Plants for a Strong Immune System

Stay well this winter by supporting a strong immune system with immune-boosting herbs and selected supplements and plant extracts.

| December/January 2012

  • Tasty culinary herbs such as thyme, oregano, garlic, chiles and shiitake mushrooms can help your body battle illness.
    Photo by Thomas Gibson
  • 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 codonopsis, astragalus, elderberry and ashwagandha.
  • Echinacea (Echinacea purpurea, E. angustifolia) and goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis), often paired together, are probably the best-known herbs for immune support, especially for acute illnesses.
  • Elderberry is a yummy way to boost your immunity. This stalwart has been used for centuries to battle colds and flu.
  • The best way to use garlic for immune support is to consume fresh, crushed garlic.
  • 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.
  • Mushrooms such as maitake, shiitake, reishi and chaga all contain a complex array of nutrients that help support good immune function.
  • Thyme contains potent antiviral and antibacterial properties delivered right to the lungs and sinuses.
  • Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera), along with many of these herbs, is also an adaptogen, a natural substance that helps the body adapt to stress.
    Photo by Steven Foster

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.

Plants for a Strong Immune System: Everyday Immune Soup 

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.






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