Our immune systems are complex but for most of us, our lifestyles largely determine how robust our immune systems are throughout the year. Stress, poor sleep, lack of nutrition and compromised digestive function are the main influences on healthy immunity. As an herbalist of 13 years, I can attest to that fact that the Benjamin Franklin’s adage is true; an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
Cold and flu season is upon us so if you haven’t already begun supporting your immune system with herbs, vitamins and minerals, it is time to start. Selenium, Zinc and Vitamin C are simple and safe for the whole family. There are many herbs for strengthening our immune systems but some of the most common ones, like oregano and echinacea, are often misused. It is important to understand the difference between surface immune stimulating herbs and deep immune stimulating herbs.
Astragalus and Reishi are time tested herbs for building and replenishing immunity. These are deep immune stimulating herbs. That means that they can be used for longer periods of time and are restorative rather than stimulating. These herbs are great for prevention of illnesses and for bolstering recovery from illness because, as the name suggests, they build the immune system on a deep and lasting level. Astragalus is a great option for building immunity in children and can be used throughout the school year. The most effective way to use herbs like Astragalus and Reishi for long stretches of time (i.e. more than 2-3 weeks) is to take them Monday through Friday and take weekends off. This ensures lasting efficacy because herbs can lose their effectiveness on the body when taken regularly for too long.
Echinacea and Oregano Oil are surface immune stimulating herbs. This means that they temporarily boost immune function. These are best used for short duration at the onset of symptoms or when infection or illness is present. They are also handy if you are near someone who is suffering from a cold or flu, like a colleague or family member. These herbs should not be used for long periods of time because they are too stimulating and can exhaust the immune system or lose efficacy if taken frequently for too long. Oregano Oil is powerful and is very effective at killing microbes. The trouble is it kills the good ones too, so it should be taken with intention and for short periods of time.
Elderberry is one of the most valuable herbs for our immune systems. The deep purple berries are not only native to Canada, they have an incredible amount of naturally occurring Vitamin C. Vitamin C is vital for several functions of the immune system. One of the most impressive qualities of elderberry is that it has potent anti-viral properties and has been shown in clinical studies to reduce the duration of influenza by an average of 4 days*.
Elderberry syrup is great for children. It tastes great so it’s easy to administer. It is best when paired with elderflower extract, which helps relieve swollen sinuses, aches, coughing and hoarseness. The combination is perfect because it addresses the symptoms and the cause of illness simultaneously.
They key to a strong immune system is having a healthy gut flora. Regularly taking a good quality probiotic and eating fermented foods is the best way to improve and maintain gut health. Miso, tempeh, kefir, kombucha, sauerkraut, unpasteurized apple cider vinegar and kimchi are all great options.
Spicy herbs like turmeric, onions, ginger and garlic are powerful foods for boosting immunity. One of my favourite seasonal hacks is to mash organic ginger and garlic (food processor works best) and mix it up with some local honey. I put it in a jar and keep it in the fridge. If I feel a cold coming on, I take a spoonful or two and add it to hot water or broth. You can throw in a lemon slice and some cayenne pepper for some extra kick. It will warm you up and give your immune system a nice boost. This little mixture also makes a great gift for any herbal enthusiasts in your life!