Here are 7 tips for naturally boosting and supporting your immune system throughout the year, and especially during changes in the seasons. The following medicinal foods, herbs, mushrooms, vitamins and minerals can be easily added to your diet to help give your immune system added support whenever you need it.
1) Eat Raw Garlic Pesto
For fighting an acute illness or oncoming cold/flu try raw garlic pesto! It’s simple and easy, and very effective. Garlic (Allium sativum) has natural antibacterial and anti-viral properties, and contains allicin, a powerful antioxidant. Simply chop us as much raw garlic as you think you can handle, then mix it with olive oil, sea salt, thyme, and basil (thyme is an amazing herb also renown for its antibacterial and antiviral properties). Now it’s time to get creative- spread your pesto on a piece of toast, or mix with chopped tomatoes to make bruchetta, add it to a veggie wrap, use it as a salad dressing, or consume it any other way that sounds appealing!
2) Drink Ginger-Lemon Tea with Raw Honey
Ginger is a great herb to use when fighting a fever, a cold or flu, a sore throat, and especially an upset stomach. Ginger is one of the very best herbs for aiding digestion, and has been widely shown to relax the stomach and relieve the feeling of nausea. This warming herb also opens up the throat and gently increases circulation throughout the body. Brewed as a tea, ginger induces sweating, which helps fevers run their course.
Lemons are also an incredible healing food which can aid in boosting immunity. One large lemon contains about 45 mg of Vitamin C, 75% of the daily requirement! Vitamin C helps to neutralize and reduce the effect of free radicals that contribute to illness. Please, don’t toss the rind of your lemon! The lemon peel is actually the most medicinal part of the fruit, as it contains two compounds –limonin and limonene – which appear to help inhibit some of the cell divisions that may cause cancer. You can grate your lemon peel for use in baking, cooking, or as a tea (please only use the rind of organic lemons).
Raw honey can be used both as a delicious food and as a soothing and potent medicine. It contains potent antibacterial and antiseptic properties, as well as antioxidants, and can be used in the treatment of coughs and sore throats, and it is useful as a general tonic for the immune system.
To make a pot of fresh ginger-lemon honey tea, add 1-2 inches of thinly sliced fresh ginger root, 2 tsps raw honey, and the juice of one fresh lemon (or 2 Tbsp) to your tea-pot. Add boiling water, steep for 10 minutes, and enjoy the immediate effects!
3) Cook up some Healing Miso Soup- with Reishi Mushrooms and Astragalus
Miso soup is one of the most healing foods on the planet, especially when you add in lots of healthy veggies and herbs such as ginger and garlic to the pot. (See my original recipe for Healing Miso Soup for more about the medicinal properties of miso). Consumption of miso is linked with up to 50% reduced risk of breast cancer as reported in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute. Now I know you’re probably just trying to ward off the next cold and flu, but if miso is powerful enough to fight off major disease, it can certainly help your short-term health significantly as well. So even by itself, miso paste has amazing health benefits, but to amp up the medicinal potency of your soup even more- and to support your immune system even further- add in some reishi mushrooms and astragalus to your pot of soup.
Reishi mushrooms, known in China as an “elixir of immortality,” have been revered in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) for thousands of years as one of the most important herbs for increased longevity. Modern research has confirmed that this mushroom strengthens the immune system, helps fight viruses and bacteria, reduces cholesterol, and helps prevent fatigue. The triterpenes, polysaccharides, and vitamins in reishi mushrooms are thought to be responsible for their therapeutic effects, which include the ability to increase blood flow, to stimulate the immune cells, and to reduce inflammation. The polysaccharides found in reishi mushrooms increase the body’s immune response, and trigger the production of a type of white blood cell that kills a wide range of infectious microorganisms and tumor cells. Reishi mushrooms also have strong antioxidant properties, which can protect the body from the harmful effects of radiation and free radicals. Reishi mushrooms have also been shown to suppress tumor growth and are often used in cancer prevention and treatment.
Astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus) has also been used in TCM for thousands of years. Astragaus is called an adaptogen, meaning it is thought to help protect the body against various stresses, including physical, mental, or emotional stress. Astragalus is used to protect and support the immune system, to prevent colds and upper respiratory infections, to lower blood pressure, to treat diabetes, to protect the liver, and it may even help protect the body from diseases such as cancer. Astragalus has antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties, and studies have shown that this herb has antiviral properties that stimulate the immune system, making it a great addition to your toolbox of home remedies for building your health and immunity.
So when you’re run down, think- miso soup. And when you add in reishi mushrooms and astragalus, you’ll put the healing quality of your dinner over the top! To add the reishi and astragalus herbs to your soup, simply follow the recipe for Healing Miso Soup, and add in the additional herbs as your soup comes to a simmer. Reishi mushrooms and astragalus are not palatable and should be removed before serving (or left in the bottom of your bowl). If you would like to order dried reishi mushrooms and astragalus, I can put together a package of these herbs for your convenience. (Please see How To Order Products if you are interested.)
4) Use Elderberries and Echinacea
There are many immune-enhancing herbs available, but hands down my two favorites are elderberries and echicacea. Taken together, either as a tea (see elderberry echinacea tea) or as a syrup (see elderberry elixir), these herbs gently improve immune function and are useful when fighting off a cold or flu. You can also try these herbs in tincture form (in an alcohol base), however when taken as a tea or syrup, the nourishing qualities of these herbs are slightly enhanced.
Elderberry (sambucus nigras) has been used traditionally for centuries to treat colds, flus, respiratory infections, and fever. Elderberry is rich in vitamin C and antioxidants- namely the flavonoids rutin and quercetin. These agents stimulate the immune system to increase production of cytokines, specifically IL-1 beta, TNF-alpha, IL-6, and IL-8. The berries also contain water-soluble compounds called anthocyanins that provide an anti-inflammatory effect, which may explain why elderberry effectively reduces fever. One study conducted by Israeli virologist Madeline Mumcuoglu, Ph.D. has revealed the mechanism behind the extract’s reputed ability to counter the flu virus. She discovered that elderberry extract inhibits invading viral cells from penetrating and infecting healthy cells with the neuraminidase enzyme, thereby preventing replication of the virus in the body. In addition, she and her team found that viral enzymes became neutralized when elderberry extract was introduced into the body. Elderberry has a naturally sweet flavor, making it an excellent remedy for children.
Echinacea (echinacea angustafolia) is an herbaceous flower that is used to gently stimulate the immune system when fighting cold, upper respiratory infections, as well as the flu. The root of this herb is the most potent part of the plant, however the entire flowering plant can be used for it’s immunne-enhancing qualities. Internal use of echinacea can help to increase the body’s production of white blood cells as well as increase production of interferon, which is used by the body to neutralize viruses. According to researchers at the University of Maryland Medical Center, echinacea contains several chemicals that play a role in its therapeutic effects, including polysaccharides, glycoproteins, alkamides, volatile oils, and flavonoids.
5) Try Steam Inhalation with Essential Oils
Therapeutic use of essential oils, also known as aromatherapy, is an area of alternative medicine that should not be overlooked, especially when trying to improve immune function. Essential oils are a powerful and extremely concentrated medicine that can be used for fighting bacteria and viruses, and are especially effective in helping to fight upper respiratory and sinus infections. Essential oils are obtained from herbs by distillation- a process by which a very large amount of herb yields a small amount of pure essential oil. These oils are therefore very concentrated, and extreme caution must be exercised when using them. Essential oils should never be taken internally without professional advice, and should be diluted with olive oil when applied to the skin to avoid irritation. The healing properties of essential oils have tremendous potential to reduce our reliance on pharmaceuticals because of their potent and effective anti-bacterial, anti-septic, anti-fungal, anti-inflammatory anti-viral and expectorant properties (amongst others). If you would like to learn more about the science behind the therapeutic use of steam inhalation with essential oils see this article from the Oxford Journal of Antimicrobial Chemotherapy. Making a facial steam is truly easy and I highly recommend you try this out next time you have a cold and experience the effects for yourself. Simply bring a pot of water to boil and pour hot water into a bowl. Put 2-3 drops of tea tree, eucalyptus, or lavender essential oil into the bowl, then quickly place your face over the bowl and cover your head and shoulders with a towel, effectively trapping the steam under the towel.
Breath in the steam for 5 minutes with your eyes closed, and the towel fully covering you. Do not add more than 2-3 drops of essential oil. If the oils are too intense, you can lift the towel briefly and let in fresh air, then re-cover yourself and continue the steam therapy. Make sure you have some tissues handy as this treatment will be sure to help clear out congestion. You can use this treatment 2-3x per day as long as symptoms of congestion persist. If you have asthma, please consult with your health care provider before using steam therapy. You can also try putting 5-10 drops of lavender essential oil in a hot bath for added relaxation and immune enhancing effects when you’re not feeling well.
6) Supplement with Zinc and Vitamin D
I don’t usually recommend high doses of synthetic vitamins and minerals, as I believe that these substances are best absorbed directly from whole food sources. That being said, there are some supplements that have been proven to be quite helpful and effective when trying to increase immune response.
Zinc is an important mineral which is found in high concentrations in our white and red blood cells. Zinc, when taken at first onset of illness, has been widely proven to shorten the duration of illness, as well as to decrease the severity of symptoms. I have found it to be very effective for treating a sore throat. For more information on the health benefits of zinc, see this recent article published by The New York Times.
Vitamin D has been the subject of a lot of research over the past decade, and is emerging as a highly important component of natural disease prevention. Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin which attaches directly to cellular DNA and is involved in prevention of autoimmune diseases, multiple sclerosis, heart disease, and cancer. Vitamin D is also crucial for the absorption and metabolism of calcium and phosphorous, which are especially important for the maintenance of healthy bones. Recent findings suggest Vitamin D helps the immune system fight off viral illness like the flu, as well as to prevent and treat the common cold. A new study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine showed that patients with low vitamin D levels had 40% more flu episodes. Another study released in May of 2010 by the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition proved Vitamin D supplements to be highly effective at preventing the flu. The study was a randomized, double-blind study with two groups of school aged children- one group was supplemented with 1200 IUs of daily Vitamin D, while others were given a placebo. The children who took vitamin D had a 42% reduced risk of catching the flu! I urge you to consider adding Vitamin D to your diet as a part of your disease prevention strategy, but before supplementing with Vitamin D, you may wish to get your blood levels tested by your doctor.
7) Let Your Body Rest
Sometimes illness is simply a message that we need to slow down and let our bodies rest so that healing can occur naturally. So if you’re feeling run down, gift yourself with a little extra TLC- go to bed early for a few nights, try to manage your stress, take frequent hot baths or showers, do nothing extra, and try to get outside for some fresh air or a brisk walk once a day. Sometimes all we can do to help support our immune system is to surrender to the process- and allow ourselves some extra guilt-free rest and relaxation.