Having a healthy immune system ready to fight off any nasty germs that come in its path is a top concern for people now more than ever. We are living in a world where washing your hands is being talked about even more than that wild The Bachelor finale. (Still can’t get over Hannah Ann tearing Peter apart, TBH.) With immunity on everyone’s minds—and social feeds—doctors are being confronted with lots of questions from their patients about how to boost their immune system, and have encountered many misconceptions in the process.
First, a little PSA: When it comes to anything health-related, it’s essential to get your facts from trusted medical experts, not from randos on your Instagram feed. To help set the record straight, Arielle Levitan, MD, the co-founder of Vous Vitamin and author of The Vitamin Solution, and Erika Schwartz, MD, the founder of integrative medicine practice Evolved Science, correct the common misconceptions about immunity they hear on a regular basis.
3 immune system facts and myths everyone should know
Myth 1: If I don’t get regular vaccines Like as the flu shot, I will build natural immunity
Despite being backed by decades of very solid science, vaccines have become…controversial. Many people who avoid vaccines claim that they can naturally build their immunity on their own. But that strategy comes with a fair share of risks. “If you don’t take vaccines, you will build immunity but only by getting sick—and in certain cases, potentially gravely ill,” Dr. Levitan says. (Ask anyone who has ever had the measles or mumps—it’s not something you want to mess around with.)
Plus, by skipping key seasonal immunizations like the flu vaccine, you’re not only putting yourself at risk of getting the illness—you’re putting people with compromised immune systems (people with chronic diseases, cancers, or other health conditions) at risk of getting sick, too, since they can’t get vaccinated and are less able to fight off disease on their own.
Myth 2: I can take mega doses of vitamins to build my immune system up when I need it
Our culture loves a quick fix, but Dr. Levitan says knocking back immunity shots and doubling up on vitamins after you start feeling sick isn’t as effective as practicing healthy habits from the start.
“The best way to keep your immune system strong—in addition to regular sleep, exercise and a healthy diet—is to take a custom daily blend of vitamins tailored to your individual needs,” she says. “This may contain vitamins such as vitamin D3, C, and B vitamins that keep your body healthy all the time. You can boost this up and add some extras when you’re at risk for getting sick, but you are best having this healthy baseline to build on at those difficult times.” Talk to your doctor or other trusted health-care provider to find out what the right vitamin and supplement mix is for you.
“Health starts with excellent hand hygiene, getting enough sleep, a nutritious diet, stress management, and regular exercise,” agrees Dr. Schwartz. (Oh, and stop touching your face!)
Myth 3: The immune system is just in the eyes, nose, and throat
The immune system, which protects your body from disease, encompasses almost your entire body and includes your lymph nodes, skin, blood, and most importantly, your gut. “The gut microbiota, aka the bacteria who live in your gut, is of paramount importance to our overall health and immune system function,” Dr. Schwartz says. These bacteria interact directly with your immune system to create antibodies that fight infection and disease. “Eating the wrong foods creates imbalances in the gut leading to impaired immune function, and that can cause chronic inflammation and a diminished immune response, leaving us vulnerable to viral and bacterial infections,” she says. So eating for immunity is bigger than just eating foods high in vitamin C—it’s also important to eat fiber, prebiotics, and other foods critical to supporting healthy gut function.