Immunostimulant herbs, also known as immunostimulators, are substances that stimulate the immune system by inducing activation or increasing activity of any of its components. Immunostimulants enhance or boost the body’s natural defense against illness and disease. Herbs that stimulate the immune system are very important over a long period of time to help our bodies naturally fight off infections, colds and other viral inflammations.
efore we dive into herbs for the immune system, we’re going to start with lifestyles for the immune system. Because herbs are really and truly the icing on the cake, whereas the day-to-day choices we make for how we want to live are the cake, so to say. The same things in life that make us feel vital, happy, connected, and energetic also make our immune cells feel perky and capable. Our emotions play a central role in the functioning of our immune systems—so much so, that there’s a whole field of science called psychopharmacology. Our moods—and sense of connection—have a profound effect on our white blood cells (immune cells, such as B cells, T cells, natural killer [NK] cells, and macrophages). The feelings of stress and social isolation are some of the biggest immune “downers” out there. Stress hormones, such as adrenaline (epinephrine) and cortisol, weaken immune function. Conversely, when we are relaxed and happy, our cells produce neuronal signaling molecules such as serotonin, dopamine, and relaxing, which have a strengthening effect on the immune system.
In one study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, 420 people voluntarily snorted either a nasal spray solution containing the cold virus or one containing a placebo. The volunteers who reported feeling really stressed prior to exposure were the most likely to develop a cold, while those who reported being less stressed were more likely to effectively fight off the virus.1 Stress can also affect how our immune cells cope with the presence of cancerous cells. At least two studies have shown how stress management can increase measurable immune factors in cancer patients. One study with melanoma cancer patients had one group practice relaxation techniques for six weeks, while the control group didn’t incorporate any stress management techniques. The relaxation group demonstrated a significant increase in natural killer cell activity over the control group.2 NK cells are white blood cells that perpetually scavenge for—and destroy—any cancerous cells they find in the body. Because they are central to our body’s defense against cancer, they are often studied as a measure of cancer resilience. A similar study looked at breast cancer patients who took a stress management course for ten weeks versus a control group. Those in the stress management course demonstrated increased white blood cell counts at the end of the program, as compared to the control group.
The days are colder and shorter. Everyone is spending more time indoors. And the holiday season has arrived. It’s a festive time of year, but it also can be exhausting. Early winter is when most people start feeling the immune challenges that the season brings. Now is an ideal time to bolster your immune health and fortify your reserves. Fortunately, Mother Nature offers us time-honored botanicals that have been utilized for centuries in the quest for optimal health.
A favorite plant for seasonal support is elderberry. This beautiful, dark purple berry has been revered in Europe for hundreds if years for its health-supportive properties. In fact, the Greek physician Hippocrates referred to elderberry as his “medicine chest.” In recent years, researchers have been studying the ways that elderberry functions to support a healthy immune response.† We know that the brightly pigmented berries are a source of anthologists, which are a type of flavonoid also found in blueberries, raspberries and bilberries. The fruit is best taken as an elderberry supplement in the early stages of seasonal challenges to support immune function.†
Perhaps the most well-known herb for immune support is echinacea. Also known as “cone flower,”echinacea is native to North American and can be found growing in many gardens throughout the country. The most commonly used echinacea species in botanical supplements is Echinacea purpurea. The aerial parts (flower and leaves) are known for their immune-promoting properties.* Look for echinacea in a combination supplement formula, such as Mega Food Acute Defense, with other immune-supportive herbs and nutrients.
A third herb to note is andrographis. Andropgrahis, native to India and China, is a botanical that has been used traditionally during times of immune challenge. Andrographis is a bitter herb that may help support quick immune function.*
Along with botanicals, it’s vital to keep up with nutrients that support immune health, such as zinc, vitamin C and vitamin D.* Many people are unsure about the proper dosage of vitamin D to meet their individual needs. The best way to know how much vitamin D you should supplement with is to work with your healthcare practitioner, and get a 25-hydroxy vitamin D blood test. Knowing your vitamin D levels takes the guesswork out of supplementation.
With a right combination of botanical and nutrient support, you can fortify yourself for the winter ahead, and thrive through this season.