Let’s review: “strengthening” the immune system


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.

  • Lisa Cybergirl

    I’ve had something called Idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura – my immune system decided to kill off as many of my platelets as possible. I felt fine, and only discovered there was a problem when I saw my doctor for something else and she was alarmed at the many dark bruises on my back. I had to go to the hospital and get intravenous steroids until my platelet level went up enough that I was safe to walk around and not die from bumping into something.

    You would not BELIEVE how many people urged me to be sure I was getting enough iron.

    • KarenJJ

      I know someone whose little boy had this. Being a little boy (toddler age) it was difficult to get him to rest and not bump himself. He had some massive, ugly bruises and my friend was afraid to take him out in public because it looked like he was being beaten at home. Thankfully it resolved over a few months and wasn’t a more serious problem (they were worried about leukemia for a bit there).

  • Pillabi

    Recently I’ve come across the following claim: the immune system of newborns is immature, not yet able to distinguish the attacker, and it must be “educated” before getting vaccines. If you vaccinate a baby in his very first days or months of life, probably he will have fewer reactions (fever, pain…), but this is no good because it means he is not yet able to eliminate toxins, whereas an older child (for example a 6-year-old one) has developed this ability.

    I’ve got the feeling that this doesn’t make sense… But I lack the medical knowledge to explain why. Can someone help me?!

  • DirtyOldTown
  • MichelleJo

    Just a question, and not in any way a challenge to this excellent piece, what does getting ‘run down’ mean. It certainly happens to me. When I have a particularly hectic week, or not enough sleep, I get sick. Not badly sick, but certainly the common cold.

  • I don’t have a creative name
  • Sarah

    Yay! I’ve been sick with different viruses for about eight weeks and I’m so tired of my friends talking about ‘strengthing the immune system’. I worked in immunology and I keep explaining its not that easy- in fact a really ‘strong’ immune system is bad because then it starts attacking the body and you get auto-immune diseases. At least now I can point them to this post. Thanks Dr Amy

  • In the Netherlands, it is very hard to get the vaccination against chicken pox (my friends got their children vaccinated in their own countries). My first got it at 11 months, she was slightly irritable and had the red spots but that was it. I was very proud that she got it “naturally”, and didn’t understand what other moms were talking about. My second girl never had problems with vaccinations, but when she got the chicken pox she was the most miserable little girl I’ve ever seen. She got the fever, she was miserable and scratched herself really hard. If I knew it could be like that, I would have vaccinated her. Which reminds me to get my baby boy vaccinated as well. He responds strongly to vaccinations- cries, has a fever, and is absolutely unhappy. Then, there is the flu shot which they will also tell you isn’t necessary. I am getting the shot every year and it is not always easy. My husband’s work offers it, but I can’t always get there. My big girl got the shot because she had respiratory problems and had a inhaler (the inhaler didn’t do anything, removing her adenoid did help) for a while which placed her in the risk group together with older, chronically sick people, diabetics etc. I got the vaccine together with her even though I wasn’t in the risk group (although I was pregnant) but only because they had left-over vaccines…I just can’t understand why they’re making everything so hard…

    • Young CC Prof

      Don’t they understand that offering the flu vaccine to anyone who will take it protects everybody? If anyone in the house has respiratory problems, obviously everyone needs the flu shot. That’s just common sense.

      • Of course, but could you please explain that to them? I repeat I was pregnant at that time, so logically, I should have been in the risk group.. but somehow I wasn’t. Will try very hard to get the flu shot this year and just keep your fingers crossed for me.

  • Dr. W

    These have been some nice articles for the lay folk. Vaccines are the greatest medical invention invented by doctors. Surgery and antibiotics have nothing on showing the immune system the worst actors, before they have a chance to act in the wild. If the cops already have a photo of the guy, he will not get far. The only greater intervention for public health are sewers. Humbling that all we know of biochemistry is not as important as building municipalities that drain properly.

    The anti-vac folks are so stupid on so many levels. Beyond begging for infant and child mortality to rise, they actually damage their own pet causes. Autism rates are rising, and just in the perceptions of rich white ladies. The latest rates out of South Korea were running around one in seventy. We should be looking for causes. Vaccines have been studied to bits, and they are demonstrably not involved. We should be looking under other “rocks”. As long as the stupid demand that we keep looking under the same rock… Well, it’s like loosing your wallet in the alley and looking under a distant street light, because the light is better.

    I suppose I am such a cynic at this point that I have been waiting for the idiots to start attacking Pap smears as bad for women. If they ever start being against screening tests, I am sure they will zero in on the best one ever, first.

  • R T

    I literally never got sick before I had my son and I did not have any allergies. My husband or friends could sneeze and cough all over me and I would never get sick. Since having my son I get every cold or flu that comes around and I have insanely horrible allergies now. I have to take an allergy pill every single day and it only sort of helps. I think I get sick because I’m running on so little sleep and getting depleted from breast feeding. What’s up with the sudden allergies though? My mother said she also developed allergies after having me and has had a terrible time with them ever since.

    • Sue

      R T – many women first notice hay fever and sinusitis more during pregnancy because the increased blood flow in the nasal passages during pregnancy makes teh mucous lining of those passages swell more, so they block more easily (the origin of the stuffy nose of pregnancy). If you have an allergy/hypersensitivity tendency, this brings it out more. It may be that, once those passages start to get blocked, you are more effected by every cold virus.

      Certainly fatigue and lack of sleep can make you more susceptible to viral infections. The other issue is exposure. Babies and toddlers get lots of viruses, and pass them onto their parents. But don’t worry, by the time your youngest is in high school, that phase should be over!

      (Only kidding – getting back on your feet with a routine and more rest will help you fight the viruses).

  • GiddyUpGo123

    The whole “strengthen the immune system” line never sat with me very well, though I can’t say I have a very deep understanding of the immune system myself. But I do know that you become immune to viruses by either becoming ill with one or by being vaccinated against it. So how does a “stronger” immune system protect you from, say, measles, when you don’t have the antibodies against that disease?

  • KarenJJ

    I’m probably biased but a ‘strengthened immune system’ is a BAD thing. A part of my immune system has been turned ‘on’ continuously for my whole life and caused all sorts of issues. Progressive hearing loss that is now close to 70dB (getting into the more severe range) being one of the more debilitating issues.

    The other claim made by alt-med that is confusing as all heck is when a supplement or food can ‘strengthen the immune system and reduce inflammation’. Inflammation comes from the immune system! My strengthened immune system CAUSED chronic inflammation. Inflammation at the right time and place is a good first defence, but long term chronic inflammation has caused all sort of problems for me.

    • Hannah

      This reminds me of being on a chronic illness forum a few years ago. One girl posted a story of a coworker who gave her a smoothie, and looked very disappointed the next day when asked how she felt and she said she was the same. Apparently this coworker had slipped an immune-booster into the smoothie in an attempt to cure her! Coworker sure got an earful about that. That crap doesn’t work, and if it had, it would have made her sicker not better, and she had already had organ involvement. She played up that part a bit saying it could have killed her (technically true if unlikely). Still one of the simultaneously most appalling and hilarious stories I’ve ever heard. Stupidity is not harmless!

    • Sue

      Karen – I was about to post the same thing…a ”strong” immune system is highly reactive, leading to both autoimmune conditions and responses to external stimuli like hay fever, asthma and hypersensitivities.

      Let’s remember this: the whole concept of having an immune system, and the details of its components and reactions, comes from orthodox medical science. Not from Samuel Hahnemann (homeopathy), not from D.D.Palmer (chiro), not from ancient China or Greece – from actual science.

    • Expat

      My husband has psoriasis and the medicines recommended for severe cases are suppress parts of the immune system. Allergies and inflammation- that is the immune system. In those cases, it is a question of balance in the immune system, not strength or weakness. Not a simple matter.. and no, eating a special diet and taking vitamins doesn’t help psoriasis or hayfever. Through cremes and baths, one can push the psoriasis onto a part of the body that isn’t so visible (away from the head, hands and arms and onto the back), but the percentage of the body covered by it tends to stay pretty constant, with small, seasonal variations.

  • anh

    love this! thank you. Keep them coming. Can you do a post explaining how the number of antigens in our current schedule is actually really low?

    • Amy Tuteur, MD

      Ironically, there’s a growing body of evidence that limiting the number of antigens a baby is exposed to increases the risk of asthma and allergies. So, as is usually the case, the anti-vax folks have it precisely backwards.

      Of course that’s because they don’t understand that the body sees antigens in the environment, not only things that are injected into the body. Babies see millions of antigens through their mouths, noses and cuts and scrapes. The immune system is perfectly capable of handing thousands if not millions of antigens at a time.

      The fear of “multiple antigens” is just another example of the fact that the anti-vax folks are woefully ignorant of immunology.

      • fiftyfifty1

        “The fear of “multiple antigens” is just another example of the fact that the anti-vax folks are woefully ignorant of immunology.”

        I agree. On the other hand I think that the counterargument against “multiple antigens” that I see most often is condescending and backfires. It goes something like: “Why are you worried about immunizing against 4 different illnesses at once when your baby is exposed to hundreds or thousands of antigens each day by just crawling on the floor?” This just turns parents off completely. They think “When was the last time crawling on the floor gave my baby a fever, painful legs and made him crabby and tearful for 3 days straight? So if it’s not the antigens that they put in the shots what IS it then that made my kid so miserable?!”

        Parents are reacting on an emotional level to the experience of vaccinating their kids, so that’s where I meet them. I didn’t have much sympathy at all for it until my first had a miserable experience after his first series at 2 months: the 103 + fever, the weird cry, the fact that he seemed so out of it and didn’t make eye contact for over 48hrs. It was really sad and scary for me as a parent even though I do have the training to understand how shots work.

        • KarenJJ

          I have some sympathy for people whose kids have adverse reactions. My immune system issue causes all sorts of odd problems and vaccinations can cause a flare of symptoms. Considering auto-inflammatory syndromes are fairly rare and likely under-diagnosed I do suspect that there are some kids out there with underlying, undiagnosed conditions that are suffering a flare after getting their vaccinations.

          Sometimes these flares don’t make a lot of sense either, eg I got a flu shot and two days later I had a hot, sore swollen toe. The only person that might consider the two connected are the Professor of Immunology whose care I was under at the time. For most people it sounds ridiculous.

          That said, having one of these conditions is not a reason to not vaccinate. NSAIDS can help manage the symptoms, as can steroids, or for some of us biologics. Having one of the conditions is enough without having to add in liver issues from Hep B for example.

          • Sue

            Precisely, Karen.

            Anti-vaxers don’t seem to get that, if you react so badly to a weakened antigen, how bad would a full-blown infection be!

          • KarenJJ

            The part of the vaccine that I can react to is the adjuvants that stimulate the innate immune system. So I seem to cope pretty well with normal illness (had chicken pox as a kid – not too bad) but theoretically the vaccines can cause a flare up of my already overactive innate immune system (and it does for others but not much for me for some reason). So a full blown pathogen – I seem to react to reasonably normally, but the vaccine can cause a flare up beyond what someone might expect.

            Anyway, it’s pretty rare but I do wonder if some parents are seeing this themselves. It’s not a reason to not vaccinate and it’s not that doctors are hiding some sort of vast conspiracy where vaccinations are making kids sicker (in fact it was a specialist that brought all this up with me – and he had even worked in vaccine research). It’s also not a reason to not go to doctors. It might even be more of a reason, especially if a kid does actually have one of these underlying issues.

            That said, I do understand that it can be hard to find the sort of doctor that might consider this as it is pretty rare – and certainly there would be symptoms outside of vaccinations – especially as they grew older. So focussing on alt-med and anti-vaccination still takes someone inclined in that way. I can just understand that some of these parents may be seeing this type of reaction and may be getting told that “vaccines don’t cause a rash” when they very well might be.

          • Mishimoo

            Agreed! My husband’s step-mum died from liver failure that was a mix of childhood Hep B damage and diabetic complications; it was not kind nor was it pretty.

        • Meerkat

          Well said, thank you! Your son’s symptoms, especially no eye contact must have been scary! I assume you are a doctor (pediatrician?). Do you have an idea why he reacted in that particular way?

          My son was miserable after all of his shots, and I was really nervous abut his reaction to the 12 months shots. We had them yesterday, and he has been continuously whining ever since. He is obviously not feeling well, but doesn’t have a fever. He hasn’t been eating or sleeping well…Today was a little better though, so, hopefully, it doesn’t last. It is scary to know your child is not feeling well and cannot explain what is happening.

          • S

            Hi Meerkat, just a heads up, the MMR has a delayed reaction of 5-12 days so your kiddo may get hit again. Mine also reacted right after (I assume from one of the others — can’t remember what they were), and then a week later had a fever for a couple days.

            Poor little guy! I take comfort in knowing at least their immune systems are recognizing something’s amiss. (That’s probably another layman’s misinterpretation, ha.)

          • Meerkat

            Wow, thanks! More sleepless nights, yay!

        • theadequatemother

          Hee! I had to argue with the nurse in my docs office because she didnt want to give three vaccinations during one visit because my baby only has “two legs”. When I get shots I have soreness at the site for a few days. There was one flu shot one year that was particularly bad – I rember waking up every time I moved in bed with that one and it apparently wa a feature of that years vaccine. When my guy is upset or squirrly after a vaccination I treat him with baby acetaminophen or Ibuprofen or both. Seems to help…very little downside. But I’m an Ane – we’re a little preoccupied and obsessed with treating and preventing pain 🙂

          • fiftyfifty1

            But is there a downside to treating? Has anyone heard the final word on whether treating with acetaminophen/ibu etc reduces the effectiveness of the shot by reducing the immune response (fever, inflammation etc that the adjuvent was added to cause)? In my son’s case I did treat for that first bad reaction and it would reduce the fever down to low grade but didn’t improve how he was acting. He had those palpable lumps that sometimes happen in his legs for 6 weeks afterwards. I was dreading the second set of shots, but he did fine. Low grade fever and a little crabby and nothing more.

          • araikwao

            There is definitely a recommendation against prophylactic paracetamol/acetominophen, and to treat the misery rather than the fever. I’m not sure if it’s got any more concrete in terms of whether paracetamol definitely reduces the immune response but i know some data suggests it may.

  • I don’t have a creative name
    • guest

      From the article: just as I wouldn’t…send you a link to a study
      linking Pitocin to Autism.

      Wow. That one’s going on my “linked to autism” bingo card.

      • Expat

        They just don’t get the difference between research confounded by the larger head size of babies with autism (creating the pitocin-autism link) and research that shows homebirth has an increased death rate over hospital birth (confounded only by homebirth propaganda and gullible moms)

      • Antigonos CNM

        As long as the cause of autism [and it wouldn’t surprise me if the causes were multiple] is not definitely established, EVERYTHING and ANYTHING will be blamed for it. Further, I think a great deal of the attempts to blame various substances for causing it is because the guilt level, for parents, should there be an actual genetic component, will be huge. Therefore, any attempt to find a genetic trigger will be resisted or denied.

        • Amy M

          But I don’t get that really….I totally believe there is a genetic component/that ASD people are born that way, but that’s not really the parents fault anymore than any other genetic propensity. Sure, my children are likely asthmatic because their father and I have asthma. I suppose we could have kept ourselves out of the breeding pool, and not added two more asthmatics to the world, but we figured it was worth the risks because modern medicine can control asthma pretty well and we all lead normal lives.

          I get it that not all ASD people can lead “normal” lives, but even if it is proven that ASD has a genetic link, it is not that simple—certainly not: one gene, one disorder. They will not be able to test people (yet anyway) and say “your child has a 50% of being on the AS”, “your child has a 50% chance of carrying the gene” like they can with CF because it doesn’t work that way. They can’t give parents absolute odds to work with, it is still a total crapshoot. All they would be able to say would be: Your child was born this way, it was nothing you did or didn’t do. I would think that would ALLEVIATE guilt. Maybe if they knew there was a high percentage of ASD people in the family or if one of the parents was ASD, they could tell the parents the odds of the child being on the AS was greater, but that is about it.

          Then again, I went ahead and had children with a man who has ADHD. He wasn’t diagnosed until after the children were born, but it is not like his personality or habits changed. ADHD is considered highly heritable. If they have it, I guess I can “blame” myself for choosing to have children with the man I love? I won’t though…it will suck and make life more difficult than it needs to be but we’ll get the children whatever help they need if that comes to pass. And then, the choice to have children, and potentially pass that on to another generation is up to them.

    • GiddyUpGo123

      That’s exactly why I shut my mouth when my friends say they’re going to have a home birth. I think, if they were on the fence, I might say something. But you can’t tell someone whose already made up her mind about the dangers of homebirth because she’s just going to think you’re being meeeeen. She’s not going to change her mind.

      “So, just as I wouldn’t pull you aside to tell you that I’m really
      concerned about your decision to get an induction or send you a link to a
      study linking Pitocin to Autism or any number of other dangerous
      side-effects, I expect respect for my decisions as well.”

      Except that’s kind of what you did, in that paragraph. Isn’t it?

      And isn’t it funny how freaking *everything* in the mind of a homebirther is linked to Autism? Vaccines? Cause autism! Pitocin? Causes autism! C-Sections? Autism! Walking past an OB’s office without holding your breath and shielding your eyes? Autism!!

      • LibrarianSarah

        You know what else is linked to autism? Being awesome. It’s true. It was proven with science and stuff.

      • Mishimoo

        Even IF there was a connection between pitocin and a higher risk of autism, I would still have chosen to have had pitocin. I needed it and I am incredibly grateful that it exists.

    • Expat

      If I had a Yahoo account, I would comment: If a friend told me that she was planning to go cliff diving with her baby in an Ergo as part of an initiation into a babyclifdiving cult, I wouldn’t feel guilty or mean for saying “uh, that sounds dangerous, here is a link to a site with moms who regretted joining that cult. There is a lot of misinformation in their indoctrination materials”. I noticed tht the author of the article didn’t describe how she typically reacted to such a friendly, concerned warning with vitriolic, condescending hate.

      • Expat

        She also compared warning someone about homebirth to telling someone about plane crashes before getting on a plane. The big difference is that you have a 1/50million chance of dying in a plane crash and a 1/1000 chance of having your baby die in a homebirth. Perspective, homebirther lack it.

  • Karen in SC

    OT: “The Motherhood Archives” has a few university screenings coming up! Irene Lutszig will be at all of these screenings to discuss the project afterwards… more
    details coming soon:
    September 12, Cambridge, MA
    Tuesday September 17 at Bowdoin College, ME
    Thursday September 19 at Colby College, ME
    Wednesday September 25 at San Francisco State University
    Tuesday October 8 at UC Santa Cruz

    • Karen in SC

      for more information, The Motherhood Archives is on Facebook.

  • A very good and clear explaination – the immune system is more like an intelligence agency – really good at dealing with known threats!

  • Amy M

    Friend of friend is now finally convinced to get her 2yr old vaccinated because the mumps outbreak is right where she lives. She is trying to get each component of the MMR given separately. I am not sure why, she may be concerned about allergic reaction, or she may have misinformation about adverse events. Either way, I am glad she is looking into at all, and I hope she finds what she wants, rather than forego it altogether. I tried to reassure her that 1)MMR has no link to autism and 2)you can’t overwhelm the immune system, those two being the most common misconceptions (just guessing on my part). I linked yesterday’s post to her. I guess that’s all I can do.

    • Amy M

      I hope it didn’t come across TOO sanctimommy and cause offense, but that is the one thing where I’ll tell people what to do. I don’t care how you feed your infant, where he sleeps, if you work or not, how you diaper, what kind of school, blah blah on and on…but I do care if you vaccinate because that affects EVERYONE. So yeah, I’ll get sanctimommy about it, and I’ll own that.

    • Box of Salt

      “She is trying to get each component of the MMR given separately. I am not sure why”
      Two words: Andrew Wakefield.

      Even if she’s not aware of it, she’s part of his legacy of misinformation.

      • Amy M

        Turns out she knows someone whose child had a seizure immediately post MMR and was worried about that. So she wanted to wait until school age (her child is watched by his grandma, so no daycare right now) and then do each component separately so if he reacted, she’d know which one caused the problem. Anyway, at least she is looking to get it done now….I guess I was not the only one telling her to get him vaccinated, so I don’t have to feel too bad. 🙂

  • prolifefeminist

    Bwahahahaha…this about sums it up.

    “genuine evidence would be replaced by anecdotes, which are cheaper and more interesting.”


    • Sullivan ThePoop

      That was pretty funny

  • MaineJen

    As someone who works in immunology and is continually frustrated with all of the misinformation out there about how the immune system actually works, I thank you from the bottom of my heart for getting it right. 🙂

    • Amy M

      I also work in immunology, but until I started this job almost 7yr ago, I had no background in it, and have been learning on the job. Since my work centers on innate immunity, and autoimmune diseases, that’s pretty much all I know, since that’s all I have had time to learn. I am sorry that there are huge gaps in my immunology education, but glad that I can learn them on this site. Since I am a lab rat and not a PhD, I am happy to pick up anything…I don’t think I am a moron, but obviously not a top notch scientist either. Either way, I share your frustration when I see obvious (even to me) misinformation, especially because I am not capable of fully explaining it.

      • MaineJen

        Transplant immunology here; antibodies are our business. 🙂 Believe me, nothing “strengthens” the immune system more than a good foreign invader…our docs look for ways to “weaken” it just enough to accept a graft, but not so much that it’s useless at fighting off infection. Our patients end up more susceptible to skin cancer because of the immunosuppressants.
        I had to learn on the job too; most in my field do. I’ve been fascinated to learn about the autoimmune nature of illnesses like type 1 diabetes, something I had no idea about before. Good to know, especially since it runs in my family.

        • Amy M

          Oh cool–I’ve done bone marrow transplants on mice,but never tissue/organ transplants.

        • MaineJen

          And might I add…it takes some pretty powerful drugs to “weaken the immune system” even that much. I doubt that a lack of proper diet/exercise/supplements would make any difference.

  • Alenushka

    I do not believe in various immune strengthening remedies but there are studies that show how various lifestye factors such as lack of sleep etc have an immune supressive effect. I think getting enought sleep, eating well and exersising has positive effect on the immune system from what I read. What I do not believe is that anything is 100% garanteed or that some sort of super food or super suppliment makes any difference in how my immune system works.

    • Sullivan ThePoop

      It is true that stress and lack of sleep can have a suppressive effect on the immune system, but the immune system still has the same strength as it had before.

      • Alenushka

        I think health journalists need to use more specific language when they talk about immune system. I know that things like IgE and Monocytes sound boring compare to “Super immune system booster” but it is poorly written articles that lead general public into that idea of super foods and magic pills

        • Sullivan ThePoop

          Don’t get me started on the way science issues are reported in general. They try to dumb down the language and make it more palpable and more interesting and instead leave people confused yet thinking they have good information. I wish I knew how to help fix it because it drives me insane.

          • Sue

            Agreed! I don’t think it’s just dumbed-down language, I think it;s also sloppiness from journos who don’t read beyond the press release or the abstract, and maybe wouldn’t understand the paper if they did.

          • Dr Kitty

            Oh God, the Daily Mail is the worst for awful health journalism.
            About once a week I have a patient coming with a cut out article from there and telling me they want some new experimental treatment, or to stop a medication they need, or start something they don’t.

            Case in point, a recent horrible article about a new type of troponin assay, which left the reader thinking that UK hospitals currently don’t test troponin levels at all (they do).

            There was also an article where the journalist didn’t seem to understand that “abdomen” and ” stomach” are not synonyms, and that by choosing “stomach” the story was anatomically impossible.

        • The Bofa on the Sofa

          I think health journalists need to use more specific language when they talk about immune system.

          This is what I think when I read this stuff. What do you mean by a “stronger immune system”? One great way to strengthen the immune system is to get it to have antibodies against a lot more things.

    • Captain Obvious

      Smoking appears to hinder spontaneous resolution of genital warts, abnormal pap smears related to HPV, and hidradenitis.

      • The Bofa on the Sofa

        I voted your comment up. I have no idea why. Just something about genital warts that got my positive side…

        • Certified Hamster Midwife

          Spontaneous resolution of STDs is always worth an upvote.

  • GuestS

    Confession: I’m really glad I read this because now I don’t have to be p**sed off every time I take echinacea and invariably get a cold anyway. Haha! I always wish it worked that way but sadly not all dreams come true.

    • araikwao

      I heard about a study where the echinacea-taking group got more colds than the controls

    • Sue

      And don’t forget this aspect: the most important influence on the number of minor viral infections you get (assuming an otherwise healthy person) is EXPOSURE.

      Childcare, siblings, small children, school, working on a pediatric ward as a young doctor or nurse…

  • Anonymous

    Vitamin C has been linked to kidney stones in very, very extreme cases. My dad saw a patient that was eating vitamin C tablets like candy because he thought it would prevent him from getting sick. It’s been over a decade but he was getting orders of magnitude more vitamin C than he should have been getting. Normally it precipitates out in urine but this guy had so much it wasn’t.

    Why repeats? Is Dr. Tuteur on vacation?

    • The Computer Ate My Nym

      Lawsuit finally making some progress (complete speculation on my part)?

    • Jessica

      Perhaps she is celebrating Rosh Hashanah?

    • Box of Salt

      The repeats are both vaccines/immune system, and straightforward and informative. In the new this past week in the US:

      Measles in Texas due to vaccine refusal.
      Measles in the Boston area.

      Mumps at the NJ shore.

      • araikwao

        Sadly has international relevance, too, we have had some measles cases in Australia this week 🙁

    • Antigonos CNM

      I suspect that Dr. Amy is enjoying the fact that the Jewish New Year this year is immediately followed by Shabbat, which means a holiday from Wednesday evening through Sunday, in the US. I’m surprised she’s posting at all. Gmar hatimah tovah!

  • Sullivan ThePoop

    Actually, people living in developed countries probably have a stronger immune system than they need and it leads to a lot of allergies and autoimmune disorders. When I say strong I do not mean individual variability I mean the actual immune system that all mammals have.

    Some vitamins are required as cofactors in some immune responses. We have found that low level of vitamin D and vitamin A can lead to immune system failures. Though in developed countries it is more likely to have too much vitamin A than too little and although vitamin D can be a problem for people living in certain regions even in developed countries, it does not seem to be enough to effect their immune responses. Also, vitamin C might be linked to some immune reactions, but since we get about 100x the amount we need daily what would more do for you?

    • Expat

      Ask Linus Pauling, the father of “vitamin C will help me live forever” he and his wife did die, and there was some evidence that too many supplements accerlerated their inevitable demise. He was so great at chemistry, it is a pity that he fell down the vitamin quackery hole.

  • Guestll

    You said cascade!

  • Claire

    I hear this all the time. A friend of mine has a child with a peanut allergy. She buys non-homogenized goat milk and has a ton of supplements and a chiropractor in the hope of boosting the immune system.

    • The Bofa on the Sofa

      That’s really funny, although very sad.

    • Tim

      in the case of a food allergy, wouldn’t making your immune system stronger make it worse? Thanks logic, you rule.

      • The Bofa on the Sofa

        That’s why I said it is really funny.

        I go back to my comment yesterday. These people aren’t talking about logic, or science, or anything rational. To them, it’s all magic. The immune system, like breast milk, is magic. Damn the reality.

        • Tim

          What we need is a strong IgE response to counteract a too strong IgE response! Wait , this sounds familiar – it’s the same logic as homeopathy

          • The Bofa on the Sofa

            Yes, another example of magic.

          • Sue

            Yep – like treats like.

            But doesn’t the second law of homeopathy require a really really really WEAK immune stimulus to make it strong. (You know – like a vaccination).

          • Tim

            I think the second law of homeopathy is actually “look, a spaceman!” , the third being “ok, now look back, you’re cured!”

  • Tim

    I believe this can sum it all up for everyone!


    • Tim

      In all honesty, it would make me laugh that people make major medical decisions based on a toddler level understanding of how their body works, if it wasn’t so tragic and sad.