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Sex. Celebrity. Politics. With Teeth

Buying Immunity

Image: Benjamin Currie/GO Media
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

“Health crises of any kind—local, national or (like the current coronavirus), global in scale are a wake-up call for all of us,” writes Dr. Frank Lipman for The Well, a private, $375 a month “wellness club” that includes a practice called “vibrational energy healing.” “As one of my patients recently said, ‘There’s nothing like a potential pandemic to make you think about upping your immunity.’”

Brands like The Well, Moon Juice, and Goop seem to have ample advice on how to increase immunity in a vague pursuit of wellness. Lipman recommends upping your greens intake or eating a lot of garlic, but also drinking bone broth, eating medicinal mushrooms, olive leaf extract, and “glutathione.” At Goop, the brand rounded up some guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention but also offer their own tips on fighting the flu and colds with herbal remedies like elderberry and soups loaded with parsnips.

Amanda Chantal Bacon, creator of the wellness brand Moon Juice, offers her current daily routine on Instagram: “liposomal C a few times a day, high doses of D, Reishi everyday, Zinc+B6, sleep, regulate cortisol (mediation + adaptogens), broth with garlic and ginger, Acupuncture, optimal magnesium levels, a cold minute to your shower,” she writes, adding that those who want to stay strong should avoid “sugar, fighting, alcohol, fear, processed foods, isolation and stagnation.” The clean-eating food delivery service beloved by models Sakara is currently running a 20 percent off sale on their most “immune-boosting” products like “Detox Water Drops,” which is basically just chlorophyll, and recommending cod liver oil and “quercetin.”

The founder of lifestyle brand mindbodygreen Jason Wachob is taking a hemp supplement to make sure he’s “less reactive,” which means he’s less stressed, and therefore apparently less immunocompromised. Meanwhile, Naomi Campbell posted a Youtube video in which she documents how she makes her daily “immune booster” smoothie, which includes artichoke powder and pomegranate, in between clips of doctors from hospitals like Mount Sinai talking about vitamin consumption as a personal choice.

The dizzying array of supplements, powders, and superfoods recommended by wellness brands and companies reflects a certain belief that, with just the right blend of products, food can be a medicine cabinet. And while brands like Moon Juice are taking small precautions, like recommending customers opt for delivery or pick-up rather than coming to the store, and resources like The Well make sure to link to basic CDC guidelines, the message still seems to be that you can boost your immunity through consumption. A virus is the result of either laziness or poverty (or, sometimes both). Those unwilling to labor toward the abstract cause of immunity or unable to purchase the necessities are destined for infection.

The wellness industry is built on creating and affirming vague, chronic illnesses consumers say are unsupported or overlooked by traditional medicine. There is always a vitamin to cure ailments like fatigue or a powder to “support mental stamina,” even if the benefits of the ingredients wellness purveyors insist they contain are debunked by science. But the focus on immunity is a hamster wheel of wellness; either you want to be well, or you’re already well and want to feel even better. If you’re not taking anything, then you’re not taking care of yourself. There is always something to consume; there is always more to consume.

“Immunity boosting,” as so many brands advertise it, is a myth. “There are a lot of products that tout immune-boosting properties, but I don’t think any of these have been medically proven to work,” Dr. Krystina Woods, a hospital epidemiologist and medical director of infection prevention at Mount Sinai West told The New York Times. Researchers and doctors have largely concluded that aside from a few recommendations to young women, vitamins and supplements do not actually prevent chronic illness. Supplements like elderberry have been shown to fight flu symptoms in small studies, but not enough research has been done to actually recommend it, and there isn’t enough research to support claims that medicinal mushrooms can also prevent or treat disease. And there is no evidence that supplements can boost immunity against covid-19.

That a lot of these products are herbal or draw from a mysticized idea of non-Western medicine to grant them the aura of exotic or magical importance in an industry that tends to cater to a white, affluent audience. Casual recommendations for simply taking care of yourself, such as sleeping better, are a lot more boring than instructions to eat some ancient herb each morning, but they’re also harder to sell to a panicked customer base.

Brands like Goop, Moon Juice, or mindbodygreen sells the illusion of an elevated sense of control, the promise of wellness free from traditional forms of medicine distilled into one, prettily packaged pill or powder. But the pursuit of immunity can be futile. “No matter how much effort we expend, not everything is potentially within our control, not even our own bodies and minds,” Barbara Ehrenreich wrote in the introduction to her book Natural Causes, which opens with her confusing discovery that the sacred immune system can help grow and spread tumors. The simplicity of these products becomes even more alluring to followers desperately looking to be the told the right thing to consume right now to ensure protection.

But the obsession with protecting and strengthening one’s immunity also focuses on the health of the individual rather than the health of a community. Taking care of oneself has quickly shifted for many Americans into a demand to take care of one another, to freeze eviction notices and rents, to buy groceries for elderly neighbors, to send money to service workers currently out of a job.

And yet effective community care can be impossible in a country where healthcare is still a luxury for millions of Americans. The country’s most vulnerable workers right now, like grocery store employees, have even had to fight for paid sick leave; Whole Foods suggested that employees “donate” their PTO to their coworkers who undergo a medical emergency, and the Trader Joe’s union is still fighting for hazard pay. For the uninsured or those that must go to work every day, reaching for immunity-strengthening supplements emerges as an inexpensive, accessible option to protecting one’s health even if the advertised benefits are misleading. Citing research from IRI, a firm that tracks supplement sales at retailers like Walmart and Walgreens, the New York Times reported that sales of supplements like vitamin C rose 146 percent the first week of March, while elderberry supplements were up 415 percent.

The flimsy definitions of commercialized self-care, that health is all about what you consume and the lone body you occupy, is the bread and butter of wellness companies that currently stress the need for supplements. But in a moment that calls for organization and communal care, their message has never seemed more irrelevant.