Fact v. fiction about our immune systems
The health of our immune systems has become front-of-mind for many over the last few years. And with that comes a lot of advice on the best way to prepare your body’s defenses for any lingering bugs.
Here, we take a look at four common myths about immune health and see what the science says.
1. Your body’s defenses weaken with age.
True. Research shows that as more candles top your birthday cake, the immune function begins to decline, leaving adults over age 65 more vulnerable to severe illness from viral and bacterial infections.
There’s a science-y term for this process: immunosenescence. You have fewer circulating immune cells, and changes to those you do have make them slower to respond to infectious invaders.
2. Probiotics support healthy immune function.
Mostly true. The microbiome plays a key role in a strong, resilient immune system. A recent review found that probiotic supplements (which contain strains of “good” gut bacteria) decreased the risk of becoming sick with a respiratory infection, and shortened its duration among those who did come down with one.
Probiotics may activate immune cells that fight viruses, reduce inflammation, and kick out “bad” bacteria in your GI system that could open the door to illness. However, this mechanism isn’t fully understood, and higher-quality clinical studies are needed.
3. Honey will “cure” your allergies.
Too early to tell. The theory is this: Honeybees gather pollen from the very plants that cause your itchy eyes, so consuming a small daily dose of the local honey — and subsequently these pollens — may stimulate your immune system and reduce allergies, explained Miguel P. Wolbert, an allergist and immunologist in Evansville, Indiana.
But the pollens that cause sneezing and congestion — such as ragweed — are wind borne, while the pollens bees collect are too heavy to fly in the breeze.
Wind-borne pollens can fall onto flowers, get picked up by bees and end up in honey, Wolbert said, “but it’s likely to be a very, very small amount” — not enough to make a difference. And, so far, no clinical evidence shows that honey alleviates allergy symptoms.
On the other hand, honey may help soothe your cough. The brain part that registers sweet tastes and the part that causes coughing are located near each other, so sensing sweetness may affect coughing, according to researcher Ian M. Paul, M.D.
One (major) disclaimer: Don’t give honey to a baby younger than one year old. Honey may contain spores of a bacteria that causes botulism, which an infant’s immature immune system can’t handle.
4. A megadose of vitamin C can squash a cold.
Mostly false. This vitamin does play an important role in immune function. But at the first sign of sniffles, don’t run to the drugstore to load up on C: High-dose supplements won’t prevent or shorten the duration of a cold, according to a review published in Frontiers in Immunology.
Plus, there’s only so much vitamin C your body can absorb in one sitting; you’ll simply urinate out any excess.
EatingWell is a magazine and website devoted to healthy eating as a way of life. Online at eatingwell.com.
© 2023 Dotdash Meredith. All rights reserved. Used with permission. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.