The immune system is “trained” while we are still growing in our mother’s womb and throughout our lives. It is “trained” to recognize and differentiate between “Me” and “Other”—the “Other” can be microbes, parasites, cancer cells, foods and a blood transfusion or organ transplant.
Our immune system is composed of organs such as the thymus, the skin and the spleen; cells such as mast cells, macrophages, T-cells, neutrophils and B cells. Other systems such as the circulatory system and the lymphatic system (a system of tubes similar to the blood vessels which carries immune cells and immune fluids throughout the body) interact with the immune system while biochemical messengers such as antibodies (also called immunoglobulins) and various cytokines help to weave a complex network of interacting cells and organs.
The immune system also interacts with all the other systems of the body- the immune system communicates with the brain, the hormonal system, the gut, the reproductive system and responds to all forms of stress including poor nutrition, lack of sleep or exercise, too much work, not enough rest and relaxation and other lifestyle choices such as smoking, drinking or drug use.
There are many foods, supplements, herbs and spices that can help boost your immune system. One of the best things you can do to maintain a healthy immune system is to make sure your gut bacteria are happy and healthy—you can do this by using yogurt, fermented foods or by using a quality probiotics supplement. As always, a good multi-vitamin with minerals is important. Even more important is a good, healthy diet with minimal processed foods and as many fresh fruits and vegetables as possible—this is a solid way to achieve a health immune system.
One caution to keep in mind is if you have an auto-immune disorder. In that case, please eat well, but be cautious about taking any herbs or supplements. For auto-immune disorders, you may want to look at foods, supplements herbs and spices that reduce inflammation. The best approach is to talk to someone very knowledgeable.
Herbs and Spices that boost your immune system
Garlic has been listed as one of the American Dietetic Association’s “Functional Foods”. In addition, fresh garlic has been shown to have direct positive effects on the immune system and is currently being studied for its potential anti-cancer . and anti-viral properties. As an “added bonus”, garlic contains Selenium, a mineral very important for both the immune system and a healthy thyroid .
The main types of mushrooms that have been associated with boosting the immune system are Reishi, Maitake, Shitake, Agaricus, Coriolus and Cordyceps. They all appear to work in at least partly the same way—by boosting the number of a specific type of immune cell (the T-helper cell). When the numbers of T-helper cells increase, so does the amount of biochemical messengers they send out.
- Astragalus: Astragalus is commonly known as Milk Vetch. It has anti-viral properties and is used for upper respiratory infections, the common cold and flu, and to strengthen the immune system.18 Recently, it was shown to be significantly better than placebo in treating allergic symptoms.
- Tea: All teas, but green tea especially, has been found to have anti-inflammatory , anti-oxidant , anti-viral , anti-cancer , and immune boosting properties . The most well studied component of green tea, epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG) seems to be the active ingredient.
- Echinacea: Echinacea is also known as the Purple Cone Flower and is used worldwide as an immune booster. It seems to be most effective against the common cold when taken for 7-10 days after the symptoms first appear.
- Emblica: Emblica is also known as Indian gooseberry and has been used in Ayurvedic medicine for over a thousand years. It appears to have anti-microbial, anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant activity , helping to explain its uses as an immune booster. It is often sold as essentially a jam—and has a very high content of Vitamin C!
- Olive leaf: Olive leaf and olive oil may be effective primarily in aiding the immune system as a source of omega-3 fatty acids . These fatty acids are important as precursors (or the building blocks) of anti-inflammatory molecules. Olive oil and leaf also have anti-bacterial properties.
- Oregano: Oregano can be used in cooking—making it an especially tasty immune booster. It is used for coughs, asthma, croup, and bronchitis. Oregano oil is also used for intestinal parasites , allergies, sinusitis, arthritis, colds and flu and fatigue.
- Cat’s Claw: Cat’s Claw (Una De Gato) is a Peruvian traditional medicine that is becoming more important in the US. It is used for a variety of problems including diverticulitis, peptic ulcers, colitis, parasites, asthma, allergic rhinitis, to improve wound healing, for viral infections including herpes zoster, herpes simplex, and human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). It appears to work by prolonging the active life of immune cells.
It is always recommended that you talk to a qualified health professional and be careful about taking any herb—other than those you use as food—for longer than recommended. If a problem or condition is not getting any better, make an appointment to see a physician! Always disclose the use of herbal supplements and other medications to medical practitioners.