By dr. Wilhelm von Ludwig
“How can I stop my child from getting sick all the time?” asked the mother as her little one squirmed on her lap. This is the third time in two weeks that I have seen this toddler with those mischievous eyes.
As I formulate my answer, she fires off another: “How can we boost his immune system?” And another: “Which supplement does Doc suggest?”
All these questions dance around the assumption that supplements (and especially vitamins) are the backbone of one’s immune system.
Last month I had the privilege of attending the 11th South African AIDS Congress in Durban. Because HIV is an immunosuppressive disease, there were several lectures on the workings of the human immune system. The complex interactions between cells, antibodies and antigens are enough to leave anyone in awe. Each of us is truly a formidable biological war machine.
But with winter closing in on us, vitamins are the big, white elephant in the doctor’s office.
Although vitamins were only discovered in 1913, the foods in which they are found have long been used to counteract certain diseases. Scurvy was recognized from an early time as a deficiency of fresh fruit (vitamin C) and doctors in ancient Egypt prescribed liver (vitamin A) for night blindness. The last vitamins were discovered in the forties, and at the same time marketing of the molecules began.
Scientific studies have been presented to the public by companies as proof that every imaginable ailment can be attributed to a vitamin deficiency. These wonder molecules have been added to food and also sold as stand-alone supplements. For the first time in human history, it is now possible to suffer from hypervitaminosis (an excess of vitamins)!
The idea that vitamins build one’s immune system is so programmed into the public’s DNA that any dogma in the opposite direction is immediately labeled as heresy. As a result, I am often looked at in disbelief when I say that vitamins are not the answer to a strong immune system.
Under normal circumstances, one’s immunity is built up through exposure. Just as muscles are strengthened by exercise, the body’s resistance is, as it were, “trained” by exposure to various diseases. A practical example of this is doctors, who are exposed to many diseases on a daily basis and consequently do not easily get sick from colds or flu. Children also get more infections than adults, since every disease their immune system sees is brand new. Vaccinations are an artificial means of achieving exposure.
Granted, vitamins are important for a healthy immunity, but focusing only on supplements is like keeping your car engine full of oil while leaving the rest behind. A well-balanced diet also contains carbohydrates, proteins and fats, all of which are building blocks of the white blood cells and antibodies that protect a person against winter plague. Sufficient sleep has been proven in many studies to contribute to a waking resistance. Regular exercise is also conducive to the functioning of one’s immunity in the long run.
On my way back from the AIDS congress, I saw something related to the idea that vitamins are the alpha and omega-3 of a healthy immunity. A few kilometers north of Durban, the Zulu huts often have a car tire or two on their roofs. One of the reasons for this is very practical – after all, it keeps the corrugated sheets in place.
But the other reason stands wide of the mark between science and superstition – the story goes that the rubber in the tires protects the cabin from lightning. Often most tires are found on the roof of a shack erected under or near a power mast.
The power poles naturally attract the most lightning. With more car tires on the roof, the resident of the cabin can sit back and wait for the heavy weather. However, we know that the rubber in the tires provides no protection for the cabin. This is the large power mast that acts as a lightning conductor next to the hut.
Ironically, the same cause of the problem is also the solution. Electricity is conducted away through the power mast again and again. Just as the repeated exposure to viruses, ironically, is the way to a strong immunity.
And the tires on the roof?
It lets the owner (and the mother) sleep well.
- Wilhelm von Ludwig is a general practitioner who practices in Polokwane. Follow him up TikTok or Facebook.