Innate versus acquired immunity: Why we need to know the difference

Update: In my haste to write this, I somehow substituted inert for innate everywhere. Fixed, except for the URL, which I’ll leave as is.

My last post made fun of naturopaths and their promotion of the sophisticated pseudoscientific bullshit that’s known as magic socks. I’ll include that segment here again because it is short (and pretty funny in my opinion) and I don’t think more than a few people actually read it:

Cure your ailments with magic socks

I love reading about science based medicine, and I love the Science based Medicine Blog and it’s debunking of nonscience nonsense. To think that somewhere in the civilized world, “experts” in a naturopathic university advocate the healing of all your ailments with magic socks (also known as cold wet socks taken out of the fucking freezer). The mind boggles! Read the thorough debunking by an actual medical doctor here. (My brief version: Naturopaths come up with some solid sounding sophisticated pseudoscientific nonsense… some hand-waving and the child having to maintain homoeostasis while wearing freezing socks all night kick starts the immune system. But according to the author, naturopaths’ feet fixation does not end with magic socks.)

By the way, if you believe in magic socks, I have just the thing for you. Send me your banking details (please attach permission for me to debit your account) and physical address, and I’ll send you the secret to infinite riches, along with some magic beans.


That post on SBM is long, but well worth reading. It happens to hit on a topic that I am passionate about: Immune system woo. If you’re a physician or other medical professional, now would be the time to stop reading this post, unless you stick around only to point out how terribly oversimplified the following paragraphs are…

I fear that the message in the linked SBM post, and others, will never reach the audience that really needs to read it, so here’s my attempt to spread the truth to one or two others. The audience I’m thinking of is people like my mother, who genuinely believe that taking crap that some twat in a pharmacy recommends will help prevent her getting colds because it “boosts” her immune system. (To be fair, it’s not only twats who work in pharmacies who are to blame. It’s all the other housewives she knew years ago when I was a child. It’s thirty years of television commercials. It’s an idea that people who should know better, but don’t, tell each other all the time. And yes, sometimes it is even people who work in pharmacies. A well-meaning person in the nearest pharmacy recommended some immune system booster to me not three months ago.)

Truth be told, looking at it from a layman’s point of view (that’s me), there are only two types of human immunity that we need to know about:

  1. Innate Immunity
  2. Acquired immunity

Going backwards, acquired immunity is what we want. It’s when our bodies already know how to fight diseases. When we have already acquired immunity, we are almost literally immune to those diseases. Other people around us who don’t have immunity get sick, but we are unscathed. This is the ideal situation, and it happens because you have already had that disease, or were vaccinated against it. Of course I’m oversimplifying – For example I knew of one or two people back in my school days who allegedly had chicken pox twice, but the second time lasted only a few days, whereas the first lasted two weeks. (Not to be confused with people whose grandmothers died multiple times. I knew of some of those too. But as far as I know, you can contract some sicknesses more than once, and can contract sicknesses despite being vaccinated against them, but those aren’t severe.)

Innate immunity on the other hand, is what we don’t want. It’s what happens when our bodies react, not respond, to a disease. Although ironically, it is technically an inflammatory response. When you have a cold or virus or microbial infection, it’s the innate immune system’s response that makes you feel sick. That’s right… the sore throat, the runny nose, the copious quantity of phlegm, the throbbing temples when your sinuses are infected – those are all your innate immune system kicking in.

This is what most people do not understand. The innate immune system, which is what all those nonsensical pseudoscience and “natural” remedies claim to boost, is what we notice when we feel sick. None of those remedies actually work as advertised, although I will probably never convince my mother of that and she continues to take Vitamin C religiously every day even though it really doesn’t do anything. And here’s the kicker: If any of those “immune boosters” actually did work, they would just make you feel even more sick. (And there are more serious risks that would come into play if you really did amplify your innate immune system. Read about it on SBM and search that page for “increase your risk for thrombotic events” for details.) You should be glad that those things don’t work; you shouldn’t be so happy to part with your money for them though.

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About Jerome

I am a senior C# developer in Johannesburg, South Africa. I am also a recovering addict, who spent nearly eight years using methamphetamine. I write on my recovery blog about my lessons learned and sometimes give advice to others who have made similar mistakes, often from my viewpoint as an atheist, and I also write some C# programming articles on my programming blog.
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