Immune boosters or immune support products are some of the most popular dietary supplements, especially in winter when people naturally enough want to protect themselves from colds and flu. They can have many main ingredients, including AHCC from mushrooms, vitamins, berry extracts such as Sambucol, yeast extracts, andrographis and many others.
However, is there any good scientific evidence that any of these immune support suppplements have any effect at all on the human immune system?
From The Guardian:
” Walk through the aisles of any health food shop and you’ll see pots of echinacea or zinc that promise to “support your immune system” or “maintain its healthy function”. Read new age health blogging sites and you’ll find posts on how drinking hot lemon water or knocking back a shot of wheatgrass juice or the current green goo du jour will “boost your immune system” and make you less likely to get ill. These are tempting prospects at this time of year, but ones that are foiled by an inconvenient truth: they don’t work. The idea that any dietary supplement can boost your immunity makes very little scientific sense.” (1)
From a skeptical health blog:
” The immune system is a complex interaction of organs, cells, proteins, other biochemicals, and tissues. The immune system basically works well as a result of a billion years of evolution. Only a chronic disease or chronic malnutrition can make it work worse.No we can’t boost the immune system with a handful of supplements or eating organic foods.” (2)
From Science Based Medicine.org, after describing how complex the human immune system actually is:
“So when something allegedly boosts the immune system, I have to ask what part. How? What is it strengthening/boosting/supporting? Antibodies? Complement? White cells? Are the results from test tubes, animal studies, or human studies? And if in human studies, what was the study population? Are the results even meaningful? Or small, barely statistically significant, outcomes in poorly-done studies?…. I have yet to see a quality clinical study that demonstrates that, in normal, not nutritionally- or otherwise-compromised people, that some intervention can lead to a meaningful increase in immune function and as a result [someone can get] fewer infections.” (3)
So there is a strong belief in the medical community that taking immune support or immune boosting supplements does not work for a normally healthy person.
Some authoritative health information sites take a more nuanced approach to the issue though, and point out that lifestyle choices which affect your overall health can impact your immune system too.
This is from WebMD:
” Your immune system helps guard your body from germs, viruses, and other threats. What you do every day can help, or hamper, your immune system… What you eat affects your immune system. While no single food will upgrade your immune system, poor nutrition can have a negative effect on it. What counts is having a balanced diet…. Chances are, you’re getting what you need from food, unless you’re on a strict diet, are pregnant, or have certain medical conditions. ” (4)
The same page also emphasises that stress, particularly persistent stress caused by having a chronic disease, being in a difficult marriage or relationship, having a stressful job or being a permanent carer for a sick or disabled person can be detrimental to your immune system. Also your immune system becomes less strong with age, and it has a more difficult time fighting common infections. Why does this happen and what can you do about it?
” It may be about your immune system slowing down. Or it could be partly linked to nutrition, since seniors often eat less and don’t always get the nutrients they need to keep their immune systems strong. So eat lots of fruits and vegetables. They’re good for you at any age.” (Ibid)
This seems to imply that, after all, in some circumstances like growing older, nutritional supplements may indeed help to keep the immune system supported.
Can mental states like being stressed or anxious really influence your health?
An intriguing investigation by Scientific American called ‘How Happiness Boosts the Immune System’ addresses this question, and finds recent research in the new field of psychoneuroimmunology (PNI) gives some interesting insights:
“The brain is directly wired to the immune system — portions of the nervous system connect with immune-related organs such as the thymus and bone marrow, and immune cells have receptors for neurotransmitters, suggesting that there is crosstalk…. It is now accepted that the body’s response to stress can suppress parts of the immune system and, over the long term, lead to damaging levels of inflammation. Large epidemiological studies — including the Whitehall studies, which have been following thousands of British civil servants since 1967 — suggest that chronic work stress increases the risk of coronary heart disease and type 2 diabetes, for example.” (5)
If stress is one of the things which can undermine the immune system, then obviously anything which can be done to reduce stress would be helpful. One supplement which has good evidence to support its effects of stress and variety reduction is lemon balm (Melissa Officinalis). Here is what Livescience.com says about this:
“Several small studies have found that this supplement, which is part of the mint family, can improve mood and induce feelings of calmness, Lenz said. One study found that 1,600 milligrams of dried lemon balm was associated with an increase in calmness for up to six hours, he said. Lemon balm also appears to be relatively safe.” (6)
Examine .com also confirms lemon balm does work:
“Melissa officinalis (Lemon Balm) is a herb that has traditionally been used for a variety of cognitive purposes, most of which are centered around improving cognition and reducing stress and anxiety. It is said to calm the nerves and to relax the body.” (7)
The University of Maryland Medical Center says:
“Several studies show that lemon balm combined with other calming herbs (such as valerian, hops, and chamomile) helps reduce anxiety and promote sleep. Few studies have examined lemon balm by itself, except for topical use. For example, in one study of people with minor sleep problems, 81% of those who took an herbal combination of valerian and lemon balm reported sleeping much better than those who took a placebo. ” (8)
We are not advertising any immune booster supplements here. Lemon balm, you can find opposite.