The immune system is one of the most misunderstood systems of the body, particularly when it comes to discussing supplementation. The immune system is unorthodox and confusing to research, as it differs from every other body system, since communication in the immune system is done by hormones and signalling molecules, rather than by hormones alone. The dichotomy of “inflammation is bad” and “immunity is good” adds to the confusion, since the two terms can be very similar at times.
Inflammation is the process by which the immune system is called to action, and immunity is the process of the immune system doing its job: protecting the organism from invaders. The two cannot exist without one another. This is why potent anti-inflammatories cause immunosuppression, and conversely, why immunosuppressants can be a great way to treat high levels of inflammation.
Despite immune boosters being one of the largest supplement markets in existence, there are few ‘go-to’ supplements available.
Of these supplements, vitamin C is the standard, as it is known to be safe and effective. This is a generalization.
How can immunity be ‘boosted’?
Boosting the immune system is a great marketing term, but it is meaningless. There is no specific mechanism that can be ‘boosted’. Making part of the immune system more active would promote as much immunity as it would inflammation.
The concept of immunity is better understood when broken down into three components:
• Sickness Frequency: how often do you get sick?
• Sickness Duration: how long are you sick for?
• Symptom Severity: when you do get sick, how awful do you feel?
Something that reduces the duration and severity of an illness wouldn’t necessary reduce how often you get sick. Similarly, reducing frequency means that you’ll get sick less often, but once you do, you’ll still feel terrible.
Where does Vitamin C come in?
The frequency of the common cold is not significantly affected by vitamin C supplementation. However, the duration of the illness is reduced by 8-14%. A reduction of 14% translates into about half a day of illness.
Preliminary research suggests that garlic might do a better job at reducing sickness frequency, halving the frequency of colds in otherwise healthy average people.
But what if you’re not average? Vitamin C has profoundly different effects on very active people. Studies done on marathoners and skiers suggest that vitamin C supplementation is very effective at reducing the risk of a cold, cutting it in half. Keep in mind, marathoners and skiers are at risk for exercise-induced immune suppression, so it’s no surprise vitamin C has a different effect.
Vitamin C is a very mild immune booster in normal people, but a great one for athletes.
Take-aways on Vitamin C:
If you want to get sick less often, but are not a very active person, consider garlic. If you are a very active person, participate in endurance sports, or are at risk for exercise-related immunosuppression, vitamin C supplementation will reduce how often and how long you are sick for. Unfortunately, vitamin C is unable to reduce the severity of common cold-related symptoms.