The immune system is the body’s multipart defence mechanism. Its role is to protect against disease and other potentially damaging ‘invaders’ such as bacteria and viruses. When functioning properly, the immune system identifies a variety of threats and distinguishes them from the body's own makeup.
Immunity occurs to a greater or lesser degree if your immune system has previously fought off a disease or threat and ‘remembers’ it, but this is not always an option. Vaccination, when available, is needed to minimise the risk and provide immunity where a disease could prove fatal on first infection.
The immune system is finely balanced to do its job and either suppressing it or making it hyperactive means it does not work as it should. Immunodeficiency occurs when the immune system is suppressed or not as strong as normal, resulting in frequent and potentially life-threatening infections. Autoimmunity results from a hyperactive immune system attacking the body’s normal tissue, as if it was foreign bodies. You cannot ‘boost’ your immune system through diet or taking supplements and, furthermore you would not want a hyperactive immune system with the risk of autoimmunity. You want to support and care for your immune system rather than boosting it.
Understandably the spotlight has been on the immune system recently, as a healthy immune system can help fight infectious viruses, such as COVID-19. A healthy lifestyle - including a varied, balanced diet - can help to look after your immune system by providing the variety of nutrients needed. Other lifestyle measures such as exercise and physical activity, sleep and rest, managing stress, and not smoking are important too, so diet cannot be looked at in isolation.
Although there is ongoing medical and scientific research into whether certain vitamins or minerals might help to treat COVID-19, currently the evidence is not conclusive, and more data is needed before any recommendations can be made.
There are many nutrients that support normal function of the immune system as part of a healthy balanced diet and lifestyle. Each one has a different role, and all are needed equally. You can include these by choosing a wide range of healthy foods. This is the best way to get all the nutrients that are important for your immune system and that help to keep yourself healthy. Supplements should be taken in line with current Government guidelines if insufficient amounts are available via diet versus requirements such as is the case with vitamin D (and folate) in the UK. Supplements should only be taken in appropriate doses in addition to a varied, balanced diet not instead of.
In the current pandemic, tempting though it may be to use immunity as a selling point, beware! Despite what you may read, view or hear, no specific food or supplement will prevent you catching coronavirus (COVID-19). You cannot ‘boost’ your immune system through diet or taking supplements. Misinformation is everywhere.
If you’d like to know more about the rules and regulations for making claims around immune function for food and drink, we have produced a white paper which is available upon request – please contact firstname.lastname@example.org