A tried and tested way to market something, be it a product or service, is rather than sell whatever you have on offer, is instead to imply that something about your potential customer or follower isn’t quite right and could be fixed.
What is unspoken but remains implicit is what might happen if you don’t take action. We have seen this demonstrated quite starkly over a year of living with a pandemic as the term ‘immune boosting’ has become ubiquitous.
Describing the complexities of the human body inevitably involves being simplistic, and the workings of the immune system are no exception. It compromises multiple elements that work synergistically to protect us from pathogens, such as a bacteria or virus. One cannot, ‘boost’ one element, nor should we.
Whilst each element has a definable role, they combine to be a robust force, far more effective than any one element might be. You might want to think of the elements as a single musical instrument, which when played alone has its own sound. But when many instruments come together and are played as an orchestra, the effects are greatly enhanced.
There are many types of cell that work synergistically within the immune system. They include white blood cells, or leukocytes, that wander around all over the body. When they encounter a potentially problematic microorganism they multiply and at the same time signal for other immune cells to do the same, in readiness to act against the pathogen. Leukocytes can be divided into two varieties, lymphocytes and phagocytes. The latter play more of a role in creating antibodies (and thus a level of immunity against future exposure) as well as eradicating cells that have been damaged by said pathogen. Then there are phagocytes that change shape, surrounding and engulfing pathogens. Phagocytes come in various types, each having a slightly different role ranging from the removal of damaged cells to responding to allergens.
"Whilst each element has a definable role, they combine to be a robust force, far more effective than any one element might be."
The multitude of immune cells are created by the human body, just as other cells are, and one source of fuel for their manufacture is food. Macronutrients, that’s to say carbohydrates, fats and protein, are required for this process, whilst every nutrient plays a role somewhere along the way. Research has identified that some nutrients are implicated more than others in the manufacture of some immune cells, and it is these nutrients that are often cited when marketing refers ‘boosting’ the immune cells.
Here are some examples of nutrients and how they may be involved in parts of the immune system;
Vitamin A - supports the activity of the thymus gland. Found in – eggs, liver, cheese, apricots, sweet potato, squash, red and orange peppers, mango, papaya
Vitamin B6 - supports the activity of lymphocytes
Found in - chicken, lamb, eggs, avocado, cauliflower, legumes, brown rice
Vitamin C -helps antibody production
Found in – citrus, peppers, sweet potato, kiwi, berries, kale, cauliflower
Zinc -involved in manufacture of lymphocytes
Found in – seafood, chicken, seeds, nuts, oats, brown rice
Selenium -supports antibody production
Found in – liver, halibut, cod, salmon, prawns, mushrooms, Brazil nuts, kidney beans, sesame seeds
Iodine -involved in lymphocyte production
Found in – seaweed, kelp, seafood, garlic
Carotenoids - these can be converted into vitamin A
Found in – carrots, pumpkins, tomatoes, watermelon, dark green leafy vegetables, blackcurrants, blackberries, potato, mango, peppers
Organosulphides - support the action of lymphocytes
Found in – garlic, leeks, onions, chives, shallots
There is also vitamin D (see blog post here) that may be involved to an extent in managing inflammation and autoimmunity, in which the immune system fails to recognise the difference between a pathogen and the human body and can work against its own tissue and cells.
It may seem from this list that you pick a nutrient, make sure you get more of it, either from a food or a supplement, and hey presto, you have more lymphocytes or antibodies or whatever, hence the ‘boost’ claims. It's a pleasing notion, although I fear it's simplistic in all but a few cases.Returning to the orchestra I mentioned earlier, imagine it's four sections – woodwinds, brass, strings and percussion. Within each there are several instruments that each produce particular sounds. In the woodwind section you will find bassoons, clarinets, flutes etc, while the brass section will have trumpets and trombones amongst others. In percussion there are drums and triangles, whilst cellos and violins are in the string section.
The sound the orchestra produces is finely balanced and complete (one hopes), but imagine how a symphony would sound if there were more triangles and clarinets? Not quite the ‘boost’ the composer had in mind. I use this analogy to illustrate how nutrition can support the entire immune system and picking out parts that we relate to may not work as we want them to.
In the next post I will be covering how to use food to support the normal functioning of the immune system and will suggest a day’s eating that encompasses the relevant nutrients, together with lifestyle factors that can also contribute to a robust defense system.
Ian Marber’s interest in food and nutrition was piqued when diagnosed with coeliac disease in his late twenties. He soon after gave up a successful career in investment to study nutrition at the Institute for Optimum Nutrition, graduating in 1999 and founding the now-globally recognised nutritional consultancy, The Food Doctor.
Departing the Food Doctor in 2012, Ian now advises individuals and industry alike. He has since worked with over 8,000 clients, leads seminars, workshops and lectures and works closely with brands such as Innocent Drinks to formulate new ranges. His expertise has lead him to be recognised as go-to contributor within the press, writing regularly in The Times, The Spectator and The Telegraph, as well as making regular appearances on both TV and radio.