Your natural immunity can be supported and boosted via a number of strategies, helping you avoid and fight off viruses and other illnesses.
By Linda Woolven
Having a healthy immune system can make all the difference to your health and the number of illnesses you succumb to. Viruses are all around all the time, yet only some of us catch them. Why? Because if your immune system is strong, it will fight them off before you get them; whereas, those whose systems are not as strong will get sick more frequently.
Conventional medicine tries to kill everything to prevent you from getting sick but does little to help the overall immune system. Natural medicine, on the other hand, tries to strengthen the overall system so that you can fight illnesses off, no matter what kind they are. It’s like a pond that is infested with malaria mosquitoes. You can spray the pond and kill the insects, but the pond is still stagnant and the mosquitoes will come back. But if you drain the pond and clean the water, then it won’t matter if the mosquitoes come back because the pond is no longer a good place for them to live and breed.
That works for your immune system too. Strengthen it and it won’t matter what you come into contact with: You’ll have a better chance of fighting it off. Here are some strategies for boosting your natural immunity.
Simple, Effective Ways to Avoid Getting Sick
What you eat or don’t eat can make all the difference to a weakened immune system. To prevent illness, drink plenty of fluids – dehydrated mucous surfaces are a better breeding ground for viruses – but avoid sugar and sugary fruit juices. Sugar depresses immune functions. This depression happens because glucose and vitamin C compete for transport sites into the white blood cells (one of your body’s main defenses against illnesses). Increased levels of sugar decrease vitamin C levels and may result in a reduction in white blood cell function. Even fruit juice, like sugary orange juice, can depress immune function: Studies show that sugar of all kinds impairs the ability of white blood cells to kill bacteria and that it weakens the immune system and competes with vitamin C.
As well as avoiding sugar, it is equally important for your natural immunity to avoid dairy and other mucous-forming foods like gluten, especially if you’re susceptible to illnesses like colds and sinusitis. These foods create a mucousy surface and allow bacteria and viruses to thrive.
In addition to watching what you eat, pay attention to other bodily needs, such as rest. Go to bed early and stay there if you are not feeling well. During deep sleep, strong immune enhancing compounds are released and many immune functions are greatly increased.
Herbs can also help to boost your natural immunity. Here are some of the most effective.
Goldenseal for Natural Immunity
This herb is native to North America and was used extensively by First Nations people. It was primarily used to soothe the mucous linings of the respiratory, digestive, and urinary tracts, and for both allergies and infections. One of the components found in goldenseal, berberine, has been well studied and found to be a powerful antibiotic, as well as an immune enhancer. It exerts a wide antimicrobial activity effective against bacteria, protozoa, and fungi, including staphylococcus species, strep, chlamydia, salmonella, entamoeba histolytica, giardia, candida, trichomonas, and many more. According to Michael T. Murray, N.D., goldenseal actually exerts a stronger action than the antibiotics that are commonly used in the treatment of some of the diseases that these pathogens cause. Also, unlike chemical antibiotics, which stimulate the growth of the candida yeast, berberine inhibits its growth. It also not only kills bacteria, but it prevents bacteria from sticking to host cells and gaining a hold. Goldenseal promotes blood supply to the spleen, releasing immune compounds. It also enhances macrophage activity. Macrophages are white blood cells which engulf bacteria, viruses, and fungi. And it can lower a fever. So goldenseal helps to improve overall natural immunity and help keep your system strong.
Licorice is one of the most extensively used and studied herbs. It has been used for thousands of years in both the East and West as a way to boost natural immunity. It is a demulcent (which means it soothes irritated surfaces) and an expectorant. Licorice also increases production of interferon, the body’s natural antiviral compound. It blocks viruses, activates macrophage and natural killer cell activity, helping to get your immune system working. And it has antibiotic activity against staph, strep and candida, among others. It also acts as a natural cortisone in the body to help fight off allergies. And licorice helps the body cope with stress, an important function when fighting off illness.
Astragalus has a long history of use in the East and is becoming more popular in the West. It strengthens the defenses of the body and is used to treat colds, flu, fever and infections. Astragalus works in a number of ways to rev up your natural immunity. It induces interferon production, which prevents viruses from gaining a hold on the respiratory system, and it binds to cell surfaces and stimulates the synthesis of proteins that prevent viral infection. It also increases white blood cells when they are low. Studies show that astragalus reduces the incidence and shortens the duration of colds. In one study, bronchitis sufferers were shown to have a reduction in symptoms when using astragalus.
Perhaps the best known immune herb of all is echinacea. Echinacea was originally used by First Nations healers for many things, including snake bites. Aboriginal people of the plains used this plant more than any other for illness and injury. The root was used externally for wounds, burns and abscesses and insect bites and internally for infections, toothache and joint pain. In 1870, H.C.F Meyer, a German lay healer, introduced it to Americans as a cure for almost everything. He wasn’t far wrong. Research has found echinacea – both the angustiofolia and purpurea species – to aid the immune system. In fact, there have been over three hundred studies on echinacea’s immune enhancing properties. Since some active parts of the plant are water soluble and some are better extracted in alcohol, a product that combines both the fresh juice and an alcohol extract is best, using both species of plant and the above ground portion of the plant as well as the root.
Research conducted in 1978 in Germany confirmed that echinacea is able to stop bacteria and viruses from causing infection and many other studies have confirmed its immune enhancing activity. Echinacea works in many ways. Inulin, found in the root, is one of its major components. Echinacea neutralizes viruses and bacteria and increases white blood cell migration to areas of infection. It also increases properdin levels, which accounts for its antibiotic effects. Its polysaccharides activate T-cells and increase interferon levels. Echinacea also increases macrophages and natural killer cell activity, increases white blood cells and antiviral activity. It either works by preventing viruses from gaining access to the cells by competing for receptor sites on the body cells or it prevents the virus from reproducing. It can be used both to treat and prevent colds and flu.
Interestingly, the common belief that echinacea is an immune system stimulant that can only be used short-term is confused. It is true that the tincture of echinacea is an immune enhancer, best used at the beginning of an infection. But the whole herb or the powdered root as a capsule or tablet is an immune system modulator that balances natural immunity in either direction, increasing it when too low and sedating it when too high. So capsules or tablets of the whole herb or the root can be taken daily, in doses of 250 to 500mg as a preventative for people exposed to viruses.
Another great natural immunity boosting herb that is best known for its ability to give energy is eleuthero (formerly known as Siberian ginseng). This herb hails from the East, where it is commonly used to support the adrenal glands in times of stress and for increased energy; yet, according to Daniel Mowrey Ph.D., it also has been proven to reduce fevers. It is known to support the immune system by stimulating phagocytosis (phagocytes are the garbage collectors of the body that devour invading microorganisms, bacteria and viruses) and modifying interferon responses (the body’s own immune boosting antiviral and anticancer substance). Eleuthero has been used to tone the immune system and prevent colds and flu. It has been used by athletes, not only for its ability to increase energy, but also for preventing illnesses. In 1987, a study was done using eleuthero on thirty-six healthy volunteers. The results of the study proved that eleuthero augments the human immune system by increasing the absolute number of immune cells, especially T lymphocytes.
This herb was originally popular with the gypsies, and it is one of the few herbs that tastes good. It has been found to be effective against ten strains of viruses, compared to the common flu shot, which is only effective against two to three strains of viruses. It seems to work by preventing viruses from penetrating into cells, preventing viruses from replicating. Elderberries are also powerful sources of anthocyanins, antioxidants that encourage immune function. The flowers are effective, too, and used as diaphoretics, herbs that encourage sweating – another traditional way to help fight off illnesses.
This herb keeps many things away. Perhaps that is how it got its reputation for warding off vampires! Garlic enhances the immune system, is an antibiotic and expectorant, and encourages sweating. It has a wide range of activity against bacteria and viruses, including streptococcus, staphylococcus and klebsiella. In one study, when one hundred and forty-six people took garlic from November to January, they had only twenty- four colds compared to the placebo group, which had sixty-five. And when they did get a cold, it went away a lot faster: one-and-a-half days compared to five. Besides colds, it is used for urinary tract infections.
This herb comes from India. It is a wonderful herb for both preventing and treating colds. One double-blind study found that after four days cold symptoms were much better when people were given andrographis than when they were given a placebo. In another study, it was found to be better than a placebo in those with colds and sinusitis. In a very impressive double-blind study, two hundred and eight people with upper respiratory tract infections were given either andrographis or a placebo. By the second day, the herb group had a significant reduction in cold symptoms, like runny nose and sore throat, compared to the placebo group. By day four, they also had significant improvement in cough, headache, earache and fatigue. But that’s not all! It also helps to prevent illness. When one hundred and seven healthy children were given andro- graphis or a placebo for three months during the winter months, the kids on the herb had a significantly 2.1 times lower risk of catching a cold .
This herb comes from South America and has been traditionally used to fight off infection and boost immunity. Cat’s claw has anti-inflammatory, anticancer and immune stimulating properties. German researchers discovered that alkaloids found only in cat’s claw had a huge effect on the immune system. The alkaloids enhanced the white blood cells’ ability to engulf and destroy bacteria, tumor cells and dead matter, a process known as phagocytosis.
Shiitake, Maitake and Reishi
These mushrooms are a must on any list to help improve overall immunity. They help to fight everything from the common cold to cancer and HIV. They have antibacterial activity, antiviral activity, anti-candida activity, are antioxidants and enhance the immune system. They also contain many nutrients to help strengthen the immune system.
Vitamins and Minerals
To strengthen natural immunity, you have to support the thymus gland – the body’s chief immune system gland. To do this, it is a good idea to take a multivitamin to improve immunity and reduce infections. Other key nutrients needed to support the immune system include antioxidants to prevent free radical damage that can shrink the thymus gland. Take nutrients like vitamin E, selenium, C and zinc. B6 is also crucial to support the thymus gland.
Vitamin C supplementation has been shown to reduce the severity and shorten the length of the common cold in numerous studies. It is antiviral and antibacterial, and possesses an ability to enhance host resistance. It is able to enhance the immune system, including enhancing white blood cell production, antibody responses and interferon levels.
Zinc is a nutrient that is crucial for optimal immune function. Zinc possesses direct antiviral activity against several of the viruses that cause the common cold. Double-blind studies have proven zinc’s ability to shorten the duration of the common cold to four days compared to seven days without. It also encourages healing and builds immunity.
Or try beta-carotene, which protects mucous surfaces and encourages healing. Carotenes are important antioxidants that help protect the thymus gland. They also increase the number and activity of immune cells.
Folic acid and B12 also help the immune system. A deficiency of these vitamins can lead to thymic involution and to a reduction of white blood cell production and function. B1, B2 and B5 are also crucial for boosting your natural immunity.
Lastly, remember to avoid stress. Stress depresses immune function. Rent a comedy video at least once a week because laughter also improves natural immunity.
Linda Woolven is a master herbalist, certified acupuncturist and solution focused counselor with a private practice in Toronto, Canada, that also focuses on vitamins and nutrition. She has published a number of books, including “The Vegetarian Passport Cookbook,” “Healthy Herbs,” and “Smart Woman’s Guide to PMS and Pain-free Periods,” with more on the way. This article was first published in Natural Life Magazine.