Let’s face it; we’ve all gotten duped, at least at one point, into purchasing a pricey supplement we thought would cure all our ailments. Perhaps you found yourself scouring the supplement aisle at the first sign of the sniffles.
However, the problem with supplements is that the FDA doesn’t regulate them before they hit the shelves, and technically, anyone can fill capsules with just about anything and sell them. Scary, right? Of course, not all supplements are harmful, as many companies go above and beyond to ensure their products are safe for their consumers with accurate labeling and third-party testing.
Yet, supplements should not replace a well-balanced diet. They should be used just as their name suggests—as a supplement to a healthy diet (e.g., in cases where you are unable to get sufficient amounts from your diet). Eating a well-balanced diet will give you the necessary vitamins and minerals to support a robust immune system.
In this article, you will learn which four supplements you should avoid and which foods you should start eating more of when it comes to supporting your immune health.
Why Your Immune Health Is Important
Our body’s immune system is equipped to recognize and fight off potential harmful invaders. “Think of your immune system as your body’s internal superhero–if our immune systems are healthy, it’s easier to fight viruses, bacteria or anything else trying to make us sick,” explains Chelsea LeBlanc, RDN, LD, a Nashville, TN-based dietitian and owner of Chelsea LeBlanc Nutrition.
However, if that internal superhero becomes compromised, it may not be able to offer up protection. “Your immune system plays a role in more areas than you may have realized way beyond just protecting you from “catching things” like colds, flu and viruses,” explains Bonnie Taub-Dix, RDN, media dietitian and creator of BetterThanDieting.com and author of Read It Before You Eat It – Taking You from Label to Table. “A healthy immune system could also help you recover faster from illness and reduce inflammation. It’s also believed that your immune system plays a role in longevity and the prevention of diseases,” she says.
Eating a healthy diet, getting enough sleep, tackling stress and regularly exercising are the core ways you can help support your immune health, which brings us to the four supplements you shouldn’t be taking for immune health.
The 4 Supplements You Shouldn’t Be Taking for Immune Health
If you’ve ever picked up an immunity shot at your local juice shop, you might be surprised to see oregano oil listed as an ingredient. Yes, that oregano, the one we all sprinkle on pizza and pasta. Oregano oil is extracted from its leaves and is available in liquid and capsule form. According to a 2020 article published in the Metabolites, oregano oil has been used medicinally for years to treat countless ailments. It is also used as a natural food preservative due to its antioxidant and anti-microbial properties, per a 2019 article in the International Journal of Nutrition.
However, human trials are lacking on whether it’s truly effective at supporting health. A 2020 meta-analysis published in Phytotherapy Research primarily examining animal studies showed oregano oil to effectively reduce some inflammatory markers. However, other research, like a 2020 one in the Journal of Virology, showed no effect against fighting the flu. Stick to sprinkling the dried or fresh herb on your food rather than taking a supplement.
Colloidal silver is a liquid of tiny silver particles, touted as a cure-all for infections and wounds. However, health experts and the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) warn against falling for its claims. Kristen Carli, M.S, RD, owner of Camelback Nutrition & Wellness, states, “There are many false claims about the health benefits of taking colloidal silver, particularly that it has antimicrobial properties. There is not enough evidence to support these claims.”
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warns colloidal silver is unsafe and has neither proven effective nor been used for preventive measures. Carli adds, “I would caution anyone against taking colloidal silver as it can be harmful in high doses and can negatively interact with many medications.”
One of the most popular ingredients you may see in cold and flu products is echinacea. Echinacea is available in just about any form – syrup, powder, throat lozenge, tea bag, capsule and gummy – which makes it so tempting to add one of these products to your shopping cart when your immune system could use a boost.
Echinacea comes from a plant and is hyped for its infection-fighting powers, per the NCCIH. However, Taub-Dix explains, “Some people rely on echinacea, but studies have shown mixed results as to whether it can be relied upon. Moreover, echinacea might interfere with certain health conditions such as autoimmune disorders.”
A 2019 meta-analysis of 29 studies published in Complementary Therapies in Medicine found no significant benefit when echinacea was used to prevent or treat upper respiratory infections. So, it is another one to skip and save from using your hard-working dollars on.
Moderate-to-intense exercise may help improve the functioning of your immune system. Still, if you are tempted to take a booster such as a pre-workout before walking out the door, LeBlanc advises using it cautiously towards the end of the day. “Many of them contain caffeine, which might energize your workout, but too much can impact your sleep, leaving you restless and wide awake at bedtime.”
LeBlanc further explains, “Quality sleep is crucial for immune health. It allows your body to rest, repair and fight off illness. Most adults need 7-9 hours a night, so if you’re having trouble sleeping when taking a pre-workout supplement, look for one without caffeine.” Lack of sleep can disrupt the immune system and may increase your risk for not only infections but also metabolic and cardiovascular disorders, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Tips for Healthy Eating for Your Immune Health
So, instead of downing a fist full of pills when you feel a sickness coming your way, focus on loading up on foods that are boasting with nutrients. LeBlanc says, “Nutrient-rich foods, like those high in vitamins C and D, zinc and antioxidants, act as frontline defenders and help your body fight off illness.” Vitamin C can be found in oranges, grapefruit, kiwi, strawberries, bell peppers and broccoli. Vitamin D can be found in foods such as salmon, egg yolks, yogurt and fortified milk. And lentils, chickpeas, yogurt and cashews are good sources of zinc.
Taub-Dix chimes in, “You can never go wrong with adding more fruits and veggies to your diet.” Fruits and veggies are loaded with immune-supporting nutrients and can also be treated as the main entrée, not just a side. To get your veggie fill, try our Sheet-Pan Ratatouille, Veggistrone or Eat-the-Rainbow Chopped Salad recipes. Smoothies also make for a great way to load up on both veggies and fruits, such as our Mango & Kale Smoothie, which incorporates kale, mango and bananas. Or start embracing fruit for its natural sweetness and give these healthy dessert alternatives a try, loaded with immune-supporting nutrients: Pineapple Nice Cream, Baked Peaches, or Brown Sugar Broiled Grapefruit.
“What’s key is not waiting until you have a cold or you feel run down to start adding these foods or any supplements to your diet. It’s making a habit of having these foods make regular appearances in your daily diet that can help you get and stay stronger throughout the year,” adds Taub-Dix.
The Bottom Line
Although it is tempting to stockpile “immune-boosting” supplements, especially during cold and flu season, remember to focus on including nutrient-dense foods in your diet and avoid overusing supplements. Plus, it is important to always be wary when choosing supplements, and you should make sure to choose a reliable brand and check with your medical provider before consuming them. Filling up on enough fruits, veggies, whole grains, legumes and protein will provide you with all the immune-fighting vitamins and minerals you need.