The Buzz: Herbal Supplements

What’s the Buzz?
Can herbal supplements “boost” immunity?

What Does the Science Say?
Consumer searches on supplements to boost immunity have spiked in the past few months, and not surprisingly, some herbal supplement companies are trying to cash in on it using unsubstantiated marketing claims. While the FDA regulates dietary supplements, pharmaceutical drugs, and food additives, supplements fall under a different set of rules and do not require the same scrutiny. That means supplements may easily make it to the market with little or no review for their safety and effectiveness, or any verification that these capsules contain what they claim to (powdered houseplants, anyone?). Since the onset of COVID-19, the Federal Trade Commission has sent over 330 warning letters to sellers and marketers to stop making (unsubstantiated) claims that their product can effectively prevent or treat COVID-19.

In reality, we don’t want to “boost” our immune systems: A boosted immune system is one that is in overdrive, attacking our own body and resulting in autoimmune disorders, allergies, and other diseases.

Here’s how our immune system actually works. We have two types of immunity that work together to protect our body from “invaders”: innate immunity, which we are born with, and adaptive immunity, which develops continuously as our body is exposed to germs (a.k.a. microbes). Claims to “boost” our immune system would mean that our body is being exposed to a foreign invader that imitates infection and in turn, causes our body to produce the resources it needs to fight the infection (a.k.a. antigens). This builds our immunity for when we are actually exposed to the real thing. However, this is known as a vaccine, not a herbal supplement!

Although scientifically foods cannot “boost” our immunity, a healthful diet as part of an overall healthy lifestyle works to support our immune system and lower risk factors associated with COVID-19 such as heart disease, diabetes, and many other conditions. While taking a supplement can help to replace single nutrients that may be missing in a poor diet, whole foods provide us with multiple nutrients, fiber, and phytochemicals that may not be in a supplement and work together to make a greater impact on our health – a concept known as food synergy. Our body better absorbs nutrients from whole foods and also provides us with doses of the vitamins and minerals we need over extended periods of time instead of in one large dose from supplementation. It’s also important to support our immune system with whole foods since our body is a bit of a bully; it plays nice with nutrients from all food sources, but doesn’t always accept man-made or supplemental nutrients into this synergistic effect.

What’s the Takeaway?
Herbal supplements with claims to help boost immunity are unlikely to support your immune system in the ways your body needs to help you fight COVID-19. Eating a nutrient-rich diet full of fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, fish, and whole grains can help support a healthy immune system and, when paired with an active lifestyle, will help to reduce comorbidity factors known to increase your risk for severe illness.