Can Herbal Supplements Boost Immunity?

When viruses are spreading, many people look for products that can help prevent illness and improve their immune system. Your immune system is your body’s natural defense system against illness. Aisles of grocery stores and pharmacies contain pills, powders, lozenges and other forms of herbal supplements geared towards improving immunity and preventing illness. Supplements may have terms on them such as immune boosting, antioxidants, or anti-inflammatory. What really are these herbs, and can they actually help us to stay healthy?

Elderberry, also known as Sambucus nigra, is a dark purple berry that comes from the black elder tree. It has a tart taste and can be found in pills, gummies, lozenges, and liquid syrup forms, and even in foods such as jam. Elderberry naturally contains anthocyanins, which is an antioxidant characterized by its dark purple/blue color. Antioxidants are components of plants and food that help protect our healthy cells. There are only a few scientific studies studying elderberry, which show that the berry does not prevent cold or flu. However, these studies (which were done in a laboratory) show that if elderberry is taken when cold/flu symptoms begin, it could help to reduce severity of symptoms and also how long you are sick for. The more processing an elderberry goes through, the less likely its positive effect is. We don’t know enough about the forms sold in stores to say if they have any specific health benefit, and there is no set dosing amount for elderberry because it depends on the form you take. Potential negative side effects of elderberry include nausea/vomiting, general weakness, and dizziness.

Another herb you may have heard of is echinacea, also known as Echinacea angustifolia. The echinacea plant is in the daisy family, and is originally from North America and Europe. Scientific studies of echinacea show it is not protective against cold or flu-like illnesses, but taking it regularly while you are well may slightly decrease your chances of falling ill. Once you already have cold symptoms, echinacea is unlikely to lessen severity or length of symptoms. There are many different forms of echinacea such as pills, lozenges, tea and also lotions. Having any form of echinacea by mouth for a short period of time is unlikely to cause any harmful side effects, although some people may have an allergic reaction since it is a plant. In some people, echinacea may also cause stomach upset.

Supplements of zinc can be purchased over-the-counter as pill, lozenge, syrup, lotion and spray forms. Zinc is found naturally in meat products such as red meat, poultry, seafood such as crab and lobsters, oysters. It is also found in fortified breakfast cereals. Overall, we do not have enough scientific evidence to say that zinc supplements can speed up recovery or lessen severity of cold or flu symptoms. Regular zinc supplementation is not recommended for most people, and could be unsafe because too much of it can cause copper deficiency, lower immunity, and low levels of HDL cholesterol (also known as ‘good cholesterol’). Furthermore, having too much zinc could cause nausea, diarrhea, kidney and stomach damage, and a metallic taste in the mouth. Spray-forms of zinc are especially dangerous because they can result in a loss of taste and smell. Zinc can interact with many medications, so always check with a medical professional before taking it.

You may also be wondering about Vitamin C supplements. Vitamin C, also known as ascorbic acid, can be found in pill and powder forms, and also naturally in food sources such as fruits and vegetables. Vitamin C contains antioxidants which protect our healthy cells. If you are not getting the amount of vitamin C your body needs, you may be more likely to get sick, but getting excess vitamin C is not likely to help. Research on Vitamin C shows that taking a daily supplement will not prevent most people from getting a cold or flu-like illness, but might reduce how long you have a cold by about one day. If you start taking vitamin C right when you get sick, it is not likely to reduce length or severity of illness. Potential negative side effects of having too much vitamin C include nausea, stomach upset, and heartburn.

There are many additional products geared towards immunity such as Airborne and Emergen-C. These products typically contain vitamin C and other ingredients. Specifically, ingredients in airborne include vitamin C, sugar substitutes, mineral oil, and natural and artificial flavors. Emergen-C contains vitamin C, B vitamins, zinc, sugar substitutes, and other vitamins and minerals. These products may help you to drink more water, which can be beneficial. These products could cause nausea, diarrhea and stomach upset if you have too much.

Overall, the above products may help to support immunity slightly by decreasing the length of time you are sick or lowering your risk of getting sick, but there is not enough research to say they will help to build immunity or prevent illness altogether. They are not likely to cause significant harm if taken in prescribed doses. It’s important to know the truth about these supplements so you know what you are purchasing. Some brand names have higher costs even though they have the same ingredients as store brands, so try the less expensive brands (which are usually the stores own brands). The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not regulate supplements, so the content of some products may differ from what the label says. Some herbal supplements can interact with medications, so always speak to a medical professional before starting a new supplement.

Known ways to support a healthy immune system include getting regular physical activity, eating a variety of fruits and vegetables (which naturally contain many vitamins, minerals and antioxidants!), and getting enough sleep every night. In addition, taking steps towards self-care can minimize stress and help to keep your immune system as strong as it can possibly be.

Do you have questions about any other herbal supplements for immune support? Feel free to post your question on the ‘ask us’ section of our the Center for Young Women’s Health or Young Men’s Health Site!

-Dietitian Elsey