Cold and flu season is upon us and this is only one of the hundreds of reasons that immune function should always be at the top of your list of health priorities. With our busy lives who has the time to get sick these days? Your daily habits, such as the foods you eat and your exercise and sleep routines, have a significant effect on your immune function. And even if you are walking the straight and narrow, environmental toxins, emotional stress, and the wear and tear of aging all conspire to weaken immunity.

So What Can Be Done To Protect Your Immune System?

Our immune system is one of the most important and complex systems in our body. However, you don’t have to be an immunologist to manipulate the system to be more efficient. With some simple lifestyle changes and the right herbal compounds you can significantly decrease the chance of catching the sniffles (or something worse) this season.

Lifestyle is Key 

• Choose immune-boosting foods. A diet of refined, processed, sugary foods is a recipe for lowered immunity. To build strong immune function, eat a diet rich in fresh vegetables and fruits, which provide a wide range of essential antioxidants and nutrients. The immune system also depends on high-quality proteins and healthful fats, especially monounsaturated fats, such as those found in extra virgin olive oil, to repair tissues and create healthy immune cells. Studies show that adding a daily serving of fermented foods such as yogurt, kimchi, kefir, kombucha and the likes provide live, beneficial bacteria which strengthens immune function. It’s also important to reduce your intake of all types of sugars (including concentrated fruit juices) because even one serving of sugar significantly lowers immune defenses for several hours.

• Exercise—but not too much. Science has proven that regular exercise—at least 30 minutes most days of the week—increases immune function. Moderate exercise increases the numbers of all types of white blood cells and makes natural killer cells become more active and effective. But interestingly, excessive exercise regimes, such as running a marathon, can temporarily hinder immune function and even lead to adrenal dysfunction

• Reduce (or at least better manage) stress. Emotional stressors, such as depression and anxiety, stimulate the secretion of adrenal hormones, which suppress the activity of the thymus gland and white blood cells. Luckily, there are several easy ways to reduce stress in your day-to-day life. In addition to its immune-boosting effects, regular exercise is a potent stress reliever. So are meditation, deep relaxation exercises and massage. Researchers have even found that the simple process of journal writing about stressful incidents improves immune function.

• Get adequate sleep. Lack of sleep negatively affects immune function in a few major ways. First, without enough rest, the body slows its production of disease-fighting white blood cells. Lack of sleep also impairs the activity of natural killer cells and macrophages. And finally, during deep, restful sleep, the body releases powerful immune-enhancing compounds, such as interferon. Make every effort to get at least 7-8 hours of sleep so that your body is rested and can perform these vital functions.

• Treat infections promptly. Lingering infections, such as respiratory or gum infections, tax the immune system and can significantly impair immunity. Treat infections promptly with immune-boosting herbs such as echinacea (Echinacea spp.) and garlic (Allium sativum). Whenever possible, avoid using antibiotics, because they ultimately weaken immune function. Save antibiotics for infections that cannot successfully be treated with herbs.

• Avoid toxins. Toxic chemicals impair immune function and trigger the formation of cell-damaging free radicals. Toxins are everywhere in our environment these days. Avoid as many as you can by choosing organically grown foods, as well as meats and dairy products that are produced without antibiotics or other chemicals. Use natural alternatives to toxic products in your home, garden and workplace.

Utilize Immune-Modulating Herbs

Elderberry (Sambucus nigra). Dark blue-black elderberries are rich in compounds that disarm viruses and prevent them from taking over healthy cells. Studies show that elderberry offers significant protection against respiratory viral infections.

Echinacea (Echinacea spp.). Despite a few studies that question its efficacy, hundreds of studies support echinacea as an effective aid for preventing and treating colds, flu and other infections. Echinacea stimulates infection-fighting immune cells and increases the production of other immune compounds, such as interferon. Echinacea works best when taken frequently at the first sign of infection: 30 to 60 drops of liquid extract or 1 to 2 capsules (300 to 400 mg each) every two hours for the first 24 to 48 hours, followed by the same dosage four times daily for three days after symptoms disappear.

American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius). Recent research shows that American ginseng root—revered for centuries as a health and vitality tonic—helps prevent upper respiratory infections when taken for several months. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, tonic herbs, such as ginseng, are taken to strengthen immunity, but are discontinued during an acute illness (such as a cold). Because products vary in potency, follow manufacturers’ dosage recommendations.

Andrographis (Andrographis paniculata). Sometimes called “Indian echinacea,” andrographis reduces the duration and severity of cold symptoms, and it also might help prevent upper respiratory infections, studies show. Compounds in andrographis appear to stimulate immune function and halt viral growth. A typical dosage of andrographis is 400 mg three times a day.

Eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus). Well-known as an adaptogenic herb (it helps the body more easily adapt to stressors), eleuthero root improves immune function in clinical studies. For best results, take eleuthero for at least three months to strengthen immune response. Because products vary in potency, follow manufacturers’ dosage recommendations.

Green tea (Camellia sinensis). Cultivating the habit of drinking green tea regularly can help strengthen immunity. Green tea contains potent antioxidant compounds that neutralize free radicals and prevent damage to the immune system. In addition, green tea stimulates the liver to secrete interferon, an immune compound that helps fight infection. To bolster immune function, drink 3 or more cups of green tea daily.

• Astragalus root (Astragalus membranaceus) has been used for more than 2,000 years in Traditional Chinese Medicine as a popular tonic for strengthening vitality and to bolster resistance to disease. Today, researchers are trying to scientifically validate the herb’s reputation as an immune enhancer. Studies show that astragalus improves immune function in several ways. It triggers the creation of immune cells in bone marrow and lymphatic tissue; it prods immune cells—including natural killer cells and macrophages—into increased activity; and it enhances the production of immune compounds, such as immunoglobulin. Components of astragalus, such as polysaccharides (large, complex sugar molecules that enhance immune activity), along with saponins and flavonoids, have been found to shield cells against the free radical damage that leads to degenerative diseases, such as cancer.

Mushrooms and Immunity

Most people think of mushrooms primarily as ingredients for cooking, however, in Traditional Chinese Medicine mushrooms have been highly prized for thousands of years for their potent healing benefits. In Japan and China, medicinal mushrooms, such as shiitake, maitake and reishi, have long been regarded as longevity tonics. Research is proving that these beneficial fungi are powerful allies for strengthening the immune system.

Mushrooms contain a variety of active compounds, including polysaccharides, glycoproteins, ergosterols, triterpenes and antibiotics. Thus far, researchers have most intensively focused on the polysaccharides, the same type of compounds found in astragalus. As with astragalus polysaccharides, mushroom polysaccharides improve immune function by increasing the activity of macrophages, which have a voracious appetite for harmful microorganisms and cancerous cells. Polysaccharides also trigger the production of a type of white blood cell that kills a wide range of infectious microorganisms and tumor cells. Last, but not least, mushroom polysaccharides activate other essential immune factors, including T-cells, B-cells, interferons and interleukins.

While all medicinal mushrooms benefit the immune system, each variety contains different compounds that work in various ways to enhance immunity. Therefore, the best approach is to use an assortment of mushrooms to provide a broad base of immune support. You can find shiitake and maitake mushrooms fresh or dried in many grocery stores, and they make a delicious addition to soups or sautéed veggies. Along with a wide variety of other medicinal mushrooms, shiitake, maitake and reishi are available as concentrated extracts and in combinations specifically formulated to enhance immune health. Products vary widely in potency, so follow manufacturers’ recommendations for dosages.

So there you have it. With the right lifestyle choices and the right botanicals you can dramatically reduce your chance of getting the sniffles (or worse) this winter. The various herbs can be taken daily for preventive purposes or several times daily for treatment of an acute infection. Now you and your iron clad immune system can get out there and make a difference in the world.

Dr. Dyer
Premier Integrative Health