support

Support means help, but we’ll get back to that in a minute. First I want to know if you ever read the labels on the pills you buy. Like to see how much iron is in your iron tablets or how often you’re supposed to take your maximum-strength cold medicine.

Iron tablets and cold medicine have something in common: They address specific problems in your body. If you have a cold, the cold medicine will clear out your sinuses and lessen the pain in your muscles and throat while your immune system sorts out the virus. If you’re feeling weak because your blood doesn’t have enough iron in it, iron tablets will bring your levels up to normal and your symptoms will go away.

See? Very specific. Now: “support.”

When a label says that some pills “support your immune system,” the people who wrote the label want you to imagine that the pills are like little personal trainers, shouting at your immune system to run faster or lift more or stretch farther — whatever it takes to make your immune system stronger.

But the way your immune system actually gets stronger is by trying to rid your body of stuff that doesn’t belong in it: viruses, bacteria, toxins, that kind of thing.

So: Vitamins don’t support your immune system. A flu shot supports your immune system.

If you see the word “support” on a bottle of pills in the United States, chances are pretty good that those pills were not designed to fix a problem in your body. That’s because the word “support” is so vague that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration lets basically anyone — even people who have been caught lying about the things their pills can do — print it on a pill bottle.