by Kristin Henningsen
Keeping our immune system strong is important now more than ever, no matter where you are in the world. While there are many strategies out there to keep our immune system humming, more and more folks are turning to herbs to support their immunity and overall well-being.
But with so much information flying around and so many herbs to choose from, where do we even start? And how can we know what herbs are right for our individual picture?
Here are a few of our favorite herbs for an immunity boost and how to incorporate them into your daily routine.
Even if you’re new to using herbs to support your health, you’ve likely heard of Echinacea or seen the beautiful pinkish/purple coneflowers gracing a garden. Echinacea purpurea is a classic remedy for immune health. A powerhouse for our acute or immediate immune response, Echinacea has been shown by research to be good for all sorts of infections (bacterial, viral, protozoal).
It works by ramping up our white blood cells (a.k.a. immune cells) and stimulating the process of phagocytosis, where those immune cells essentially engulf and then break down the pathogen — think Pac-Man chomping up those little pellets. Fairly bitter in flavor, Echinacea is best used as an extract or supplement.
Echinacea benefits for immune system
Echinacea is a native American plant with a 400-year-old history to treat wounds and infections. Several studies suggest that echinacea contains active substances that boost immune function, relieve pain and inflammation, and have hormonal, antiviral, and antioxidant effects.
Professional herbalists also may recommend the herb to treat a plethora of infections namely urinary tract infections, vaginal yeast (candida) infections, sinusitis, allergic rhinitis, ear infections, athlete's foot, and more.
A review of 14 clinical trials suggested that the chances of developing a cold were reduced by 58% on taking Echinacea. Further, the duration of a cold was also lessened by 1 to 4 days. These findings remain controversial.
Another darling in the cold and flu season, the dark purple berries of Elderberry, or Sambucus canadensis, are key in preventing your immune system from being overwhelmed by a wide variety of bacteria or viruses. High in antioxidants, this herb has long been used during the first signs of viral infections to clear the infection and bring down high fevers.
A favorite with kids (which is why the flavor is commonly used in herbal syrups), Elderberries have become a fixture in many households. Elderberry syrup is a delicious way to incorporate this into a daily immune-boosting routine, but supplements are just as effective.
Elderberry benefits for immune system
The European version (also known as Sambucus nigra) of Elderberry is associated with health and wellness.
Elderberry flowers and berries are storehouses of antioxidants and vitamins that offer various health benefits. They could boost your immune system, reduce inflammation, lessen stress, and are great for heart health.
Some experts believe this herb could help prevent and ease cold and flu symptoms. Although, medical tests are still very not conclusive to support this evidence.
If you’re looking for an herbal superhero, Andrographis doesn’t disappoint. A hard-hitting immune stimulant, Andrographis paniculata is a specific balm for respiratory infections and has been used for centuries to support the immune response. In addition, it is well known for its role in protecting the liver and reducing inflammation and muscle aches.
And when you’re really sick, that’s going to translate into feeling less achy and fatigued. Called the “king of bitters” in Ayurvedic medicine, this herb is one you’ll want to take in supplement form.
Andrographis benefits for immune system
Andrographis leaf and stem have been a part of Ayurveda treatments. They might work by stimulating the immune system. It might also prevent the onset of the flu in the body.
People have used Andrographis as herbal remedies for cough, sore throat and tonsils, common cold, osteoarthritis, and bowel disease called ulcerative colitis. There are many other health benefits of Andrographis. However, there is insufficient scientific evidence to support its other health uses.
Irish Sea Moss
While you might not immediately think of seaweed as a go-to immune herb, think again. Irish Sea Moss, or Chondrus crispus, is extraordinarily high in carrageenan, a slimy compound that’s well known for its soothing anti-inflammatory effects.
When consumed, it has a reflex effect, which directs more fluid to be released into the lungs. This can thin mucus and support the tissue of dry inflamed lungs. An added benefit: consuming Irish Sea Moss over the long run has a beneficial effect on your gut microflora, boosting your underlying immune response.
While convenient to take in supplement form, it also can be added to soups, stews and beans for added nutritional value.
What are the health benefits of Irish Sea Moss
Contrary to its name, Irish Sea Moss is algae or seaweed. Irish moss and other seaweeds are rich in iodine, an important nutrient for thyroid health. Iodine regulates the thyroid’s function to produce hormones for metabolism, nerves, and bone growth.
Irish Sea moss is rich in omega 3 fatty acids crucial for good heart health. It also contains antioxidants namely fucoxanthin and other carotenoids, which are known to help fight free radicals. These antioxidants help in regulating blood sugar spikes. It also reduces the risk of developing certain cancers
Green Tea Extract
We’ve long known the anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects of Green Tea. However, more recently Camellia sinensis has come under study for its immune supportive actions as well. A recent 2018 study showed that Green Tea catechins (molecules that help give the tea it’s signature light flavor) were effective in their use to prevent and treat infectious disease.
While more research is certainly needed, this and the immunomodulatory (a.k.a. immune regulating) effects of Green Tea show real promise for autoimmune support as well. And who doesn’t love a good cup of green tea?
A high-quality Green Tea extract supplement is also a great way to incorporate this powerhouse into a daily routine.
Green leaf tea extracts health benefits
Green tea extract is being advocated for its health benefits. Rich in antioxidants which have been associated with several health benefits from promoting heart, liver, and brain health. Antioxidants are great for skin concerns, such as dermatitis, rosacea, and warts. They have been shown to help with skin aging and acne.
The antioxidants in green tea extract, namely EGCG, seem to have favorable effects on the balance of cell production and death that helps in reducing the risk of cancer.
Supplements to support immunity
The immune system works to defend the body from harmful microorganisms and toxins. For the body’s immune system to function optimally, we need all the minerals and nutrients in the right quantities.
While many micronutrients contribute to a healthy immune system, research suggests that these three micronutrients play the most vital role in immune support: vitamin C, vitamin D, and zinc.
A study from 2020 stated that probiotic use may reduce the incidence and duration of upper respiratory infections. More research is needed to confirm the RDAs of vitamins C and D might help support immune health.
If you’re looking to keep your immune system healthy and strong, consider adding these herbs to food or drinks, or incorporating them into an already established supplement routine. Not only can they help during those acute bouts of illness but they also will strengthen your immune game overall.
Kristin Henningsen MS, RH (AHG), RYT, is a clinical herbalist and educator who first fell in love with plants in the Desert Southwest. She’s passionate about bringing plant medicine back to the people, integrating Western Herbalism, TCM, and Ayurvedic practices to empower folks in their health care. She maintains a private clinical practice and serves as faculty for several university programs.