Immune boosting pills: the latest snake oil? - Mostly Science

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Immune boosting pills: the latest snake oil?


snake oil Head into any supermarket or chemist, and you will find shelves filled with all kinds of products. Some are useful, evidence-proven medications (such as aspirin), others are more palliative like sore throat lozenges.

However, in recent years there has been a rise in what I will term “Immune pills” for this article. You have probably seen commercials for products that claim to “enhance the body’s immune system”, “boost immunity”, or even to “reenergise the immune system”. Such claims seem tantalising, since we have been told that vaccinations enable protection from certain infectious bugs by engaging the immune system, so taking pills that “boost immunity” might seem to be sound practice. However unlike vaccinations, which have lots of data to support their benefits, immune pills are more tantamount to snake oil.

I studied immunology during my university days and I can say two facts about it that are definitive: 1) it is a largely unknown field of study, and 2) it is extremely complicated, even amongst other molecular biologists. These two facts do highlight the main problems of immune pills. The immune system is composed of many different cell types, organs and molecules, all working in a coordinated and complex manner to protect the body from and eliminate pathogens that could result in disease. For those of you who are curious about what the immune system is, watch this video, which presents an informative and approachable overview of the immune system, but still highlighting the complexity of it.

In short, the immune system of a healthy individual works at an optimal level that if weakened, can result in immunodeficiency (as seen in people who develop AIDS from HIV infection). Conversely, having an over-activated or overstimulated immune system might lead to allergies or autoimmunity conditions that plague modern society. Suffice to say, that with such a complex system as immunity, taking a pill that somehow “boosts” it is absurd. Words such as “boost” or “support” in the absence of context or a clear measurable definition are meaningless buzzwords.

Immune pills will typically claim that “this will support the immune system against viruses”, but they never mention HOW. Will it increase immune cell numbers and if so, which subtype of an immune cell? Will it increase antibody serum levels and if so by how much and which subtype? Will the pills somehow result in an increase in inflammation? Which cells will be activated or suppressed? Such vague statements are more akin to snake oil sales pitches than actual medicine. Contrast that with diuretics (a class of blood pressure drugs) such as hydrochlorothiazide, where the mechanism of action is known. In brief, the drug decreases salt absorption in the kidneys, leading to more water excretion, and low a reduction in blood pressure (link).

Furthermore, because such drugs have been in rigorous clinical trials to assess safety and efficacy, such drugs are warranted to use in patients with blood pressure problems. Of course there are actions that we can take that can help maintain a healthy immune system, but they fall in the “well duh” category. Actions such as a balanced diet, regular exercise, good night’s sleep, limited stress, healthy nutritious food. And if you live in a modern society with access to basic amenities, food, healthcare, and not live in North Korea or Zimbabwe, then your immune system won’t be any worse. Furthermore, when researching this piece, I found almost no evidence of any pills “enhancing” the immune system, casting further doubt on their supposed efficacy.

“But I found evidence that they work!” you might say. Well if you are referring to the 20,300,000 Google search results, most of which come from disreputable websites like natural news, and other “health sites”, then you might also find in those sites products that will boost your vitality of vital organs to work at optimal levels of qi, as well as the wonderfully effective homeopathic sleeping pills (refer to this article for more on homeopathy). The immune system is a complicated system, yet a wonderful one to study. Here in Melbourne, there is a strong immunological research scene, with many researchers trying to elucidate the mechanisms, actions and development of the immune system. However the snake oil salesmen have reared their fraudulent heads and manufactured quackery to take advantage of the lack of understanding of the immune system to an unsuspecting public, much like the old days of snake oil or Patent medicine. Frankly I would be more willing to believe the sales pitch of the fellow in this video than any immune pill pusher!

Edited by Christopher_NW.  
References Brief Australian news article on immune pills here
More in depth coverage on immune pills here
Concise video debunking immune pills here
Excellent documentary about the history of Patent Medicines, here and here.

Nick K

Immunology, Microbiology, Biomedicine.

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