Why You May Not Want to Boost Your Immune System

Why You May Not Want to Boost Your Immune SystemWe hear it all the time, especially in the natural medicine community: boost your immune system! Or better yet, boost your immune system…naturally! We read about boosting our immune systems in articles online and on the bottles of natural supplements and vitamins in the health food store. You may have even heard the phrase from a trusted professional in the natural health field. While it sounds like a good thing, a deeper understanding of the how the immune system works throws a bit of a wrench into that promise.

What it really comes down to is that the phrase boost your immune system is a bit of a misnomer. Yes, you want a healthy, high-performing immune system. But there are a lot of reasons why you might not want to “boost” it. We’ll begin here, with a short introduction to the human immune system.

The Immune System is a System

Phrases like “boost your immune system” conjure up images of the immune system being something like a muscle that needs to be exercised and grown. While it is true that your immune system gets “exercised” every day through exposure to a world of microbes, the immune system should not (and cannot) be treated like a muscle. We know that we’re not breaking any new ground with this statement, but it bears repeating: the immune system is a system, and a highly intricate one at that. And because it is such an intricate system with lots of moving parts (literally), there is still so much that we don’t know about the complexities and interconnectedness of the immune response.

But we do know quite a lot, at least a lot more than we did even one hundred years ago. Just as with other systems in the body, we know that the immune system requires balance and harmony to operate effectively. We know what happens when the immune system is not efficient or responsive (we get sick, for long periods of time and often). We also know what happens when the immune system is over-reactive (we suffer serious auto-immune diseases and allergies). But did you know that you actually have two immune systems? In reality, they are subsystems of our greater immune system and each have their own strengths and weaknesses.  When talking about the immune system, we generally are referring to both subsystems together, but perhaps we shouldn’t.

Innate Immunity versus Acquired Immunity

Humans have developed two complementary immune subsystems. One is known as the innate immune system and the other is the acquired or adaptive immune system.1 Innate immunity is the body’s automatic system present from birth that, when triggered, reacts as quickly and broadly as possible to fight off offending intruders.

But in its swift action, the innate immune system can be incredibly non-specific and typically resorts to one of the most unpleasant immune system responses: inflammation, or in other words, the bodily reactions that lead to rashes, itching, hives, fever, cough, and runny nose, to name a few. In fact, this is the very system that is triggered by allergens and is behind allergic responses like seasonal allergies and allergic rhinitis (but don’t worry, we have remedies for those, too).  It is not difficult to imagine why you might think twice about “boosting” the innate part of your immune system (if you could). You might think that these active, sometimes violent immune responses must be the ones that do most of the heavy lifting when it comes to ridding your body of unwanted disease. But you’d be wrong.

Brains versus Brawn in the Immune System

While these innate immune system reactions are an important piece of the body’s defense mechanisms and are critically important in the first few hours of exposure to a pathogen,2 in the end, they are not the heroes that completely defeat the infection. The real sophisticated fighting action comes from the acquired immune system, which is the system that uses knowledge (in the form of immunological memory) rather than brute force to kick that cold to the curb. Using white blood cells called lymphocytes, more commonly known as B and T cells, along with the synthesis of the appropriate antibodies, the acquired immune system uses its knowledge of previously encountered bacteria and viruses to attack the new infection with precision and efficiency.3 When mature T cells encounter infected cells or antigens, most of the cells perform their designated function, which can include anything from helping B cells produce the required antibodies or attaching to the cell and strategically attacking it. But some of those T cells develop into memory cells, whose only function is to remember that antigen and help the rest of the system remember and respond to it more efficiently and vigorously should they ever encounter it again.

But the acquired system only learns how to fight these enemies through experience. While a number of antibodies can be transferred from mother to baby in the early stages of infancy through breast milk, most are acquired through exposure to small doses of bacteria and viruses over time and over the course of messy, everyday life. So it is through these strategic attacks of the acquired immune system that most common illness-inducing bacteria and viruses are ultimately cleared from the body. All the while, the innate immune system continues to wage war and wreck havoc throughout the body, which is not to say that the innate system didn’t help, but perhaps it was a little overzealous. That explains why even after you’re no longer contagious you might experience that lingering cough or runny nose. Though you can’t have one without the other, we’d certainly prefer if our innate system was better kept in check (which not surprisingly is the aim of most over-the-counter cold and flu medications…along with a host of other not so great side effects).

So maybe we don’t want to boost our immune system. But we do want to support it in doing its job properly and effectively. So what can we do?

Natural Immune System Support

When it comes to a healthy immune system, we’re looking for efficiency. What we don’t want is an overly sensitive and overactive innate immune system and a sluggish, unprepared acquired immune system. But there is no magic pill – natural or otherwise – that can  “boost” your acquired immunity. Your acquired immunity is something you may have gotten started with your mother’s help and some childhood vaccinations, but since then you have cultivated over time one encounter after another. But if you’re the type of person who gets sick at the first mention of cold and flu season, that doesn’t mean that you don’t have options to help your personal immune system along. The most effective habits you can adopt for a healthy immune system are all natural, and for once, generally agreed upon by conventional doctors and natural health practitioners alike.

Want to know what they are? We’ll start with sharing how to strengthen your child’s immune system. Their immune systems are just like ours, just a little less prepared for everything that gets thrown at them every day. And when your immune system just needs a little extra support (not boosting), learn how to support your immune system naturally with these essential vitamins and herbs.


  1. Molecular Biology of the Cell. 4th edition – http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK26846/
  2. Molecular Biology of the Cell. 4th edition – http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK26846/
  3. Acquired Immunity – http://www.merckmanuals.com/home/immune-disorders/biology-of-the-immune-system/acquired-immunity