Should You Strike "Boosting Your Immune System" from Your Vocabulary? Avoiding "Science-ploitation"
In a recent podcast, Dr. Jen Gunter describes the problems with the phrase “boosting the immune system” (1).
The PEN Team wondered if the podcast concepts might be useful to dietitians when clients ask about “immune-
boosting” foods and supplements.
Dr. Gunter interviewed Dr. Katherine Gundling, an immunologist, who described the fallacies behind the immune “boosting” concept, primarily that the immune system cannot be safely and effectively boosted. Her main point was that the immune system is continually balanced between its numerous parts. She described how artificially boosting one part of the immune system could be a problem, especially when another part of the immune system might be needed to fight an infection. An example of immune system unbalance that results in a negative outcome occurs in severe cases of COVID-19 when some parts of the immune system become overactive, causing excess inflammation, which can lead to death.
The details of inaccurate claims
Advertisements tell us that our immune system needs a boost and then that the product being promoted will do this boosting (1,2). These promotions prey on our fears of illness while misrepresenting how the immune system works and its complexity (1). Dr. Gunter noted that in the U.S. nutrition supplements do not have the same testing and scrutiny as is required for drugs, and that most supplements do not have robust studies to back up either the claims made or even that they are safe (1). Regulations for nutrition supplements vary by country, and dietitians should be aware of regulations pertaining to supplements in the country where they practice.
Dr. Gunter cited an older study where dietary supplements were identified as likely to have caused 20% of liver injury in the U.S (3). She also cited a more recent study that suggested that dietary supplements lead to 23,000 emergency room visits per year (4). She interviewed Timothy Caulfield, a Canadian professor of law, who pointed out that the trends to promote supplements have increased over the past decade, especially through social media (1). Some celebrities have created brands of supplements and have made promoting pseudoscience a big business (1). These promotions use science-ish words, which Caulfield refers to as science-ploitation (5). According to Caufield, people are swayed by this clever marketing, but this science-ploitation uses inaccurate and misleading information to create the illusion that those who use science-ploitation have in-depth knowledge (5).
Dietitians know the importance of healthy eating to support the immune system and for well-being. While you cannot “boost” your immune system, other recommendations mentioned in the podcast include:
- getting adequate sleep
- getting adequate exercise
- treating chronic diseases when they occur
- stopping smoking/vaping
- washing hands
- getting vaccinated (1).
Points dietitians can use to help clients separate medicine from marketing include (5):
- When promoters use science-ish words, it doesn’t necessarily mean that what they are promoting is based on science.
- Be wary if someone is trying to sell you something; they may not have your best interests at heart.
- Be skeptical of anecdotes and testimonials; they are not scientific evidence.
- Look for information from reliable sources. Stop and think before you share something with someone else; it could be misinformation. Misinformation is like a virus; if you stop sharing it, you help to stop the spread.
See Additional Content/Resources:
Looking for more information on the immune system and/or dietary supplements? Search
the PEN website. There are more than 220 practice questions on dietary supplements and 29 practice questions on immunity.
- Gunter J. Can you boost your immune system? Body Stuff with Jen Gunter. Undated. [cited 2021 Jul 21]. Available from: https://podcasts.apple.com/ca/podcast/can-you-boost-your-immune-system/id1566425638?i=1000525688537
- Rachul C, Marcon AR, Collins B, Caulfield T 5. COVID-19 and 'immune boosting' on the internet: a content analysis of Google search results. BMJ Open. 2020 Oct;10(10):e040989. doi: 10.1136/bmjopen-2020-040989. Abstract available from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33109677/
- Azadniv M. Klinge CM, Gelein R, Carstensen EL, Cox C, Brayman AA, et al. A test of the hypothesis that a 60-Hz magnetic field affects ornithine decarboxylase activity in mouse L929 cells in vitro. Biochem Biophys Res Commun. 1995 Sep 14;214(2):627-31. doi: 10.1006/bbrc.1995.2332. Abstract available from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/7677775/
- Geller AI, Shehab N, Weidle NJ, Lovegrove MC, Wolpert BJ, Timbo BB, et al. Emergency Department Visits for Adverse Events Related to Dietary Supplements. N Engl J Med. 2015 Oct 15;373(16):1531-40. doi: 10.1056/NEJMsa1504267. Abstract available from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26465986/
- Rendely A. Why social media needs less ‘science-ploitation’ and more hard facts. TVO. 2019 Apr. Available from: https://www.tvo.org/article/why-social-media-needs-less-science-ploitation-and-more-hard-facts