Herbs… They’re something you likely use in your cooking regularly for taste and color! But did you know that herbs can do more than add some zip to your food? Beyond flavor enhancement, herbs can strengthen your immunity and help you stay healthy, too. Clinical herbalist Clair Moore offers her six favorite immune-boosting herbs that are easy to add to your diet and will help your body fight off illnesses, colds, and even the flu.
We’ve reached that time of year where it feels like winter is finally winding down, but that doesn’t mean we’re out of the woods in terms of cold and flu season. As we’ve probably all experienced, viruses can hit us out of nowhere when we least expect it. Now that glimpses of spring are popping up all over the place, it’s easy to neglect our immune systems, but it’s just as important as ever to give our bodies the nutrients they need to function at optimum capacity.
For our immune systems, this means getting sunshine, plenty of rest, movement, and nutritious food, but we can also give ourselves a boost when we feel like our defenses are down-or better yet, prevent those defenses from becoming weak in the first place! Herbs can play an important role in helping to strengthen and boost our immunity.
Here are the top 6 herbs that I recommend to help keep your immune system strong and ward off colds, flu or other illnesses. Learn about why these herbs help improve your health, when and how to incorporate them to maximize their health benefits:
Why: Thyme is a fantastic respiratory antimicrobial. The respiratory system is a key player in the immune system, and we want to make sure to keep it healthy so that pathogens can’t easily take hold. Thyme helps restore integrity to the organs of the respiratory system like the lungs and throat, so that they can function properly to ward off incoming attacks. It is also a warming plant, moving the blood to help reduce stagnation in the body, and a diuretic, encouraging waste removal.
When to take it: Thyme is safe to take on a regular basis. Thyme is a drying plant so you want to make sure to drink plenty of fluids to stay hydrated. I’d suggest adding thyme into your routine anytime you start to feel a little under the weather, or if you have had a particularly busy day interacting with the public. Thyme is excellent for teachers and public transportation commuters.
Preparation: Thyme is wonderful added into everyday cooking, teas and bone broths. But my very favorite thyme preparation is in a steam. To do this, lean over a prepared bowl of steaming water. Drape a towel over yourself and the bowl, creating a tent. Toss in about ¼ cup of dried thyme. The hot water will aerosolize the antimicrobial constituents in thyme, allowing you to simply breathe the medicine right into your body.
Recommended Dose: For prevention, you can make a thyme steam daily during cold and flu season, and 2-3 times daily for acute infections.
Why: Sage gives overall support and stimulation to both the immune and respiratory systems, but it’s also one of my very favorite nervines. This means it’s a support to the nervous system, helping take us from “fight or flight” and into “rest and digest.” This is incredibly important to consider when we’re talking about immunity because the immune system is most active during times of rest and sleep! We need to be able to take the body out of a state of stress in order for it to be able to fire up all of its defenses. Sage also a gentle antitussive- while it doesn’t stop the coughing reflex, it does calm spastic coughs to help make coughing more productive.
When to take sage: Start incorporating sage right at the onset of cold symptoms. You can also take sage on a regular basis during times of stress or exhaustion to help build your body up, and aid it in getting the appropriate rest it needs to fight of infections, and recover after them.
Preparation: Sage is a great addition to teas, soups, or in a steam as mentioned above. In teas, it will be a bit bitter, so feel free to add honey here. Honey also has lovely antimicrobial properties and will work in tandem with sage to help your body ward off bacteria. I also really love burning sage- this cleans the air around you, and gives you another way to inhale sage’s amazing medicine directly into your body.
Recommended Dose: For tea making, combine 2 tablespoons of sage with hot water and steep for 10-15 minutes.
Why: Yet another strong antimicrobial herb, garlic is also effective against viruses, bacteria, and fungi. The components in garlic also stimulate liver function, aiding the body in the breakdown and clearance of waste products. Garlic is very warming to the body, making it difficult for pathogens to thrive. One of my favorite things about the beauty of garlic is that it’s so strong, but it’s inexpensive and accessible to nearly everyone!
When to take garlic: It’s great to use garlic in cooking on a regular basis to give your body a general amount of immune support. In acute cold or flu situations, it’s best to eat the garlic frequently, and to consume it raw.
Preparation: The best way to take garlic for your health is to just eat it frequently! Add it to stir-fries, soups, and omelets. Remember, if you’re fighting off cold symptoms, it will be strongest if you eat it raw! You can slice it up and add it right on top of what you’re already eating, or mix it with a little honey to make it more palatable.
Recommended Dose: Add a clove or two to each meal.
4. Staghorn Sumac
Why: You may not have heard of sumac so you might be surprised to learn that sumac is one of these lovely plants you always see growing on the side of the highway- it looks like a big tall tree with lots of red berry cones on it. You should also be able to find it in dried form at your local health food grocer. Sumac is a potent antiviral herb, and a powerful immune stimulant. It’s also a strong diuretic and helps move stagnant fluid out of the body.
When to take sumac: Take sumac throughout cold and flu season to keep your immune system on active alert. Keep in mind that sumac is a drying herb, so you want to keep your dose low, so as not to dry your body out.
Preparation: Add it to tea with other herbs, or use it in a tincture form. A tincture is just an alcohol or vinegar extract of a plant, and can be found in most health stores.
Recommended Dose: In tincture form, use 1-2 full droppers daily for prevention and acute symptoms. Make sure to drink plenty of fluids to stay hydrated. For a tea, add a pinch of sumac with other herbs you enjoy, like chamomile or tulsi to hot water. Sumac should be around 1/3 of your blend.
Why: Ashwagandha is mostly an adaptogen– this means it helps the body with overall adrenal and endocrine support, helping us deal with stressors. Stress comes in many forms, including rush hour traffic, a scary movie, sugar, lack of sleep, or a cough and runny nose! Ashwagandha helps us deal with all of this, while relaxing tension and agitation at the same time. It’s also nutritive, providing the body with many minerals we are commonly deficient in. Ashwagandha is also an immune modulator- it helps spur on the immune system when we need to fight off pathogens, but cools down any auto-immune issues that one may face.
When to take ashwagandha: Ashwagandha is best used over time; it really helps give the body the building blocks to be strong and healthy. Start incorporating ashwagandha into your daily routine, and increase the amount if you’re rebuilding while recovering from a cold or flu.
Preparation: We use the root of the plant here, which means it’s harder to extract the medicinal properties in a simple tea. Rather, add ashwagandha to your soups or prepare a decoction: place 3 tablespoons of herbs into a small pot, add 1 quart of water, and simmer for about 10-15 minutes. I really like to add a little decaf coffee, coconut milk, and collagen to a decoction to make a super nourishing morning beverage. Ashwagandha is also effective in powder form, so add it to your date-and-nut-butter balls and enjoy as a healthy snack!
Recommended Dose: When using an ashwagandha tincture, take one dropperful in the morning and one in the evening. If drinking tea, prepare as noted above, and drink as often as you enjoy it.
Why: Reishi mushrooms are really helpful in rebuilding chronically sick or exhausted bodies. Reishi can help stimulate immune responses, and is a tonifying herb for our nervous systems. Additionally, reishi helps soothe and build up weakened nerve function, and restores adrenal function. Reishi is another herb with what we like to call “immune intelligence”, so it not only bumps up a weak immune system, but can calm overactive immune systems as well.
When to take reishi: Reishi is another one of our immune herbs that is a building herb-it’s best to take reishi over time, rather than at the onset of symptoms. Start taking reishi at the beginning of cold and flu season, or leading up to a stressful event, so that it has time to build up in your system.
Preparation: Medicinal mushrooms take some time to break down and release their medicine, so my very favorite way to consume reishi is in a bone broth that I try to drink daily. You can also make a decoction with reishi the same way you would with ashwagandha. Tincturing is also a common preparation, but because reishi has so many medicinal properties, some of which are extractable in water only, you want to make sure to make a double extraction. This is a preparation where the plant has been extracted in both water and alcohol. To do so, prepare a tincture in alcohol. Once it has been extracting for about 6 weeks, strain the tincture, and save the plant matter! With the saved plant matter, prepare a decoction. Then, mix the tincture and the decoction together, making sure that you have either more alcohol, or at least a 50/50 ratio of water to alcohol, so that the tincture doesn’t mold.
Recommended Dose: To build up your immune system, take one dropperful of the tincture 2-3 times daily, or consume reishi in broth or a tea blend as often as you’d like.
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