikharia, an emergency medicine specialist, downs three glasses of prosecco and finds it is enough to bring down levels of lymphocyte cells by as much as 50 per cent. 

This could reduce the effectiveness of the body’s immune response – and for this reason Prof Cruickshank says people should avoid alcohol around the time of having the Covid jab.

 

The Truth About… Boosting Your Immune System is on BBC1 on tonight at 9pm


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