How does the immune system work?
The immune system functions as a whole and operates as an internal regulator. It works to identify external substances which are not meant to be inside the body and could cause harm (antigens) and then sets about removing or destroying these. Immune cells such as B cells, T cells and NK (natural killer) cells work together to identify and create antibodies in response to antigens.
These immune cells are present throughout the body in lymphoid tissue found in the lymph nodes including in the gut and the tonsils, this is known as the lymphatic system. These immune cells also circulate throughout the body in lymphatic fluid seeking external antigens and creating antibodies.
Long term immunity
As the winter months approach the body's exposure to viruses including colds and flu increases. In order to support the body's immune response in the lead up to winter, using immunomodulating herbs can help to build a strong immune system and support long term prevention from illness. These immunomodulators which can also be known as tonic herbs, act as a powerful preventative to disease when used regularly. They can also help to shorten the length of any colds or flus if infection does arise.
In order to make these herbal immunity tonics the most effective, we recommend taking them on a daily basis in the lead up to as well as throughout the winter. They have a slower but more prolonged effect on the system to support immunity.
Finding effective ways to supplement your daily routine with herbs is a vital aspect, some options can include:
- Making a broth infused with mushrooms or herbs and using this as a base for soups and stews. This can also be frozen in blocks and added to soups, stews and curries throughout the winter.
- Infusing and drinking herbal tea on a daily basis is an easy and comforting way to incorporate herbs into the diet.
- A tincture blend is the easiest and quickest way to take herbs, and often good for those who are constantly on the go.
Reishi - Ganoderma lucidum
This mushroom is often referred to as the mushroom of immortality, and is a potent herbal tonic. It has immunomodulating actions, as well as antiviral, anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, cardiotonic and adaptogen properties. When taken daily this Reishi can help to boost overall immunity as well as support the respiratory and circulatory systems.
It can be boiled as this will extract the polysaccharides and used in a broth recipe as above.
Astragalus - Astragalus membranceus
Astragalus is another powerful herbal tonic, which also has immunomodulating properties. It is also an antiviral, antibacterial and adaptogenic properties. Research has confirmed astragalus extract is effective in stimulating the production of macrophages and supporting preventative immune function.
This can be taken in powder form as an everyday supplement, or the dried root can be boiled in the broth mix and added to recipes.
Turkey Tail - Trametes versicolor
This mushroom is another potent immune supporting herb with anti -inflammatory and antiviral properties. It is most effective when used regularly as a preventative. It is also effective in treating recurrent upper respiratory tract infections.
This can also be added to the winter immune broth recipe.
Elderberry - Sambucus nigra
Elderberry is a potent anti viral, immunostimulant and immune tonic. It also possess high levels of antioxidant and vitamin C which only add to its benefits in treating winter illnesses. Elderberry can be picked in the autumn and prepared into a syrup to aid with fighting viral infections, it has been shown to significantly reduce the length and severity of symptoms of colds and flu.
Elderberries are best made into a syrup, either with honey or sugar and additional ingredients such as star anise, clove, cinnamon, ginger and other herbs such as reishi, turkey tail, astragalus and kept over winter to be taken on a regular basis.
Acute immune support
If an infection does arise, the use of immunostimulating herbs can help to reduce the severity of the symptoms as well as reduce the amount of time the illness lasts for. Immunostimulants stimulate white blood cell activity and are best used on a short term basis. They can be used at the first onset of symptoms, throughout the illness as well as in cases of known exposure to a disease.
Echinacea - Echinacea purpurea
Echinacea has long been considered a vital herb in fighting infection, and as an immune support. It has natural antibiotic properties, as well as antiviral, antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory actions. It is also an immuostimulant and acts by stimulating macrophage action to increase the process of phagocytosis of pathogens. Research has confirmed that taking echinacea up to every hour at the first onset of symptoms can dramatically reduce if not prevent the illness from developing.
Garlic - Allium sativum
Garlic is another potent antibiotic and immunostimulant and very effective to take at the initial onset of symptoms. It has anti-microbial, antibacterial and antiviral properties. The polysaccharide accomanan increases immune cell activity, notably T and B lymphocytes. Research has shown that garlic is most effective when taken raw rather than in any processed form; consuming a large quantity of the fresh cloves can help stimulate the immune system and prevent infection.
Andrographis - Andrographis paniculata
A powerful immunostimulant herb from the Ayurvedic tradition, andrographis is successfully used to treat acute viral infections. It is effective in treating respiratory conditions affecting the nose and throat and reduces phlegm. It is also a bitter herb, so supports the liver and helps to re establish healthy gut flora.
Using lymphatic herbs to help clear the lymphatic system of residual antigens and bacterial is a powerful step on the path to recovery from illness. Once acute symptoms have improved, brewing a tea of cleavers and calendula and drinking throughout the day will help to support the lymphatic system in clearing residual infection from the system. This addition in fluids is also beneficial in helping to clear infection and boost immunity after illness.
Respiratory infections are common in the winter, and for those with weaker lungs due to illness, allergies or smokers it's important to use herbs to support overall lung health. Mucilaginous herbs such as marshmallow help to line the mucous membranes and are useful in cases of dry and irritated coughs. Expectorant herbs such as thyme and elecampane can help to clear mucous from the lungs and help rid the lungs of infection.
Usnea - Usnea barbata
Usnea has exhibited both antiviral and antibacterial properties, and has been traditionally used in coughs, chest infections, deep catarrh, laryngitis, pharyngitis, tonsilitis, and sinusitis.
Thyme - Thymus vulgaris
Thyme contains volatile oils that are excreted through the lungs and exert their healing properties on the way out. Thyme is especially useful where there is a productive cough, combining very well with liquorice as an expectorant to help break up and remove catarrh from the upper respiratory tract.
Garlic - Allium sativum
One of the breakdown products after ingesting garlic is allicin, which has a multitude of benefits both to the respiratory system and cardiovascular system. It is also excreted through the lungs, which is why the smell of garlic often reappears in your breath the day after eating it.
Mullein - Verbascum thapsus
Mullein is a mucus membrane tonic traditionally used to treat the respiratory tract. It is often used in conjunction with White Horehound (Marrubium vulgare), which acts as a cilliary escalator, encouraging mucus from the lungs to find its way up into the upper respiratory tract for clearance. This combination is very often found in expectorant cough mixtures for productive coughs.
Diet and lifestyle
Our gut and the food we eat plays a large part in supporting our immune system. As mentioned above, immune cells can be found in the gut with over 70% of these cells located centimetres from the gut wall. Maintaining a healthy gut microbiome is therefore crucial in supporting healthy immune function.
Research has shown that stress can negatively impact the production of these immune cells, thereby reducing an effective immune response. With this in mind, taking steps to reduce stress by exercising regularly, getting enough sleep, eating a varied diet and factoring in time for connection and socialisation. Research has confirmed that people with a good support network surrounding them are more likely to have a stronger immune system. Regular supplementation of zinc, vitamin C and vitamin D have also shown to increase immunity.