One of my clients asked me “why is everyone coming down with colds and flu’s more now than ever?” and my knee jerk reaction was “what did you expect was going to happen!?” Periods of isolation can trick our immune system into feeling safe and as the old saying goes, – if we don’t ‘use it’ we start to ‘lose it’. This can make us more susceptible to illness when we move back out into the world. In this article I talk about my top 3 plant medicines for boosting immune function.
It is our susceptibility to disease that may be the key determinant to whether we get sick or not – factors like stress, lack of rest, and poor dietary choices can make us more likely to come down with every passing cold or flu. This means our best defence is putting up a good offence – taking in an adequate diet rich in vitamins and minerals, and perhaps even a bit of extra supplementation support like vitamin C, D, and Zinc can be good practice. Herbs can also used to reduce our susceptibility, but we have to make sure have the pillars of health to begin with – adequate rest, a healthy diet, and proper hydration.
As a clinical herbalist, I promote the use of whole plants which can affect how susceptible we are to things like the common cold. I make an antiviral throat spray that kills bacteria and viruses on contact, and acts the at the first point of entry – our mouth. It’s not just killing a virus or creating a physical barrier that protects us, but fortifying our body systems that we can overcome our susceptibility to getting sick in the first place, which is the basis of immune health. This is why plant products are so great – they work to enhance and strengthen the health and wellbeing of anyone who uses them.
Antiviral herbs are many, but a few stand out in my mind as herbal heroes, particularly those that can also combat stress, calm our nerves, or have other added beneficial actions. Choosing the right herb for the person, and not the condition is a foundation of herbal medicine and so a bit of knowledge about the different actions of plants goes a long way to finding the right herb for you.
There are lots of ways we can ingest plants. We can eat them fresh! We can rehydrate dried plants into tea or soup, we can boil roots and barks, or we can consume a whole plant extract made of alcohol, vinegar or honey syrup. Some methods of extraction are better for certain things, for example, there is nothing nicer than a warm cup of tea for a common cold, or a syrup or throat spray for a sore throat.
Plant constituents are bioavailable when they are used in whole plant form but are have a different effect when they are isolated and magnified into a drug (ie. The supplement ‘curcumin’ vs. the whole plant Curcuma longa), and some constituents extract well in water, and some (particularly the more dangerous alkaloids) need to be extracted with an organic solvent.
A note here that the most antimicrobial and strongest extraction of any plant is the distillation of it’s essential oil. Essential oils contain triterpenes which means they are some of the most deadly of the plant medicines – for all bacteria, and that includes the ones in our gut! Because we need our good bacteria to nourish our microbiome, I do not recommend the use of essential oils unless you are really ready to bring out the ‘big guns’, and I never use them internally where they can be extremely harmful.
Let’s talk about my top 3 plant medicines for boosting immune function and some great ways to include them in your diet. These are my favourites, but there are lots more to choose from, so do consult with an herbalist if you’re looking for more information about whole plants and their many uses.
Top plant medicines for boosting immune function #1
Astragalus membranaceus (Huang Qi)
This herb from China is one that I use in my Golden Immunitea, a warming, tumeric-based decoction (a tea that is boiled on the stove). It is a very safe plant that is considered by some herbalists to be an adaptogen because it is so effective in combatting the stress response. Better in prevention than in acute stage of illness, Astragalus membranaceus raises immune resistance by strengthening both nonspecific and specific immunity. It is known as an immune-modulator, which can be helpful in cases that have an over-reactive immune state, such as auto-immune conditions.
Because it’s a root, it extracts best when its boiled on the stove at a dose of 1 tbsp per cup, or it can be added to soups and broths as it has a mild flavour.
Caution should be take with medications because Astragalus has a hepato-protective action it can interfere with conjugation of drugs by the liver.
Top plant medicines for boosting immune function #2
There are three species of Echinacea – Echinacea angustifolia, E. purpurea and E. pallida. They all work very similarly, but E. angustifolia is the best antiviral. It works a bit differently to Astragalus as as an immune-stimulant, which gives the immune system a kick to be on guard! A perfect herb for the first signs of a cold and flu, Echinacea angustifolia is always with me when I’m boarding a plane, feeling run down, or if I’m going to be around big crowds of people. It’s one of the primary ingredients in my Antimicrobial Throat Spray. It acts as a lymphatic to drain enlarged lymph nodes, can shorten the duration and severity of upper respiratory tract infections and help with post viral fatigue.
Echinacea doesn’t taste great and if it’s good quality it should make you salivate, and is a gentle lymphatic that can help bring down enlarged lymph nodes. This is one of the things that helps it do its job, but it would probably ruin your soup!
Echinacea can be taken in tincture (best as a dual extraction where the root has been boiled and preserved in alcohol), but because it’s a root, it won’t extract well or taste very good in a tea. The best way to take Echinacea is to boil the root to extract it’s valuable polysaccharides which have the most immune stimulant effects.
Caution should be taken with auto-immune conditions where it’s stimulant action could make an immune response more pronounced.
Top plant medicines for boosting immune function #3
Although not technically an herb, Chaga Mushroom (Innotus obliquus) stands out for me as one of my greatest allies for immune support. Not only is it adaptogenic and helps combat the effects of stress, it is also the most potent antioxidant on the planet! Antioxidant herbs destroy free radicals in the body and prevent ‘oxidation’ of tissues to protect our cells and DNA from damage. It is not only immune enhancing and antiviral, it is also alkalizing for the body which can help with cancer prevention.
Chaga can moderate blood pressure and blood sugars, and is a rich source of Zinc. No wonder it’s also an incredible ally for allergies! If that wasn’t enough, it can also be used as an antifungal and works well topically for skin conditions of all kinds – rashes, lumps and bumps and even skin problems may be soothed by its application.
Chaga should be taken as a decoction to extract it’s valuable betaglucans, or it can be made into a dual extract by boiling it and preserving it in it’s alcohol extraction. The best part about Chaga is that it keeps on giving – you can reboil this fungus many times over and it will keep on creating a rich, chocolately tea that tastes great!
Although it’s action can be antifungal, caution should be taken using Chaga for fungal infections. Best to consult an herbalist before using it liberally in moist conditions.
If you have any questions about my top 3 plant medicines for boosting immune function, book a free 15 minute consultation.