Can Immunity Boosters Help Protect Against Air Pollution? Here’s What to Know

Experts break down immunity boosters, cleansing tonics, and if they can really help build defences against pollution

3 min read

On Diwali night, there I was, desperately scanning various e-commerce sites for air purifiers while I coughed and wheezed, thanks to the 'very poor' air quality in my city.

As I scrolled, the algorithm threw up an ad for something it, perhaps, thought I could really use based on my search words 'air pollution protection' – a lung detox tonic that promised to clear my lungs of all the ‘tar’ caused by breathing in polluted air.

Now, doesn't that sound like a godsend to all our air pollution woes?
Imagine if an elixir allowed you to clean out your lungs and rid you of all toxins.

Sounds too good to be true? Because it is, say experts.

Let's break it down.


'Lung Cleansers' For Air Pollution: Do They Work?

"There are some tonics that we do suggest during chest infections, pneumonia, etc. These have some chemical and naturally occurring substances (like honey, turmeric, tulsi) that help loosen the sputum and blockage," explains Dr Sushila Kataria, Senior Director, Internal Medicine, Medanta Gurugram.

But, she adds, "if someone claims that these tonics can totally nullify the effects of air pollution, that is untrue."

"People should not be under any false perception that this (the effects of air pollution) can be corrected by taking a few pills."
Dr Sushila Kataria

To put it simply, toxic particles in polluted air like PM2.5 are notorious for being microscopically tiny. So much so that they can easily slip past the defences in your nose and lungs, and into your bloodstream, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency.

There is mounting research attesting to the myriad ways in which air pollution affects all parts of your body, down to your very cells, once inhaled.

"As soon as they go into our airways, they get entrapped in the lungs and then travel to other organs. These extremely tiny particles cannot be removed by any kind of lung tonic."
Dr Sushila Kataria

What About Other Immunity Boosters?

"What people claim as immunity boosters are generally multivitamins, or some ayurvedic/herbal preparations. This could help in relieving some symptoms to some extent, but I think the claims are far too taller than the reality," explains Dr Sushila Kataria.

For one, there are no large studies or randomised control trials that present strong enough evidence that they do.

Now, multivitamin supplements (in small doses) don't really cause any harm, and even help with your overall health in some ways. "But, I don't think they have a specific immuno-booster ability," says Noida-based gastroenterologist Dr Ashwini Setya.

He adds, "There have been no large Randomised Control Trials to prove this either."

Air pollution primarily causes inflammation and allergic reactions, so, experts say, some anti-allergens may help bring some relief.

"The role of the immune system really comes in because inflammation caused by air pollution increases the risk of super-infections," says Dr Setya.

"Since some natural components like haldi, tulsi etc, have been known to have anti-inflammatory properties, a homemade kaada with these ingredients could help ease your symptoms to some extent."
Dr Ashwini Setya

However, Dr Kataria also goes on to warn that, besides multivitamins, excess and irresponsible consumption of 'herbal' concoctions and unregulated tonics and treatments have also been linked to liver damage or toxicity.

"We do see people with liver injury from herbal products. We see liver toxicity from giloy and lauki (bottle gourd) juice," she says, adding, "so it's not like these products won't cause any harm."


Is it Possible to Boost Immuntiy At All?

Before we get into how to build your immunity, it's important to get some clarity on what immunity even is.

"Immunity itself is a very broad definition," says Dr Sushila Kataria.

"In medical terms, when we talk about immunity, we talk about our body’s ability to fight against a specific pathogen." She goes on to explain that this involves a combination of complex interconnected systems of defences including your WBCs (white blood cells), haemoglobin, and your vitamin levels." So, no silver bullet can boost it all at once.

Besides, if you were to somehow give your entire immune system a 'boost', "it could trigger autoimmunity and other problems," according to Michael Starnbach, a professor of microbiology at Harvard Medical School.

"Immunity is a complex thing, that needs to be nurtured by a good lifestyle on a day-to-day basis. There are no shortcuts to it."
Dr Sushila Kataria

Speaking to FIT, Dr Suranjit Chatterjee, Senior Consultant Internal Medicine at Indraprastha Apollo Hospital, agrees, saying, "There’s nothing like immunity-boosting supplements. A healthy lifestyle is the only way to 'build your immunity'. "

According to the experts we spoke to, the slow-and-steady way to build a strong immunity involves,

  • Regular exercise

  • Eating a healthy, balanced meal

  • Adequate sleep and rest

  • Managing stress

  • Getting vaccinated against specific pathogens

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