Immune system boosters: The real story

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Fruits and supplements packed with vitamins and minerals are often taken in conjunction with having the common cold and flu. These healthy foods are packed with good nutrients but have not been proven to provide extra support to the body's immune system. (Photo by Elliott Miller.)
Fruits and supplements packed with vitamins and minerals are often taken in conjunction with having the common cold and flu. These healthy foods are packed with good nutrients but have not been proven to provide extra support to the body’s immune system. (Photo by Elliott Miller.)

It’s the time of year when students are either sniffing, sneezing or coughing their way to class as they look for a quick escape from their congested misery.

To combat their symptoms, some students load up on chicken noodle soup and start downing gallons of orange juice at the first sign of trouble, but experts say those efforts are in vain.

“A lot of people think that supplementing things like Vitamin C or zinc will help them when they are sick, but that’s not true,” said BYU professor Rickelle Richards, from the Department of Nutrition, Dietetics and Food Science. He said healthy foods and vitamins “won’t hurt, obviously, but they definitely haven’t been proven to help.”

Products like Airborne and Defense send the message that taking them while sick will help decrease the duration of the cold, but according to pharmacologist Dr. Jan Williams, consumers shouldn’t be fooled.

“Basically they are just a mixture of different vitamins,” Williams said. “But they have not actually been proven to help with the immune system and especially not with the cold, in particular.”

Popular myths about fish oils, vitamin drinks and other dietetic remedies have been passed around for years when it comes to fighting the common cold and flu. Unfortunately, any theory suggesting a particular food or drink can help prevent sickness is incorrect.

The reason for this is in the complexity of the immune system itself.

People sometimes incorrectly assume the immune system is similar to a muscle, believing that extra doses of certain vitamins and supplements will help it become stronger. But in reality, the immune system is an extremely intricate system made up of coordinated cells and proteins. In order to have any beneficial impact on the immune system, one must nourish it regularly.

“Overall good nutrition is the only thing that can boost the immunity,” said Lora Brown, a BYU professor. “Just eat a variety of foods including fruits, vegetables, protein and grains consistently. Doing that on a day-to-day basis is really the only thing that can help against getting sick.”

Healthy foods, vitamins and fish oil are good for the body, but taking an extra amount at any one time will not have beneficial impact. So instead of wasting time and money bingeing on so-called “super foods” when flu season comes around, focus on getting enough sleep and maintaining a well-rounded diet every day of the year.

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