Immune boosting supplements do have an effect on the immune system, but they can make autoimmune diseases worse.

Herbal supplements have become very popular in recent years as individuals seek alternative remedies for a variety of health conditions. Products advertised as “immune boosting” are especially promoted to prevent or treat viral and other infections such as colds, flu, and of course COVID. And it’s natural to think that when you have an autoimmune disease you may want to boost your immune system.

While it’s true that remedies such as blue-green algae, echinacea, ashwagandha, elderberry, spirulina, and chlorella can stimulate the immune system, this may prove problematic for individuals with dermatomyositis.

“Some patients experience flares or even new onset of disease when they use these herbs,” says Dr. Victoria Werth in a publication of the American Academy of Dermatology.

Dr. Werth, who is a member of TMA’s Medical Advisory Board, has noticed increased symptoms in her DM patients while using immune boosting supplements, and has done studies that support the supplements as a cause. She urges those with autoimmune skin diseases like DM and lupus to avoid immune boosting supplements. And she warns that they may hide in some unsuspecting places.

That green smoothie drink you find in the refrigerator section of the grocery store, for example, probably contains spirulina, a type of blue-green algae that may cause an increase in symptoms. Similarly, you may not expect the elderberry syrup in your nighttime cold medicine to be problematic. Even certain weight-loss products may contain aspergillus, a type of fungi that can affect the immune system. That’s why it’s important to read labels, not just on the foods you eat but also the over-the-counter medications you choose.

Generally speaking, if you stop using the product the symptoms should stop too. If your flare continues or worsens, however, even after you discontinue the supplement, do not hesitate to call your doctor. And always be sure to let them know about all the medications you’re taking, even over-the-counter meds and supplements. 

“We don’t have enough data about the safety of many over-the-counter supplements,” Dr. Werth says. “But if a supplement is thought to protect against viruses and other infections, there is a chance that may aggravate autoimmunity.”

22 comments on “Immune boosting supplements can make autoimmunity worse”

  1. 1
    Amy Gray on April 15, 2024

    If I am fighting some infection that has nothing to with my myositis, will immune boosters make it worse then?

  2. 2
    Wanda Hill Simmons on April 15, 2024

    Is this true for those with IBM as well?

  3. 3
    John DiBlasio on April 15, 2024

    Any effect on ibm with these supplements

  4. 4
    Dientje Fortuna on April 15, 2024

    Thank you for this valuable information. I wonder if the supplements have the same effect for those with IBM? I would appreciate any thoughts on this.

  5. 5
    Michael on April 15, 2024

    Does this warning only apply to DM or does it apply to others autoimmune diseases like IBM?

  6. 6
    Diane Hannon on April 15, 2024

    Can vitamin A boost the immune system? Thank you for this important topic!

  7. 7
    JoAnn Jenkins on April 15, 2024

    This information is very helpful. I was wondering about taking over the counter supplements. Now I know not to take them. Does this apply to most any over the counter supplements?

  8. 8
    Toni Martinez on April 15, 2024

    Thank you – I had no idea of the possible effects!
    Are other auto immune conditions effected
    negatively by those supplements??

  9. 9
    Linda Watson on April 15, 2024

    I’d like to know the breakdown of why these ingredients are harmful. Why do they affect so adversely and what are the attacking specifically in the body.

  10. 10
    Eva Quaegebeur on April 15, 2024

    I have dermatomyositis in remission 2006, Cancer of the bowel with metaseties to liver diagnosed & treated in 2016 Small challenges but for the most part am well .
    Recently trying to take magnesium. Glycanate reading so many positive reports ,low dose felt some benefites re mood & energy as well as concentration. Then started having abdominal pain, swithched to spray as well as topical gel then cream .Information states ” well tolerated” .Once I stop the pain subsides in 24hours. Would it be the DM or perhaps liver function ?

    1. 11
      Linda Kobert on May 7, 2024

      Eva, we can’t really answer this question. (We aren’t doctors.) We always recommend that you inform your doctor about any over-the-counter products you use and ask them if this will have an impact on your disease. TMA also has an Ask the Doc webinar series where you can ask any question about myositis. You might want to consider attending one of these sessions. You can find the schedule and registration info here

  11. 12
    Karen on April 15, 2024

    Could getting the flu shot aggravate your dermatomyositis symptoms or even bring a new onset of the disease? I am an RN and was it to get COVID-19 vaccine and booster and the flu vaccine and then I came down with dermatomyositis and have not been able to work for two years now. Just wondering if I have a good work comp claim instead of trying to fight to get SSA that keeps denying me. Thank you.

  12. 13
    Hugo McFarlane on April 16, 2024

    How is polymyositis affected by the use of supplements?

  13. 14
    ann hanchek on April 16, 2024

    I have had Dermatomyositis for 25+ years and always wondered about the immune boosters advertized always forgot to ask my Rheumatologist. I know have my answer–Thanks!

  14. 15
    Diane Hannon on April 18, 2024

    Thank you for this information. I was wondering about taking vitamin a along with mtx to prevent gastrointestinal damage. Could it also boost the immune system as well?

  15. 16
    Diane Mazyck on April 18, 2024

    Does this include all autoimmune diseases or just DM? and does this include vaccines?

  16. 17
    Nadine Melton Patton on April 19, 2024

    I get very stiff, wondering if any vitamins and minerals causes stiffness throughout my body? I have had dermatomyositis over 15 years.

  17. 18
    Laurel Ellen Cunningham on May 6, 2024

    Sixteen years ago, I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, Relapsing-remitting type.
    Last week I was also given the diagnosis of Myositis. Is it possible for me to have two autoimmune-related conditions?

    1. 19
      Linda Kobert on May 6, 2024

      Laurel, I’m sorry you’ve been diagnosed with myositis on top of MS. I’m afraid it is common for those with an autoimmune condition to also experience other autoimmune diagnoses. Alas.

  18. 20
    B. Hinch on May 14, 2024

    I would like to read the studies myself – can you provide your readers with some resources to make that possible? I would like to see how the studies were conducted. For example, how was it determined that the supplements themselves were causing the cytokine storms and inflammatory flares as opposed to other medications? Were any subjects taken off of all medications to study the effects of the supplements alone? Have studies been done to determine the interactions between the supplements and steroids? Are there studies that prove that suppressing the immune system through chemical means is the most effective way to manage an auto-immune disease?

    1. 21
      Linda Kobert on May 17, 2024

      This update includes links to some of Dr. Werth’s research. You can also do a search of medical literature on PubMed or Google Scholar.

  19. 22
    Linda Kobert on May 17, 2024

    Thank you to everyone who has replied to this post. We’ve added another article to respond to some of these questions. You can find it here:

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