Bust Those Immune System Myths!
- 5 Min Read
- Written by: Dr. Jatin Bhide
- Every individual’s immune system is unique, just like their fingerprints.
- During an infection, the immune system protects us by producing immune cells, antibodies, and cytokines.
- Unhealthy lifestyle, smoking, and processed food negatively affect the immune system and increases the risk of diseases.
- Vitamins, minerals, and health supplements do not boost immunity but are necessary for normal body functions.
- Vaccines improve immunity against specific infection.
Myths are subtle traps that even smart people fall into. Usually, they are half-cooked stories based on loose fragments of evidence here and there. On the surface, myths cause no harm if you trust them or act on them. However, in the long run, you realize that your decisions cannot be reverted and the damage is done.
As the pandemic picked up pace globally, we were flooded with information, myths, and fake news on all social media platforms. Not all the health-related information is validated before it is presented in the public domain. This may have important consequences on public health.
Here are six most commonly encountered myths related to the immune system and immunity:
Myth 1: I do not need any vaccine because I already survived the infection
Fact: Our immune system responds to pathogens by producing antibodies or activating immune cells. However, during an infection, this response is usually insufficient to provide a full-fledged immunity.
The term ‘immunity’ implies that we are protected from infection and are immune. The degree of immunity acquired post-infection depends on how effective, numerous, and durable the antibodies and immune cells are.
Vaccines, on the other hand, are inactive portions of a particular pathogen that cannot cause any disease, but they can trigger an immune response within the body.
A vaccine can be: an inactivated pathogen, dead pathogen, or a small part of it. Vaccines trigger the immune system to produce antibodies and activated immune cells the same way as it would have on its first exposure to the actual pathogen.
Myth 2: If I catch an infection or get vaccinated, I will get immunity against other forms of infections too
Fact: Pathogens (virus and bacteria) have many different strains and they also tend to mutate rapidly. Being infected with one strain of a pathogen does not confer immunity against other strains of that pathogen.
So, after vaccination, our immune system becomes trained to fight against specific disease-causing pathogens. This helps build up the memory of the pathogen to rapidly fight it if and when exposed in the future.
Myth 3: Everybody is born with the same immune system
Fact: Our immune system is like our fingerprint – unique, varying from one person to other. A specific set of genes, our history, age, gut bacteria, and environment make each immune system unique.
Our response to infections also varies greatly. Our genes control the strength of our immune defense. For example, someone can respond very well to a virus, but poorly to bacteria. Additionally, our immune system is plastic and adapts to specific pathogens in a defined area.
Myth 4: Immunity boosters will prevent infection
Fact: The myth of ‘boosting immunity’ is extremely pervasive as evident from multiple studies and articles flooding the internet. The term lacks scientific credibility as per the Harvard Medical School.
Our immune system comprises three components to fight against infection:
- The first line of defense is intact skin, airway lining, or the mucous membrane.
- The second is innate immunity in the form of cytokines and white cells.
- The third is the production of antibodies and lymphocytes.
When a person is said to have low immunity, it implies that he does not have an adequate number of immune cells and molecules. But in healthy people, the immune system works normally – so what exactly are we trying to boost and why?
Can vaccination help induce immunity?
Vaccination is the scientifically accepted way of inducing immunity against a specific infection. Consuming more vitamins, antioxidants, alternate medicines, or supplements does not help your immune system nor does it protect you from infection.
For example, zinc is an essential mineral and a ‘cofactor’ for enzymes in your body. So is vitamin C. These cofactors are helper molecules that are vital for the body’s essential functions. So, a deficiency of these essential nutrients puts you in trouble.
However, if you do not have such deficiencies, loading yourself with vitamins and minerals and other nutraceuticals will not improve your chances of fighting off an infection. They are not immunity-boosters.
In the ancient era, when drought and famines were prevalent, such nutritional deficiencies were common. However, nowadays these conditions are rare unless someone is starving or has malnutrition. Doctors recommend supplements to treat such deficiencies.
The irony is: supplements take time to restore the levels of nutrients in the body and do not provide immediate protection against infections or cure them.
The flipside of relying on supplements and alternative therapy as immunity boosters may give you a false sense of safety and may also lead you to drop your guard against the infection.
Myth 5: My lifestyle has nothing to do with my immunity
Fact: Our lifestyle has a direct impact on immune cell functions. Exercise or physical activity can improve the levels of proteins and cells which can improve immunity. Such influence is transient, but over a period of time, the immune cells become trained to jump into action more effectively in times of emergency.
The immune cells are on constant surveillance to monitor infection in our body. Patients suffering from lifestyle diseases like obesity, type 2 diabetes, and hypertension have a compromised immune system and are highly susceptible to infections.
Exercise and a balanced diet can improve immuno-surveillance, while smoking, alcohol consumption, and processed food intake may further deteriorate it
Myth 6: Herd immunity is better than vaccines
Fact: The spread of a virus slows down when it encounters a population protected from infection. When enough people survive the infection or are vaccinated, they develop herd immunity. The outbreak of infection gradually fades away as the virus no longer finds susceptible people.
To achieve herd immunity in a population, letting people get the infection is not a safe and effective strategy. It may result in people getting severely sick, lasting health damage, and even high mortality rate.
Vaccination, on the other hand, offers long-term immunity compared to that offered by infection. Ideally, herd immunity is the desired outcome of wide-scale vaccination programs.
A high level of vaccination-induced immunity in the population benefits those who cannot receive or sufficiently respond to a vaccine, such as people with compromised immune systems.
The appropriate term would be ‘herd protection’ as the phenomenon does not confer immunity against the virus, it only reduces the risk of vulnerable people encountering the pathogen.
Conclusion: Facts over myths
Every person’s immune system is unique and there are several myths surrounding it. What we think is herd immunity is actually just herd protection. In the long run, vaccination and a healthy lifestyle are our best bets to achieve immunity from disease.
So, remember to choose facts over myths and protect yourself and others from infections and diseases.
- Cassa Macedo A, Oliveira Vilela de Faria A, Ghezzi P. Boosting the Immune System, From Science to Myth: Analysis the Infosphere With Google. Front Med. 2019;6:165. doi:10.3389/fmed.2019.00165
- World Health Organization. How do vaccines work? Vaccines Explained series. Published December 8, 2020. https://www.who.int/news-room/feature-stories/detail/how-do-vaccines-work
- VIB – Flanders Interuniversity Institute for Biotechnology. Where you live shapes your immune system more than your genes. ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/09/160929132450.htm
- Liston A, Carr EJ, Linterman MA. Shaping Variation in the Human Immune System. Trends Immunol. 2016;37(10):637-646. doi:10.1016/j.it.2016.08.002
- Harvard Health Publishing Harvard Medical School. Can supplements help boost your immune system? Staying Healthy. Published January 1, 2020. Accessed October 24, 2021. https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/can-supplements-help-boost-your-immune-system
- Ramesh S, Basu M. Immunity boosters are a myth — Why you shouldn’t believe claims that promise to fight Covid? The Print. Published online July 30, 2020. Accessed October 26, 2021. https://theprint.in/health/immunity-boosters-are-a-myth-why-you-shouldnt-believe-claims-that-promise-to-fight-covid/470202/
- Zinkernagel RM, Doherty PC. Immunological surveillance against altered self components by sensitized T lymphocytes in lymphocytic choriomeningitis. Nature. 1974;251(5475):547-548. doi:10.1038/251547a0
- Aschwanden C. The false promise of herd immunity for COVID-19. Nature. 2020;587(7832):26-28. doi:10.1038/d41586-020-02948-4