Immune-Enhancing Herbs

Try these immune-boosting herbs to kick illness to the curb.

  • Ginseng root has been revered for centuries as a healthful tonic.
    Photo by iStock/WEKWEK
  • Healing astragalus root can be taken as a tea, extract or capsule, or simmered in soup.
    Photo by iStock/Lcc54613
  • Elderberries can help protect against respiratory viral infections and speed recovery from the cold or flu.
    Photo by iStock/Maren Winter
  • Lovely echinacea is a stimulant for immune cells increses the production of other immune compounds.
    Photo by iStock/LianeM
  • Though it should be used cautiously, fresh garlic, powdered garlic, garlic oil and garlic extract can all help with the cold and flu, from prevention to recovery.
    Photo by iStock/Erdosain
  • The variety of beneficial compounds found in different mushroom species means that eating an assortment will help your immune system most.
    Photo by iStock/ansonmiao

Note: Immune-enhancing herbs may interact or interfere with other medications, or negatively affect chronic health conditions. Always consult a medical professional before combining medicinal herbs with pharmaceutical medications, or if you have ongoing medical conditions or are nursing or pregnant.

American Ginseng

Research shows that American ginseng root — revered for centuries as a health and vitality tonic — helps prevent upper respiratory infections when taken for several months. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, tonic herbs such as ginseng are taken to strengthen immunity, but are discontinued during an acute illness (such as a cold). Because products vary in potency, follow manufacturers’ dosage recommendations.


Sometimes referred to as “Indian echinacea,” andrographis reduces the duration and severity of cold symptoms, and it also might help prevent upper respiratory infections, studies show. Compounds in andrographis appear to stimulate immune function and halt viral growth. Look for products standardized to five percent andrographolide (the active constituent), and follow dosage instructions.


Research shows that astragalus can improve immune function in several ways, prodding immune cells into increased activity. Components of astragalus, such as polysaccharides (large, complex sugar molecules that enhance immune activity), along with saponins and flavonoids, have been found to shield cells against the free radical damage that leads to degenerative diseases, such as cancer. In China, researchers have conducted dozens of studies on astragalus with promising results. In one clinical trial, 115 patients with low white blood cell counts took either 10 grams or 30 grams of a concentrated astragalus extract daily. Both groups experienced a significant increase in white blood cell counts after eight weeks of treatment. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, astragalus often is made into a tea, or slices of the root are simmered in soup. In Western herbalism, astragalus is generally taken as an extract or in capsules. Because preparations vary in potency, follow package directions for best results.


Dark blue-black elderberries are rich in compounds that disarm viruses and prevent them from taking over healthy cells. Studies show elderberry offers significant protection against respiratory viral infections. For prevention, take 1/2 teaspoon of liquid extract or 1 teaspoon of elderberry syrup twice daily. To hasten recovery from a cold or flu, take 1 teaspoon of extract or 2 teaspoons of syrup four times a day. Do not consume unripe or uncooked elderberries, which may be poisonous.


Despite a few studies that question its efficacy, numerous studies support echinacea as an effective aid for preventing and treating colds, flu and other infections. Echinacea stimulates infection-fighting immune cells and may increase the production of other immune compounds, such as interferon. Echinacea works best when taken frequently at the first sign of infection: 30 to 60 drops of liquid extract or one to two capsules (300 to 400 mg each) every two hours for the first 24 to 48 hours, followed by the same dosage three times daily for three days after symptoms disappear. Use caution with echinacea if you are allergic to ragweed, mums, marigolds or daisies.

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