Anti-ScienceParentingRandom AsidesSkepticism

Vaccines, Anti-Intellectualism and the Mommy Instinct

The other day a friend of mine posted this on her facebook page:

“went against my better judgment and let [insert daughter’s name] get a flu shot :( Result?…. Projectile vomiting in the back seat of our car. poor thing:( no more flu shots ever again!”

To which I responded:

“I’m very sorry to hear that.”

I was very sorry to hear that. I was very sorry her little girl was sick and I was of course also very sorry that she had followed, not her better judgment but her preconceived bias towards vaccines that she had acquired primarily from watching Oprah and from shopping at Whole Foods.

My friend had at long last found what she believed was a tangible reason to finally justify opting out of flu shots and most likely vaccines for good. Her child had vomited in the car on the way home after getting a flu shot. Therefore flu shots are bad. Right?

Then one of her friends posted this:

“Poor baby! Poor mama! I use kids Immunity drops and elderberry drops as added immunity boosters during the first few weeks of school and after vacations back to school, and during big exposure periods. It seems to help with my kids. [enter kid’s name] just got the “back-to-school sniffles” but I feel like two days with lessened symptoms wasn’t bad while pumping him with his “medicine”. Live and learn, we’ve all been there. And you’ll hear the flipside from peeps who think you’re ‘endangering’ your child when you don’t give them things such as flu shots…always go with your gut!”

This as you can imagine, pissed me off.

There is literally nothing accurate about that women’s comment and her bullshit mommy-instinct crap is dangerous to the rest of us and it’s specifically insulting to intelligent mothers everywhere. I need answersThe message it sends is; Don’t listen when anyone tells you that you might be wrong about something or you might be endangering the life of your child or the lives of the people around you. Hell no. Ignore that silly ‘flip side’ of any argument. You are always right. Just go with your gut! Don’t try to understand any difficult concepts. Nope, just go with your gut! In fact, just close your eyes and run through traffic. Your gut will tell you when a semi truck is headed your way. Intuition is all you need.

Yes, ladies and gentlemen the general consensus seems to be that intellectualism and learnin’ is overrated. Us ‘peeps’ should only bother with natural, pretty, simple things that feel intuitively right. We should just make babies and pies and pick daisies and think pure happy thoughts. all you needIf it is difficult or confusing or contradictory to our commonly held beliefs or contrary to wishful thinking just don’t bother with it. Discard those thoughts. Mute those feelings. Medicine is bad unless it has a label that reads, “All natural” and is sold in an unregulated market at twice the price of actual medicine and fives times the price of actual berries. Books are a waste of time too, unless they have an Oprah sticker on ‘em or pictures for colorin’. Science is just an evil conspiracy too. Good mommies need only bother with science when they want their mini-van’s gps system to direct them to the nearest kundalini yoga class or when they want to be able to type uninformed, misleading tripe on facebook to share with the world so that they can inspire this next comment from a confused mother:

“Thanks for all the feedback. I was just on the fence about getting one [flu shot] for my kids.”

That’s just great. One more woman scared into believing that vaccines and flu shots are bad with no legitimate evidence, just crappy, biased anecdotes from people who consider themselves qualified to give medical advice because they eat fruit and they squeezed a baby or two out their birth canal. Is it possible that the original poster whose child got sick in the car after the flu shot was carsick? Or had eaten something that made her sick? Or was sick before she got the shot? Or had a nervous mommy who stressed her out when she got the flu shot to begin with? Last time I checked you don’t swallow a flu shot so it shouldn’t make your stomach upset. Just because something happens directly after something does not mean that specific something caused it. Or does it?

Now that I think about it, directly after my TDaP booster shot I got an all expense-paid trip to London.vaccine queen And directly after my most recent flu shot, my sex life improved significantly! Why just last week at least five total strangers complimented me! I haven’t been sick one single time since my last vaccine. Not even the sniffles. I lost 2 pounds. I even moved into a better apartment. I got new shoes. I saw a double rainbow and a single rainbow. That’s like a triple rainbow! Wow! The world is just so much better now that I had a flu shot. Have vaccines and flu shots seriously improved my life that much? It would seem so! All those things happened after one another so they must be related. It’s all the proof I need. Right?

Another thing that lady said that was ridiculous was the comment, “pumping him with medicine.” That is not an accurate description of what a vaccine is or does. A tiny shot is not a pump. A vaccine is not medicine.  A vaccine introduces a tiny often-dead amount of a virus so that the body’s immune system can identify and learn to battle that specific virus without you actually getting sick from it. The irony here is that when you get a vaccine it is actually stimulating your immune system so it is better at fighting off the actual disease should it encounter it. Huh, sorta like how the alternative medicine pushers and hippy moms imagine boosting your immune system would be.  

I am also sick of the “oh it’s good for them to get sick” argument too. That is bull.  A fever often comes with a flu right? Is it ever a good idea to risk inducing brain damage to your child from a dangerously high fever or what about dehydration from vomiting? And I am just talking about regular run of the mil flu viruses here. I’m not even going to get into the details of the dangers of polio, whooping cough and other serious vaccine preventable illnesses.

Then there is that wacky herd immunity you hear us talking about all the time. We need herd immunity to protect the people who can’t get vaccinated because they are too young or have compromised immune systems. Elderberry doesn’t do anything to solve this problem and you can’t boost your immune system. Let me repeat that. If you are healthy, YOU CAN’T BOOST YOUR IMMUNE SYSTEM. That is a contrived statement created to sell alt med products that don’t actually do anything beyond creating a placebo effect.

Some advertising guy was sitting in an office somewhere trying to come up with a way to sell stuff that had no evidence of efficacy. He or she thought to himself or herself, what better tactic than to invent something that doesn’t exist and say that is what the ineffective product does. Like, oh I don’t know, boosting your immune system? Boosting your immune system is like enhancing your existence. See that, I just made that up. existence enhancingSounds good though right? Wouldn’t you like your existence enhanced? What? You already exist and my choco-berry pellets can’t enhance your existence? Oh sure they can! Just ask my friend over here. Her existence is way better now that she spends an extra $50 a week so she can stick choco-berry pellets up her ass. Or you can be like me and just get an existence enhancing flu shot.

I didn’t bother to comment again on my friend’s facebook page even though a part of me really wanted to. I have learned when and with whom to pick my battles. Arguing on facebook with the alternative- hippy-anti-intellectual-mom crowd is completely useless if you are a child-free skeptic. The skeptic part isn’t even the worst part of it in their minds. It is the fact that I am child-free. I can never get my point across because they use the same circular, patronizing argument. “Well, you just don’t understand. You’re not a mother. If you were a mommy then you would know what we are talking about. Mothers just know what is best for their kids.”

Sure, because having sex in the back seat of a 1982 Chysler Cordoba and giving birth in a blow up pool are acceptable alternatives to higher education.
grad school
Quick everyone! Start handing out doctorates to all the mommies at Trader Joe’s.

In the meantime, I will be packing for my upcoming trips and I will be picking out some good non-Oprah endorsed books to read on the plane rides. BTW, I highly recommend Stephen Hawking’s new book, The Grand Design . I purchased it just after my last flu shot and I have really been enjoying it!

If you would like to know how else my existence has been enhanced by vaccines and intellectual pursuits stop by and say hello to me at the Texas Freethought Convention, Tam London or you can always follow me on twitter.

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Amy Roth

Amy Davis Roth (aka Surly Amy) is a multimedia artist who resides in Los Angeles, California. She makes Surly-Ramics. She is the fearless leader of Mad Art Lab. Support her on Patreon. Follow her on twitter: @SurlyAmy or on Google+. Tip Jar is here.

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85 Comments

  1. When I went to get the flu shot this past weekend, the stupid questionnaire they required asked if I ever had a neurological condition like Guillan Barre after having had the flu shot before…curse you, part-time-British-accented, Redskins Cheerleader Desiree Jennings!!!

  2. Amy, you’re totally awesome, which makes 6 random strangers, and should further enhance your existence!

    One thing you left out of the herd immunity bit was that some people are allergic to the medium used to grow the vaccine cultures (often chicken eggs), so can’t be vaccinated. In principle, if they could find the same vaccine that was grown in a different medium (chocolate?), they could receive that, but those are rare or nonexistent for most vaccines. Once Big Pharma has found a production method that is fast, cheap and reliable, they don’t want to muck around.

    I’m just glad they don’t use spring flower pollen or I’d be screwed.

  3. We don’t know any woo-minded-mommies (or if we do, they haven’t revealed themselves to us), but we do have other sources of woo. Fortunately, they don’t pressure us not to get our daughter vaccinated, but they push the elderberry (or whatever) as a way to enhance the efficacy of the vaccination.

  4. I also find the “mommy-instinct” crap to be detrimental to woman’s rights: that women have “other ways of knowing” and that such ways are superior to actually learning stuff.

    I am also childfree and get that “you can’t possibly understand” crap all the time.

    My sister has 3 kids and 12 grandkids and is into all that woo.

  5. Gosh… I love you skepchicks.

    BTW, I’m the son of a teacher (who moved a bunch so I got all the shots her school kids got), husband of a nurse who brings home every free vaccine she can get to stick in my arm, and a former Marine who got the full battery of shots and then some. I’ve had every possible shot at least twice (the Marines lost my medical record and made me take every possible shot one more time just to be safe) and I’ve never had a problem. I know anecdotes aren’t data, but since I’ve had more vaccinations than any one human being should, why don’t I have any ill effects? WHY?!?!

    Maybe I’m a superhuman anomaly… yeah!

  6. Sadly, I got in an argument with my boss today because we have the free flu shots at our work. I’ve been encouraging people to go get them and I’m shocked at the amount of people who are saying no. Even people who I was able to convince to get tDap have said no to the flu shot.
    Others have done it after I say, “It takes 5 minutes! It doesn’t hurt! You get a candy bar!”
    My boss called me a gullible sap.

  7. I would have at least posted this: “Abandoning the proven life saving medical procedure of vaccination due to a minor inconvenience such as vomiting is not a sensible decision. Kids puke in cars every day for a million reasons, it’s a hassle to clean up and a reason for sympathy for a sick kid, it’s not a good reason to give up… well, reason.”

    Okay, maybe just leave it at the first sentence. And tell anyone who argues that you don’t debate important issues in facebook comments.

  8. THANK YOU!

    I have been going round and round about this since I tweeted something about being followed by an anti-vax group on Twitter and wishing there was something more that I could do than block them. I have learned the “woo” of some friends I thought were reasonable and rational.

    You may be child-less, but at least you aren’t doubly cursed as I am; child-less AND has-a-penis.

    And one last thought. “I’ve been listening to my gut since I was 14 years old, and frankly speaking, I’ve come to the conclusion that my guts have shit for brains. ” John Cusack as Rob Gordon in “High Fidelity”

  9. Wonderful, Amy! I have seen similar facebook updates and tweets that make me want to scream.

    I read this just after getting my flu shot today, so I am very excited to see what fabulous new things will happen to me now. Wait – actually, it stopped raining right after that! I can now control the weather!

  10. As a mom of three *fully* vaccinated kids … I would like to thank you for this post. It is what I think to myself every time I hear this crap. I get infuriated. Its very cathartic reading. Keep on sayin’ it! Who cares if you don’t have kids? Your opinion is based on fact, which is more important by far. :-D

  11. I have to second what @ Advocatus Diaboli said above. Even if you’re a mom (as I am) or dad and provide all the data in the world, these antivax moms don’t care; hell, if you’re a pediatrician, they don’t even care. For goodness’ sake, I pointed an antivaxer to a comment from Phil Plait’s Bad Astronomy blog from a few weeks ago (9th baby dying from pertussis), where the mom said her daughter, with leukemia if memory serves, is a prisoner in her own home because people won’t vaccinate themselves and their kids when they can (against vax-preventable disease). Her life as an immunocompromised person depends on herd immunity, but these antivax folks just don’t get that. They are misleading so many people who are “on the fence,” and for that, I get angry, too.
    Kudos, Amy, for continuing to enhance our existences through the sheer awesomeness of your writing. ~Thank you! Leigh~

  12. @zorazen: Sadly, I got in an argument with my boss today because we have the free flu shots at our work. I’ve been encouraging people to go get them and I’m shocked at the amount of people who are saying no. Even people who I was able to convince to get tDap have said no to the flu shot.

    You can put me in his camp. I have had a slew of vaccines in my life including a recent tDap. I understand herd immunity and the advantages. I find these arguments persuasive for diseases that are stable over time. I find the arguments less persuasive for highly mutable diseases like flu. I don’t think we’ll ever hit vaccination rates to achieve a statistical herd immunity for flu every year or any year for that matter.

    So let’s suppose the flu vaccination rate is 20% now (pure guess). If we could convince enough people to get this up to 23% are we really any better off? Does anyone know the incremental benefits of vaccination rates? (There have to be some applied math people lurking around here somewhere.) My daddy gut tells me that this wouldn’t put a noticeable dent in how far or how fast the flu would spread.

    This being said, if I could get a flu shot at my work place or somewhere similarly convenient I’d almost certainly do it. It is not the cost or the possibility of an adverse reaction or philosophical musings that hold me back. It is strictly the inconvenience versus what I see as a limited benefit to myself and my community.

  13. Fantastic post! Few things drive me as insane (barring any reference to “The Secret”) as the phrase “women’s ways of knowing,” of which the “mommy instinct” is just a variant. It reduces women to mindless balls of pink emotion. It also implies that attempting to learn or think things through rationally make you somehow less feminine. As a mom, I find rational thinking and skepticism are essential tools for child-rearing.

    I don’t know how some parents of young children function if they can’t remain calm and rationally think through things every time their child has a fever, or is vomiting, or falls and skins their elbows, or faceplants into the coffee table and their lip won’t stop bleeding. These people must be at the emergency room at least once a week, if not for imagined disasters, then for their own heart palpatations!

    Your mommy instinct will tell you that your child should never, ever leave the house by himself because he will definitely be kidnapped or hit by a car or sold crack cocaine, and that every fever is cholera or something, every bruise is potentially lethal, because parenting is fucking terrifying! If you can’t step back and be rational about things, you are going to be a terrible parent and your child is going to be a mess. And if you can’t be rational about vaccines, your child is either going to get very sick, or be the typhoid mary of their preschool.

  14. @amy I agree with most of what you said, and with your passion about this topic. I would however say it is a little disingenuous to say a vaccine is not medicine. The fact that it is prophylactic and “starts” from something naturally occurring is irrelevant. While I agree with you that it is ridiculous and dangerous to propagate the “oh it’s good for them to get sick” BS, we should be careful about spreading our own misinformation. Most Pediatricians will say it is extraordinarily unlikely for a high fever to cause brain-damage. It is generally accepted that the fever is helpful rather than harmful, in fighting the infection. If it spikes high enough/fast enough they might have a Febrile seizure. Which is not believed to cause long term damage. Granted there is a *slightly* elevated risk for epilepsy, but that could be related to the genetic factors that increase your risk for Febrile seizures…

  15. @Garbledina I joined a conversation a friend was haivng with someone I’d not met before. He was saying how great “The Secret” was, which was the first time I’d really learnt what the book was all about. I can now understand your view point and that of others.

  16. It’s pretty easy to boost your immune system.

    Don’t drink
    Don’t smoke
    Get plenty of sleep
    Exercise
    Eat a diet high in fruit and veggies and low in saturated fat
    Watch your weight

    I don’t think that opposition to immunization is exclusively due to creeping anti-intellectualism. I think a good part of it is due to people losing confidence in pharmaceutical corporations and increasing corruption in social institutions, especially politics.

    People don’t trust big pharma, don’t trust the government to regulate them or trust the media to tell the truth. As a result people are thrown back onto word of mouth or trusting those whom they know personally. Of course, that the schools can’t teach kids to read let alone think doesn’t help much.

  17. That kind of mentality drives me crazy.

    I think a lot of what fuels anti-vax sentiments, besides the ravings of people like Jenny McCarthy, is that we’ve lived with vaccination being common for so long that the really terrible diseases that were common before vaccination simply aren’t seen very much anymore. So the threat of things like measles and polio aren’t ‘real’ to people.

    Which is terrible if those diseases are going to have to come back in force for people to embrace vaccination again.

  18. Most excellent Amy!! And I’d even pick up the tab if you were able to meet me for drinks after work! I got my flu shot after work yesterday and noticed today that Steve Novella addresses the benefits of a seasonal flu shot over at Science Based Medicine.
    http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/?p=7223

    @noen:
    Really? I don’t think it’s as easy as you assume. As I recall the research is pretty clear that none of the things you mention boost your immune system. You can degrade your existing immune system by smoking, drinking in excess or through sleep deprivation; but as Amy clearly said, if you have a healthy immune system there is nothing you can do, as evidenced by credible research, to make your immune system function better.

  19. Wait, hold it. Has this mother never dealt with a kid who vomited for no apparent reason? Or experienced that wonderful phenomena when a kid who witnesses another vomit, goes and does the same thing.

    The most horrible incident was when my son vomited in my mother-in-law’s very pristine car on the way to the new child neurologist for the first time. Would her “mommy instinct” tell her that going to an appointment is bad? Well, screw her… that neurologist made sure that the insurance company paid for is very needed speech therapy!

    (oh, and it was in the waiting room for the speech therapist that I got to see chain reaction vomiting!)

  20. Ok … here’s the deal from a physician’s perspective.

    I’ll begin by saying that Viagra has taught me a lot.

    Ok … now that I got your attention I’ll come back to Viagra in the fourth paragraph. It really is relevant. We frequently do not know if a side effect of a treatment is truly a side effect of a treatment. Side effects cannot definitively be known in each and every case because these symptoms are only temporally associated. Some phenomenon can be defined by labs or other objective testing lending evidence that an untold event occured, but most complaints are subjective in nature. Correlation as we know does not equal causation, but usually , if the “side effect” is serious enough we do not re-challenge the patient in an effort to reproduce the association. Occasionally, if the subjective complaints are non threatening I will stop the drug, then reintroduce the drug later to see if the symptoms occur again. Because this is an unblinded test results rarely differ , but occasionally the patient will indeed realize that his/her complaints were unrelated to the treatment received and we can utilize that treatment again. And even this is not science, but at least we tried to gather more data.

    Patients accept mild side effects much better IF they have iniated or internalized the treatment; the less cognitive dissonance with the perceived benefit of the treatment, the more likely they will minimize any negative subjective symtoms, especially if the symptoms are brief and self limited.

    Niaspan is a very good medication that increases HDL, good cholesterol; in fact, it works better than anything out there. Unfortunately, about 50% do not tolerate it and stop it because of intermittant but severe flushing ( hot flashes ) lasting about 15 minutes at a time. Viagra may also cause flushing, usually not as intense and definitely less frequent than Niaspan, but even if a patient suffers the same degree of flushing as a Niaspan patient, they CONTINUE the Viagra!!!

    Why? The perceived benefit was very important, immediate, and congruous with their desires and beliefs. Niaspan is not as readily important, definitely not as immediate, and they may not have wanted it in the first place.This is why when a “gut- following” Mommy or a reluctant flu shot receiver suffers an adverse reaction ( and they can occur, though usually these events are mild ) the reaction by that Mommy or that person is loud, aggressive and assumes a never again attitude … because it wasn’t their idea and still is not their idea.

    Now … if vaccines only improved erections perhaps compliance would be 99% attained.

  21. coincidentally, i just got in a vaccine argument earlier today that is still eating at me!!

    on facebook (of course…) a friend posted that she was reading a jenny mccarthy book. i posted a comment “don’t believe anything she says about vaccinations! :)” she posted that she assumed i was talking about jenny’s autism book, but hadn’t read that one.

    i responded that jenny links autism and vaccines and has no evidence to back it up and it has caused outbreaks of preventable diseases and she’s on my enemies list (jenny, not my friend).

    she blew up at me (my friend, not jenny). i just went back to copy and paste her comment here (and mine, to show how i worded everything) but apparently she was so mad that she DELETED it!!

    essentially it said that i shouldn’t shove my beliefs down other people’s throats and i’m a mr. know-it-all and she has put up with my anti-god and anti-republican facebook posts but this was the last straw. there are FACTS that show that vaccines DO cause autism and parents choose not to immunize for MANY reasons (emphasis hers) and i should do my research because i’m very very naive. and she said she has never heard of any outbreaks.

    i asked why it touched such a nerve and apologized for upsetting her (while all i really wanted to do was drown her in links, particularly ones about the measles outbreak in san diego this year…just a few hours south of where we both live…).

    she said “be careful what you preach and who you preach it to.”

    and then she added “PS – Glenn Beck for president!!”

    i knew that if anyone, the commenters at skepchick.org would be able to relate to how i feel at this moment……

    ps – great post, amy. the “grad school” photo is friggin’ hilarious… :)

  22. I got a flu shot exactly once and I was flat on my back sick for 2 days. Now, that’s my experience and I realize it’s an outlier. My wife, otoh, has no problem and gets one every year which I encourage. Mommy instinct or “feelings” don’t tell you anything, the doctor will tell you what caused a problem.

  23. @Bubba: Do you *know* the flu shot caused it? I got the flu in 1998 and was flat on my back for 2 weeks. I’ve been careful to get the vaccine ever since. (My anecdote trumps your anecdote! :-) )

    Did you get your shot in a doctor’s office? Those are places noted for having lots of sick people, so maybe you picked up something (not even the flu) from another patient.

    If I were you, I’d cautiously try again. Pick a time where you need a bit of vacation/down-time (a Monday would be good), and get this year’s vaccination. If you do get sick again, you should be fine in a couple of days. On the other hand, if you don’t get sick, you should be good to go for the rest of your life. Unless, of course, your doctor tells you not to do this! (We just read a book about medical self-experimentation for our local skeptics book club, so I hope for your sake I’m not too overenthusiastic about this.)

  24. To back up Amy:

    My family has not gotten their flu shots yet.

    Brian was out sick from work on Monday and Tuesday with a migraine… and he hasn’t had a migraine in EIGHT YEARS.

    Delaney threw up this morning. And cried all afternoon.

    And I packed up the family and was 5 minutes away from heading up to my parents house, where I was staying because it’s closer to where I have a meeting tomorrow… only to find out the meeting is FRIDAY.

    And I bought a bunch of diapers from Cotton Babies just 20 hours before a clearance sale was announced. And the sale was announced 3 hours after my order shipped. One might (dickishly) point out that the clearance wouldn’t have affected my order in any way because I bought a different brand, BUT THAT’S NOT THE FUCKING POINT!

    None of this would have happened if I got the flu shot… and some of it wouldn’t have happened if I knew how to look at a calendar… which I would have done if I’d gotten a flu shot.

  25. @Buzz Parsec: Actually, this Tuesday (yesterday) would have been the best date. If you got sick Wednesday and Thursday, you would have will feel fine [*] by Friday, but you could blow it off just in case, and Monday’s a holiday! 6-day vacation, 4 of them fun!

    [*] time-travel weirds verbs

  26. James Fox said
    “As I recall the research is pretty clear that none of the things you mention boost your immune system. “

    Well I guess it’s the Mayo Clinic and Harvard Medical vs your unsourced opinion.

    “if you have a healthy immune system there is nothing you can do, as evidenced by credible research, to make your immune system function better.”

    Ah yes, the great internet game of the semantic quibble. Yes, if you are superman and have the perfect immune system then there is probably little you can do to boost it. For everyone else however there are many things one can do to improve one general health.

    Probably the biggest offender is of course stress. You should try to reduce stress levels as much as possible. Meditate, take long walks, or just relax. Reducing stress will have a big impact on your general health, your overall well being and lengthen your life and… boost your immune response.

    You could start right now. ;)

  27. @noen: So I consider myself pretty darn average. I don’t smoke. I eat healthy and I exercise. I have a happy home life and arguably a dream job. Do you think I can ‘boost’ my immune response with meditation? Or will it merely enhance my existence?

  28. noen, did you read the article that boosting your immune system can make colds worse?

    Elyse:

    Delaney threw up this morning. And cried all afternoon.

    The reason for that was you were planning on getting the flu shot. Right?

    One of the reasons I liked using cloth diapers is because they were handy in cleaning up the occasional random vomit.

    I also learned early on is to never hold a baby or toddler over your head, even if it is part of play. It only took getting one mouthful of baby vomit to teach me that lesson.

    Your “remember your birth control” thought for today: babies and children in general are very messy.

  29. Oh… and I wanted to mention another true vax fact:

    I got my last flu shot last fall. I don’t recall whether my sex life improved or went down at that point.

    However, my sex life has steadily declined as time has passed since that last shot.

    @Amy: Do laundry drunk and you’re living the dream!

  30. Amy said
    “Do you think I can ‘boost’ my immune response with meditation? Or will it merely enhance my existence?”

    The odds are it will do both. Or do you believe that your mental states have no physiological effects? Stress is a mental state under which the body releases cortisol which ramps your body up a for fight or flight response but continued exposure to cortisol is very damaging. Modern humans experience a great deal of stress unrelated to fighting or fleeing predators on the African savanna. So yes, relaxation techniques will lower your stress levels, which will reduce cortisol in your bloodstream, which will improve your overall health, which will free your body’s resources to fight off opportunistic infections like the flu.

    Chris_H
    “noen, did you read the article that boosting your immune system can make colds worse?”

    Oh… you mean the article in the opinion section of the NYT that cites no research and was written by Jennifer Ackerman who has a BA in English? That one?

    It really doesn’t say much does it? What is does say is that rhinoviruses don’t cause as much damage as your own body’s immune response does. So?

    The one sentence that does relate to this discussion is “In any case, the supplements, remedies and cereals that claim to strengthen immunity (and thereby protect you from colds) do no such thing.” However I did not make the claim that supplements or cereals will strengthen your immune system.

    And btw Chris H, the article did NOT say that “boosting your immune system can make colds worse?” Try reading it again. What she did say was “People with more active immune systems may be especially prone to cold symptoms.” which is slightly different and also unsourced opinion.

  31. @noen: If I was under extreme stress or suffering from a panic/anxiety disorder I would not argue with you that stress relieving techniques would be a benefit for my overall health and feelings of wellbeing. However, as I have stated, I am a normal, healthy gal. My immune system is not compromised. So meditation is not going to improve my body’s antibody reaction to a virus or other introduced toxin. And you just said that meditation will enhance my existence. Come on. I just made that statement up. It means nothing. See how these things get started! Just like the claim that you can ‘boost’ your immune system. Meditation may indeed be very helpful like in cases of post traumatic stress disorder but for a normal, baseline person whose physical or mental health is not compromised then you can’t make your immune system boosted or supercharged with happier or peaceful thoughts. And to claim that everyone in the modern world is stressed out is your unsourced opinion.

  32. Buzz, my doctor told me it very likely a reaction to the flu vaccine so I’ll take his word on that. As far as getting the flu goes, other than the flu shot incident, I’ve only had the flu a couple times in my life and both pretty mild.

  33. Once again the “post hoc ergo propter hoc” fallacy raises its ugly head.

    I suppose that woman thought that if a safe fell on her child (a la cartoon world) as they walked out of the doctor’s office after having the flu shot, it would be the shot’s fault.

    Unless you have an allergic reaction to the vaccine itself, getting sick immediately after a vaccine shot is probably something else.

    My merely hearing the phrase “The Secret” triggers projectile vomiting. Now I have to go find a clean diaper to wipe off my monitor…

  34. After looking at the various “Mommy” FB advisory posts on dealing with kids’ medical ills, I’ve decided that – unbeknown to medical researchers – spermatozoa is not only a formative half of a zygote, but it also implants full medical knowledge on how to cure your child into the mother.

    That, or it carries some form of blood-borne GNC marketing. I haven’t decided which.

  35. My first reaction to reading this was: Entertaining stuff, and mostly valid statements but isn’t this a bit “shooting sparrows with a cannon”?

    My impression Amy, is that you have become understandably pissed off by silly attitudes in this area and these rather innocent Facebook comments made the dam burst. I would have seen other ways of interpreting the reasoning behind those comments than the content you put in them. “Gut feeling” is one such concept.

    Some do of course think of it as an info source in itself. Kind of a channel to some divine or other info given to you by motherhood or otherwise. Of course I have a hard time treating that stuff seriously. But I think most mothers and possibly your FB friend would interpret “gut feeling” differently too.

    I’d think it meant “a feeling of uncertainty on a given topic”. A notion that my brain has recognized some yet not identified info that triggers suspicion. It tells me that my present knowledge or awareness isn’t trustworthy and I have to search for more info. I have lots of such feelings every day. So I search for more info a lot. Which is why I’ve become such an intolerable “know it all” bugger who makes comments like this.

    In the comments discussion there are other topics that gives me the impression there are more people having reached their limit of tolerance to bullshit. Some statements get rather “militant” and absolute. Various spiritual attitudes tend to end up in bullshit, but the opposite is no better! If there is one sure thing about humans, it’s this: NOBODY’s got the full picture about how we work. Not even close. So an open mind is good. BUT we do know a lot that is useful, so why not use it?

    One of the obvious problems with our body is; it has a mind. That thing is way less predictable than say a kidney. The mind can make the body walk over to a brick wall and bang its head into the wall. There was nothing wrong with the body, head or wall, but still, suddenly there’s a pain and there will be a bump on the forehead. Physical evidence that something is wrong. The wrong was not caused by bodily flaws or external influence, but by the work of totally unpredictable electrons and apparently some more bullshit I know nothing about. No, I’m not hinting at God, spirits or such.

    This type of problem would be “psycho-somatic”. There is a clear physical problem, but it’s at least partly caused by the mind. Most such are less obvious than the above example. The “Placebo effect”being an interesting illustration. Testing new medicine, large numbers of patients use it. Often, half of the testers will not get the medicine but rather placebo. Meaning stuff like sugar pills. Stuff with no medical effect. The interesting part is that frequently, this “control group” has more and stronger side effects than the patients receiving the real thing. These side effects are definitely physical and clearly results from the fake medicine, but of course caused by the mind in a similar way as banging the head into a wall.

    Thus, the body isn’t only an organic machine and chemical factory, but it still is those things too. If you feel happy, it changes the type of chemistry your body produces. So does feeling scared, angry, horny or anything else. You affect how your body behaves all the time. Most are good at avoiding actual brick walls, but there are plenty of much more severe (although normally less sudden) damage you can inflict on your body by means of your mind. This of course goes both ways. I’d assume alternating between feeling happy and horny might be more healthy than scared and angry. Personally I’d prefer to have more than two feelings though.

    But either way, of course we can do A LOT to make our immune system work better or worse. Actually some silly pill with no effect whatsoever might do the trick. If the mind believes the right things, it may create the chemicals or physical behaviour that fixes the problem. But as we also do know of actually working pills too, in some cases, using them might be just as smart… or so.

    So, will I have a flu vacc? Nope. Never have. Why? Fear or intuition? Nope. I just don’t need it. I guess my mind is too stubborn and denies my body to do anything that would indicate having the flu, so I never get to know…

  36. Some find doctor visits stressful. Doctor visits which include needle pokes even more so.

    Stress can cause digestive issues as your body prepares for “fight or flight.”

    In young’uns that can easily manifest in vomiting.

    I find that conclusion a lot more plausible than the blatant manifestation of confirmation bias shown by the FB poster.

    I find it stressful that someone can post such stupidity, and more stressful that it caused someone “on the fence” to adopt the same stance. I will consider whether or not that warrants vomiting.

  37. Amy said:
    “If I was under extreme stress or suffering from a panic/anxiety disorder I would not argue with you that stress relieving techniques would be a benefit for my overall health “

    You don’t need to be under extreme stress to benefit from relaxation techniques. You simply need to be a normal person living in modern society, which you are.

    “to claim that everyone in the modern world is stressed out is your unsourced opinion.”

    Stress Response
    Professor Robert Sapolsky
    “We turn on the exact same stress response for purely psychological states thinking about the ozone layer, the taxes coming up, mortality, 30 year mortgages. We turn on the same stress response and the key difference there is we’re not doing it for a real physiological reason and we’re doing it non-stop.”

    Stress related diseases are endemic to modern societies, diseases that are not found in more “primitive” ones. So yes, the average person living in our modern society can benefit from taking measures to reduce stress, including relaxation.

    “And you just said that meditation will enhance my existence. Come on. I just made that statement up. It means nothing.”

    This is a separate question from stress but yes, meditation, some form of relaxation, will help improve your overall psychological well being. This area is well researched and there is considerable evidence that points to relaxation improving mental well being in addition to relieving stress.

    You may be Super Girl who has super powers but I am not talking about you in particular but “you” in general. The rest of us non-Supers will have to get along by eating right, getting enough sleep and other ways of taking care of our bodies so we can reduce the risk of illness.

    I don’t understand your anti science attitude.

  38. Elyse:

    (And laundry is a chore you can totally do drunk.)

    That probably explains how a load of hubby underwear turned pink.

    w_nightshade, you beat me to it. I was going to post that article. As a person with allergies (hayfever, some medications, and nickel) I am amused by the “boost your immune system” crap. If I boosted my immune system, which has decided to turn me into a swollen mess whenever the alder trees bloom, I would be probably die. I’ve already had a visit from the paramedics when I unable to take a breath after reacting to the mold being tossed into the air by a just turned on swamp cooler (another reason why I dislike visiting Arizona).

    Best way I found to reduce stress is to laugh at anyone who tells me to boost my immune system, and then sit down and read a good book. Next up is an unflattering biography of Glenn Beck called Common Nonsense.

  39. @noen: lol! Yeah, I’m anti science and a superhero. You showed me. All I have been saying to you is meditation is not going to improve the immune response of a normal, healthy person. You have done nothing but cherry pick, generalize and appeal to authority to make your point.

    *flips back cape and hops a plane to Texas* (apparently my superpower is not flying on my own)

  40. Great article, Amy!

    Personally, I always listen to my guts. Of course, *my* guts usually say things like “Citation needed” or “You need to research that some more before forming an opinion or conclusion.” But that’s just me. :-)

    As for reducing stress, a half-hour to an hour of good sex will do more for stress relief than a week of meditation. And it is more fun, too. Tell Johnny he needs to do his part to help keep you both stress-free. :-)

  41. @Stein: “But either way, of course we can do A LOT to make our immune system work better or worse.”
    Not really, and I recommend this article that has been pointed out above.
    http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/?p=1828

    @noen: The claim that reducing stress will somehow boost your immune system seems credible if it is proven that stress causes a disease due to a weakened immune system. The statement from the doctor seems nothing more than an opinion based on observation. And yes it is likely a well informed opinion based on research not mentioned by the good doctor. So a person may be able to improve their immune system if they are stressed out, however the improvement is trying to return to a normal healthy state. So I’ll repeat my self by saying that I’m not aware of any practice, thinking process, food, pill or diet that can improve an otherwise healthy person’s immune system. And nothing more has been claimed in this thread or by Amy. Then again there are many people, including some doctors, who make this claim about a product or life style changes in their book who have no evidence to back up their claim. Quacks and cranks have all kinds of immune boosting nostrums for sale that they claim will cure your cancer or help you avoid disease. The harm is when people avoid reliable vaccines or science based medical care because they think what they are doing is sufficient because they have been told they are boosting their immune system when they are doing nothing of the sort.

  42. @noen: You are chasing down a strawman. Alt-med claims for ‘boosting the immune system’ are being discussed, specifically the claim that elderberry can do the trick was the example given by the mom on FB and it was the example Amy used in the article.

    You said: “It’s pretty easy to boost your immune system. Don’t drink. Don’t smoke. Get plenty of sleep. Exercise. Eat a diet high in fruit and veggies and low in saturated fat. Watch your weight.”

    Stress reduction and all your other examples are not what the folks Amy has been describing are talking about. They are talking about alternatives to vaccines and using potions to ‘boost their immunity’.

  43. Hell, my “mommy instinct” told me to listen to my son’s paediatrician and get him all his jabs. I trusted my inner wisdom and said child made it thorough his early years without a variety of illnesses. [Tho’ he did get the mumps, poor baby.]

    The Biophysicist & I just got our flu vaccinations. Given that I am prone to a flu->bronchitis->pneumonia progression, we never miss them.

    My immune system needs powering down. Pretty much everything wrong with me physically is an immune system over-reaction. I will, therefore, avoid elderberries, youngerberries, meditation, mediation and sacrificing poultry. [Except, of course, if Christine O’Donnell threatens to curse me unless I make an offering to Satan.]

  44. Amy, as a parent I had to register to leave this comment. I’m giving you full permission to rant all you want about child rearing. The fact is, your opinions are at least as valid as those who managed to figure out the “sperm + egg = baby” equation. That doesn’t make them any more qualified to be a parent, it just means they have kids.

    The fact is, no one’s “qualified” to be a parent, you pretty much have to wing it. But, to do so by simply by going by uninformed “gut” opinions is careless and irresponsible.

    The opinions I held when I was pre-child are the same opinions I hold now simply because they were/are based on evidence and reality.

  45. Like Tony_Kay, I registered just so I could comment and thank you for this post. There are actually 2 things I want to comment about.

    1) Vaccinations. Oy. An earlier commenter was right, people nowadays don’t know how bad it was before vaccinations. Around 1900 in Canada, any given child had about a 1/7 chance of dying before age 1, and the survivors had about a 1/7 chance of dying by age 14. If kids were dying at those rates now, people would probably wake up a tad.

    I’m not a mom, but I’m a dad of 6, and one of my daughters is autistic. I’ve read the science. No link, period. Dealing with people who want to waste precious research dollars on “proving that vaccines cause autism” makes my blood boil. Which leads to my second point:

    2) Anti-intellectualism. Oh, God, why does America (and Canada, too) place such virtue on being stupid? Why can someone like Sarah Palin even be mentioned in the same breath as competition for a freaking law professor? I was a gifted child, and my life in school (esp. grades 5-9) was hell. I’m sad for all the GLBT kids who are victims of bullycide lately, but I’m sadder for the kids who are bullied just because they have the temerity to do well in school and use their brains. But hey, as long as we have a country where college football coaches make 2x what the college presidents make, things aren’t likely to change much.

    Thanks for letting me rant here. Nice place you’ve got here … I’ll have to pop by more often. %-)

  46. Amy, thank you so much for summing up my frustrations. Nothing grates my tits more than some idiot telling me I know nothing about anything because I have no children. Never mind the fact that I’m next to the oldest of 11 and had a hand in raising some of them until I moved across the country a few years ago. I wonder if these moms had some critical thinking skills before they had kids and bought into the mommy instinct woo and lost it, or if they were always morons.

  47. As a child-ful skeptic (mother to a one-year old, who just got her MMR and chicken pox vaccines last week, by the way), sanctimonious know-it-all “all natural, non-vaxxing” mamas make me want to kill somebody. Three guesses as to whom.

  48. james Fox said
    “The claim that reducing stress will somehow boost your immune system seems credible if it is proven that stress causes a disease due to a weakened immune system. “

    Will you accept the Mayo Clinic on stress?

    “Stress symptoms: Effects on your body, feelings and behavior”

    Effects of stress …
    … On your body …Decreased immunity

    If you do have stress symptoms, taking steps to manage your stress can have numerous health benefits. Stress management can include:

    * Physical activity
    * Relaxation techniques
    * Meditation
    * Yoga
    * Tai chi”

    And as citizens of a first world nation we are defacto under stress. We may think everything is “normal” but it isn’t as far as our bodies are concerned. Daily life in our contemporary culture is stressful and stress weaken one’s immune system therefore a little Yoga or Tai chi would be good for most people. It would lift your mood, improve your overall health and…. boost your immune system.

    I think that the opposition to these facts here has nothing to do with science. I think people tend to like the science that re-enforces their already preconceived biases.

  49. @noen: Wow, you’re repeating yourself and agreeing with what I previously said. Yes, I’ll agree that stress may/can be bad for your health, however there’s no evidence that I’m aware of that shows stress will necessarily harm your health or immune system. And again, if you can harm your immune system, that does not mean you can do anything to boost a healthy/normal immune system, right? And the Mayo clinic article is not research or evidence, and only mentions symptoms, not diseases; nor is there a reference to any research I could see. And as for the notion that stress is a first world issue I suppose having a life expectancy of 40 years does preclude about 38 years of stress.

  50. @noen – The things you mention are great ways to bring your immune system back up to speed, but I think people are having trouble with you saying that they ‘boost’ your immune system. Are they beneficial to your health? Sure. You’ll probably feel better if you follow the guidelines, but all you’re really doing is returning your system to your natural level of optimal functioning. Semantically speaking, I think that most people wouldn’t consider something to be a ‘boost’ unless it surpasses the body’s natural levels.

    Two guaranteed ways to boost your immune system? Exposure to disease (if you survive) and vaccination.

    My theory about the anti-vaxers? Natural selection. Apparently they don’t want to ensure that their offspring has the best chances at long term survival. Fewer morons next generation?

  51. I get really, really mad when I hear someone is anti-vax or posts some anti-vax tripe on their Facebook. This past winter I got a flu virus (might have even been H1N1…I didn’t get vaccinated due to a shortage, I wasn’t taking public transport, was unemployed at home and figured I would let more at risk people have it. Didn’t count on having anti-vaxxers at my dojo) that trashed my hearing in one ear. I permanently have tinnitus because of the virus.

    That said, I really think that anti-vax stuff is just a symptom of the overall problem of anti-intellectualism, and the belief that feelings are more important than scientific evidence. Thinking is hard, but feeling is easy. So grossly anti-feminist it just nauseates me – and the ringing in my ear gets louder when I’m annoyed. :/

  52. @noen: I think most people here are having a problem with the word “boost”, which means to increase beyond a normal level. I think if you used the word “restore” instead, most people would agree with you. “Restore” isn’t as punchy as “boost”, so boost is probably what most tabloid headline writers would go with, but that doesn’t make it correct. On a skeptical web site, we should always strive for correctness (factual, not political.) Unless we’re being snarky.

    We can argue about whether most people are immune-compromised to some degree just by living in modern society, and if so which if any or all of your suggestions would be good to adopt, but no one should expect to “boost” their immune system to superpower levels, even by doing all of them. There is a point of diminishing returns. I think “restore” instead of “boost” makes this clear.

    A couple of analogies: 1) Most people agree that it is good for a car to have its oil changed, get a tune up, have its tire pressures checked and adjusted, etc. But how often? If someone insisted on doing this daily, a) they would be a nut case, b) they would be spending vast amounts of time and money on it and c) they wouldn’t get noticeably better performance or life out of their engine than someone who followed the manufacturer’s schedule. And if you stripped the threads on the drain plug and didn’t notice, you could do major damage.

    If you found a 200 year old piece of furniture at a yard sale in perfect condition, would you restore it? No, leave it alone.

  53. Cham:

    My theory about the anti-vaxers? Natural selection. Apparently they don’t want to ensure that their offspring has the best chances at long term survival. Fewer morons next generation?

    Except they infect other people’s children who are too young to get the vaccine. Like the kid who went to the doctor because he was sick and infected several babies with measles who were too young for the MMR (which is first given after the first birthday).

    Here is an another example where your theory has a bit of a flaw.

  54. @Chris – The article doesn’t say anything that diminishes the validity of the theory. Natural selection is natural selection regardless of who is affected. Those best equipped to survive will continue to contribute to the gene pool and those who aren’t won’t. Do I think it’s appalling that innocent children might die from some idiot not vaccinating their child? Absolutely. Do I wish there was a way to require people to vaccinate their kids to prevent such avoidable tragedy? Definitely. But it doesn’t make the theory any less valid. Those best equipped to survive will, and things like vaccinations, adequate health care, a healthy diet, etc usually tend to have a positive impact on your chances.

  55. @Cham: But vaccines are vastly more effective than any of these things.

    They’re arguing about the definition of altruism on another thread… What do you call it when you do something detrimental to your own survival (or your progeny’s) that also *adversely* affects the survival of your near and distant kin (i.e the entire species)? Insanity?

  56. Cham, I have a kid with a severe genetic heart condition. I think your position on eugenics is unfortunate. Especially if you think babies under a year old deserve to die because they came in contact with a child whose parents drank the anti-vax kool-aid.

  57. @Chris – 1) eu·gen·ics noun : a science that deals with the improvement (as by control of human mating) of hereditary qualities of a race or breed. (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/eugenics)

    My position on eugenics…Hmmm…let’s think about this one. Deliberate, controlled breeding of humans for the most desirable traits v/s human evolution which occurs spontaneously over thousands of years and is based on the traits that offer the human species the best chances at survival.

    You’re right…they’re EXACTLY the same thing. I don’t know how I could have missed it before.

    2) I never said it was a good thing for kids to die or that I wanted it to happen (in fact, if you actually read my post, you will see that I say precisely the opposite). However, it does happen. It has happened for thousands of years and it will continue to happen until the end of time or until communicable diseases cease to exist which is why it’s so important for people to vaccinate themselves and their children.

    (p.s. @Buzz – I’m 100% PRO VAX and had already included vaccinations first on my ‘things that make you less likely to die’ list…but umm…thanks for the input.)

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