Essential oils, ‘natural’ supplements, and home remedies abound, especially during a pandemic. But can any of them actually enhance your ability to fight infection?

It’s day three of working from home in an effort to socially distance. You’ve eaten most of your snacks. In an effort to kill time before your fourth Zoom meeting of the day, you turn to social media for a quick scroll. The top post on your Facebook timeline describes the discovery of new supplements that can “supercharge” your immune system to better fight COVID-19. You hop over to Instagram and see your old high school classmate marketing cinnamon and oregano essential oils as a way to protect yourself from infection. Why are these remedies pitched as secrets that doctors don’t want you to know about? Does any of this work to boost the immune system like they claim? And if so, shouldn’t we all be using diffusing lavender and mainlining turmeric, especially as COVID-19 cases in the US continue to increase?

Here is my conflict of interest statement for this piece: reader, I am tired. I am tired of watching people take advantage of global fear and suffering to sell unproven “holistic treatments.” Don’t get me wrong. I’m what you would call pretty granola. I use natural deodorant and do yoga and love some good incense. But my curiosity about alternative wellness is scientific, and it doesn’t extend to things that have the potential to negatively influence public health during a global pandemic (or really, any time). My viewpoint on that is that it is patently irresponsible to push any “immune-boosting” remedy that hasn’t been rigorously tested in a peer-reviewed, scientific study, lest people think that they are protected when they really aren’t.

Now that we have that out of the way, let’s take a look at the crucial question: is there even such a thing as “boosting” your immune system? Most studies say no. Your immune system is made up of cells and molecules that work together to keep invaders out, and how many and what kind of cells your body has is determined by genetics, the microbes your body has been exposed to, and environmental factors like sleep and nutrition. Think of it like a skyscraper: your immune system, functioning as well as it possibly can, is on the top floor. The ceiling is genetics, previous germ exposures, and a host of other factors. Your immune system can sink into the basement if you’re stressed out, sleeping poorly, or sick. However, nothing can boost your immune system beyond the ceiling. Importantly, no peer-reviewed scientific studies support the use of holistic remedies like unapproved supplements and essential oils for increasing immune function.

So you can’t turbocharge your immune system. But you can take steps to support it and keep it in tip-top shape, so that you have the best chance of being protected from infection should you come in contact with COVID-19. Here are some of the best scientifically-tested practices for supporting your immune system:

  • Sleep a little extra. There is strong scientific consensus that getting adequate rest supports immune cell function and helps the body heal from the impacts of environmental stress.
  • Eat a balanced and varied diet. Studies have shown that micronutrients such as zinc, iron, and vitamin A help your immune system function. So should you go out and start hoarding all of those supplements? No! These are all nutrients that you can get from eating a normal, healthy diet.
  • Exercise. Good news for those of you who are stir-crazy this week: getting out for a walk or run supports your immune system. Studies have established a clear link between exercise and decreased risk of illness.
  • Reduce your stress levels. I know, I know, easier said than done, but a study in which volunteers received the common cold in a lab showed that those with lower self-reported stress showed fewer signs of illness. Easy strategies to try include meditation or mindfulness, yoga, and more exercise.

The bottom line is: keep yourself healthy and keep your immune system at the top of its game by supporting your body with plenty of sleep, good nutrition, and exercise. Practice established infection control procedures such as handwashing, sneezing and coughing responsibly, and yes, social distancing. And honestly, if essential oils smell good to you and lower your stress levels, sniff them all you want (within reason, obviously). But don’t count on them to turn your immune system into the Hulk. Stay safe and healthy out there, friends.

Peer edited by Corban Murphey

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