In the wake of Covid-19, immunity and ‘immunity boosting’ have become two of the biggest catchphrases of 2020. But can you really boost your immunity? Right from TV commercials to social media, a number of products and home remedies have emerged to offer quick-fix solutions to boost your immunity. But is it so simple?
If you have been watching TV or scrolling through your feed on various social media platforms, you can’t escape the discussion over ‘immunity’ in the wake of Covid-19. Everyone has been talking about it for months, but how does one build immunity? And how do you know the level of immunity your body has is good enough to fight all sorts of diseases? It’s little wonder that the anxiety and fear surrounding the pandemic has led a lot of people to figure out if there are any quick-fix solutions to keep themselves safe. Kashayam, turmeric, hot beverages, vitamin supplements, zinc, Vitamin C, Yoga, exercise, positive spirit….the list goes on. And then, there’s the other side of social media, fuelled by influencer marketing, where several brands encourage people to try their product to boost your immunity. Now, all this makes you wonder, is it safe enough? And can you really believe their claims?
Noted Yoga and wellness coach, Sunaina Rekhi avers, “India food has a lot of ingredients like garlic, ginger, onions etc which are good for our health and they boost immunity. But what’s really important is to have a holistic approach to taking care of health. Just merely eating good food or doing Yoga alone won’t help you. You need to exercise, have a positive mind, let your mind and body relax, and take care of your wellness.” Ask her if people, selling immunity boosting products especially on social media, are merely trying to cash in on the fear factor and anxiety surrounding Covid-19, Sunaina says, “Yes, but how are you going to stop them? Since it’s everywhere, you are noticing the trend now. Who knows for how long they have been doing this. People tend to believe or follow influencers whose opinions resonate with them. So, it’s really important to follow the advice of the right people and know the person who is advertising all sorts of products on social media.”
There’s no cure or vaccine yet for Covid-19, and so, no brand can claim that using their products or medicines can help you recover from Covid-19. But then, there are no such ‘restrictions’ when it comes to making such claims about immunity. And it’s even more clear when it comes to how TV commercials have been trying to drive home about why their products are still relevant in the age of Covid-19. Without using as many words, what these brands are trying to really say is that using their product, usually pills or powder, is the next best thing to do to keep yourself safe, because no one knows what’s the best or the right thing to do. One particular commercial for a protein powder brand has a ‘doctor’ addressing the viewer directly, “I take care of my immunity everyday. You should too.” For something that’s so abstract, the constant reminders on TV and elsewhere, about boosting your immunity, has given it a form and context that you can’t stop thinking about it!
Putting the latest marketing trends in perspective, Karthik Srinivasan, a well-known Communications strategy consultant and the author of Be Social, says, “From what I see, ‘immunity’ is not a specifically and sharply defined outcome, like say ‘white teeth’ or ‘dandruff free’. In those aspects, you either end up with the outcome or not. Immunity is more like good health, a broader spectrum that is good-to-have, which is why products like Chyawanprash are on an upward trajectory now, given their legendary association with immunity. There also used to be a product called ‘Waterbury’s Compound’ that promised immunity and was advertised in Doordarshan in the 80s/90s where the father of a family used to offer it to the kids every night, as a habit!”
Encashing The Need Of The Hour
Since no brand can actually give a guarantee that their product will really help in alleviating your fear and help boost immunity, does advertising about them become an ethical issue? Karthik says, “Given the lack of sharply defined tangible benefits, the ethics around claiming immunity are confusing. Immunity is not a singular outcome – given certain ingredients, you may build immunity over a period of time. This is the grey area most brands are playing with. And we have always taken a few ingredients that are supposed to build our immunity. Turmeric is one, pepper is another. There are so many more, like Tulsi and so on. So, including these ingredients in various quantities in edible products makes sense for brands to harp about, even if they could be seen as an opportunistic attempt to mine the interest of consumers during a pandemic when interest in ‘immunity’ is at an all time high.”
Avni Kaul, Nutritionist, Wellness Coach and Founder of NutriActivania, says, “There is nothing wrong with this trend because several health and medical bodies right from WHO to our own ICMR have suggested that strong immunity can be helpful in this pandemic. To some extent it is true. However, it is true that immunity will not improve instantly because it is a long continuous process which helps develop a healthy immune system. If someone feels that he/she has a low immunity then building it up should start as soon as possible but only after consultation with a reputed nutritionist or dietician, specially if one wants to do it through food and supplements. Randomly following any pattern is not recommended because there are several factors that contribute to the development of one’s immune system. On the basis of a thorough analysis of their physical condition, one should start to consume what could best improve their immunity. It is true that because of fear and anxiety, people are panicking and therefore willing to try anything that promises immunity. The current trend of giving priority to the immunity was not visible earlier because then the focus was on eating unhealthy or commercialized processed foods.”
The meteoric rise of ‘immunity boosting’ products has spawned into an ecosystem on social media where inaccurate or even misleading information is quite rampant. And the more people read about them or watch other ‘knowledgeable’ people talk about it on TV, they are more likely to believe it. Abhimanika, a Hyderabad-based fitness coach and beauty pageant winner, says, “There’s so much advice being given on Tv that a lot of times, it becomes really tough to convince the elders in the family to not believe such claims. You can do a lot of physical exercises, meditation, Yoga to keep yourself healthy, and if you are consistent with all that, your body also starts reacting to it. It’ll also help you with your mental health. But then, one has to be really careful when you are taking a product (pills or powders) and self-medication can be quite harmful. You need to consult a doctor or a nutritionist to figure out what’s good for your body, and whether your body will be able to take it all in. Some people are even injecting vitamins into their body, and that’s not good at all if done without medical supervision.”
It’s not just the wellness and pharma brands that are offering products to help boost immunity, the trend is also quite prevalent in Ayurvedic products. However, even here, misinformation is a big cause of concern. Dubai-based Dr. Rekha Radhamony, a fourth generation Ayurveda medicine doctor, has been trying to educate people on Instagram about lifestyle, food, Ayurveda among many other things. She says, “I see myself as an educator because there’s a lot of information on the internet, but I feel that people don’t have access to the right information. There’s a lot of misleading info even in Ayurveda. In the West, people have made such a big deal about Khichdi and they call it a mono-diet. Then, there are companies which sell packaged Khichdi with all the necessary ingredients and it has basmati rice! I mean, this concept of making khichdi with basmati rice doesn’t even exist in Ayurveda!”
Stress, Sleep, Fear, Food
Varun C, a cardiologist at Medical Trust Hospital, Kochi, remarked on Twitter, “If you see or hear the phrase “boost your immunity”, just run in the opposite direction. Your immunity is not a battery that you can charge, or a dial that you turn up or down..it’s a multitude of complex interconnected systems with multiple levels.” Offering some more insights into what helps build immunity, Hyderabad-based alternative therapist Indumathi says, “It’s not possible to boost immunity instantly using some products. A big factor which helps build immunity is what you acquire genetically from your parents at birth. And then, it keeps changing based on your habits, food, climate, and the environment you live and work in. If you are someone who has to work in unhygienic places, your body will react in a very different way over a period of time. And then, there’s the factor of how your body deals with stress, and whether your body gets enough sunlight, because sitting for too long in A/C is not good for your body. If the room doesn’t have enough ventilation, it affects the level of oxygen in your body, and to cope up with all that stress, your body releases some hormones which aren’t good for the system in the long run. Fear is another negative emotion which creates an imbalance and suppresses our immunity. You really have to try hard to be at peace with yourself and understand what works for your body.”
A well-balanced set of practices on a daily basis, coupled with good lifestyle choices and a balanced diet, go a long way in helping your body and mind, according to Dr Rekha. She says, “In Ayurveda, there are Ritu Charyas and Dina Charyas. Dina Charyas are a set of practices that you need to follow every single day, and they change with every season. Even sleep has a huge influence on your immunity. You really need 7-8 hours of sound sleep everyday. And try eating simple, easy-to-digest, and warm cooked food….all that you were eating in the first 14 years of your life. You don’t really have to depend on superfoods to boost immunity.”
The Side-Effects Of Marketing ‘Immunity’
While there are no restrictions on anyone from giving useful advice to people through their social media profiles, the fact that a lot of health products are being rebranded as ‘immunity boosters’ is quite telling about the trend these days. And influencers on the internet are playing a major role in amplifying the reach of such products. Avni Kaul says, “Ethically, influencers should be more careful especially when it is related to health and wellness as people believe whatever a specific influencer or a celebrity is saying. But in the end, the decision lies with the buyer. As a buyer, one needs to understand what is good or bad for them. It is a proven fact that most medicines have side effects. This is why it is always advised not to take any medicine without a physician’s advice. Similarly, when you are thinking about buying or eating a product that is being endorsed as a health product, then consulting a qualified nutritionist is the sensible thing to do.
The lack of clear guidelines about making claims about immunity has turned into a silver lining for different companies during the pandemic. Karthik has an interesting take on the whole issue and says that it’s akin to SEO! “Using ‘immunity’ in products, with the appropriate kinds of ingredients and talking about them is akin to the branding world’s version of Search Engine Optimisation. In SEO, the idea is to add keywords that are relevant to your business and ones that are trending in your domain/industry so that when people search those terms, your site appears in context. Similarly, people are searching for ways to build immunity and if your products talk about it, they are likely to notice and try. The claim is stretched in terms of credibility when products that are not conventionally associated with immunity start talking about it. Lifebuoy’s hand sanitizer, for instance. It was launched in 2016, long before the pandemic, but is in news now because of the word ‘immunity’. If you observe the pack and the details, it looks like they are using the word as an alternative to ‘defence’!”
The bottomline is clear. Please take care of your health and immunity by all means. But don’t believe anyone who says that their product will boost your immunity quickly. And wear a mask, please.
(The author, Hemanth Kumar C R , is a Hyderabad-based journalist and he writes about Telugu cinema, TV shows, and his work has appeared in publications like Firstpost.com, TheNewsMinute.com, SilverScreenIndia, New Indian Express, Film Companion. And 845show.com is his new blog. You can reach out to him on Twitter @crhemanth )