Why You May Not Want to Boost Your Immune System

young child blowing her nose, isolated on a white background

One of the questions I’m frequently asked is, “what can I take to boost my immune system?”

There are some simple answers: elderberry, zinc, vitamin D. But, there's another question you should be asking: “do I want to boost my immune system?” A properly functioning immune system is vital for good health. So, why would you not want to boost your immune system? Let’s take a closer look at how your body fights infection.

When your body recognizes a pathogen, it mounts a response. As part of that response, the body utilizes protein messengers called cytokines. Some of these cytokines create inflammation in the body. If for various reasons, your body creates too many proinflammatory cytokines, the result can be a more severe illness. For example, the Spanish flu of 1918-19 disproportionately killed younger and healthier individuals because their strong cytokine response led to more severe cases of pneumonia.

If an individual is dealing with a chronic illness - fibromyalgia comes to mind - their cytokines are very likely out of balance. Herbalists often refer to this as a cytokine “cascade” or “storm.” Recent research linking fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, and multiple sclerosis to low-grade, chronic infections could explain the chronic inflammation - partly caused by cytokines - that I see in our herbal clients. In these cases, the goal isn’t to boost the immune system, but rather to modulate it. Immunomodulation is about getting your immune system to function properly - ramping up parts that are under-performing and reigning in parts that are overactive.

Elderberry is a wonderful aid for someone coming down with an acute illness. It’s usually the wrong herb for those with chronic issues. I lean towards astragalus, danshen, cordyceps, and a handful of other herbs. However, even these herbs can still cause problems with immune stimulation in some people (particularly astragalus).

There are many factors that contribute to inflammation and immune function. This is just a very basic overview. Diet, lifestyle, sleep, gut flora, among other things, all play a role. When I’m working with a client with immune issues we are rarely working on just the immune system alone. Fortunately, the way herbs work, there’s always crossover in the systems they address. As is nearly always the case with herbalism, it’s about matching the right herb with any particular person.

When I look at helping someone improve immune system function, I always think in terms of immune modulation. I rarely think in terms of boosting immunity, except in case of acute problems in otherwise healthy individuals.

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Larry Leach, Herbalist, Evergreen Health Clinics

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