We all know that our immune system is what keeps us healthy and able to fight off infections. For the most part, the immune system works on its own to help us defend against disease causing germs. However, there are some natural ways to boost our immune system. In this article, Master Herbalist Clair Moore describes lifestyle tips and specific foods and herbs that she recommends to her patients to help naturally boost the immune system and keep us healthy.
What is our Immune System?
Simply stated, our immune system is what defends our bodies from infection and helps us from getting sick. This versatile system is comprised of most of the human body, and its functions are carried out by several organs that all work together to attack germs, fight off infection and keep us healthy.
We have two types of immune systems. One is considered our innate immunity, which we are born with, and this is what triggers general responses like inflammation. The other type is called our acquired immune system, which we develop through exposure to pathogens such as viruses and infections. Our acquired system is what herbalists like myself focus on.
How the Immune System Functions to Fight off Infection
Our acquired immune system is activated when our bodies are exposed to harmful things, such as disease causing germs or harmful substances in the environment. In response, our acquired immune system produces cells called antibodies that protect our bodies from these specific invaders.
Our acquired immune system also includes several vital organs that are also helpful in fighting off infection and keeping our bodies healthy. This includes our skin and mucous membranes which act as additional barriers to keep pathogens out. The mucous membranes contain antimicrobial agents that bind to invaders so that we can expel them. Even our digestive system is involved in keeping up our immunity- our stomach acid and digestive enzymes are fluids that can destroy pathogens, and keeping a healthy gut flora can help crowd out unfriendly bacteria. Once all the different parts of our immune system have done their jobs, the trash is shuttled to the liver, whose main job is detoxification.
Natural Ways To Boost The Immune System
While we don’t have control over our innate immune system, there are things we can do to help build up and strengthen our acquired immune system. One of the simplest ways to keep your immune system strong is through living a healthy lifestyle. Here are my tips for things you can do now to naturally boost your immune system.
Manage your stress
These days, keeping stress at a low level is much easier said than done, but it is essential for maintaining optimal immunity. One of the body’s automatic responses to stress is to release adrenaline, cortisol, and sugar into the bloodstream. Unfortunately this action depletes the activity of immune cells, meaning that anytime you feel stressed, your body’s defenses are automatically lowered, making you more susceptible to infections.
Research has demonstrated that spending time outside, and doing meditation can significantly reduce stress levels, helping to naturally boost the immune system. So, next time you’re feeling that tension start to creep up, step outside and simply breathe slowly and deeply for five minutes.
Get some sleep
Just like managing stress, getting quality sleep is a key way to naturally boost the immune system. When we sleep, our bodies do the bulk of our detoxification. Additionally, when we don’t sleep well at night, our bodies produce extra adrenaline and cortisol the next day (yep, those same stress hormones!) to help keep us awake even when we’re tired. So less sleep means lowered immunity and lowered ability to fight off infections.
Aim to get at least 7 hours sleep per night. And remember that getting better rest starts before you get into bed – try shutting off all media an hour before sleep, avoiding sugar and heavy meals late in the evening, and wearing an eye mask to block out all ambient light.
Move your body
The lymphatic system is an important part of the immune system, and to keep the immune cells flowing through the lymph, we need to keep our bodies moving on a regular basis. However, for optimal immunity protection, particularly when you are starting to feel under the weather or have been exposed to germs or viruses through traveling or spending time with people who are sick, you’ll want to keep your movement a little more low key. After a heavy workout, the immune system focuses on repairing muscle fibers, and it won’t have much resources leftover for pathogen surveillance (meaning your immune system won’t be as effective at preventing you from getting sick).
Try going for a 30 minute walk after dinner, practicing yoga, or going for a bike ride. If you do engage in a more complex workout, make sure to take a rest day so your body can recover.
Drinking enough water is essential for overall health, and another way to naturally boost the immune system. Dehydration can lead to fatigue, headaches, and moodiness. Additionally, keeping hydrated helps protect your immune system’s barriers like the skin, mucous membranes, and lymph nodes, which keeps them functioning well.
Aim for 8 glasses of water a day. Start your day with a big glass of water and pack a water bottle to take with you wherever you go so that you always have water available.
Herbs That Help Boost Your Immune System
In addition to the above lifestyle tips, another natural way to boost your immune system is through your diet. I always recommend to my patients that they boost their immune system naturally through their diet with some foods and supplements.
Most wild mushrooms have an immunomodulatory effect, meaning they work to strengthen the activity of the immune system and its reserves to help our bodies properly respond to pathogens. Additionally, some of the most supercharged mushrooms like turkey tail and maitake contain complex nutrients which help soothe our nervous systems. This in turn helps us manage stress, restore adrenal function, and offer liver support, which are all functions that help maintain our immunity. Try eating different varieties of mushrooms every week, or you can also take mushrooms in powdered forms and supplements.
The quintessential immune herb, elder has a variety of key functions to keep you healthy! First, it activates the fundamental B and T cells and stimulates immune surveillance. In fact, studies have shown that elderberry extract can shorten the duration and lessen the severity of flu symptoms, helping your body produce a higher number of antibodies in response to the virus. Elderberry is also a circulatory stimulant and respiratory antimicrobial, which helps keep your lymph system moving and your lungs clear. Plus elderberries are nutritive and antioxidant, which keeps inflammation at bay and can help lower stress levels. Elderberry syrup is delicious and great for the entire family.
Take vitamin D
Research has shown that higher serum levels of vitamin D results in decreased inflammatory cytokines, and increased activity of the immune system’s B and T cells. While we can get vitamin D through natural sunlight, most of our daily activities like working, cooking, and relaxing often take place indoors and we also often wear sunscreen, which blocks vitamin D absorption. Therefore, I often recommend that my patients supplement with vitamin D, typically 1000ius per day. Since vitamin D is a fat soluble vitamin, look for a supplement that is bound in a natural fat like olive or coconut oil.
A special herb that comes to us from Traditional Chinese Medicine, astragalus is a plant that has been revered as an immune tonic for many generations. Astragalus is nutritive and helps increase the quality of the bone marrow, where our immune cells begin their life. Not only does astragalus build up the immune system and its reserves by stimulating the production of white blood cells, but it also acts as an adaptogen, helping us manage our stress levels. Additionally, Astragalus is an adrenal tonic, helpful for replenishing exhausted bodies, and in Traditional Chinese Medicine is considered to strengthen the qi, our inherent life force.
Herbalists typically work with the astragalus root, and use it to make tea or add to smoothies. You can also get astragalus in supplement form.
Keeping your immune system strong is key to staying healthy. I hope you’ll try incorporating some or all of my lifestyle and eating tips to naturally boost your immune system. You will feel and look stronger and healthier.
Want to read more?