Herbs to Boost Your Immune System, Some of My Favs!
It's Back-to-School season, which means it's Fall and it's going to start getting nice and cool and crisp and beautiful, and cold & flu season is about to be straight, crazy this year. Add that to a pandemic and we are in for a rowdy ride. So I wanted to share with you some of my absolute favorite and number one, two, three, and four go-to herbs that I run to when it's time for me to get my immune system in check and ready to rock it through cold and flu season.
So here we are. The first day of fall, September 22nd, the air is absolutely gorgeous outside. The leaves are changing color. When I go for my walks with my doggies it's that awesome, warm fallen leaves scent that I just cannot get enough of. Kids are back to school, some of them are actually in the school buildings, some of them doing online work, some just homeschooling kind of everywhere, but one thing that always happens with this time of year is Back-to-School happens and cold and flu season kicks in as well as those temperatures lower and kids are rubbing snot all over each other, or something like that. I'm not sure exactly how that happens in the petri dish of school, but it definitely happens.
And now here we are, doing back to school season and cold and flu season, in the middle of a crazy pandemic where every cough and every sniffle and sneeze is a symptom to your neighbor that you're carrying this virus. Then we all know that there are asymptomatic people running around thinking that they're healthy as can be and spreading this virus to people…and it's stressful to think about all of that. Right? And then, since it's stressful, stress actually lowers our immune system's functionality. So it's really a wild and crazy time to be in right now. I'm super interested to see what's going to happen this year with cold and flu season. Is it going to be super rowdy? I kind of think it is.
So there's quite a few things, of course, that we can do to help keep our immune system in check, like eating well and getting exercise, making sure you're getting enough sleep, adding a bunch of vitamin C & vitamin D and zinc to your body can all help boost your immune system. Washing your hands. I wonder if wash your hands should be a major mantra of 2020? But it's important, you know, and it sounds crazy that I have to say that, but it is, it's so important that we wash our hands and we do all the necessary steps to keep from spreading all of the viruses and sickness from one another, along with our social distancing and with wearing our masks and all of these things. I mean, seriously when I think about all of that and put that together…holy crap, the world is wild and crazy right now! But even with all of that wild and crazy, there is some good news. There are some plant friends that we can turn to that can actually help boost your immune system, so I just wanted to share a few of those with you.
We are going to start with one of my favorite things to eat…garlic! I don't know about you, but I love it. If you don't like garlic, I don't know if we can be friends anymore. Just joking! If you don't like garlic, that's fine. You're a little strange, but that's fine. I personally absolutely love garlic and I am one of those people that will put like four times the garlic in every recipe that calls for garlic. I mean, garlic is great, because it does so many different things within our human body to keep us well that I could probably do a whole blog post on just that.
Garlic is great to have on board because it's a super effective anti-microbial that acts on the bacteria and viruses and various parasites that are in our digestive tract. It's really great to help fight against various infections of the respiratory system as well. Like bronchitis, your cough, just reoccurring colds that you think you get over and then you're not over it. It can also be really helpful with the flu. In general, garlic is really great to help guard against most infections of the respiratory tract and the digestive tract.
So, I don't know, maybe go out and decide to get your Italian food groove on tonight and eat all the garlic. It is absolutely best when raw, and I know that can be really hot and intense and a little too crazy for most people, but you can make something like a pesto, like it's some delicious basil and raw garlic and blend that all together with your olive oil and your pine nuts and just make a yummy, yummy pesto and eat that however it works well for you and your body and your appropriate diet. I just think it's so cool that there’s this food that we use in so many different things in our diet that is so incredible for our immune system and digestive system, and the list goes on and on and on as far as like what a powerful herbal medicine garlic is.
The next herb, you've probably heard of and probably used it for boosting your immune system at some point in time because it's really, really popular and it’s Echinacea! It’s a very popular plant friend when it comes time for cold and flu season. A lot of you probably know to run to it during that time. It's so amazing for boosting the immune system, and it really does help the fight off both bacterial and viral infections, which is great! One thing that I have found over the years though, is that it’s actually best taken before you're getting sick.
So during Back-to-School time and you know that the snots going to be flying around the school rooms, or maybe you're flying somewhere and you're going to be stuck in the cabinet of a plane with a bunch of random people from around the world, or maybe it's just that time when all your friends and family are starting to get sick. Those are all really, really great times to start taking your Echinacea because it has this way of saying, “Hey, immune system: Get ready, cause things are going on and you need to ramp up so that you can fight off all of these germs and pathogens and such!”
That doesn't mean that you can't take Echinacea, or shouldn't take it, while you're sick. You totally can, but do be aware that when you are taking Echinacea when you're already sick, what is likely to happen is that your symptoms actually get worse before you get better. The duration of your illness should be a little bit less, but because it's boosting your immune system and your immune system's way of fighting things off, it can make you have a higher fever or other symptoms of your sickness could definitely get worse. So just be aware of that.
Echinacea is really specific for infections of the respiratory upper respiratory tract, like laryngitis, tonsillitis, or even just your, common cold, where you're all coughy and sniffly and want your mommy. Not that I've ever said that before… but, good Echinacea is pretty much regarded as safe in general. It can be used as a tincture or you can use it as a tea. I have even used it topically for various skin infections. So, Echinacea is a pretty amazing plant and it's so pretty to grow. Totally worth having in your apothecary or medicine cabinet!
Another herb that I like to keep in my personal arsenal, is one that's been used a lot since ancient times in Chinese medicine, because it's been shown to have great effects for stimulating our immune system and helping to prevent the common cold and other upper respiratory infections. And it's astragalus funny word to say it's a S T R a G a L U S. Little flashback from my spelling bee days as a kid…
Astragalus is known to help increase your body's production of interferons. Interferons are these cool little chemical messengers that are released when one of your cells is infected by a virus. So these little interferons are chemical messengers, they go out and they tell all of their other cell buddies in your body to be on high alert. They're like “Hey, check it out. There's an invader present. There's a pathogen. And we need to get ready to kill this guy or these guys!” It's kind of cool. The name actually comes from their ability to interfere with viral replication by protecting yourselves from the virus infections. Pretty cool. Right? I mean, there's a lot of crazy words in the medical world that don't make sense at all, but at least interferons do. They interfere with viral replication.
Astragalus has even been used a lot with some various drug therapies that, and it's been shown to help reduce their levels of toxicity from the drug and lessen the harsh side effects that become present in your body from tough drugs. It's even helped to prevent liver damage that some anti-cancer drugs, can cause. It can be really helpful for those that are immunocompromised because it helps strengthen so many different functions within the immune system. It helps to protect the liver from damage and it has been known to have some really valuable anti-cancer effects. It's definitely not the one for people that have auto-immune disease, because it will ramp up your immune system and that's not what you want in that case. So certainly worthy of keeping in mind.
Another thing to keep in mind is to work with an herbalist or a doctor or a naturopathic physician when it comes to a lot of these herbs. Herbs are awesome. And they're really cool. And some of them are really, really safe and some are of them are not, and they work differently for every body; each unique body and each herb has a different effect. It's not like what is commonly thought in Western medicine, where one pill fixes all issues. That's just not how it works. And there's a lot of science and study and knowledge and experience that goes into working with herbs and working with experienced herbalists or naturopaths or other doctors.
Our next plant is a shrubbery, and I happen to love this shrubbery! It's really lovely. I love it in the winter. I love it in the fall. I love it in the spring. I love it all year round and it is an elder, the elder shrubbery. Did you know that the elderberry comes from a shrubbery? It's a really beautiful tree.
It grows from five or six feet high to like 25 to 30 feet. It's really cool to check out in the woods in the winter; I love it because I can tell when I am by an elder because the sticks and branches of it have these almost acne-like scars on the branches. So that's how I recognize it when there's no leaves left in the winter and I'm out for a hike.
The elder flower is also really fantastic for cold and flu season. So it's what is known as a diaphoretic. I may have said this before, but a diaphoretic helps your body rid itself of waste through sweat. When you're sweating, that is your body expelling toxins, and a great way to cleanse yourself. So elderflower is a great thing to help you sweat. If you've got a fever and you want to help sweat that fever out, elderflower could be a really, really good friend to have around as a tea. It is also really great to help you get rid of excess mucus in the sinuses or the throat. So if you're super stuffy, congested and just miserable because you can't breath and you’ve got Kleenex sticking up your nose, an elderflower tea could be a really, really helpful friend for you to have.
Of course, Elderberries are amazing too! I talk about them a lot. We have a blog post all about making Elderberry Syrup, as well as Elderberry Popsicles! I love making elderberry popsicles because I've got this gorgeous seven year old little daughter who, you know, lives with an herbalist and has grown up that way, so she's pretty in tune with things, but she sometimes says “mom, I know you're trying to trick me into the herbs. I'm not taking your herbs!” But when I make elderberry popsicles, she will certainly take those herbs. So now is a great time to get your Elderberry Popsicle on if you've got kiddos in school. It’s super easy to make you make yourself some elderberry syrup or you can buy it. I like to make it because it's way cheaper! I do have elderberry syrup kits available too.
There’s quite a few cool things about Elderberry that make it really, really powerful during cold and flu season and one of those things is that elderberries have been shown and proven to be extremely effective for deterring at least 10 different flu viruses from your body. There's also been studies that have shown that people with the flu that started using elderberries had their symptoms gone within two to three days, whereas the placebo group took another six to eight days for their symptoms to go away. Fricking cool! Yeah, I'll have some popsicles, please.
Elderberries are also a great diaphoretic. So if you remember, diaphoretic means that it's going to make your body sweat, which means it's going to release toxins and heat from your body, which is why it's a great, great friend to have around for cold and flu. And, in general, like upper respiratory problems and the elderberry juice contains a really high amount of flavonoids that are called anthocyanins and they are really rich antioxidants. These little anthocyanins help your body to produce cytokines, which are little protein messengers that help to boost your immune system by alerting your other immune cells, that there is a pathogen or a foreign invader in your body and they get together and they're like “Hey, there's a bad guy in here. Everybody wake up, start the army. Let's fight this guy off!” It's just so cool the way the immune system works that way and how these berries, these anthocyanins and the flavonoids and the berries make this happen. It's awesome.
Elderberries are also super high in vitamin C which increases the antioxidant effect. They've been shown to actually be able to strengthen your cell membranes to prevent the viruses from being able to penetrate into your cell wall. It just puts this extra bubble shield around yourself to keep you from getting sick… so cool!
It's a great expectorant as well so it's going to be really helpful if you've got that really congested cough, and, you know, really nice after this fire season that we have been experiencing on the West coast where nobody could breathe because we were just walking through clouds of gnarly smoke.
Elder shrubs. They are Herbal Rock Stars!
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*Always remember to contact your healthcare provider when considering the use of botanical medicine as a possible treatment option and medical considerations. While the information in this article is absolutely relevant, herbs work differently for each person and each condition.
**I am a trained herbalist and not a licensed or registered healthcare practitioner. I cannot diagnose health conditions, nor prescribe medicines legally; I am not a medical doctor. However, I will recommend or suggest medicinal herbs for various health complaints, as I do believe in the safety and efficacy of botanical medicine.
***The information I’ve provided is not intended to be a substitute for medical treatment. Please consult your medical care provider before using herbal medicine, particularly if you have a known medical condition or if you are pregnant or nursing.
About the Author: Melissa Mutterspaugh
Melissa lives in Oregon, in the foothills of Mount Hood. She's a clinical herbalist, environmental educator, mother, wilderness therapist, lover, nemophilist, music-loving maniac, and the founder of Mountain Mel's Essential Goods. She is passionate about inspiring others to take better care of our planet, by taking better care of themselves, naturally!