What does it mean to “boost” your immunity and can it help with coronavirus?

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Spend some time online right now, and you can find everyone promoters of unlicensed supplements at naturopaths and even some doctors advertising immunity “increases” to help protect against COVID-19.

Because there are no proven treatments or prevention measures for the new coronavirus, many of these pills, injections and other services clearly cross the line of misleading advertising. Chiropractors, for example, have been banned from advertising of any effect on immunityand Health Canada has studied over 140 products that pretend to illegally treat or prevent COVID-19[FEMALE[FEMININE

Other times, it’s a little less black and white. Some companies clearly state that there is no evidence that their products will help fight the new coronavirus, but these same products could help strengthen the immune defense against disease in general.

In an attempt to make sense of it all, the CBC spoke with Bob Hancock, a microbiologist at the University of British Columbia, who studies infectious diseases and the immune system.

“Boosting your immune system isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it’s absolutely not a way to protect yourself from COVID-19 – full stop,” said Hancock.

“You are not going to improve or protect yourself from the virus or really get a major benefit from immune boosters to treat COVID-19. “

Hancock explained science in an interview last week.

What does “strengthening” your immunity mean?

As Hancock explains, the idea of ​​boosting your immunity is a bit of a marketing ploy imagined by the “health food guys”, but that doesn’t mean there is no truth. He says there is strong scientific evidence to suggest that certain substances may help a little.

“They serve to increase your level of immunity, but they don’t really help prevent infections,” says Hancock.

Bob Hancock is a microbiologist at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. (CBC News)

These nutrients can play a role in what is called the innate or nonspecific immune system – the body’s first line of defense against microscopic invaders.

It’s a type of immunity that humans share with everything from garden snails to houseplants, and it includes physical barriers like the skin as well as defensive responses like mucous membranes, bile and inflammation, all of which could help limit the spread of pathogens throughout the body. .

“This part of immunity doesn’t work very well when people have nutritional deficiencies,” said Hancock.

But innate immunity plays no role in fighting specific viruses and bacteria once they have taken root.

What are some examples of potential immune boosters?

Vitamins, including A and C, and minerals like zinc and magnesium are often marketed to aid immunity, and according to Hancock, “in most of these cases there is a very, very good body of evidence that suggest that they are beneficial. “

Hancock says he takes a multivitamin every day. He has also taken herbal echinacea to help prevent colds and flu, but admits the evidence is a bit mixed.

“There was actually a controlled clinical trial on Echinacea, and the first [trial] showed that it worked and the second showed that it did not work at all. So you can take any set of evidence you like, “said Hancock.

“When you deal with these kinds of immune boosters, people don’t work on evidence, they work on good stories. “

He says that anyone considering trying a product marketed as an immune booster should choose their sources of information carefully. He prefers doctors “who are not perfect” but know how to assess the evidence and scientific publications.

And if you’re looking for a vitamin boost, Hancock says to forget about expensive injections and intravenous infusions, and go for the aisle of supplements at your local pharmacy.

Where are the vaccines located?

An immune-boosting vitamin doesn’t replace a vaccine – they’re not even in the same situation when it comes to preventing a serious illness, says Hancock.

While so-called “boosters” can play a role in the innate immune system, vaccines work by stimulating the much more specific adaptive immune system, which is unique to vertebrate animals.

Vaccines stimulate the adaptive immune system. (Sean Holden / CBC)

Vaccines work normally by injecting weakened or dead forms of a virus or bacteria, causing the body to make antibodies.

“You will be defended against future infection because the type of immunity you are increasing is very, very specific – it is extremely specific to the particular agent that you are concerned about,” said Hancock.

But as Hancock points out, most effective vaccines also contain immunostimulatory elements called adjuvants – things like aluminum salts that help trigger a stronger response against the target, without actually providing immune protection on their own.

“In a sense, this is the ultimate proof of this concept of immune boosting, the fact that adjuvants exist and that they work very well,” said Hancock.

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