January 12, 2021 10 min read
Medicinal plants have been the foundation of medicine throughout the majority of history, with many of them being the foundation for certain modern medications.
However, the usage of herbs to boost immune system health and avoid illness is still as popular as ever. Not only natural, but you can also grow several of these for yourself. If that’s not an option, these can be usually found in specialty health food stores or as supplements.
Herbs have a long track record of helping us deal with disease and infection, so if you haven’t been using their immune-boosting properties, it’s probably time you start. We all like a top 10 list, so we’ll be choosing 10 herbs to take a closer look at down below. Oftentimes, fungal and bee products are also included under herbal medicine, so we’ll be including the former.
But first, let’s examine the categories that most herbs fall into.
The immune system is a complex beast—that much is obvious. But that also means that “boosting” the immune system isn’t as straightforward as it may seem. Not only are there several different mechanisms and processes that can be supported, but there’s also the fact that the immune system can be supported in different ways.
For example, one of the categories that herbs can fall into is that of “immune stimulants.”
These are usually used over shorter periods of time and on a short-term basis, such as when you can feel yourself getting sick or you think you’re at a higher risk of falling ill. One way these herbs act is by affecting the white blood cells in a shorter time frame. Other ways that these herbs affect the body is by moderating the chemicals that your immune system uses and increasing phagocytosis.
The second category is the herbal immunomodulators.
These herbs are used over extended periods of time as a way to keep your immune system in balance and functioning to its best ability. For individuals with weaker immune systems, immunomodulators can help boost their immune response as long as the herb is taken on a regular basis. Several of the herbs in this group can also be considered as adaptogens—herbs that help the body adapt to changing states of physical and mental stress.
The third category of immune-supporting herbs is the antimicrobials.
As the name suggests, this class of herbs helps to combat pathogens such as bacteria, fungi, and viruses. While they might not directly affect the immune system and support it, they do provide a useful service when it comes to treating certain infections. Furthermore, it’s interesting to note that many culinary/dietary herbs display antimicrobial properties (such as oregano)—helping to prevent food spoilage and the growth of bacteria.
The typings of these herbs aren’t as stringent as it might seem, however. Many of them fall into different categories, and they’re not strict groupings. But it is always beneficial to know exactly what your goals are when it comes to supporting your immune system.
Are you looking for long term health? To combat something that’s keeping you under the weather? Knowing what you want to do will help you choose your herb remedies in a smarter and faster way.
This is by far one of the most popular herbal medications available. If you’ve ever had any herbal lozenge or medication, chances are that you’ve tried echinacea at some point.
Part of the daisy family and native to Northern America, this flowering plant contains an impressive array of compounds including alkamides, rosmarinic acid, polyacetylenes, and phenolic acids. These compounds—and several more—found within echinacea have been linked to improved immunity, lower blood sugar levels, and as anti-inflammatory agents.
One of the key properties of echinacea is its antioxidant properties.
These molecules help to defend cells against oxidative stress, which has been linked to certain chronic diseases. These molecules include flavonoids and alkamide compounds.
One study even found that echinacea might even be able to lower the risk of catching the common cold by over 50%. And for those that took this herb while already sick, the duration of their cold lasted a day and a half shorter than otherwise. However, more research still needs to be done in order to confirm these results.
An interesting property that echinacea has (other than the ones already outlined above) is the ability to reduce anxiety.
Anxiety is a common problem that affects a lot of Americans, and some research has emerged in recent years that seems to show that the herb could be used as a potential aid. And while anxiety reduction doesn’t necessarily have “immune booster” stamped across it, mental health is an important component for keeping your immune function in tip-top shape. This is especially important when it comes to minimizing stress.
Another popular herbal medication, astragalus is a perennial plant that’s been used in traditional Chinese medicine for thousands of years.
Astragalus is considered an adaptogen as well—helping the body adapt to changing levels of physical and mental stress.
Its main claim to fame is its antioxidant properties. As we saw with echinacea, antioxidant compounds are extremely beneficial for mitigating the effects of oxidative stress on your body’s cells. Furthermore, this herb has also been shown to help prevent colds and upper respiratory tract infections, while also lowering blood pressure, protecting the liver, and potentially treating diabetes.
Research has even been conducted with astragalus to see its potential uses as an immune booster for those whose immune systems have been weakened by chemotherapy. Other research seems to show that this plant may benefit people with severe heart diseases, lowering cholesterol levels, and improving the overall health of the heart.
Another juggernaut of the herbal medication world, the elderberry is a group of about 30 different varieties found all around the world. The one most associated with its herbal properties has been the European variety (Sambucus nigra).
While elderberries can be eaten as a food, they’re often found in tincture or as elderberry syrup, which is great for a sore throat. They’re chock full of vitamins, antioxidants, anti-inflammatory compounds, anti-stress compounds, antiviral properties, and can potentially benefit the heart as well.
When it comes to colds and flu, elderberry has also been touted as a potential solution. Along with these two illnesses, elderberry usage is also associated with relieving constipation, joint pain, fever, kidney problems, epilepsy, headaches, and some minor skin conditions.
One thing to keep in mind is that unripe or uncooked elderberries can potentially cause nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. So, unless you know what you’re doing, it’s usually best to buy them from a health food store instead of finding your own. But getting it straight from the source can also be done safely if you’re confident with harvesting it.
Not only a delicious ingredient, but garlic can also be taken in formats that stress its health benefits for the immune system.
Garlic is packed with both flavor and immune-boosting compounds. The main compound within garlic that gives it its distinct taste and benefits is “alliin.” This compound gives garlic its taste and smell, but it’s also been shown to boost the abilities of disease-fighting white blood cells in the body.
This goes into the claim that garlic can help fight and relieve cold and flu symptoms. Studies have shown that garlic can minimize the risk of getting sick in the first place, and it can even affect how long one stays sick.
However, more research needs to be done on garlic and its effects on respiratory infections, and its use as an antiviral. Some of the studies have been found to be questionable, and it’s still not yet known whether or not garlic needs to be taken continuously over the long-term or can offer immediate effects.
Keep in mind that we’re also not trying to make garlic bread out to be a health food, as much as it pains us.
Growing mostly on the bark of birch trees, this fungus can mainly be found in Northern Europe, Russia, Korea, and Northern Canada. It’s been used for centuries in traditional medicine as a way to increase overall health and to boost immune function. It can oftentimes be found in a powdered form which is then brewed as a tea.
Its anti-inflammatory properties are some of its most important.
While inflammation can be a healthy immune response, chronic inflammation can lead to certain health conditions. Chaga has been shown to reduce long-term inflammation while also fighting bacteria and viruses.
Chaga is also able to form beneficial cytokines (regulators of the immune system) which can help to stimulate white blood cells. And to add to this, some studies have even shown that chaga can prevent the creation of harmful cytokines that are associated with diseases.
Some studies have also suggested that it can prevent and slow the growth of cancer cells.
Known in northeastern India as the “king of bitters” because of its taste, Andrographis paniculata is filled with compounds that impart a bitter flavor—and plenty of health benefits.
This herb has been used for a long time in traditional Indian and Chinese medicine, being most commonly used to treat digestive problems, snakebites, and viral infections such as dysentery and malaria.
These days, the extract is often prepared from the dry leaves. It’s often used to treat and prevent the common cold and flu. It’s been shown in studies to support immune function as an immunomodulator, and it helps protect the body from infections. It has also been shown to have positive effects on the liver and general immune-supporting functions of the body, working to support immune cells and acting as an antifungal.
It has also been claimed to aid in treating hepatitis and autoimmune disorders.
Native to hot and humid areas in Asia, reishi mushrooms have also been used for a very long time in various traditional medicines.
It contains molecules such as triterpenoids, peptidoglycans, and polysaccharides, which are believed to be responsible for its immune-supporting properties.
This immune support comes in the form of boosting the effectiveness of white blood cells—even potentially affecting the genes within these cells. Certain forms of reishi can even alter the inflammatory pathways in white blood cells, boosting their effectiveness. Furthermore, the mushroom has been shown to increase the number of white blood cells in those with certain forms of cancer.
Reishi also has claims for supporting immune function of already healthy people.
For example, the fungus has been shown to increase the function of lymphocytes in the body, which help to fight cancer and infection.
Another fungus, cordyceps are unique in that their natural variety can only be harvested from caterpillars in the mountainous regions of China. While this natural form is expensive, there are cheaper, lab-grown varieties.
Used for centuries in traditional Chinese medicine, this fungus is believed to be able to increase athletic performance due to the molecule ATP—an essential molecule for delivering energy to muscles. This improves your body’s access to oxygen, thereby boosting performance.
It is also believed to have anti-aging properties and can possibly boost strength and sex-drive. The antioxidant properties found in the mushroom may reflect its anti-aging properties.
Along with its uses as an antioxidant, cordyceps may also have benefits for heart health, anti-tumor properties, help manage type 2 diabetes, and can help fight inflammation—a key part of a healthy immune function.
Its name refers to its long blooming season (“calendar”), and it’s been used for centuries as both a mainstay in the garden and as a way to treat certain health conditions. Also referred to as marigold, it’s important to keep in mind that there’s another common flower that goes by the same common name. Nevertheless, it’s not medically interchangeable.
For example, it’s been used to heal wounds and rashes—what it’s mostly known for. But the flowers can also support the immune system with antioxidant compounds.
Issues such as heartburn, ulcers, and irritable bowel syndrome can be soothed by taking calendula, as the flower improves digestion and gut health. Additionally, the flower can possibly help protect against the cold and flu, along with other infections. This is most likely due to its antimicrobial properties.
As a balm, calendula is useful for the aforementioned wounds and rashes, but can also be used to nourish dry skin, slow the development of wrinkles, and reduce scarring.
Ginseng has long been used for its immune-boosting properties, and it’s also been studied quite a bit as well.
Ginseng’s main claims to fame rest on its role as an immunomodulator, while also helping to regular blood sugar levels and improve concentration over the short term.
Furthermore, ginseng has also been claimed to have positive effects when it comes to fatigue, erectile dysfunction, hepatitis C, heart disease, and even certain forms of cancer. It’s extremely useful for maintaining immune homeostasis while also enhancing your body’s ability to fight off microbial attacks.
While some of the herbs and fungi we’ve looked at in the above list seem to boast some amazing abilities, it’s very important to remember that they’re not a cure-all.
They’re medicine, and that’s it. To lead a healthy life means approaching things holistically and making sure that you’re including all of the puzzle pieces.
For example, diet is one of the most important things you keep ensure that you’re doing correctly. You can’t out-train a bad diet, and you can’t out-herb one either. Make sure that you’re eating whole, healthy foods with enough fruits and vegetables to get you your vitamin and mineral needs. Without proper nutrition, your immune system is going to be useless—with or without all of the herbal medication in the world.
Another key component is exercise.
Staying active has incredible benefits for all aspects of your health—not just when it comes to the immune system. And that doesn’t necessarily have to be some sort of high-intensity movement (even though it’s beneficial as well). As long you’re staying active and challenging your body physically on a regular basis, you can expect to reap the rewards of a well-oiled immune function.
Then there’s getting enough sleep.
While it depends on the individual, it’s normally around 8 hours of sleep per night. Getting enough rest has cascading benefits for every other part of your life.
For one, weightlifting necessitates a good sleep schedule to maximize gains. Furthermore, your mental health will also be much better with enough sleep. And keeping yourself as stress-free as possible in a good mood is also extremely important for optimizing the health of your immune system.
While none of us are expected to be on top of our game in every single aspect 100% of the time, putting in serious efforts to maintain a holistically healthy life will put us ahead when it comes to immune health. Herbs will always help, but it’s important to work with them and not against them if you’re looking for real results.