Health

'Immune-Boosting' Products Are Trying to Capitalize on Coronavirus

Don't let brands taking advantage of pandemic-induced panic goad you into spending money on ineffective products.
19 March 2020, 6:00am
A selection of vitamins and herbal supplements
Photo via Getty Images/Cultura RF

This article originally appeared on VICE US.

A lot of people are trying their hardest to be healthy right now. Society-wise, we’re getting there: We’re social distancing, we’re being good neighbors, we’re not going home to our parents, and we’re coping with the fact that the rich and famous are having a much easier time obtaining tests than we are!

Still, the lack of coherent guidance from anyone who’s supposedly “in charge” of “the country” means it’s hard to know what healthy (or sick!) actually looks like during this pandemic. On a personal level, it’s hard to know how to take care of ourselves in these fraught and stressful times. One thing that is absolutely not helpful: supplements and other products that promise “immune-boosting” benefits.

According to scientific research and actual medical professionals, no vitamin or mineral can actually “boost” your immune system—which means no product with extra vitamins or minerals can do it either! Not Airborne; not Emergen-C; not Goop’s herbal chews that are “formulated with organic elderberry extract and EpiCor® fermented yeast for behind-the-scenes immune support;” not the products flooding the inboxes of health journalists everywhere right now, if this reporter’s own is any indication!

It’s just not possible.

“In order for the human body to work optimally, you need these vitamins, minerals… However, having an overabundance of these vitamins or minerals has never proven to shorten the duration of any kind of virus, bacteria, or cold,” family medicine physician Mikhail Varshavski (also known as Doctor Mike on YouTube) told VICE.

Varshavski said loading up on products packed with “immune-boosting” ingredients is, at best, a waste of money. At worst, Varshavski warned, flooding your body with excess amounts of fat-soluble vitamins (like vitamins D and A) could lead to vitamin toxicity, a condition that brings its own serious health risks like skin issues, nausea, liver damage, or even death, depending on which vitamin is consumed in toxic amounts.

“The way I like to explain it to folks is if you have a construction site, and I want that construction site to be built faster, I can't simply ship more materials and think that now the project is going to be done faster,” he said. “It doesn't work that way. In fact, sometimes it creates a problem having too many materials to store on site. The body functions much in the same way.”

If the idea of immune-boosting products is B.S., it may feel confusing that brands are allowed to just say seemingly whatever they like. But “immune-boosting,” as an advertised claim, falls neatly through the cracks of the FDA’s guidelines on this kind of marketing. The guidelines do prohibit unproven “disease claims,” i.e., promises that a product will “diagnose, cure, mitigate, treat, or prevent disease.” That’s why straight-up fraudulent products promising to cure coronavirus have been subject to significant crackdown. But broader, vaguer claims about “health promotion or disease prevention” are allowed even if, as experts say, they are ultimately empty.

Under normal circumstances, these kinds of ad copy loopholes are annoying but, like, fine. I guess if I have to choose between equally-priced seltzers, I’ll take the one that’s got “adaptogens” in it. Whatever.

But experts are concerned that what’s mainly an advertising ploy during normal times could look like medical advice in a crisis, especially to consumers who are panicking. “I see a lot of these marketing folks take advantage of people and prey on their vulnerabilities,” Varshavski said. “There's no more vulnerable time than during a pandemic.”

There are plenty of ways to keep your immune system healthy and supported that don’t involve chugging a gallon of Emergen-C on the daily. According to Harvard Health Publishing, it’s pretty straightforward: Exercise regularly, eat a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, get at least seven hours of sleep a night, drink alcohol in moderation, manage your stress, and wash your fucking hands.

Varshavski echoed the above, with extra emphasis on mental health management for our indisputably taxing times. “Stay alert,” he said. “When you do have a level of anxiety, it puts you into a chronic stress state, which actually harms your immune system. So, the most important thing is we shouldn't be panicking or being anxious. That's number one.”

Of course, it’s hard not to feel anxious when your life feels utterly precarious, whether you have no insurance or PTO, or just got laid off, or are working in a Whole Foods or as a delivery person. Still, the only way to solve these existential problems is via a functioning government that extends significant aid to the rapidly growing number of people made vulnerable by the COVID-19 pandemic… not consumer products that are ultimately useless.

Follow Katie Way on Twitter.