Talking about immunity can be a complex beast at the best of times, right now it’s almost impossible. Let’s try to clear up some of the mess and confusion over what people mean by ‘immune’ and ‘immunity’ – and some claims that are confusing or dangerous.
One thing I’ve noticed in the last week is that misinformation relating to COVID-19 and ‘immunity’ is rife. People are spouting the term all over the place and frankly its confusing everyone – because many people will understand different things when we say the word.
While some people may be making genuine errors in the way they are currently communicating things, I fear others are being far more cynical in attempts to exploit an international health crisis.
In this short blog post we will look at different ways people understand immunity, and take a very quick tour into the basics of immunity and immunology – including where and when certain foods and nutrients have shown benefit, and what that actually means.
Let’s start with a dictionary definition and discuss where some of the potential issues of confusion may arise.
According to dictionary.com, there are SIX potential definitions for the word ‘immunity’ – see below.
For ease, I’m going to attempt to divvy the above up into two more general categories.
- Being exempt or insusceptible: which may refer to an action, situation, or disease – for example; having diplomatic immunity, being immune to somebody’s charm, or being vaccinated for a disease and therefore being immune from catching it at all.
- Something related to your immune system, and your body’s natural ability to fight infections and disease: which relates to a biological system – for example; our immune functioning can be modified by lifestyle and diet, and people with certain pre-existing conditions may have compromised immunity.
Now let’s consider this directly in relation to the COVID-19 conversations we are all seeing.
The first school of thought means you won’t get this thing – at all. End of. Done.
The second, probably means something related to better immune function. This is essentially helping our body to be more ‘ready’ for the fight. It means you probably will still be ill, but you might get fewer symptoms or recover quicker because your immune system is in better shape.
There is of course crossover in all of this. A vaccine works by giving your body small (often inactive) levels of a virus or bacteria that then teach your immune system to recognize the virus or bacteria and fight it off – meaning you are much less likely to catch it ‘fully’ even if you are exposed.
Vaccination is like basic training your immune system to detect and kill a virus before it can take hold. By showing it a small or weakened amount, your system is then able to recognize it at later points and kill it before it can replicate and take hold. Without this basic training, your immune system does not recognize the virus. The small numbers that infect us when we are exposed are not killed. Instead they replicate and grow. Before you know it, there are too many to kill quickly and easily even if your body’s defensive system does now start to recognize them.
In this second scenario, what matters is how fit your defense is. The better shape it is in, in general, then the quicker it will fight back and win against the infection. It is in trying to boost your defense, and aid the fight back, that all science from the world of nutrition is really discussing. However, you would be forgiven for not realizing that.
Let’s play a game of spot the difference:
- This product can make you immune to this virus
- This product can help boost your immune system … and that might help me when this virus hits me
Let’s also be clear on this. Having a generally good immune system means your body’s natural defenses are healthy and ready for the fight. This is a good thing, and it means that although you may become ill, you might have fewer symptoms or recover quicker.
When it comes to food / supplements / nutrition, we really are only EVER talking about number two. The trouble is, people often dress it up as number one. Or allow people to be confused into thinking it might be number one.
There are ways you can help to strengthen your immune system – some pretty good science has shown all sorts of things can boost specific immune responses, while other science has specifically shown that certain nutrients are linked to reduced severity and duration of infection.
Although the science has been done on flu and common cold, there is some reason to suspect that it may hold true for something like COVID-19. But that doesn’t mean you are immune to it. And the differences we are talking about here are probably pretty irrelevant to the vast majority of people who will have mild symptoms to cold, flu, or indeed COVID-19. A 15% reduction in severity is barely noticeable when you are talking about already mild symptoms, but it may be crucial in more severe cases.
A good level of science also shows that deficiencies of certain vitamins and essential nutrients have a negative impact on our immune system – as do things like stress and anxiety.
It is very likely that many of us do have somewhat compromised or under functioning immune systems due to dietary deficiencies. But, unless you know what they are, and unless you make sustained effort, that isn’t going to change. And even if it does, it won’t be right away.
Here are my key messages:
- You can’t boost your immune system overnight.
- There is no magic product that will make you bullet-proof or ‘immune’ (other than a medical vaccine).
- Over time, you can improve your immune defenses through nutrition and lifestyle changes.
- Even with a better immune system, the best you can really hope for is reduced symptoms or severity.
In the current climate, immunity is a big word. Please, let’s use it responsibly.