How to Boost Your Immune System with Herbs

By Staff
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<pdata-caption=At the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Memorial Medical Center in Worcester, patients suffering from everything from heart disease and cancer to skin disorders and anxiety commit to eight-week courses to “work on themselves” with meditation and relaxation. And in Tucson at the Miraval Life in Balance Resort, Dharma Singh Khalsa, author of Meditation as Medicine (Pocket Books, 2001) and president and director of the Alzheimer’s Prevention Foundation, is prescribing “medical meditation” to his patients—specific meditation prescriptions for patients based on their ailments.

“The body can heal itself if given the chance,” says Khalsa, who combines Eastern healing with his Western-medicine background. “Meditation is the most potent form of natural healing.”

In research from the Stress Reduction Clinic, patients who have completed the program have a greater ability to engage in their own ongoing wellness through mindfulness—the foundation of all work done at the clinic. The majority of patients completing the program report a decrease in both physical and psychological symptoms, and pain levels improve.

Judith Orloff, M.D., a psychiatrist, intuitive, and author of A Guide to Intuitive Healing (Three Rivers, 2001), says that meditation is one of the major ways to access intuition. “Getting quiet and listening to the still, small voice inside lets you go in and connect with your own spirit and intuition,” she says.

It’s all about looking inside yourself and trusting the feelings that arise as answers to your own healing, Orloff says. Orloff teaches her patients to ask questions not to their minds but to their inner voices, such as “Is this treatment (medication, et cetera) right for me?” Intuitive answers for healing may arise from this inner dialogue.

As an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of California, Los Angeles, Orloff often works with people suffering from panic disorders and has found that meditation helps alleviate panic and anxiety. A 1995 study at the Stress Reduction Clinic showed that twenty subjects demonstrated significant reductions in anxiety and panic after eight weeks of mindfulness meditation.

The meditation Khalsa prescribes is unique because of its five specific attributes: breath, posture, mantra, hand position, and focus of concentration. Each medical meditation has a different set of these five attributes. For instance, there are different ways of working with the breath (such as rapid or slow) and different postures, depending upon the ailment being treated.

The sound, or mantra, used during the meditation varies as well. While saying a mantra, when the tongue touches one of the eighty-four meridian points on the roof of the mouth, certain areas of the brain are stimulated, releasing peptides, chemicals, and neurotransmitters, Khalsa says. These chemical releases can be very healing, he says.

The hand positions can also affect different parts of the brain. Positron Emission Tomography, or PET, scans have shown increased uptake of oxygen and glucose in the brain when certain areas of the hands are stimulated.

The fifth attribute, focus of attention, has many variations. One method involves closing the eyes and focusing on the third-eye area, between the eyes. This method, says Khalsa, activates the optic nerves and increases blood flow past the pituitary gland, thereby stimulating the immune system.

Getting started

Orloff suggests starting out with as little as five minutes of meditation a day. First, center yourself, paying attention to your breath. Try not to fixate on thoughts, letting them pass by like clouds. Using the breath to calm and center you helps you to develop your inner voice.

Khalsa says that anyone could benefit from a daily routine, what ancient masters called “sadhana,” or “wake up to wellness.” He thinks it’s important to balance the nervous system upon waking. Stretching, breathing, meditation, and prayer can get healing energy flowing, raise serotonin levels, change brain chemistry, and set a person up for the day in a healthier way than by that obtained from a cup of coffee, Khalsa explains.

“The best part of waking up,” he says, “is to try and take some time for yourself.” That way, you’ll be happier and healthier.

Sarah Kelch graduated from Colorado State University in Fort Collins, as a journalism and graphic design major. 

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The coming cold and flu season is only one of the hundreds of reasons that immune function should always be at the top of your list of health priorities. The immune system doesn’t just keep sniffles away–it also is the body’s best defense against potentially deadly diseases, such as H1N1 flu, and well-known killers, such as cancer. Your daily habits, including the foods you eat and your exercise and sleep routines, have a significant effect on your immune function. And even if your lifestyle choices are exemplary, environmental toxins, emotional stress, and the wear and tear of aging all conspire to weaken immunity.

How to Protect Your Immune System

The most complex system of the body, the immune system includes the thymus gland, the spleen, bone marrow and a vast network of lymph nodes that are scattered throughout the body. The immune system also maintains a variety of white blood cells: Natural killer cells eradicate cancer cells and large white blood cells called macrophages gobble up diseased or damaged cells. In addition, specialized immune compounds, such as interferon, stimulate white blood cells to destroy cancerous cells.

Your immune system never rests–24 hours a day, every day of your life, your immune system is searching for cells that show signs of infection or cancerous changes. To support and protect your immune system, try to follow these lifestyle suggestions:

• Choose immune-boosting foods. A diet of refined, processed, sugary foods is a recipe for lowered immunity. To build strong immune function, eat a diet rich in fresh vegetables and fruits, which provide a wide range of essential antioxidants and nutrients. The immune system also depends on high-quality proteins and healthful fats, especially monounsaturated fats, such as those found in extra virgin olive oil, to repair tissues and create healthy immune cells. Studies show that adding a daily serving of yogurt with live beneficial bacteria, such as Lactobacillus acidophilus, strengthens immune function. It’s also important to reduce your intake of all types of sugars (including concentrated fruit juices) because even one serving of sugar significantly lowers immune defenses for several hours.

• Exercise–but not to excess. Science has proven that regular exercise–at least 30 minutes most days of the week–increases immune function. Moderate exercise increases the numbers of all types of white blood cells and makes natural killer cells become more active and effective. But interestingly, excessive exercise regimes, such as running a marathon, can temporarily hinder immune function.

• Reduce stress. Emotional stressors, such as depression and anxiety, stimulate the secretion of adrenal hormones, which suppress the activity of the thymus gland and white blood cells. Luckily, there are several easy ways to reduce stress in your day-to-day life. In addition to its immune-boosting effects, regular exercise is a potent stress reliever. So are meditation, deep relaxation exercises and massage. Researchers have even found that the simple process of journal writing about stressful incidents improves immune function.

• Sleep more for better health. Lack of sleep negatively affects immune function in a few major ways. First, without enough rest, the body slows its production of disease-fighting white blood cells. Lack of sleep also impairs the activity of natural killer cells and macrophages. And finally, during deep, restful sleep, the body releases powerful immune-enhancing compounds, such as interferon. Make every effort to get enough sleep so that your body is rested and can perform these vital functions.

• Treat infections promptly. Lingering infections, such as respiratory or gum infections, tax the immune system and can significantly impair immunity. Treat infections promptly with immune-boosting herbs such as echinacea (Echinacea spp.) and garlic (Allium sativum). Whenever possible, avoid using antibiotics, because they ultimately weaken immune function. Save antibiotics for infections that cannot successfully be treated with herbs.

• Avoid toxins. Toxic chemicals impair immune function and trigger the formation of cell-damaging free radicals. Toxins are everywhere in our environment these days. Avoid as many as you can by choosing organically grown foods, as well as meats and dairy products that are produced without antibiotics or other chemicals. Use natural alternatives to toxic products in your home, garden and workplace. Whenever possible, avoid exposure to radiation, including x-rays unless absolutely necessary, because radiation damage is cumulative.

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