It’s tempting to load up on immune health supplements when cold and flu season hits. Millions of people do it every year, hoping those vitamin C chewables and elderberry elixirs will keep them healthy. Now add the fear of a ferocious pandemic, and there’s no telling what bitter pill or potion you might swallow. But what do you really know about these nutrients?
With so many convincing and attractive myths floating around about immune health supplements, it’s easy to get carried away. That’s why it’s important – perhaps, now more than ever – to separate fact from fiction.
Do Immune Health Supplements Work?
It’s the million-dollar question: do immune health supplements work? Unfortunately, the answer isn’t that concrete. There are a number of factors that contribute to a formula’s effectiveness. You have to consider things like the best time to take vitamins and supplements, what you’re taking them with and how much of a particular nutrient your body needs.
More than that, it’s important to remember dietary supplements cannot cure, treat or prevent a disease state. Think about what these words mean. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, their definitions are as follows:
- Cure – recovery or relief from a disease
- Treat – to care for or deal with medically or surgically
- Prevent – to keep from happening or existing
These terms hold a lot of weight in the medical field, which is why they’re reserved for pharmaceutical drugs only. Legally speaking in the U.S., only drugs approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) can cure, treat or prevent a disease. And, yes, the FDA deems the common cold a disease state.
Instead, dietary supplements are designed to support your health and well-being in ways your body may not be able to do on its own. Of course, the exact means of support varies from nutrient-to-nutrient and formula-to-formula.
In other words, vitamin C has different properties than zinc. Yet, both are commonly used to formulate immune health supplements. Understanding each nutrient’s unique benefits will help you make an informed investment in your health.
The Myths and Truths About 6 Popular Immune Health Supplements
“Vitamin C strengthens your immune system.” “Elderberry is a natural flu fighter.” You’ve heard the hype, but now it’s time to dial in on the truth. Below is a quick fact check on some of the nutrients most commonly touted for their immune health properties.
Elderberries come from the European elder tree, scientifically named Sambucus nigra. The berry itself has a sweet-tart flavor, though it is unsafe to eat the berry raw. For dietary use, elderberry has been transformed into capsules, tablets, lozenges, powders, teas and gummies. But one of the more popular options is elderberry in liquid form, either as elderberry juice or syrup.
The health hype:
- Elderberry can prevent the common cold.
- Elderberry can prevent the onset of flu symptoms.
Elderberries have antioxidant powers.†
Elderberries are packed with flavonoids known as anthocyanins. Anthocyanins are the compounds responsible for giving elderberries their rich pigment, as well as their antioxidant properties. Antioxidants fight the harmful effects of free radicals, thereby protecting the integrity of cells and supporting the immune system.† While you can get antioxidant benefits from a variety of foods and beverages, black elderberries offer one of the highest antioxidant capacities of all small fruits – even more so than cranberries or blueberries.
2. Mushroom Extracts
There are a number of mushroom varieties used to formulate dietary supplements. The most common mushrooms you will see are reishi, chaga, cordyceps, lion’s mane and turkey tail. Despite their funny names, mushrooms have long been applauded for their serious health benefits. You can mostly find mushroom extracts in the form of capsules, tablets, powders and liquids.
- Mushroom extracts can treat seasonal allergies.
- Beta-glucans in mushrooms can lower blood sugar levels.
- Mushroom extracts have anti-cancer properties.
Certain mushrooms can support a healthy immune system response.†
There are several studies that have concluded the immune health benefits of various mushroom varieties. Cordyceps sinensis, for one, has shown to activate macrophages. Macrophages are a type of white blood cell in the immune system that detects and destroys harmful organisms in the body.
Mushrooms have been studied for potential medicinal therapies.
While Chinese medicine has employed mushrooms for over 2,000 years, modern researchers continue to examine individual mushroom constituents and their effect on immune function and cancer cells. As one review put it: “While the immunological findings are promising, ultimately this information must be applied to patient and clinical outcomes.” There is still limited understanding of how different mushrooms behave. More human clinical trials must be conducted to clearly define the validity and significance of mushrooms’ potential health properties.
Contraindications also need to be considered with the use of mushroom extracts. For instance, chaga and reishi mushrooms are suspected to be vasodilators, which can increase bleeding or cause low blood pressure. These effects can be especially dangerous for individuals taking blood thinners, being treated with chemotherapy drugs or who already have low blood pressure.
3. Probiotics and Prebiotics
What are probiotics? With so much recent hype surrounding these nutrients, you may already know the answer. But just to refresh: the purpose of probiotic supplements is to mimic the friendly strains of bacteria that inhabit your digestive tract. The most common strains are bifidobacterium, lactobacillus and saccharomyces.
Some probiotic formulas also supply prebiotics. Prebiotics are non-digestible carbohydrates that serve as fuel for probiotics. These blends are mostly in the form of capsules and softgels.
- Probiotics can treat digestive disorders.
- Probiotics can treat allergies and eczema.
- Probiotics can prevent respiratory infections.
- Probiotics can prevent urinary tract infections.
Probiotics support friendly bacteria in the gut.†
Inside the human body are trillions of microorganisms, which collectively make up the microbiome. As explained by the Harvard School of Public Health: “The microbiome consists of microbes that are both helpful and potentially harmful. Most are symbiotic (where both the human body and microbiota benefit) and some, in smaller numbers, are pathogenic (promoting disease).”
In a healthy body, the harmful and the beneficial microbes coexist peacefully. However, certain medications (namely antibiotics), an unbalanced diet and other lifestyle factors can all negatively impact the quantity and variety of good bacteria in your gut. In these situations, probiotic supplements can help by supplying a mix of friendly bacteria and replenishing what your body lacks.
Probiotics support immune system health.†
Dan Peterson, assistant professor of pathology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, says: ‘A huge portion of your immune system is actually in your GI tract.” In fact, 80% of your immune system starts with your gastrointestinal tract. Thus, by maintaining a balance of probiotics and prebiotics, you support the strength and functioning of your immune system.†
4. Vitamin C
Also known as L-ascorbic acid, vitamin C is an essential nutrient, meaning the body does not produce this compound on its own. The only way to obtain adequate vitamin C is from consuming a healthy diet and filling in the gaps with supplements. The good news is there are countless food sources of vitamin C. Tasty sources include red bell peppers, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, strawberries and, of course, citrus fruits.
- Vitamin C fights off the common cold.
- You can never have too much vitamin C.
Vitamin C is an antioxidant.
Vitamin C doesn’t just act like an antioxidant; physiologically speaking, vitamin C is an antioxidant. It’s also involved in the regeneration of other antioxidants within the body, including vitamin E (as alpha-tocopherol). As an antioxidant, vitamin C can help protect cells from free radical damage, which is beneficial for overall health.
Elevated levels of vitamin C can have adverse effects.
Contrary to popular belief, loading up on vitamin C-rich foods and powder drink mixes at the first sign of the sniffles will not do a body good. Yes, vitamin C is a water-soluble vitamin and any excess will be processed through your kidneys. However, you can experience adverse effects by consuming too much vitamin C. The Tolerable Upper Intake Level (UL) – the maximum advised intake from both food and supplements – is 2,000 milligrams per day for adults. Any more than that, and your body may succumb to nausea, diarrhea or even kidney stones.
5. Vitamin D
Vitamin D exists in two forms: vitamin D2 (ergocalciferol) and vitamin D3 (cholecalciferol). You can get most of your vitamin D2 needs from plant sources and fortified foods. Vitamin D3, however, is only found in animal sources, like fatty fish, beef and cheese. Unlike vitamin C, vitamin D can be synthesized by the body when unprotected skin is exposed to natural sunlight. Of course, you can also obtain vitamin D from supplement formulas. There are numerous supplement forms D, including vitamin D drops, mini-softgels, lozenges, gummies, syrups and sprays.
- Vitamin D builds strong bones.
- Vitamin D can prevent certain cancers.
- Vitamin D treats heart disease.
- Many people are deficient in vitamin D.
Vitamin D promotes calcium absorption and bone health.†
The primary role of vitamin D is to help the body absorb calcium and phosphorous. With sufficient calcium levels, the body is able to maintain bone health and integrity. “Without sufficient vitamin D, bones can become thin, brittle, or misshapen,” according to the National Institutes of Health.
Vitamin D contributes to immune system function.†
Vitamin D is biologically active as the hormone calcitriol, also known as 1,25-dihydroxyvitamin D3. In addition to calcium and phosphate homeostasis, calcitriol has also been shown to help maintain immune homeostasis. Studies suggest calcitriol may function as a modulator of the immune system by targeting various immune cells, such as monocytes and macrophages.
Excessive intakes of vitamin D can be toxic.
Vitamin D is a fat-soluble nutrient, which means it requires fat to be readily absorbed by the body. That means people with a low body fat composition could be at an increased risk of hypercalcemia, or an excess buildup of calcium, if they overconsume vitamin D. Hypercalcemia can lead to vascular and tissue calcification, thereby damaging the heart, blood vessels and kidneys.
That’s why it’s important to know how much vitamin D you need. The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) of vitamin D for people 14 – 70 years old is 600 IU (15 mcg) per day. With just three ounces of salmon, you’ve nearly met your daily requirements of vitamin D. Also know that the UL for vitamin D is 4,000 IU (100 mcg) for the average adult. Anyone getting more than the tolerable level may experience adverse effects.
Zinc is a trace mineral, which you can get from eating oysters, red meat, poultry, legumes, nuts and whole grains. Note: legumes and whole grains also contain phytates, which can bind to zinc and inhibit absorption. Of course, zinc is also available in easy-to-take supplement form as capsules, liquids and even lozenges.
- Zinc can shorten the length of the common cold.
Zinc is necessary for numerous processes within the body.
The Harvard School of Public Health says zinc is necessary for almost 100 enzyme reactions. It is notably involved in creating DNA, growing cells, building proteins, healing damaged tissue and supporting a healthy immune system. Zinc is also involved with the body’s ability to taste and smell. During childhood and pregnancy, zinc is especially beneficial for proper growth and development.†
Zinc supports the immune system.†
The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition outlines the many ways zinc plays a central role in the immune system, all of which stem from zinc’s participation in cell growth and function. Not only does zinc help regulate white blood cell formation, but its antioxidant properties help stabilize cell membranes.
Zinc supports age-related immune health decline.†
Zinc’s antioxidant properties allow it to protect cells from free radical damage. This is critically important for everyone’s health. However, zinc has specifically been shown to decrease oxidative stress and inflammation in the elderly.
How to Boost Your Immune System With Supplements†
As you can see, the hype of immune health supplements does not always align with the research. Besides that, your body may not actually need what these nutrients deliver. So before you make any decisions, be sure to follow the three Ds:
Doctor – Visit your doctor or healthcare provider, who can better guide you toward the right supplement plan. Ask them about getting a complete nutrient analysis. This simple blood test will help you see exactly what your body needs from the inside out.
Dosage – After discussing your health concerns (and nutrient analysis), your doctor can help you decide how much of a particular nutrient you need and the best way in which to get it. It’s imperative that you follow your doctor’s recommendations when it comes to dosing immune health supplements in order to avoid symptoms of toxicity.
Diet – Food is not only a naturally good source of immune health nutrients, but it provides phytonutrients, water, fiber, proteins, fats and carbohydrates. These are all essential elements to a healthy body. Make sure your diet regularly includes a variety of fruits, vegetables and lean protein sources to round out your immune health regimen.
†These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.