Your immune system is amazing. When exposed to something that could potentially be harmful, it kicks into action, providing a defense against infectious organisms and other invaders. Your strong immune system’s specialized cells, proteins, tissues, and organs constantly keep track of what is in your body and respond when needed.
Your immune system is responsible for responding when you are exposed to viruses and bacteria, when you have a cut or a broken bone, or when your cells begin to change in an abnormal way, as in the early stages of cancer. It also plays the vital role of determining what tissues belong to your body and leaving them alone, and quickly recognizing and eliminating foreign proteins from a bacteria or virus. The immune system is also responsible for inflammation, the natural process that occurs in response to injury. Inflammation is incredibly important to initiate healing, but too much of it can be detrimental and is linked to heart disease, diabetes, cancer and many other illnesses.
The immune system has a very complex job to do. I like to think of this system as an orchestra, in which each instrument plays a vital role, and if one is not functioning at its best, it can throw everything off and quickly turn a symphony into chaos. The key to a functional, strong immune system is balance—keeping the immune system calm and happy on a daily basis, and ensuring it is primed and ready to respond when needed.
Staying Healthy: Immune Wellness and Prevention of Illness
Healthy immune function starts with what you feed your body. Plant foods tend to be anti-inflammatory, so consuming lots of fruits, vegetables and whole grains is an important aspect of good immune function. In addition, many studies have linked obesity with impaired immune response, so a plant-based diet can do double-duty to support immune function by also helping you maintain a healthy weight. Regular exercise and managing your stress are also essential aspects of a strong immune system.
Certain herbs can help support your immune system on a long-term basis. Garlic is full of compounds like allicin, ajoene and thiosulfinates, powerful molecules that help your body prevent and fight infections. Garlic also has a rich history of being used topically to disinfect wounds and fight fungal infections. The best way to use garlic for immune support is to consume fresh, crushed garlic. While you may not be daring enough to chomp raw garlic, adding raw garlic to a sauce or pesto is a good and flavorful way to get it in your body.
Horseradish, cayenne and ginger are all considered “blood movers” in Chinese medicine. They stimulate blood flow and, as you might imagine, can kill off many microbes. It is thought that the consumption of spicy foods, including those seasoned with these tasty and potent herbs, can ward off digestive infections. Oregano and thyme are also full of aromatic compounds (the essential oils that make the plants smell so wonderful) that also have potent antimicrobial action. They can be consumed as a culinary spice or as a tea, inhaled to deliver the herbs to the sinuses or lungs (see Steamy Support for Sinuses), or taken in capsules if a stronger medicine is needed.
To take immune support to the next level, consider taking some of these immune boosters on a regular basis, at least through the fall and winter months: mushrooms like shiitake, reishi, chaga and cordyceps, as well as botanicals such as astragalus, elderberry and ashwagandha. Ashwagandha (Withania somniferia), along with many of these herbs, is also an adpatogen, which is a word for a natural substance that helps the body adapt to stress. See Fresh Clips: All About Adaptogens to learn more about adaptogens.
Though not an herb, we include mushrooms because they are potent allies in the quest for a strong immune system. Mushrooms such as maitake, shiitake, reishi and chaga all contain a complex array of nutrients that help to support good immune function. These include complex polysaccharides which appear to act as immunomodulators--this means they can stimulate an underactive immune system and calm an overactive immune system, acting as immune balancers.
The best-studied polysaccharide is called beta-D-glucan. This complex sugar is well-absorbed when mushrooms are consumed and is currently being studied for its potential role in treating cancer, HIV and AIDS. It is thought to work by stimulating specialized white blood cells (called macrophages and neutrophils) which can recognize and kill tumor cells, remove damage caused by free radicals, speed up recovery of damaged tissue, and activate other immune responses when necessary.
Research has shown that medicinal mushrooms also can help prevent white blood cell diminishment in people given chemotherapy and radiation, and can elevate antibody levels (proteins that help identify foreign invaders) in healthy people.
Shiitake mushrooms are available at most grocery stores and are a delicious way to incorporate mushrooms into your food. Sometimes labeled “baby portabellos,” they can be substituted in any recipe that calls for button mushrooms to increase the healthfulness of the meal. Traditionally, mushrooms are decocted, or simmered, for hours to brew a strong tea. I recommend brewing a large batch and freezing the mushroom tea, which can be added to broths, soups and other foods when cooking.
Astragalus contains many compounds similar to the medicinal mushrooms. I will often add astragalus to immune preparations to take regularly as a preventive.
Fighting Flu and Colds
If you happen to come down with a viral or bacterial infection, herbs can provide a lot of relief. The following herbs, including elderberry, echinacea, goldenseal and andrographis, are some of my favorites for when you’re hit with illness.
Elderberry (Sambucus nigra) is probably the most delicious herb used to support a strong immune system. Elderberry has been used for centuries to treat colds, flu and other viral infections. Native to Europe, Asia and North America, it can tolerate a wide variety of growing conditions. The blue and black berries, along with the flowers, are used to make syrup or are taken dried as a food. Elderberries are a great source of vitamins A, B and C, and contain a high level of flavonoids, anti-inflammatory compounds that can promote healthy cell function.
Elderberry has been studied for its antiviral effects. Several studies have demonstrated that people who consumed elderberry syrup (1 tablespoon daily) had a lower incidence of viral infection than those who did not. Also, people who took elderberry syrup at the onset of their first cold symptoms experienced a shorter duration of illness than those who did not.
The best thing about elderberry is that it is truly delicious and is very safe, even in children and the elderly. Elderberry syrup is conventionally available, and can be eaten right off the spoon, or used more exotically. In our household, we drizzle it over oatmeal or add it to seltzer water for a delicious elderberry spritzer.
Echinacea and Goldenseal
Echinacea and goldenseal, often paired together, are probably the best-known herbs for immune support, especially for acute illnesses. In general, human studies have found that echinacea taken orally stimulates the function of a variety of immune cells. Although contradictory evidence exists, most studies suggest that the correct varieties of echinacea can speed the recovery from the common cold by stimulating the immune system to respond faster and better (versus killing the virus directly). Many beautiful varieties of echinacea abound, but the medicine is in E. purpurea or E. angustifolia.
Research studies looking at echinacea as a preventive herb seem to be mostly negative. This suggests that the best use of echinacea is to take it only when needed, or when illness strikes. Echinacea is most often used as a tincture (about 1 teaspoon three times daily) or as an encapsulated herb taken immediately when you are coming down with a viral infection.
Goldenseal has always been thought to have direct antibacterial and antiviral action, although research has demonstrated that its action is more diverse than that. The antimicrobial action comes from a compound called berberine, which is present in goldenseal and many related plants. It is thought that goldenseal also acts by increasing the secretion of mucous membranes, making your nose and mouth more effective at warding off microbes. Because of goldenseal’s popularity, it has become overharvested in the wild and is now at risk for becoming an endangered species. I recommend only sourcing goldenseal from companies that farm their own, or avoid its use altogether and choose different herbs for immune support.
Few people have heard of andrographis, an herb native to India and Sri Lanka, but it is the herb with the best research in the area of immune support. Studies on andrographis have demonstrated that it can be used to successfully reduce the severity of the common cold. It also has been demonstrated to prevent the onset of a cold in healthy people. It is thought that andrographis can stimulate many types of immune cells to jump into action and fight off viral invaders. Look for a product that contains andrographolides, the active constituents in andrographis, and take enough to get 15 to 20 mg of andrographolides per dose, dosed three times daily.
Steamy Support for Sinuses
To deliver immune-boosting herbs directly where you need them most, consider an herbal steam. Herbal steams are great for respiratory conditions that affect your nose, throat and lungs. To make an herbal steam, bring 4 to 6 cups of water to a boil and then remove from heat. Add 1 to 5 drops essential oil to hot water. Hold your head about 12 to 18 inches above the pot and drape a towel over your head to make a tent. Breathe deeply for 5 to 10 minutes to give yourself a wonderful, healing treatment.
For children, you may also consider using essential oils dropped onto a shelf in a hot shower or bath. The steam will pick up the oils and deliver them in a less concentrated, gentler way.
Consider using one or more of the following:
Thyme: Contains potent antiviral and antibacterial properties delivered right to the lungs and sinuses.
Eucalyptus: The herb of choice to clear congestion
Lavender: A calming, soothing aromatic that also delivers antimicrobial action to an irritated respiratory tract.
A Plan of Action
When preparing yourself for the winter months, think of supporting your strong immune system in three ways:
• Follow a healthy lifestyle that allows your immune system to thrive. Base your diet around fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Decrease your intake of refined foods, sugar and alcohol, all of which have been shown to decrease resistance to infection. Get lots of fresh air and regular exercise to promote healthy immune function, and keep your stress level as low as possible.
• Consider adding to your regime herbs that can support healthy immune function. These may include culinary herbs such as garlic, onions, horseradish, ginger, cayenne, oregano, thyme or mushrooms. You also might consider using elderberry through the fall and winter for an extra preventive boost.
• When needed, turn to your botanical powerhouses. Use andrographis, echinacea and elderberry in higher doses to combat illness and help shorten your suffering when exposed to a viral infection.
Jaclyn Chasse, N.D., is a licensed naturopathic doctor who practices in New Hampshire.
Try these recipes for cooking with immune-boosting powerhouses and methods for fighting illness with plant medicine.