Whether you're facing cold and flu season or simply trying to stay healthy in general, it's crucial to keep our immune system robust. The immune system is responsible for preventing and fighting off infections, and when your immune system is strong, you're more likely to be able to ward off sicknesses.
It's important to note that you won't be able to rely on herbs exclusively to fight sickness. To have a strong immune system, you need to get certain vitamins, eat healthy, sleep well, and exercise. And of course, the best way to reduce your risk of illness is to wash your hands frequently and avoid contact with people who may be sick.
But on top of those recommended practices, some herbs may carry additional immune benefits. Here are four herbs recommended by experts to help you boost your immune system.
How herbs can benefit the immune system
Many herbs are antagonistic to pathogens, meaning they actively fight microorganisms like viruses, bacteria, worms, and bugs. And it's not just those experts in the field of traditional Chinese medicine who say herbs have these immune-boosting powers. Those who practice Western medicine is also in favor of adding herbs to a healthy diet.
"Incorporating them regularly into a healthy diet has a very low risk of harm and a reasonable chance of helping our immune system fight off infections," says Ballard.
Echinacea is an herb with many uses. According to Mount Sinai Hospital, it has properties that can relieve pain and reduce inflammation, in addition to having antiviral and antioxidant effects. This makes it an ideal herb for supporting your immune system and boosting its function.
A 2006 systematic review published in Cochrane Library determined that taking echinacea after cold symptoms like runny nose and congestion can help reduce both the duration of how long you're sick and the severity of the cold. However, the researchers said that results were not consistent throughout all of the studies they analyzed.
Additionally, a 2020 systematic review published in Advances in Integrative Medicine determined that echinacea can be beneficial for acute respiratory infections if the herb is taken at the onset of symptoms. This is because it can decrease the levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines that are associated with inflammation and respiratory infections.
Frost says if you feel like you've been exposed to a lot of people and potential germs, or you feel like you might be getting sick, try taking echinacea two or three days in a row. Follow the dosing instructions on the packaging of the echinacea product you're consuming, or consult a herbalist. You can put some in tea or use it as a tincture.
Garlic is a powerful antimicrobial herb, especially for the gut, says Frost. In fact, it is believed to be antibacterial, antiviral, and antiprotozoal (meaning it can fight parasites). Ballard says these properties can help fight off chest infections and respiratory infections.
Garlic contains allicin, and this is believed to be the compound that makes garlic antibacterial. According to a 2014 review published in Avicenna Journal of Phytomedicine, this makes it possible for garlic to fight bacteria such as salmonella and E. coli, which are bacteria that cause food poisoning.
On top of this, Frost says garlic is ideal for strengthening the digestive system. This makes it a good choice for treating parasites or worms in the gut. The Avicenna Journal of Phytomedicine review also references a study in which garlic was used to treat giardiasis, which is an infection caused by a parasite. Patients' symptoms resolved after 24 hours, after garlic was administered either through a 1mg/mL liquid extract twice a day, or a 0.6 mg/mL garlic capsule.
Additionally, garlic has been found to help fight the common cold with its antiviral properties. A 2014 review published in Cochrane Library discussed one study that gave participants either garlic supplements with 180 mg of allicin daily over the course of 12 weeks or a placebo. The researchers found that those who received garlic were less likely to get a cold, and if they did get sick, they were sick for less days than those in the placebo group. However, more research is needed.
According to one study, this herb strengthens the HPA axis — the hypothalamic, pituitary, adrenal axis — which is responsible for regulating the immune system's response to stress.
Chronic or severe stress can weaken the immune system, so it's important that you have a strong HPA axis to help manage the effect stress has on your immune system. By strengthening the HPA axis, you are strengthening the immune system, Frost says.
Ginseng can also keep the immune system balanced by regulating various types of immune cells — including T cells, B cells, natural killer cells, and macrophages — which identify threats to the body and fight them off. There's even evidence that ginseng can fight off Influenza A in mice, although human research is needed.
Frost says ginseng is very strong, and if you're considering incorporating it into your regimen, you should consult a herbalist. You can consume ginseng by making a tea with fresh ginseng root, or you can take ginseng capsules.
Reishi, also known as Lingzhi, is a type of mushroom. Reishi mushrooms contain beta-glucans, which are believed to stimulate different types of cells in the immune system, including monocytes, natural killer cells, and dendritic cells. By stimulating these cells, they are better able to detect and fight off infections.
There's even some evidence that the beta-glucans in reishi can have anti-tumor effects, stopping the growth of cancer cells, according to the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. However, more research needs to be done to further understand the benefits of resihi mushrooms.
You can buy reishi powder or capsules to consume.
The bottom line
Before you start taking any of these herbs, you should consult with your doctor to make sure that they will not negatively interact with any medications you're taking. You should also make sure that you get an accurate diagnosis if you are sick — it's worth visiting a doctor to see which treatments they recommend before you try herbal remedies.
If you want to try these herbs, speaking with a qualified herbalist or traditional Chinese medicine practitioner can help you figure out which herbs might work for you, as well as the best way to take them. They can also help you determine where to buy the herbs to make sure you are using quality products.
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