Next to assuming that natural means beneficial, the most ubiquitous alternative medicine folly is thinking the immune system can be boosted with the likes of mushrooms, sage, pomegranates, and bottled elixirs.
None of them work, which is good because boosting one’s immunity would leave one less healthy. In fact, an overactive system leads to autoimmune conditions such as lupus, arthritis, asthma, eczema, and even life-threatening anaphylaxis.
Even a small boost of the immune system produces results that, while not as pronounced, leave one feeling poor. That’s because coughs, fevers, and aches are not caused by pathogens, but by the body going after them. A fever is the immune system trying to fry the pathogen and a cough is the system trying to expectorate it out.
This is innate immunity, which acts quickly but paints with a broad cleansing brush, treating all invaders without distinction. That’s why colds feel the same even though they are the indirect result of 100,000 different pathogens. The innate immune system continues churning longer than necessary, manifesting itself in lingering sore throats and runny noses.
Therefore, cold and fever medicines work to suppress the immune system, not boost it. The vanquishing of an infection is primarily done by the acquired immune system, which builds over a lifetime. The acquired immune system contains B and T cells that produce and interact with antibodies to attack infections. Most of these antibodies are produced when a person first encounters an infection and they are held in reserve for future attacks. If the body is hit by a pathogen it has previously been exposed to, or been vaccinated against it, the acquired immune system reactivates and harnesses the antibodies needed to fight the infection.
The immune system is a mix of organs, cells, proteins, and tissues working in harmony to prevent fend off invasion of the body by pathogens. It is far too complex to be impacted by increased flaxseed consumption. Green tea and cinnamon sticks make for a tasty snack, but they won’t boost your immunity, regardless of what your friendly neighborhood naturopath tells you. If the immune system was so weak as to need a kale kick to get stimulated, pathogens would wipe out our species.
With billions of years to refine, why hasn’t the opposite happened, with the immune system conquering pathogens altogether? Because pathogens are also biological agents that evolve, leading to an unending battle between them and the immune system. The influenza virus adapts so quickly that annual shots are needed, and those are of varying efficiency. And HPV has managed some evolutionary trickery by bypassing the immune system and ingraining itself in our DNA.
There are extreme cases where boosting the immune system is both possible and desirable. Examples would include persons undergoing chemotherapy, who are HIV positive, or who are suffering severe malnutrition. As one example, it can be done with a bone marrow transplant, a necessary evil for some with leukemia or multiple myeloma.
The acquired immune system is also boosted though vaccinations. Antigens are injected into the body, where the adaptive immunity system recognizes them and responds as if there was a genuine threat. If the real thing comes along later, the acquired immune system is ready and it won’t need Dr. Oz’s Magic Coconut Juice.