Read this before you jump on the elderberry bandwagon.

By Kara Lydon, RD, LDN, RYT
June 17, 2020
immune boosting supplements
Credit: Inna Dodor/Getty Images

Bizzare times call for bizarre measures. It sure seems that way as the novel coronavirus has initiated a wave of bogus misinformation about methods to "boost" your immune system. You know what I'm talking about: The wellness guru friend from college touting her oregano oil and elderberry syrup on Instagram or Facebook, the holistic health "coach" pushing IV vitamin infusions, and the company selling "medicinal" immunity tea. Even the less eccentric recommendations such as "eat more citrus and probiotic-rich foods" and "just take a zinc supplement," while well-intentioned, are not backed up by strong science—at least not when it comes to fending off COVID-19 or other infectious diseases. It's simply, well, not that simple.

Here's the deal with your immune system: It's complex AF. It's an intricate system of cells, tissues, and organs, each with a specific role in fighting against pathogens, such as harmful bacteria and viruses. Because of its complexity, the research around it is constantly evolving, with scientists searching for evidence-based ways to safely improve its function. But, while research may suggest some things you can do, eat, or avoid to help your immune system perform optimally, there is still so much that is unknown. So, to suggest that any one supplement or food could give it the COVID-fighting "boost" you desire, can be faulty at best and dangerous at worst. (Related: Everything You Need to Know About Coronavirus Transmission)

You don't really want to "boost" your immune system.

Even the word "boost" as it relates to the immune system is misinformed. You wouldn't want to boost your immune system above and beyond its capacity because an overactive immune system leads to autoimmune diseases, where the immune system mistakenly attacks healthy cells as well as unhealthy cells in your body. Instead, you want to support your immune system to function normally so it helps fight infection when the time comes. (Related: Can You Really Speed Up Your Metabolism?)

But what about elderberry and vitamin C?

Sure, there some very small studies that show immune benefits to taking some supplements and vitamins such as elderberry syrup, zinc, and vitamin C. However, these preliminary studies typically conclude that while some results may be promising, more work is needed to consider making any kind of recommendation.

More importantly, while you might say to yourself that someone suggesting you take a vitamin C tablet to ward off a common cold isn't all that risky, the same cannot be said for making these kinds of bold claims as fact when the world is battling a novel, rapidly spreading, and deadly virus we know little about. Vitamin C is surely not enough to protect frontline workers who risk their lives going into crowded spaces where COVID-19 could easily be transmitted. And yet everyday people on social media and natural health companies are making egregious claims about supplements like elderberry syrup, claiming that they can help prevent COVID-19.

One concerning example on IG touts "promising coronavirus research" around the use of elderberry and lists a wide variety of associated health claims from anti-cancer effects to treatment for respiratory illnesses like the cold and flu. It seems to be in reference to an article in Chicago's Daily Herald, which cites an in-vitro research study in 2019 that shows a preventative effect of elderberry on a different strain of Coronavirus (HCoV-NL63). According to the research, human coronavirus HCoV-NL63 has been around since 2004 and mainly affects children and the immunocompromised. Regardless, we can't take a study conducted in a test tube (not on a human, or even rats, frankly) on a completely different strain of coronavirus and jump to conclusions (or share misinformation) about preventing COVID-19.

While taking a vitamin C supplement if you feel a cold coming on (albeit, there's also no conclusive evidence that even works) isn't necessarily a bad thing, many supplement companies and med spas are pushing megadoses and vitamin infusions that may cause more harm than good. Overdosing on vitamins is a real thing. At these unnecessarily high levels, there is a real chance of toxicity and potential interactions with medications, which can lead to anything from nausea, dizziness, diarrhea, and headaches, to even kidney damage, heart problems, and in very extreme cases, death.

What's more, it's probably not even effective at preventing sickness. "Vitamin C administered to healthy people has no effect—since it's a water-soluble vitamin, all it does is produce expensive urine," Rick Pescatore, D.O., an emergency physician and the director of clinical research in the Department of Emergency Medicine at Crozer-Keystone Health System previously told Shape.

Look to the right sources for information.

Thankfully, government health agencies are speaking out against the potentially harmful misinformation that's surfacing in response to the global coronavirus pandemic. The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health under the National Institute for Health (NIH) released a statement in response to increased online chatter around "purported remedies" which include "herbal therapies, teas, essential oils, tinctures, and silver products such as colloidal silver," adding that some of them may not be safe to consume. "There is no scientific evidence that any of these alternative remedies can prevent or cure the illness caused by COVID-19," according to the statement. (Related: Should You Buy a Copper Fabric Face Mask to Protect Against COVID-19?)

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) are fighting back as well. The FTC, for example, issued a warning letter to hundreds of companies for selling fraudulent products that claim to prevent, cure, or treat COVID-19. "There already is a high level of anxiety over the potential spread of coronavirus," said FTC chairman Joe Simons in a statement. "What we don't need in this situation are companies preying on consumers by promoting products with fraudulent prevention and treatment claims. These warning letters are just the first step. We're prepared to take enforcement actions against companies that continue to market this type of scam."

While some of the most egregious claims about supplements and their abilities to prevent and treat COVID-19 seem to have slowed, many companies are still promoting their products with the stealthy marketing promise of "boosting your immune system" without directly mentioning COVID-19.

TL;DR: Look I get the anxiety. I mean hello, a global pandemic that we've never lived through before? Of course, you're going to be anxious. But trying to manage that anxiety by spending money on supplements, teas, oils, and products will not only NOT protect you from COVID-19, but could actually end up being dangerous.

I always tell my clients that there is no one food or supplement that is going to improve your health, and guess what? There's no one food or supplement that's going to protect you from contracting coronavirus either.

If this has all left you wondering if there's really anything you can do to improve the health of your immune system, don't worry, there is.

How to Support a Healthy Immune System

Eat well and often.

There is strong evidence that malnutrition can compromise your immune system, so you want to make sure you're eating a variety of foods regularly throughout the day, even if you don't have much of an appetite (for some people, anxiety can suppress hunger cues). Poor overall nutrition can lead to inadequate intake of energy (calories) and macronutrients (carbohydrates, protein, fat) and can result in deficiencies in micronutrients such as vitamins A, C, E, B, D, selenium, zinc, iron, copper, and folic acid that are essential for a healthy immune function

That might sound like a simple solution, but it can come with some roadblocks, especially right now—for example, if you struggle with any kind of disordered eating, have difficulty grocery shopping, or lack access to some foods.

Get enough sleep.

Research shows that various immune-supporting molecules and cells such as cytokines and T cells are produced during nighttime sleep. Without sufficient sleep (7-8 hours per night), your body makes fewer cytokines and T cells, potentially compromising your immune response. If you can't get those eight hours of shut-eye, studies show that making up for it with two daytime naps (20-30 minutes) may help offset the negative effects of sleep deprivation on the immune system. (Related: How and Why the Coronavirus Pandemic Is Messing with Your Sleep)

Manage stress.

While that might sound easier said than done right now, these efforts to manage stress will be worth it in many ways. The immune system responds to signals from other systems in the body like the nervous system and endocrine system. While acute stress (the nerves before giving a presentation) may not suppress the immune system, chronic stress can cause increased levels of cortisol in the blood, leading to more inflammation that can compromise the immune response. Moreover, it can compromise the function of immune cells like lymphocytes that help ward off infection. (Related: How to Cope with COVID-19 Stress When You Can't Stay Home)

To manage chronic stress, try mindfulness activities such as yoga, breathwork, meditation, and getting out in nature. Research has shown that mindfulness-based activities are effective at regulating the stress response and its impact on the body.

Move your body.

Research shows that regular, moderate physical activity reduces the incidences of infection and disease, implying that it enhances immunity. This may be due to increased blood circulation allowing immune cells to move more freely and do their job more efficiently. However, some studies show a compromised immune response in athletes and those engaging in intense exercise, but this is typically seen in only extreme athletes, not everyday exercisers. The takeaway is to engage in regular exercise that feels good in your body and doesn't feel excessive or obsessive. (Read more: Why You Might Want to Cool It On High-Intensity Workouts During the COVID Crisis)

Drink responsibly.

Quarantine is reason enough to have a well-stocked wine cabinet but know that when drinking because excessive it may compromise your immune system. Chronic and excessive alcohol consumption causes increased inflammation and decreased production of anti-inflammatory immune agents. While there's no evidence that alcohol intake increases your risk for COVID-19, studies on alcohol consumption show negative associations and worsened outcomes with acute respiratory distress. Since respiratory issues are a reoccurring and frequently deadly symptom of COVID-19, it's best to be mindful of not overdoing it.

You can still unwind with a glass of wine at the end of the day because alcohol in moderation (no more than one drink a day for women, according to the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans) can provide some health benefits such as a decreased risk of heart attack and stroke.

The Bottom Line

Don't get sucked into the claims by companies, influencers, or your friend on Facebook that something as simple as a syrup or a supplement pill can protect you from COVID-19. These often unethical tactics could be trying to capitalize on our collective vulnerability. Save your money (and your sanity).

The information in this story is accurate as of press time. As updates about coronavirus COVID-19 continue to evolve, it's possible that some information and recommendations in this story have changed since initial publication. We encourage you to check in regularly with resources such as the CDC, the WHO, and your local public health department for the most up-to-date data and recommendations.