The Prepared Immune System: Four Herbs to Know (Other Than Echinacea)

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preparedimmunesystemYour immune system protects you from many threats even on a normal day. After  stamina and physical conditioning for your body, making sure your immune system is in top shape should be your next big priority for health preparedness.

The immune system isn’t isolated in one area of your body, though. It’s an incredibly complex system made up of cells communicating in your bloodstream, in your bones, and even in your intestines! A full 70% of immune cells can be found in the gut, and modern research is only just beginning to understand the way “good” bacteria (probiotics) in the gut can have an influence on overall immunity.

This is just one example of how the strength of your immune system relies on many different factors and many other body systems. Sleep, stress, nutrition, and hygiene are all important, and so is exercise. Some studies indicate that regular, moderate exercise can decrease the incidence of illness by almost 30%. But, once you have all the bases covered in terms of lifestyle and hygiene, herbs can add another layer of support.

Using Herbs for Immune Support

If you are doing everything else to support your health and immune system that we just mentioned, there should be no need to use herbs for immunity on a daily basis. But many people (myself included) find it helpful to use herbs for immunity at the onset of acute symptoms.

Even if you are doing everything right, busy schedules and chronic stress can wear down the immune system over time. A single high stress event, such as the sudden loss of a loved one or another personal emergency can tip the scales of the immune system. For any long distance or high performing athletes out there, you may know that while a little exercise is great for the immune system, the toll of running a marathon or other rigorous training can have a short term negative impact on immune resistance. A little boost to the immune system at the right time can make all the difference in the world.

Four Herbs For Immune Support

So, when I am looking to give my immune system an extra boost, here are the herbs I am most likely to turn to:

1. Andrographis: An herb native to India, Andrographis paniculata is traditionally used as a bitter tonic, antipyretic, and stomachic. Modern studies have shown that it helps activate the immune system and enhance immune function. It seems to have a broad influence and affect several parts of the immune system.

2. Oregon Grape root: Oregon grape root, mahonia aquifolium, is currently being studied for use in conjunction with antibiotics. One of the chemical components of the herb, berberine, appears to make antibiotics more effective by decreasing or eliminating bacteria’s ability to resist antibiotics. Traditional herbalists refer to Oregon grape as a cooling herb, so it is paired with “heat” signs in the body, a category that includes many types of infection.

However, simply labeling it as an herbal “antibiotic” is much too simplified and misleading – a fate that often also befalls echinacea and goldenseal. One of my favorite articles about this plant can be found here at Methowe Valley Herbs. Rosalee de Foret does a great job explaining how to most effectively use this herb.

3. Elderberry: This one is a favorite of mine! Elder, Sambucus nigra,  is a versatile herb, with both the flowers and berries being commonly used. The berries have been studied for their ability to increase cytokine cell production by the immune system, and also for their ability to interfere with viruses as they try to gain a foothold in the body.

Cytokines are the proteins released by immune cells to communicate with one another and coordinate an attack on bacteria or viruses. Elderflower tea is traditionally used for hayfever, and it is one of my favorites teas for allergy season.

4. Reishi and Maitake Mushrooms: Several types of culinary mushrooms have traditionally been valued for their medicinal properties as well. Reishi (Ganoderma spp) and Maitake (Grifola frondosa) are two of the most common, but what all of these mushrooms have in common is a substance called beta-glucans. Among other things, these substances appear to help the immune system by boosting cells of the immune system called macrophages and natural killer cells.

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Other Considerations

Because these herbs have been shown to affect the immune system, they should be used cautiously by anyone with autoimmune disorders – only under a doctor’s supervision, if at all. As I mentioned earlier, there normally shouldn’t be a need to use any immune herbs on a daily basis. However, I would be comfortable using a good mushroom blend as part of a daily wellness plan long-term in the event of an epidemic or pandemic.

Personally, I supplement with teas or extracts when I first start feeling like I have a cold or flu coming on, and usually continue supplementing for five to seven days. If I catch it early enough, noticing that I’m getting “that feeling,” I may simply use a blend of yarrow, elder and peppermint as a tea and go to bed early that night. Often, that’s all I need to tip the scales back in my favor.

It’s a traditional trick that has worked very well for me many times. For things that come on suddenly, or are more localized than a cold or flu, I may continue to supplement for ten to fourteen days. My personal rule is: if it gets worse after three days of taking good care of myself, I go the the doctor. Also, if it’s really unusual – something that I haven’t experienced before or am not sure about, I go to the doctor immediately. For other things, rest and a little herbal TLC are usually all I need.

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Agatha Noveille is the author of The Independent Herbalist: A Beginner’s Guide to Herbal Preparedness and the blog IndieHerbalist.com.

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