Proponents of “alternative” medicine often disagree profoundly on treatment methods. Sick? In pain? Try this homeopathic remedy that contains no active ingredients. Stick needles into acupressure points. Wear magnetic foot pads to pull the toxins out of your body.
But on one point all proponents of alternative medicine agree. Since the source of all your troubles is a weak immune system, the key to treating and preventing all illness is “strengthening the immune system.” Indeed, this belief is so widespread, it appears that the only people who don’t subscribe to it are people who actually know something about the immune system, doctors, immunologists, microbiologists, etc. The idea that disease can be treated and prevented by “strengthening the immune system” depends on a profoundly flawed, almost cartoon like, view of the immune system itself.
The immune system is tremendously complicated, involving as it does innate cellular immunity and humoral (antibody) immunity. Multiple poorly understood organs make up the immune system. Anyone actually know what the spleen is for? And how about lymph nodes and bone marrow? Those are also quite complex. It is the interactions of these types of immunity, within the various organs of the immune system and throughout the body that determine whether and how we can fight off disease.
The alternative medicine view of the immune system is cartoon like in its simplicity. The individual components of the system, and their specific functions are never discussed or even mentioned. Too complicated. The cascade of events that occurs when the body’s outer defenses of skin or other tissues are penetrated by a foreign substance is completely ignored. Also, too complicated.
Instead, the immune system is conceptualized as a unitary entity that it either weak or strong. If you get sick, your immune system must be weak. In order to prevent illness, or to treat it once it occurs, you must “strengthen” your immune system. And how do you do that? The way you do everything in alternative medicine: you eat the right foods, and take vitamins and supplements.
But, of course, illness is not caused by a weak immune system. The specific mechanisms of illness depend on the specific causes. One possible cause is a failure of innate cellular immunity to find and destroy bacteria that penetrate the barrier of the skin. Another possible cause is the inability of the humoral (antibody) system to create antibody fast enough to overwhelm a viral invader. Instead, the invader gets a tremendous head start before the body can fight back and the virus overwhelms the host. Yet another factor is the presence or absence of various immune system organs. For example, it is well known that removal of the spleen leaves people particularly vulnerable to infection by the pneumococcus bacteria.
In every case, the disease results from a complex interaction between the disease causing agent and a specific component of the immune system. Moreover, there is no evidence that nutrition, vitamins or supplements can do anything to change the balance in these interactions, since the fundamental problem is not malnutrition, or vitamin or mineral deficiency.
It’s not as though we don’t know what a truly weakened immune system looks like. Chemotherapy (which preferentially kills fast growing cells) and certain disease like AIDS, knock out one or more components of the immune system, rendering people more susceptible to disease. If enough of the immune system is compromised or destroyed, the individual becomes vulnerable to infections that would otherwise be harmless or never occur in the first place.
In addition to ignoring what a weakened immune system looks like, and imagining that nutrition is the source of “strength” of the immune system, advocates of alternative medicine have another naïve belief about the immune system. They appear to think that the immune system can be overwhelmed by too much information. Ignoring the fact that each individual faces hundreds, thousands or more immune challenges each day, alternative medicine afficianados argue that vaccines, particularly those designed to immunize against more than one disease at a time, “overwhelm” the immune system, particularly what they imagine to be the “underdeveloped” immune system of small children.
Ironically, the truth is exactly the opposite. Vaccines are one of the few things, if not the only thing, that can strengthen the immune system by giving it a head start against a microscopic invader. Humoral (antibody) immunity takes time to ramp up if the body has never seen the invader before. It’s as if the body can’t start making weapons until it has already been invaded. Vaccines act like a picture of the enemy. Vaccines allow the body to “see” what the invader looks like before the invasion, and to stockpile weapons for the coming fight. When the assault ultimately occurs (when the person is exposed to the disease), the counterattack can begin without delay, and therefore it is much more likely to be successful.
As a general matter, a detailed understanding of system function is not necessary for lay people to understand what the system does. People do not need to know about all the different clotting factors to understand that blood should clot when you are cut and that something is wrong if it doesn’t clot. No one would invoke the idea of a “weak” clotting system to explain why a hemophiliac is bleeding to death, and no one would recommend eating the right foods, or taking vitamins or supplements to treat hemophilia.
Ordinarily, a detailed understanding of immune system function would not be necessary for lay people to understand what the system does. Unfortunately, a detailed understanding of the immune system has been replaced with a cartoon like caricature of the immune system, leading lay people to believe that it is either weak or strong, and that it can be strengthened by eating right. It is this cartoon like view that makes lay people vulnerable to the claims of alternative medicine practitioners and, therefore, this cartoon like view must be changed.
This piece first appeared in December 2009.