Innate vs. Adaptive Immune System: What’s the Difference?

Innate vs. Adaptive Immune System: What’s the Difference?

Everyone knows the immune system is the body’s natural line of defense. But did you know that it actually comprises of two subsystems?

| By RB Schiff Vitamins

Everyone knows the immune system is the body’s natural line of defense. But did you know that it actually comprises of two subsystems?

These two components are known as the innate and adaptive immune systems. They work in different ways, but as a whole help to defend the body against illness and infection.

So, what’s the difference? That’s what we’re going to discover in this article.

The innate (or non-specific) immune system

First, let’s take a look at the innate immune system, also known as the non-specific immune system. You may also hear it referred to as the in-born immune system.

What is the innate immune system?

The innate immune system is effectively the body’s first line of defense against infection[1]. It kicks into action to fight off new pathogens quickly while waiting for the adaptive immune system to take over.

This non-specific immune system is responsible for your body’s initial reaction to a pathogen[2].

What are the components of the innate immune system?

The innate immune response occurs in various ways, and there are different systems in place that play a role[3]:

  • Outer layers of protection such as the skin
  • Mucous membranes in the nose, mouth and other organs
  • Bodily fluids like tears, sweat and urine which help to move bacteria out of the body
  • Defense cells in the blood, known as leukocytes or white blood cells

Let’s take a closer look at how the innate or non-specific immune system defends you.

How does the innate immune system work?

As the first layers of defense, the skin and mucous membranes act as physical barriers to help to prevent harmful pathogens from entering the body3.

However, sometimes the walls are breached. When that happens, the innate immune system fires its secondary defense mechanism; inflammatory and defense cells flock to the infected area to attack the invader. This is when you might start to feel swelling or a fever as your body goes to work to defend itself3.

The adaptive (or specific) immune system

Working alongside the innate immune system is the adaptive immune system. This is sometimes known as the specific immune system, or the acquired or learned defense.

What is the adaptive immune system?

The adaptive immune system helps the body to fight off infection by attacking pathogens that invade the body. However, it differs from the innate immune system because it can also fight against pathogens it has been exposed to before.

This learned - or acquired - defense mechanism is what ensures you don’t become sick with the same infections over and over again1.

Despite working in a different way to the innate immune system, the two defense systems actually work alongside each other to defend the body[4].

What are the components of the adaptive immune system?

The make up of the adaptive immune system is all unseen. The components are found inside the body and include3:

  • T lymphocytes, or T cells, which work to kill cells that have been taken over by viruses. The T cells perform a range of roles in the adaptive immune system, such as destroying cells that have been taken over by viruses[5] or multiplying to destroy invading pathogens3
  • B lymphocytes, or B cells, which produce antibodies that are carried around the body in the blood3
  • Antibodies and chemical messengers (cytokines) found in the blood or tissues. These powerful chemicals help the cells in the body to communicate with each other to signal an immune response[6]

Now let’s look at how these cells and chemicals work together as your adaptive immune system to defend you.

How does the adaptive immune system work?

The various components of the adaptive immune perform different roles when the body is under attack. If the innate immune system is unable to repel a pathogen invasion, the adaptive immune system steps in.

The adaptive immune response typically takes longer to act, but it’s much more accurate. That’s because it remembers pathogens it has seen before, and knows it needs to eliminate them3.

The components of the adaptive immune system work together to defend the body when it comes under attack. The cell communication is key in identifying which are ‘foreign’ invaders, which then allows the killer T cells to attack1.

Supporting your natural defenses

A healthy lifestyle is important to supporting your body’s natural defense systems. Making healthy choices and keeping active are important steps to take in order to help ensure your immune system is equipped to defend you.

Maintain a healthy diet

Maintaining a healthy diet is a great way to support your natural defenses. Ensure you eat plenty of fruits and leafy green vegetables, as these are great sources of vitamin C which helps to support your immune function.

Try to avoid too much sugar; foods and drinks high in sugar can depress the function of your immune cells which attack bacteria, leaving you open to illness or infection[7].

You can also take a vitamin C supplement such as Airborne® Original Immune Support Supplement to help increase your intake of vitamin C and other helpful antioxidants such as vitamins A and E*.

Stay active

It’s true; exercise can help to support your immune system[8].Taking regular aerobic exercise, such as walking, jogging, swimming or cycling, can really help to support your immune function.

Try not to overdo it though; experts suggest that overtraining can actually have a negative impact on your immunity8. American adults are recommended to get at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise, or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise, per week[9].

Talk to a medical professional

If you’re concerned that you may be sick or that your immune defense isn’t as strong as it could be, consult a medical professional like your doctor. You should also speak to your healthcare practitioner before starting a new fitness regimen.

It’s always best to get an expert opinion just in case there are any underlying issues that you’re unable to identify yourself.





[1] Alberts, B. et al. “Molecular Biology of the Cell. 4th Edition.” NCBI, 2002,

[2] Janeway, CA Jr. et al. “Immunobiology: The Immune System in Health and Disease. 5th edition.” NCBI, 2001,

[3] Informed Health Online. “The innate and adaptive immune systems”. NCBI, 2016,

[4] Informed Health Online. “How does the immune system work?”. NCBI, 2016,

[5] PubMed Health Glossary. “Lymphocytes”. NCBI, Undated,

[6] PubMed Health Glossary. “Cytokines”. NCBI, Undated,

[7] “Ways to Boost Your Immune System”. WebMD, 2017,

[8] Simpson, R.J., et al. “Exercise and the Regulation of Immune Functions.” Progress in Molecular Biology and Translational Science, 2015,

[9] Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, “Physical Activity Guidelines”,, 2018,