Our health culture today is filled with so many cold medicines, over the counter capsules, medications, and there is an overload of information about different perspectives with what supports the immune system. Let’s take a step back and really learn what the immune system is, what systems impact it, and remedies that date back to our ancestors that have been shown to support a strong immune system in the long run.
What is the Immune System?
The function of the immune system is to identify what cells in our body from our individual organisms from the outside pathogens. If it signals something is not us it is responsible for protecting us and defending against any pathogens. It is also responsible for cleaning cell damage and waste and surveying cells that may not be functioning like they should (they destroy precancerous cells via apoptosis, for instance).
Our immune system is constantly seeking a state of homeostasis, or optimal balance. If it detects something abnormal, it can go one of two ways: it can overreact (think auto-immune conditions such as thyroiditis, Lupus, diabetes, allergies, etc.) or underreact (which can look like cancer or being prone to infections).
Innate immune cells are cells that we are born with. These innate cells are non specific and will protect us from anything. The second step of our immunity requires acquired/adaptive cells (B and T cells), which are specialized and store information learned over time from infectious agents we have already been exposed to, such as viruses and bacteria. Some of these cells create antibodies to better target the pathogens and defend us; they also store memories of how to mount an effective response should we ever come into contact with the same infection again.
Vaccines work in much the same principle. They expose a small dose of a pathogen to give your body the chance to quickly build a specific immune response and produce antibodies for long-term protection in case of subsequent exposure.
Role of “the Gut”
Gut integrity plays a huge role in immune health and is known to be one of the biggest physical barriers guarding us against pathogens. The digestive system is key to keeping a very delicate balance to maintain overall health and bodily functions. This is often the first place to look to for a disharmony when other systems are off, including our immunity.
A healthy gut is filled with a variety of microorganisms that make up what’s called our “microbiome.” In fact, there are actually more bacterial cells than human ones in the average person, according to the most recent data (currently estimated to be in a ratio of 1:1 – 1.3:1). The greater we can encourage the biodiversity (variety of species of microbiota making up the gut flora) to flourish, the better we can optimize gut and immune health.
How to support the gut:
- Ingest probiotics (live bacteria) – via supplements or fermented food, which host this live bacteria that our gut needs.
- Fermented foods such as: Kimchi, Kefir, Kombucha, Yogurt, Pickles, Soy Tempeh.
- Provide prebiotics – which are essentially a food for gut bacteria to result in that biodiversity and maintain balance.
- Herbal Prebiotics: starchy roots (contain inulin), such as dandelion, burdock, elecampane, marshmallow roots
Herbs for Immune Support
Immunomodulators are what helps “train” the immune system to learn a diversity of different compounds and identify which are our cells and which are “non-self.” This training helps bring our immune function to homeostasis, and reduce occurrences of allergies, autoimmune conditions and frequency of colds/flus.
Examples of herbs that have this ability:
- Licorice Root
- Medicinal Mushrooms (mycelium, fruiting bodies)
-Reishi -Maitake -Shiitake -Chaga -Turkey Tail -Cordyceps
Mushrooms also contain the specific Beta-1,4-d-glucan branched polysaccharides with lipid components, which train the immune system to recognize specific antigens such as lipopolysaccharides (LPS) of gram-negative bacteria. A diversity of mushrooms as dietary supplements are the best way to make sure your body is equipped with the best building blocks for maintaining proper immune function.
Adaptogens are plants which help balance our body back to a normal state of homeostasis. In other words, they help to normalize levels of chemical messengers, such as hormones, when they’re either too high or too low. Adaptogenic herbs help balance our endocrine system, in particular our adrenal glands, which are responsible for responding to stress.
Just so we’re on the same page, let’s take a second to define stress. Stress is anything that stimulates a person and triggers a response, such as an impulse, a hormone release, or an extra burst of energy expenditure. Most people refer to stress as an abstract concept to describe feelings of overwhelm, but it can also be a purely physiological definition. Feelings of anxiety and worry about the future, extra weight, pregnancy, lack of sleep, and lack of nutrients can all result in a load of stress on our bodies.
Lymphagogues are herbs used to help “move” the lymphatic system, thereby speeding up the natural detoxification pathway for any impurities in our blood. Remember the second line of immunity made up of B and T cells, mentioned above? These cells are concentrated in lymph nodes, or hubs, along the lymphatic tract – which lies right beside our main circulatory pathways.
The best way to stimulate the lymphatic system to function optimally is literally by movement – as in physical activity and exercise! While our heart pumps blood to the rest of the body, it’s movement which helps move blood, and lymph, back up to the heart. Massage, or dry lymph brushing, are also ways to help physically stimulate our lymphatic cells (though it’s not safe for everyone, so please consult with a healthcare professional!).
Finally, let’s talk about lymphatic herbs, or lymphagogues. They are best taken at the first sign of colds/flus and also after illnesses, to help move out any lingering toxins. Examples of these are:
- Echinacea root, stem, flower
- Figwort stem, leaves
- Burdock root
- Red clover blossom
- Chickweed flowers, leaves, stem
- Cleavers tops
- Poke root (very potent, very low dose herb)
Stay healthy during the upcoming flu and COVID season, and comment below with other favorite immune tips and hacks!
- “Medicinal Mushrooms (PDQ®): Integrative, alternative, and complementary therapies – Health Professional Information [NCI].” Health Information. UW Health. 9 Apr 2020. Contact Dr. Book here for an introductory chat.