Starve a Fever? Facts and Myths About Your Immune System

4 min read

sick woman drinking tea

By John Wood

You can see The Great Wall of China from space.

A penny dropped from the top of the Empire State Building will kill you.

Cracking your knuckles will give you arthritis.

It takes seven years for your body to digest a piece of gum.

When briefed on those suffering in her kingdom, Marie Antoinette said, "Let them eat cake."

Did you hear any of the above old adages growing up? They are good fodder for small talk, but they are all false. And while believing one or more of the above won’t adversely affect your health, there are health-related myths that could. Let’s look at six common immune-related statements. … 

  1. Antibiotics may reduce your immune system’s ability to fight diseases. 2017 study by the Board Institute of MIT and Harvard found that “Antibiotics may reduce the ability of immune cells to kill bacteria.” Antibiotics were first discovered by scientists in the 1920s and first became available for public use in the 1940s. Before antibiotics, people were dying from minor bacterial infections like strep throat. It’s important not to confuse “antibiotics” with “antibodies.” Antibodies, produced naturally in your body, disable foreign invading particles such as microorganisms and viruses. The key thing to know about antibiotics is they can only kill bacterial infections. Maladies caused by viruses such as the flu and the common cold are not affected by antibiotics. A 2017 study by the Board Institute of MIT and Harvard found that “Antibiotics may reduce the ability of immune cells to kill bacteria.”

    Verdict: True

  2. Your Immune system gets weaker with age. Professor Janet Lord, director of the Institute of Inflammation and Aging at the University of Birmingham, says that "the immune system declines by about 2% to 3% a year from our 20s, which is why older people are more susceptible to infections, conditions like rheumatoid arthritis and, potentially, cancer." If this decline starts when someone is say 25 years of age and your immunity declines by 2.5% per year, by age 51 your immune system would be operating at 50%; by 65 your immune system would be operating at 35%, and by 87 your immune system would be operating at 21%. Mark Johnston, editor-in-chief of the journal Genetics,is quoted as saying: "As the average age of the U.S. population increases, understanding how to maintain strong, healthy immune systems could help many of us live longer, healthier lives."

    Verdict: True

  3. Feed a cold, starve a fever. According to the Smithsonian website, the origin of “feed a cold, starve a fever” dates back to 1574. That’s the year English dictionary writer John Withals wrote, “Fasting is a great remedie [sic] of fever.” According to Mark A. Moyad, MD, MPH of the Michigan Medical Center in Ann Arbor (and many other credible sources), it’s not advice you should heed. “When you have a cold or a fever, your immune system is fighting off an infection, and eating less during the early stages of an infection can actually be dangerous,” Moyad said. “The body requires large amounts of energy to create and assemble the large number of immune cells necessary to fight the enemy. Good nutrition and calories provide this energy."

    Verdict: False

  4. A five-minute burst of anger weakens the immune system for five or six hours. Have you ever been angry for five minutes in a row? Most people have. While you might say something you regret during those five minutes, it might not be your biggest overall concern. According to a study published on the nonprofit HeartMath Institute, a five-minute burst of anger can weaken your immune system for up to six hours. Mind you, the study only involved 30 individuals (13 males, 17 females), so it’s certainly not definitive. But it’s a friendly reminder of the damage anger can do to our bodies (high blood pressure, stress, anxiety, headaches, poor circulation) and the importance of holding a positive view of life every moment of every day.

    Verdict: True (but not proven beyond a shadow of a doubt)

  5. Vaping is safer than cigarette smoking. There are few leisure activities more damaging to your overall health than smoking. It damages every organ in your body. It’s why 70% of the approximately 34 million adult smokers in the United States are trying to quit. Many smokers have switched to vaping as a way to wean themselves off cigarettes. But is vaping safe? A regular cigarette contains approximately 7,000 chemicals, but an e-cigarette still contains chemicals (albeit fewer chemicals). Vaping has been linked to chronic lung disease and asthma. Both e-cigarettes and regular cigarettes contain nicotine, which is an extremely addictive substance.

    Verdict: True (Vaping is not “safe,” but it is thought to be less harmful than smoking cigarettes.)

  6. Canned or frozen fruits and vegetables are not as nutritious as fresh fruits and vegetables. Fruits and vegetables are packed with vitamins, minerals, fiber and antioxidants and when consumed regularly will reduce the risk of heart disease, stroke and many other potentially life-altering diseases. Can the same thing be said to be true when they’re frozen or canned? Here’s what you need to know: Frozen and canned vegetables and fruit are picked at peak ripeness — the point where they are packed with the most vitamin and nutrient power. Studies show that recipes prepared with canned foods have similar nutritional values to recipes prepared with fresh or frozen ingredients.

    When buying canned vegetables, it’s important to buy products low in sodium. You can reduce the sodium even more by rinsing the vegetables off before eating them. When buying canned fruit, buy fruits canned in water, their own juice or light syrup. Make sure the frozen fruit you buy has no added sugar. A 2015 study by the Department of Nutrition, University of California at Davis found that people who frequently buy canned fruits and vegetables have a higher nutrient intake level.

    On the other hand, the use of toxic chemicals in some food can linings has been linked to birth defects, cancer, obesity and other health issues, so you have to weigh the health benefits with the risks and choose canned food products wisely.

    Verdict: False

Now that you’re armed with some facts about the human immune system, you’re ready to make informed decisions that can lead to a longer, healthier life.

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