It is so important for us to support and keep healthy all the moving parts of our complex immune system. Maintaining overall health and vitality includes things that can be done to restore and revitalize a suppressed or damaged immune system or to keep an already healthy immune system functioning well. Most of these measures fall into three categories: lifestyle choices, herbs, and foods & vitamins.
As far as herbs go for prevention we will focus on those that are IMMUNOMODULATING. This type of nourishing herb supports the overall health and strength of the immune system. You can take them when you are healthy or when you are feeling run down. They can be taken for a long period of time when necessary and have a balancing effect, rather than a stimulating effect on the body. They can be taken in large doses. Most immunomodulators also possess adaptogenic qualities. Adaptogens are tonic herbs, which help to balance the body in adapting to emotional, physical and mental stress.
Astragalus- helps to keep you healthy especially if you typically get frequent colds/flus or have seasonal allergies. It can be used long term to support immune system health. Astragalus protects the heart and has also been shown to protect the liver from a variety of liver toxins. The liver is an important organ in the body’s immune support system. It also enhances the body’s own natural killer cell activity. The sliced root can be used in soup or stock or rice can be cooked in a strong astragalus infusion or tea. Make sure to remove the root after cooking as it is too fibrous to eat. The powder can be added to baked goods, hummus or granola.
Tea- 2 to 3 ounces of herb to a pot of tea, drink throughout the day
Tincture- 1:5 with 60% alcohol, 30 to 60 drops up to 4 times a day
Ashwagandha- specifically used for exhaustion, the inability to sleep and chronic illness. This herb is not stimulating as it helps to induce sleep but at the same time it can provide energy for those who need it. It is a strong and sure immune tonic and stress protector. One of its strengths is its reliable action as a nerve sedative. Ashwagandha gently lowers stress levels in the body, protects the body from stress-related diseases and brings the immune system to optimum levels of activity. This herb works best over time, so it may take as little as six weeks or up to six months to tell if this herb is working. Adding the powdered root to food is a good way to incorporate it into your daily life. You could also put the powdered root into capsules.
Tea- 2 to 3 ounces of herb to a pot of tea, drink throughout the day
Tincture- 1:5 with 60% alcohol, 5-10ml once per day
Elderberry- A powerful herb used to prevent and even stop an upper respiratory virus. It has powerful flavonoids that disrupt pathogens ability to replicate. This is a food like herb so it should be taken in high doses. It can be made into a syrup, tea, extract and jam. Use caution as eating the berries raw especially if ingesting the seeds can cause nausea and vomiting.
Tea- 2 to 3 tbsp of herb to a pot of tea, drink throughout the day
Tincture- 1:5 with 60% glycerine 40% water, 60 drops up to 5 times a day
Syrup- 1 to 2 tbsp per day
Ginseng- This is used by people who are deficient in nutrients, chronically tired and as a tonic for longevity. It is not meant for young folks that have lots of vitality (under 40). It can be stimulating. It is commonly used in formulas, decoctions and cooked in foods.
Tea- ½ tsp powdered herb in 1 cup of water, bring to boil and simmer 10 mins
Tincture- 1:5 with 60% alcohol, 1-2ml three times per day
Holy Basil- this herb is an adaptogen (increases the body’s ability to resist the damaging effects of stress and promote or restore normal physiological functioning) and an immunomodulator. Holy Basil benefits the lungs and the entire respiratory system as well as modulates and enhances the immune system. It is anti-viral, antibacterial and antimicrobial.
Tea- 4 oz. of herb up to three times per day
Tincture- 1:2 75% alcohol (fresh) & 1:5 50% alcohol (dried), 30 to 60 drops up to 3 times a day
Syrup- 1 to 2 tbsp, three times per day
Spices should be used freely in food preparation. They can improve digestion, increase circulation and are antimicrobial. Here are some that should be added to food regularly:
-cayenne -fennel -garlic -ginger -cumin -paprika -thyme -basil -chili -cinnamon -coriander -pepper -rosemary -dill -cloves -turmeric -marjoram -oregano
VITAMINS & MINERALS
Vitamin A– Is important for skin health and the mucousal membranes. Our skin is one of the most important immune system organs since it creates a barrier to the outside world. You are deficient in vitamin A if you have frequent dry skin, decreased mucous production and prone to acne.
The foods that contain vitamin A include:
-beef liver -sweet potatoes -carrots -cabbage -spinach -cantaloupes
-kale -winter squash -broccoli -apricots -lettuce -green beans
-corn -watermelon -seaweed -asparagus -peas -eggs
Herbs that contain vitamin A:
-peppermint -yellow dock -uva ursi -parsley -nettles -violet leaves
-cayenne -red raspberry -dandelion -kelp -sage -chickweed
-horsetail -black cohosh -rose hips -lamb’s quarters
Vitamin C- Is a protective function against free radicals and stimulates the immune system to remain strong and healthy. Humans cannot synthesize vitamin C in their bodies so it is important to supplement through food or herbs. Vitamin C speeds up the activity of neutrophils, those white blood cells that rush to our defense, devouring invading pathogens, and also kicks lymphocyte production into high gear, thus stimulating our immune system to fight off many kinds of infection, whether viral, bacterial or fungal organisms. Proanthocyanidin causes small amounts of vitamin C to produce the same effect in our body as significantly larger amounts. Proanthocyanidins are higher in pine bark than any other substance except grape seeds. You can take vitamin C to bowel tolerance.
The foods that contain vitamin C include:
-grapefruit -green peppers -papaya -potatoes -cabbage -cantaloupes
-spinach -brussel sprouts -broccoli -blackberries -cherries -strawberries
-tomato juice -raw cauliflower -blueberries -cooked turnip greens
Herbs that contain vitamin C:
-rose hips -yellow dock -red clover -parsley -nettles -violet leaves
-cayenne -red raspberry -dandelion -pine needles -hops -echinacea
-skullcap -plantain -spruce tips -cedar -birch sap -violet flowers
-tamarack needles -high-bush cranberries -catkins of balsam poplar
Vitamin D- People who get the flu are likely to have low levels of vitamin D. It reduces inflammation caused by the influenza virus and increases the number of proteins that fight against viruses. Vitamin D is obtained from the sun! You must expose your skin for atleast 20 minutes when the sun is higher than 45 degrees. It is good to note that frequent washing with soap inhibits vitamin D absorption. It may be necessary to supplement vitamin D and if this is the case look for a supplement without other ingredients. The recommended dose is 5,000-10,000 IUs for adults.
The foods that contain vitamin D include:
-halibut-liver oil -herring -cod liver oil -mackerel -shrimp -sardines
-tuna -egg yolks
Zinc- helps to produce antibodies to help fight infection, supports lymphocytes and prevents excess inflammatory response by the immune system. Zinc also helps us to resist infections and plays an important role in maintaining the health of our immune system.
The foods that contain zinc include:
-oysters -chicken heart -beef -liver -lamb -turkey meat
-brazil nuts -cashews -peanuts -oats -peas -chickpeas
-lentils -black-eyed peas -pumpkin & sunflower seeds
Herbs that contain zinc:
-skullcap -oatstraw -sage -wild yam -nettles -dulse
-chickweed -saw palmetto -dulse -milk thistle -echinacea
Exercise- An extremely important element of prevention as it increases the circulation of blood and lymph which are delivering nutrients to the cells, and removing metabolic waste, including carbon dioxide, from the body. The lymphatic system must rely on exercise to move lymphatic fluid through the body even though there is three times more lymphatic fluid in the body than blood which relies on the heart for circulation. Studies have shown that exercise and mediation can reduce incidence, duration and severity of colds & flus by 30-60%. It is recommended to exercise 3-4 times per week. A combination of walking, cardio and strength training is best.
Spend time in Nature– Walking & spending time in nature has been known to boost natural killer cell activity and increase resistance to stress.
Laughter– Laughing is a great way to reduce stress and increases killer cells. Try laughter yoga. I once heard Susan Weed say that she would laugh out loud for at least ten minutes every night before she went to bed.
Reduce Stress– Stress is a normal, however it’s important that we don’t feel stressed out all the time. This is directly related to immune system health. When under stress, cells of the immune system are unable to respond to hormonal controls and consequently produce levels of inflammation that promote disease. Simplifying our lives is the first step to reducing stress, as is taking breaks throughout the day for ourselves, practicing simple breathing exercises, walking or movement exercises such as qi gong or tai chi, reducing to-do lists and leaning on support from our families and friends.
Sleep– Get sleep, good sleep, consistent sleep. An interesting study took students at the University of Chicago and limited their sleep to only four hours a night for six nights and they were given a flu vaccine. Their immune systems only made half the normal number of antibodies. That’s just one study out of many out there showing that lack of sleep and sleep deprivation really harms our immune system function. If we aren’t getting enough sleep, its like having an open door policy for things like viruses to come in.
Hygiene & Avoidance– It is important to keep ourselves clean, so washing our hands on a regular basis is good practice. Do not use antibacterial soap as it encourages the growth of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. It is also a good idea to stay away from large crowds during the col & flu season especially in places where people are often sick. In turn, if you are sick stay home! Staying home to rest means that you can support you own immune system which means you can get better quicker, and you can also help prevent spreading those cold and flu viruses.
Healthy Digestion– Keeping digestion strong is very important since 80% of our immune system cells are located in our gut. Symptoms of poor digestion include: belching, flatulence, nausea, bloating, loose stools, constipation, ulcers & heart burn. These may be caused by food allergies, low stomach acid, leaky gut, IBS, and many other reasons.
Healthy Foods– The way we eat is a personal and spiritual choice, what is right for one person is not always the best for another. Therefore, it is up to you to research the best diet for you however there are a few guidelines that can be applicable to everyone. These include:
-eat the rainbow (peppers, swiss chard, kale, carrots, blueberries, blackberries, strawberries, etc)
-shop the perimeter of the grocery store or shop primarily at the Farmer’s Market
-stay away from processed and packaged foods
-eating or drinking sugar decreases the function of the immune system by inhibiting the attacking cells for hours after ingesting (interestingly enough, there have been no long term studies on the effects of sugar)
-hydration, with water or herbal teas (especially hot herbal antibacterial teas such as sage, thyme & rosemary), is important as it keeps the skin and mucous membranes healthy which is our first line of defense against viruses
Healthy Gut Bacteria- To support healthy gut flora and just overall immune system function you need to get out there and play in the dirt, eat a range of fermented foods and eat veggies from the garden. No need to spray them with Lysol before you eat them. It’s all right if a little dirt gets in there. It’s very healthy. My favorite fermented foods are yogurts, miso, and lots of fermented veggies such as kimchi and sauerkraut. Or if that doesn’t appeal to you, you can take a probiotic supplement to increase your healthy gut bacteria.
If we don’t support our immune system function with these positive daily lifestyle choices, then herbs are only going to have a limited benefit. At the end of the day, the way we’re going to spend our day is more important than the small amount of herbs we can get in. If we are living a healthy lifestyle, we’re going to see much more benefits from the herbs we take rather than living an unhealthy lifestyle and expecting herbs to be that silver magic bullet that’s going to save us. Lifestyle choices should make up 75% of your preventative plan with herbs & nutrients making up 25%.