The world is currently grappling with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. All of us are trying to stay safe and are finding ways to protect ourselves from this deadly virus. Focusing on improving our immune system is being touted as one of the best ways to safeguard our body against the attack of the novel coronavirus at present. This has expectedly led to a sudden surge in people trying out different ways to boost their immunity.
While being healthy and developing good immunity will certainly be helpful in these circumstances, there is a lot of misinformation surrounding the immune system that needs to be countered. Here, we separate fact from fiction and bring out some of the most prominent myths about the immune system you shouldn’t fall prey to.
Myth 1. Eating garlic will help protect you from a viral infection
Garlic is good for your health, undoubtedly. It is highly nutritious and is known to improve cholesterol levels. However, there is a long-standing myth associated with this food as well - that eating garlic will prevent viral infection in our bodies. That is untrue, though.
"There are a few lab studies that show that garlic extract can partially inhibit the replication of the virus in cells," says Gary Linkov, MD. That being said, there is hardly any comprehensive proof to suggest that garlic will prevent viral infections, and certainly not something as potent as the novel coronavirus. Until we get more evidence from studies, we must not depend on garlic to save us from any viral infection. In fact, the World Health Organization has clearly stated on its website that "there is no evidence from the current outbreak that eating garlic has protected people from the new coronavirus."
Myth 2. The immune system is centralized in your upper body
Getting a cough, runny nose, or headache are some of the first symptoms we associate with coming down with the flu. It is because of this notion that we have generally assumed that our immune system is primarily centralized in our upper body. The truth, however, is that a lot of our bodily organs and mechanisms are involved in making the immune system - from the bone marrow to our bowels. In fact, there are multiple systems that are integral to the immune system. That is the reason the gut and microbiome are important, along with the lymphatic system to properly develop a robust immune system.
Myth 3. Eating sugar won’t affect your immune system
Eating or drinking too much sugar inhibits the immune system cells that attack bacteria. The effect of a sugary drink, in fact, lasts for a couple of hours. For instance, a 12-ounce (354.8 ml) soda will suppress your immunity by 30 percent for at least 3 hours. The suppression of the immune system starts about 30 minutes after you have consumed sugar and can last up to 5 hours.
“What we do know is that diabetes appears to be common in people confirmed to have COVID-19,” notes Nate Favini, medical lead at Forward. “This suggests that having higher levels of sugars in your blood could make it easier to contract COVID-19.” Thus, if sugar is a big part of your diet, it can be weakening your immune system right now. In these times, especially, when most of us are quarantined at home, it is easy to eat that extra candy or cake as a night-time snack. The wise thing to do would be to limit your sugar intake as much as possible right now.
Myth 4. Supplements will help keep your immune system safe
Supplements have become quite popular these days. Many people depend on a variety of supplements to help them ward off colds and the flu. There are certain supplements like elderberry, astragalus, and Echinacea that are believed to boost your immune system. But a lot of experts do not agree.
"Unfortunately, the reality is that those kinds of products aren't really offering you any benefit," says Michael Starnbach, a professor of microbiology at Harvard Medical School. "There's no evidence that they help in fighting disease." Likewise, no evidence suggests that Vitamin C supplements can help prevent COVID-19, say some noted health experts.
Supplemented vitamins are usually quite an overkill according to experts. This is because our bodies are unable to absorb more than a few hundred micrograms per day. Thus, it is vital to understand that there is no one pill that can boost your immune system. The best thing to do is to talk to your physician and see what they recommend according to your needs.
Myth 5. Lack of sleep won’t affect your immune system
There are many of us who don’t sleep well. Lack of sleep, though, has been linked to several mental and physical health problems. This includes issues arising from an impaired immune system. Our immune system is made up of several types of cells and proteins that help in keeping colds or the flu at bay. Not many would know this, but sleep affects almost every type of tissue and system in the body. Thus, when we don’t get proper sleep, our immunity is adversely affected.
“A lot of studies show our T-cells go down if we are sleep deprived,” says Diwakar Balachandran, MD, director of the Sleep Center at the University of Texas. “And inflammatory cytokines go up. This could potentially lead to a greater risk of developing a cold or flu.”
In simpler words, lack of sleep suppresses the functioning of the immune system. It also decreases your body's production of cytokines (a large group of proteins that mediate and regulate immunity) which can make you more susceptible to illness.
Myth 6. Over-exercising can boost your immune system
Exercise is good for our body, of course. But will over-exercising help in building our immunity? Experts say that working out vigorously, especially if you are not feeling well, can actually increase your risk of infection by 3-6 times. On the other hand, moderate activity like walking for 20-40 minutes will help you reduce the risk of upper respiratory infections by as much as 50 percent. Thus, if you are not feeling in the best of health, don’t overexert yourself. Rather, try a lighter workout to be on the safer side.
Myth 7. Antibacterial foods can help your immune system
When we fall sick, there are plenty of natural antibacterial food items that are recommended to us. Honey, turmeric, coconut oil, and chicken soup, along with a few others, are some of the common food items that we tend to try when we are down with fever. We have been made to believe that these foods can help your immune system combat infections. While it is true that some food items that are rich in Vitamin C can help your overall health, it would be unwise to depend on any food blindly for enhancing your body's immunity.
"Research is still ongoing on the topic, but there is no evidence of the actual immune-boosting effect from these (antibacterial) foods," says Dimitar Marinov, MD.
So while there is no harm in having your antibacterial foods regularly, don’t expect them to work wonders on your immunity.
Myth 8. Stress doesn’t have any effect on your immunity system
Stress has become a normal part of our day-to-day life. So much so, that we often don’t stop and think how much harm it can cause our body, including our immune system. Ongoing stress can make you susceptible to illness and disease. This is because the brain sends defense signals to the endocrine system, which goes on to releases a series of hormones that gravely suppress our immunity.
Many experts have observed that stress is responsible for almost 90 percent of all illnesses and diseases. Excessive stress triggers chemical reactions in our body and floods it with cortisol that is known to be the chief reason behind anxiety, high blood pressure, stroke and the fight-or-flight response (also called hyperarousal, or the acute stress response). Stress also decreases the body's white blood cells and thus puts us at more risks for viruses.