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Probably one of the most common questions in natural health is "How can I boost my immune system?" If you are always catching colds and flu and stomach bugs, that's an important question.

Chances are you really need to stimulate your immunity. If you are tired, run, down, achy, and suffer a lot of vague symptoms, however, chances are that you do not, and stimulating your immune system could actually be harmful.

The reason for this is that the immune system is a complex group of different kinds of white blood cells, disease-specific "attack chemicals", and a complex hormonal system for turning itself on and off.

An overactive immune system is not a good thing. Many diseases are caused by the immune system's attack on the body itself, including rheumatoid arthritis, asthma, and lupus.

Many of the worst symptoms of infections, acne, for example, aren't caused by a bacterium or a virus or a parasite, but by the immune system's reaction to that bacterium or virus or parasite.

This doesn't mean there is nothing at all you can do to stimulate your immune system. You just need to choose natural remedies that both stimulate and "put the brakes" on the immune system as needed.

The herbs that accomplish this task are known as the adaptogens. This group of useful plants includes eleuthero, rhodiola, echinacea, elderberry, and baptisia, also known as indigo. These herbs contain complex sugars that form the same configuration, on a molecular level, as certain bacteria and viruses. The sugar in the herb fits into the same receptor sites on immune cells as a disease-causing microorganism, like a key into a lock.

The herb activates the immune system before the microorganism has a chance to multiply, but because the lock and key effect is very specific, the immune system does not overreact and attack healthy tissues.

It can be helpful to start taking adaptogenic herbs a few weeks before colds and flu season to give your immune system a running start to beat the bugs that make you sick. This is particularly true of taking elderberry to reduce the risk of catching influenza. In the case of eleuthero, be careful. This Siberian antiviral herb is effective, but it has the side effect of causing the body to conserve testosterone. Some men who are heavy users of eleuthero (the American basketball player Charles Barkley, for instance, who drank 40 bottles a day) go very, very bald when they overuse the herb.

If just feeling bad for no particular reason is the problem, try the adaptogenic herbs eleuthero, rhodiola, and schisandra, or preferably all three. These herbs modify the way the nervous system releases a compound called neuropeptide Y, which transmits the sensation of pain to the brain. The effect may not be immediate or even obvious, but you will probably start feeling better a few days after you take them if dull, vague, indeterminate pain and fatigue have been a problem.

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