Making Sense Of The Immune System: 4 Myths And Facts

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The internet is overflowing with tips about how to optimize your immune system and stay healthy, and everyone’s mom, aunt, and next-door neighbor has their own tried and true recommendation – and this is the nature of health tips even in ordinary times. Combine such ordinary advice with the intersection of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the start of cold and flu season, though, and we’re living in a perfect storm of questionable health tips, with a focus on boosting the immune system. But how can you tell the facts from the myths? Simply put, unless you’re an expert, it can be hard to get to the truth, but we need it more than ever right now.

If you’re concerned about strengthening your immune system, there are plenty of simple things you can do – and tons of popular advice to ignore. In preparation, here are four of the most common myths and facts about immune health you’re likely to hear this season. Armed with the facts, you’ll be better prepared to protect yourself and those you love.

Myth #1: Cold Weather Can Make You Sick

While it’s true that cold and flu season seem to overlap with colder weather, this is a case of correlation, not causation. Instead, the reason you’re more likely to get sick during the winter months is because everyone stays indoors more, and that makes you more vulnerable to shared viruses and bacteria. Indoors, you’re more likely to be close together and there’s less ventilation, and if someone sneezes, you’re right there to pick up the cold virus they’ve propelled into the air. 

One easy way to dispel the myth that cold weather can suppress your immune system and cause you to get sick is to look at other patterns of illness. Children are more likely to get sick when they start school or go to daycare, no matter the time of year, and adults tend to pick things up in gyms or churches. It’s all about proximity and opportunities for virus and bacteria exchange.

If you were to do all of your winter socializing at a distance while outdoors – currently the only proposed solution for those who want to gather during COVID-19 spikes – you’re no more likely to get sick than you might be during other seasons. The cold on its own won’t make you sick, even if standing around in the snow feels unpleasant.

Fact #1: Vitamin C Is Good For Your Immune System

It’s true that vitamin C is good for your immune system – but it’s not the only vitamin or nutrient that helps. Rather, for a strong immune system, you need to eat a balanced diet containing plenty of vitamin C, protein, and vitamin E, among other things. But if that’s the case, why does vitamin C get all the attention?

Vitamin C is particularly important for your immune system, in the same way that iron prevents anemia and vitamin K supports blood clotting; the two go hand in hand. That’s why, if you’re concerned that you may not be getting enough of it, you may want to consider supplementing with liposomal vitamin C, especially during cold and flu season. This form of vitamin C is particularly well absorbed, which can make it a better choice than other variants of the vitamin, but there’s no reason – and no nutritional point – in doubling your dose if you’re sick. There’s a limit to how much vitamin C, or any vitamin, that your body can use, and you’ll just excrete the excess.

Myth #2: The Flu Vaccine Can Give You The Flu

This myth circulates every year as part of anti-vaccine fear mongering, but it’s simply not true: the flu vaccine cannot give you the flu. That’s because flu vaccines are made with either an inactivated virus, which can’t multiply in your cells, or with a single protein from the flu virus, rather than the whole virus (the nasal spray does contain live virus, but it is significantly weakened to prevent infectioninfected). Rather, what people occasionally mistake for getting the flu post-vaccine is simply a mild immune response or, in some cases, a different flu strain not covered by the virus.

It’s important to stay up to date on your vaccines, including the annual flu vaccine, because even though vaccines only protect against specific illnesses, their activity allows your body to focus on fighting new threats. Skipping vaccines makes you vulnerable to a greater array of illnesses and can leave your body too worn down to fight them effectively as it copes with the onslaught.

Fact #2: Sleep Is Important To Immune System Function

Have you ever noticed that you’re more likely to get sick when you’ve been very busy, or you’re jetlagged from travel? One major reason for this is that your sleep cycle has been disrupted. Not getting enough sleep – that’s at least 7 hours a night for adults, and as many as 11 or 12 for preschool-age children – can prevent your immune system from working as well as it should. 

The way sleep interacts with the immune system can be a bit confusing if you’re not a microbiologist, but the basic premise underlying this link is that stress hormones like adrenaline and noradrenaline interfere with the function of pathogen- fighting T-cells. Levels of these hormones are low when we’re asleep, helping to increase the effectiveness of those cells against any bacteria or viruses you may have encounteredencoutered during the day.

Check Your Facts

Stress and anxiety can make you more likely to get sick, but when it comes to health information, concern that you could catch COVID-19, the flu, or other ailments can also make you more likely to spread misinformation. That’s why it’s important to evaluate your sources before sharing health information. If you can’t confirm the information with a reputable source like the WHO, CDC, NIH, or a major hospital, then it likely isn’t true. Luckily, all of these organizations have resources at the ready to address common health concerns. Your doctor can also help you evaluate health information for accuracy.

This winter, don’t fall prey to fearmongering and false health information. There are many proven things we can do to stay healthy, including regular hand washing, wearing a mask, and avoiding indoor gatherings – all while getting enough sleep and eating a nutritious diet. As for skipping a hat when you go outside, though, that’s unlikely to do much besides make you feel extra cold. Remember: viruses and bacteria make us sick, not cold weather, vaccines, or going outside with wet hair, so don’t wear yourself out worrying about fictional risks.

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