"Boosting the immune system": a meaningless claim

I've mentioned before that one of the most meaningless claims that alties make for their therapies is that they "boost the immune system." Apparently Dr. Eric Hoy agrees with me, and Paul at Confessions of a Quackbuster has with permission reprinted a letter by Dr. Hoy that provides five questions you should ask any altie practitioner who claims that his or her treatment "boosts" or "strengthens" the immune system. Dr. Hoy has challenged at least 50 websites or individuals to answer these questions. Unsurprisingly, not one has managed to do it yet. As Dr. Hoy points out, the immune system is a finely tuned network of immune cells and signals. Indiscriminately boosting the immune system can be potentially disastrous to the host, resulting in various autoimmune diseases.

Fortunately, I've yet to see an altie remedy that actually does boost the immune system in any detectable way. Whenever you hear a vague claim such as "boosts the immune system" without a detailed description of how this is accomplished, you should run, not walk, away from the practitioner. He's very likely a quack.


  1. Whenever I see those "natural male enhancement" ads, I regret that I have no magical powers. I would enchant the pills so that men silly enough to take them would grow enormous testicles. (The effect would last just long enough to seriously freak the guy out.)

    I am amused by the western fascination with eastern medicine's aphrodesiacs. If you read Chinese novels (Tales of the Golden Lotus) or movies (Chinese Torture Chamber Story - which is a sex comedy) you will find that aphrodesiacs are taken by clownish old men. They inevitably chase after young women. They either overdose themselves to impress the women, or the woman secretly gives the man more aphrodesiac, and the man ends up dying of, well, explosion.

    Natural male enhancement, indeed.

  2. Such a coincidence; I just recently had to (literally) bite my tongue to abort a full-out rant on the subject of altie buzzwords like that. It would have been a bit off-topic, and anyway I was supposed to be doing the data-gathering, not the innocent horticulturists I was talking to.

    Ow, though.

    The phrase "immune system" used in that fashion bothers me all by itself. It's a "system" only by courtesy, as it were, being named for its coincidental function more than by its structure. I mean, let's see a Body Worlds preparation of an "immune system"... Unless I'm mistaken, it would comprise a lot of different bits of different organ systems that happen to work toward the same effects some of the time, no?

    (If I'm wrong about that, please tell me how. I do have to talk to alties sometimes, and I want to get it right.)

    There are other phrases like "balances the system" and "cleanses the blood" that seem equally meaningless; I'm thinking somebody somewhere must have done up an Altie Bingo card.

  3. You're right. "Cleansing" the blood and "eliminating toxins" come to mind as two of the more egregiously meaningless altie catchphrases out there, right up there with "boosting the immune system."

    Hmmmm. I sense a short series of posts on this topic in my blog's future (although probably not before next week, given that this week's agenda is mostly set). Thanks for the idea.

  4. I think one of the other biggest claims they make is that their treatment will "decrease stress," or they say that "built-up" stress causes illness. One quack even said that stress shows up on an EEG. Oh, lord. I would love to see how they "measure" stress.


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