Here Are the Myths About Your Immune System You Need to Stop Believing

Amid the pandemic, it's especially important to ditch misinformation about your immune system.

There is no time like the present to focus on your immune system, especially when the present involves a global pandemic. APCO Worldwide surveyed Americans asking, "Which, if any, of your lifestyle choices do you think have a direct impact on your immunity?" The most common responses included eating healthy and exercising regularly. However, 9 percent of people surveyed believed they could not do anything to impact their immune system. Because people have long been misguided by immune system myths of magic supplements and superfoods, we want to set you straight. Here's what the experts had to say about separating truth from fantasy when it comes to immune system myths.

Garlic will prevent viral infection.

garlic health tweaks over 40

We all want this to be true, but sadly, piling on the garlic won't save you from the common cold. "There are a few lab studies that show that garlic extract can partially inhibit the replication of the virus in cells," says Gary Linkov, MD. However, "there is limited human study evidence that garlic will prevent viral infection in our bodies, especially one as potent and virulent as the novel coronavirus." Many of the studies focused on the effect of garlic on animals rather than humans. Until there are more studies available, stick to using garlic as a seasoning, not a salve.

Your immune system is concentrated in your upper body.

Woman holding throat lymph nodes feeling sick

When we think about our immune system being compromised, we often associate it with getting a cough, runny nose, or headache. However, much of our body is involved in our immune system, from our bone marrow to our bowels. "Multiple systems are integrated into the immune system," says Hilda Gonzalez, DACM. "That's why your gut and microbiome are important, as well as the lymphatic system."

Washing the nose out with water or saline will prevent a viral infection.

Woman using a neti pot

If you have ever cringed through using a Neti Pot to clear your sinuses, you'll be glad to know that practice is canceled. Doctors often prescribe the purchase of an over-the-counter nasal irrigation product to eradicate sinus infections or congestion—which seems to make sense since we know viruses can enter through our nose and mouth. However, Linkov says, "Viruses will frequently lodge in areas deeper in the nose, such as the adenoids, where they cannot be reached with simply washing the nose." In rare cases, the use of a Neti Pot can actually cause infection, because, according to Linkov, "using tap water to wash the nose regularly puts us at an increased risk of driving additional pathogens into our sinonasal passages."

Sugar doesn't affect your immune system.

Man pouring soda into glass

It may seem harmless, but twice before powering through a bag of candy. While we may think having sugar in our diet is no big deal, it actually depletes cells in our body that fight off bacteria. According to Jacob Teitelbaum, MD, "A 12-ounce soda suppresses immunity by 30 percent for 3 hours." If sugar is a big part of your diet, you could be diminishing your immune system all day.

Supplements are the answer to everything.

Woman taking a supplement

While some doctors, like Stephanie Gray, DNP, suggest certain supplements like elderberry, astragalus, and echinacea to boost your immune system, others believe they're ineffective. According to Gray, "Most drugs are derived from plants that have research behind their medicinal properties. You can't build a military if you don't have materials, right? You can't build an immune system from nothing either. You need the right food and nutrients like vitamin D and C."

On the other hand, Dimitar Marinov, MD, says, "The only supplements that are actually proven to boost immunity and help it deal with infections are vitamin D and zinc, and that is only if you were deficient in the first place."

Nikola Djordjevic, MD, adds, "Our immune system is a lot more complex than that, and should be viewed more holistically. Not to mention, supplemented vitamins are usually overkill, as our bodies can't absorb more than a few hundred micrograms per day. Vitamin C, for example, maxes out at a little under 100 micrograms, and everything else is excreted from our bodies through our urine."

The bottom line is that no one thing can eradicate a compromised immune system. Talk with your doctor and see what they recommend for you specifically.

Sleep doesn't affect your immune system.

Man texting in bed not sleeping at night

Those of us who don't sleep well want to believe it doesn't have any effect, but science suggests otherwise. As Gray notes, "Sleep affects almost every type of tissue and system in the body—[from] the brain, heart, and lungs, to metabolism, immune function, mood, and disease resistance." A lack of sleep can also have long-lasting negative effects, including increasing your risk of obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease, per Gray. While you sleep, your immune system releases cytokines that need to increase when your body is fighting infection, inflammation, or stress. Sleep deprivation decreases your body's production of cytokines, thereby making you more vulnerable to illness.

Stress doesn't affect your immune system.

Man stressed at desk

"Stress is our body's biggest hormone hijacker," says Gray. "When we are stressed, our body produces more cortisol instead of producing immune-supportive hormones, like estradiol, testosterone, and progesterone." Cortisol is often the culprit behind anxiety, high blood pressure, stroke, and the "fight or flight" response. While our bodies do need some amount of cortisol to survive, too much causes us to overreact to common stressors. Additionally, stress decreases the body's white blood cells, which help fight off infection, thereby putting you more at risk for viruses.

Over-exercising can boost your immune system.

Woman tired of running

We know exercise is good for our bodies, but some people take exercise to the extreme. Gray suggests people reconsider working out vigorously when they are feeling under the weather. "If you aren't feeling well, but think you need to push through a workout, this can actually increase your risk of infection by 3-6 times," she says. On the other hand, "studies have shown that 20-40 minutes of moderate activity reduces the risk of upper respiratory infections by 50 percent," according to Gray. So if you are feeling up to it, try a lighter workout.

The immune system functions independently.

Nurse sneezing or blowing nose into tissue

The immune system is heavily reliant on other systems throughout our body, especially the digestive system. "Research proves that between 70 percent and 80 percent of the immune system is in the gut—protecting us from disease by responding to and eliminating any foreign bacteria that they see as a threat," says Stefan Weitz, CEO and co-founder of Jetson. The quality of your immune system is codependent on your gut health. As Weitz explains, "The gut and immune system are kind of like roommates—when one is being messy, the whole house becomes messy. They've got to work together to keep things under control."

Antibacterial foods can help your immune system combat infections.

Honey tea lemon ginger

When you're sick, it's commonplace to pick up honey, coconut oil, or chicken soup to help you heal, but experts warn against relying on these foods as your first defense. "Research is still ongoing on the topic, but there is no evidence of the actual immune-boosting effect from these foods," says Marinov. So while these foods can't hurt, they might not be helping you either.

You should try to "boost" your immune system.

Man taking vitamin supplements

"'Boosting your immune system' is the wrong way to look at it," says William Seeds, MD. Seeds says we should focus more on "up-regulating" our immune system. "The immune system has two sides, and when it gets out of balance, that's when things go wrong. When you're thinking of 'boosting the immune system,' it might drive one part of the system the wrong way," he says. Seeds suggests people try to balance their immune system rather than boosting it.

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