Immune ‘Boosters’ Ignore the Immune System’s Best Quality: Balance
This article originally appeared on VICE US.
When I got sick as a kid, my father would draw a cartoon of the battle my immune system was fighting in my body. He would sketch an antibody man, shaped like the letter Y, with bulging muscular arms, getting ready to beat up an angry-faced bacteria or virus.
As I grew older, I've noticed that we all cling to these metaphors of physical violence when talking about the immune system. Immune cells called phagocytes devour trespassing bacteria. "Killer" T-cells destroy cells that have been hijacked by viruses. It's ingrained in how we explain the complex system within ourselves that protects us from foreign invaders.
In a 2016 essay in Aeon about the militaristic language we use for the immune system, science writer Jon Turney described a children's book from the 90s called Cell Wars, about "a brave band of cells that keep you healthy by constantly battling against all kinds of invading germs. Every minute, every hour, every day of your life, they are fighting.”
“The imagery of war is hard to get away from,” Turney wrote. Earlier this month, New York's governor, Andrew Cuomo, said of the COVID-19 pandemic, "This is a war. We have to treat it like a war."
Simultaneously, my inbox is teeming with pitches for products that claim they can "boost" my immune system. As a novel coronavirus infects hundreds of thousands of people all over the world, these ads prey on the desire to bolster our troops, give them more ammunition—to go to war. Supplements, juices, soups, elixirs, broths: they all promise to get my immune system into fighting shape for its inevitable showdown with a new enemy.
But this conception of the immune system isn't entirely correct. It does protect us from invading cells, but the system at large is not a cannon set on autopilot. What's more important to the immune system than all-out war is balance. An immune system that is overly-"boosted" is not desirable, but in fact, deadly.
A timely illustration of this is one of the leading causes of death among people with COVID-19, the illness caused by the new coronavirus. It's an extreme overreaction of the immune system, called a cytokine storm. This storm is a thunderous, devastating, often fatal burst of immune overactivity. In these cases, it is not the virus that directly kills a person, but their immune system. There is discussion among clinicians about a treatment for COVID-19 patients that wouldn't "boost" the immune system but instead, turn it down.
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