Stuff that occurs to me

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Think of this blog as a sort of nursery for my half-baked ideas hence 'stuff that occurs to me'.

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Monday, 14 October 2013

I don't understand the supposed benefits of "boosting your immune system"

Update 19 December 2014
Here's a really good explanation in Slate: You don't actually want to boost your immune system (19 December 2014) Slate

"Natural remedies that claim to “boost your immune system” don’t work, and it’s a good thing they don’t."

Note: I am not medically trained. I am not an expert in immune systems nor in autoimmunity nor in immune suppression. Feel free to argue with me on any of the points below but please do not take my thoughts as being suitable 'advice' for matters relating to your own immune system or health in general. You want a doctor for that (a real one).

  • Can you boost your immune system?
  • Is it something you'd actually want to do if you could?

In the world of pseudomedicine someone always seems to have the idea of finding natural ways to boost the immune system.

I have to assume that this thinking arises because the immune system is a good thing and so more of it must also be a good thing. It doesn't follow that more of a good thing is still a good thing though.

There might be "things that can 'boost' the immune system" - presumably this means increasing the number of a particular type of cells that make up the circulating immune system. If so, I suspect that would be a controlled substance that would fall under the control of the Medicines & Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) so perhaps it's not allowed to be sold without some sort of marketing authorisation. I'd always assumed (perhaps wrongly) that the correct treatment for a compromised immune system is to keep the patient safe while the immune system recovers by itself - are there actually things that really can boost the immune system?

Assuming that there are things that can do this then, wouldn't using them (outside of a proper hospital monitoring system) risk over-boosting the immune system, perhaps leading to some sort of autoimmune response? I think I'm probably being a bit oversimplistic in implying that 'more immune system' = 'autoimmunity' of course, but autoimmune disorders arise from the immune system attacking the person's own cells and tissues. I'd not want to boost that sort of thing, nor increase the likelihood that it might happen.

I'm all for keeping things natural, which includes leaving my immune system at whatever pre-sets have kept me alive thus far. Where nature has briefly got the better of me I've been ridiculously, almost tearfully grateful for antibiotics, but I've worked out an arrangement with my immune responses that I get a cold once a year (about now in fact) and I leave it alone for most of the rest of the year. And I try not to scratch mosquito bites.

Clearly if I was suffering from neutropenia or some other catastrophic problem in the cells that contribute to my immunity then yes, I'd probably want a bit of boosting. Given that it's a medical emergency I think I'd be in hospital, perhaps in a clean-room, with everyone having to wear gowns and be all sterile if they came near me.

Presumably people who have autoimmune disorders don't want further boosting, but are the rest of us supposed to be living with sub-par immune systems? What aspects of it are low? Is the marker for it 'more colds'?

It just seems like the one part of my homeostatic mechanisms I'd probably want to leave well alone. A happily working immune system is a good thing, but 'more' of it doesn't imply 'more good thing' at all. I'm guessing it would be quite the opposite.

And of course if someone has had an organ transplant and is on medication to suppress the immune system (to stop it rejecting the organ) then surely they definitely don't want their immune system boosted.

Presumably breathing is good - are there any natural ways to increase breathing rate to get more oxygen in? I'm not familiar with the medical benefits of hyperventilation (generally, negative I think) but if we're trying to boost stuff...  [I am being sarcastic here, just breathe normally].

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