Boosting the Immune System: It’s Not What You Think

By Jessica Campbell, MS, FNTP

No one likes being sick. During cold and flu season you’ve probably seen plenty of ads for products that “boost” the immune system in hopes of avoiding the winter bugs.

But your immune system is sometimes like a toddler who thinks he’s a superhero. Imagine boosting the screams of a 2-year-old when you’re suffering from an earache.

“We want an immune system that always reacts with the correct level of force.”

Why boosting isn’t always better

If your immune system were stronger than normal, if it attacked more things more often, with extreme force, this could be overkill.

For example: Let’s say you get bit by a mosquito. When a mosquito bite breaks the skin, your body recognizes the mosquito’s saliva as a foreign substance. This causes an immune system response, which aims to block off the intruder and flush out the toxins.

Histamine increases blood flow and white blood cell count around the affected area, which causes the four signs of inflammation: redness, swelling, heat, and pain.

If you boosted your immune response, that bite might swell up like a red balloon and be as painful as a burn from a fire… no thanks!

Another example: When you experience allergies your immune system mistakes something that's typically benign (like pollen) for something harmful (like a parasite), and triggers an inflammatory response. Your sinuses react as they should to get the problem out by making a slippery mess. If your immune system got boosted, you’d have a snotty waterfall coming out your nose and you would sneeze a thousand times… not fun!

Here’s another one: Let’s say you get food poisoning. Your body’s immune response should naturally be a quick exit out the back end–efficient diarrhea. If you boost your immunity in this case, just imagine the explosive effects!

Ideally, we don’t need to boost the immune system, but we can help it run its natural course instead. Here’s what that looks like.

When to power up and when to power down. 

 1. Infection

None of us want the damn infection in the first place, but we can’t live in a bubble. Getting small exposures every day to your environment helps your immune system build up tolerance. It’s like a baby going to daycare and bringing home every bug possible and then finally building up a good immune system by the time they’re 5. Basically, you build up your immune system tolerance by sticking everything in your mouth and developing immune memory on how to fight off any bugs.

Then, all we need to do is support our immune system so it can run properly through its course when a bug does get through our defenses. Your immune system depends on certain vitamins and nutrients to protect you from bugs, to attack invaders that do get in, gobble them up, and flush them out of your body. 

You need to have sufficient protein full of B vitamins, plus vitamins A, C, E, D, and zinc to fuel a proper immune system. The catch is that it’s best to have ample levels of all of them before you get sick.

Protein: think of it like building blocks that help form the cells that operate the immune system. Protein is needed to create enough white blood cells to respond to the infection. Good sources of protein include eggs, nuts, lean meats, and fish.

Vitamin D: taking it once you’re sick is a little too late, but having sufficient vitamin D levels before contracting a viral infection is known to help prevent severe illness. Best sources are sunshine, egg yolks, cheese, and liver.

Vitamin A: is a critical component of the immune response, but this vitamin needs to be sufficient before contracting a virus. Best sources are oily fish, eggs, raw milk and beef liver. We can also convert beta-carotene into vitamin A from carrots, pumpkins, sweet potatoes, broccoli, and spinach. Genetics help some people do this better than others.

Vitamin E: is a powerful antioxidant, but taking vitamin E alone can cause other imbalances and should not be done long term. Research shows that having sufficient levels is important before you are infected with a virus to mount an appropriate response. Good sources are sunflower seeds, almonds, pumpkin, and beet greens.

Vitamin C: may be the only one we want to avoid during our strongest illness response. What?!? Vitamin C is important for a proper immune response to stimulate white blood cells. It is an antioxidant that can help clean up the mess after our immune system has fought off bugs, and we use up our vitamin C when we’re sick, which can often reduce our levels. However, C is an anti-inflammatory and the next step after infection must be inflammation or we may not fight off the bug completely and it may cause chronic inflammation and chronic immune activation.  

No, the orange juice you drank did not make you sicker, but we’re not working with our immune system to fight first and then clean up the mess later. Likewise taking a ton of Advil and Tylenol is also not working with our bodies natural immune response. Instead, we should be eating plenty of foods with vitamin C all of the time so we have enough stored to clean up the mess when our immune system is ready to use it. The best time to supplement is at the end of the cold to replenish lost stores. Vitamin C is in citrus, tomatoes, green leafy veggies, and breastmilk.

Zinc: I’m sure you're getting the picture by now, but zinc works similarly to the vitamins. This mineral must be in sufficient levels to reduce susceptibility to infection. Zinc is more available to the human body in meat, fish, dairy, and seafoods, but we can get some from seaweeds, pumpkin seeds, and lentils. 

Amazing that pumpkin harvest is right before flu season!

Normal immune suppression results in clearance and resolution

2. Inflammation

I know this part of a cold is the worst! Nobody likes to feel inflamed, but it has to happen. We spend so much time trying to stop our body from the natural immune response to inflame, but if we don’t allow this critical piece to happen:

  • We may never resolve from the infection properly.
  • We may develop chronic symptoms like Long-haul COVID.
  • We may confuse the immune system and develop autoimmune disease.
  • We may get stuck with chronic low-grade inflammation that worsens health outcomes.

This is scary, but it involves following your body’s lead to fight off the virus. Try to work with your body to support a fever to kill off the infection. Trust that your body will find the right temperature it needs and the right amount of coughing, sneezing, and diarrhea to chase out the bugs.

Supporting proper inflammation:
  • Epsom salt bath: a warm bath can help sweat out toxins and calm the nervous system. 
  • Warming spices: can stimulate immune activity when the body needs to fight the infection. These include ginger, cinnamon, and turmeric, (anyone thinking pumpkin pie spice?) 
  • Pumpkin seeds: can increase viral killing cells and provide more zinc and vitamin E.
  • Sleep: is so important so that all of the energy can be focused on the immune response. Please don’t try to suppress the immune system with drugs that allow you to go back to work and fake it till you make it. Melatonin is immune protective so spend time away from the screen at night to get sleepy naturally.
  • Echinacea: is an excellent herb to take in the inflammation stage to help fight off viruses. 
  • Patience: isn’t easy to allow a response big enough to kill the virus so it does not linger. Fighting this initial response by using immune suppressants, fever reducers, corticosteroids, and anti-inflammatories may be detrimental, and can lead to immune problems. Suppressing your immune response can prevent the resolution and cause chronic symptoms that linger and confusion in the immune system that can lead to autoimmune diseases.

***If you have an overactive response and inflammation is too high to manage: Trouble breathing, a runaway fever that is debilitating for days, serious dehydration, and dizziness are beyond the scope of holistic care. This is when you need to use some immune suppressants to be able to function and go see the doctor immediately. 

If your immune system is not able to tolerate the infection because it’s been compromised, you can try all of these steps to protect your system from the next illness, but not this time. When we see these dysfunctional, hyperactive, immune responses we know that the pendulum has swung too far in the direction of suppression, and it is firing back in a cytokine storm

Cytokines are inflammatory hormones from the gut, and they will cause systemic inflammation all over the body. Remember the 2-year-old superhero about to scream? After any acute needs are taken care of, this is where we need to commit to a full 6–12-month customized plan to support your unique situation. Please reach out and book a free 15-minute consultation with me..

3. Resolution

We must allow the immune response to rise so that it may fall. This means to resolve and clear the infection. This is where vitamin C shines with elderberries and fresh oranges, but not sugars from juices. 

Sugar is an immune suppressant and should be avoided throughout the duration of a cold.

In my practice, I do not see enough resolution. This puts people in a state of chronic low-grade inflammation that feels like the aftermath of a huge dinner party and makes every disease state have worse health outcomes.

If we can allow a proper inflammation to kill off the infection, then we can focus on removing the inflammatory waste, dead bugs, and leftover toxins. If we use these too early on, we may be suppressing our normal immune function.

Here are some of my favorite immune system resolvers, think of them like the clean-up crew.

  • Nettle tea - even though it has histamine in the actual plant, a cup of stinging nettle tea will dry up a runny nose and calm a spastic immune system response. 
  • Quercetin - My go-to for rashes, sneezes, and anything that looks like you would want a natural antihistamine for. Try cooking apples and onions to get natural quercetin or try a chewable supplement for a more immediate response.
  • Elderberry - Full of vitamin C and rutin which is an immune system calming agent, and plenty of other powerful polyphenols. Plus, they taste delicious.
  • Fish Oil - specialized pro-resolving mediators (SPM) found in fish oil are the resolving compounds that reduce acute inflammation and can really help with pain.

Remember that herbs can interact with medications and should not be started without discussing them first with your medical provider. This is not medical advice and should only be considered as educational.

I hope these immune tips help you survive your next viral encounter. Viruses are here to stay and we have to build tolerance to improve your immune system response.