• Cristina Montoya, RD

Should You Take Immune Boosters if You Are Immunocompromised?


I miss the time when my incredible army of immune cells protected me against infections, healed my wounds and helped me recover from a common cold. My soldiers, instead of defending me, started to attack the healthy tissues of my joints, eyes, digestive system, lungs, and other organs (otherwise called autoimmunity). A rebel army took over, causing Rheumatoid Arthritis, Sjogren’s Syndrome, and possibly Celiac Disease. I needed to defeat my own immune army by taking them down with immunosuppressants to survive with my autoimmune conditions. So, when the cold and flu season rolls around, do I really want to “boost” my immune system?

Every year we get bombarded with ads telling us how to boost our immune systems with this food or that supplement, it can be overwhelming! With the added concern of the Covid-19 pandemic this cold and flu season, you might be wondering Do these immune boosters really work?

The answer is not a simple yes or no, so I am here to clear up some of the truths and myths about boosting your immunity.

Echinacea Flower. Source: Wix.com

Echinacea

The effectiveness of echinacea in the treatment and prevention of viral infections has been overblown. A study of random control trials found that most Echinacea products have weak to no benefits over the placebo. Additionally, prolonged use of Echinacea (more than 8 weeks) may overstimulate your immune system, therefore it is not recommended for people with a suppressed immune system or autoimmune conditions. Overall, Echinacea has been proven to be safe, but you are better off saving your money.


Source: Thinkstock

Colloidal Silver

Colloidal Silver has gained a reputation for being an immune booster, but is it effective and is it safe? The Mayo Clinic has stated that there is no evidence supporting the claims that Colloidal Silver has any benefit on the immune system and because Silver is not an essential mineral, it could build up in your tissues and potentially cause irreversible health issues. Best to leave this one on the shelf!



Goldenseal. Source: Illinois Wildflowers

Goldenseal

There is little evidence showing that Goldenseal is effective in fighting off infections, and there is potential for interactions with other medications. Goldenseal can cause arrhythmia, decrease white blood cell counts, and respiratory depression. This herb can carry a high toxicity load. Speak to your healthcare provider if you are considering this supplement.


Oysters. Source: Unsplashed. Viviana Riche

Zinc

When it comes to fighting colds, Zinc gets a lot of attention, for a good reason! Your immune system relies on Zinc for optimal functioning and it may help to shorten the duration of colds if taken at the onset of symptoms. It also helps with tissue development and helps to support cartilage regeneration, both are very important for those with arthritis. Supplementation is usually not needed if you eat a varied diet that includes high protein foods such as seafood, legumes or lean meats. However, studies have shown that people with Rheumatoid Arthritis may have lower levels of zinc. Additionally, people with short bowel syndrome and inflammatory bowel disease (i.e. Crohn’s Disease) are at risk of Zinc deficiency due to malabsorption.

So how much zinc should you take?

Well, studies have suggested that healthy adults treated with >75mg/day of Zinc Acetate for the duration of cold symptoms recovered faster. Most Zinc lozenges contain 10mg per lozenge, with the recommendation of consuming up to 5/day (50mg Zinc/day). However, as those with immunocompromised conditions, I would definitely not apply these findings to our bodies.

You may have heard of the UL (aka the Tolerable Upper Intake Level), it is the highest level of a nutrient that can be ingested each day without having any adverse effects for most healthy individuals. For Zinc, that UL is 20mg a day for healthy adults, so mega-doses of Zinc over long periods of time should be avoided. Taking more than 50mg/day can not only cause toxicity, it can block the absorption of copper. Copper is an essential mineral which has anti-inflammatory effects, and low levels of it may lead to irreversible anemia. Speak to your healthcare provider to decide what dose is right for you.


Vitamin C


Fresh vegetables. Source: Wix.com

Vitamin C is important for many of your body’s functions, including the immune system. However, if you eat a diet full of colourful fruits and vegetables then you are likely getting all the vitamin C you need. Foods high in vitamin C include bell peppers, strawberries, broccoli and citrus fruits.

Vitamin C supplementation in doses less than 2000mg/day does not appear to lead to adverse reactions, except in individuals with severe acute pancreatitis. Please note that mega-doses of vitamin C supplements do not improve your immunity and could cause stomach upset, diarrhea and kidney stones in people with pancreatic conditions!