I’d harvested fresh elderberries in our garden that we’d grown from cuttings, and I started looking around for other herbs for the immune system to add into the mix. A short walk around the garden and nearby woods and I’d picked more than 20 different immune-boosting herbs, flowers, roots, mushrooms, and lichen.
Add in a stop at the spice cabinet for immune-boosting spices like ginger, black pepper and garlic and I had quite the spread to choose from…
(Note: I am not a clinical herbalist or healthcare provider. This is based on my own experience and research, but I encourage you to verify it with other sources. Please consult a healthcare provider before beginning any health regimen, herbal or otherwise.)
HERBS FOR THE IMMUNE SYSTEM
Herbs for the immune system generally fall into three categories:
- Immune Stimulants ~ Generally used for a short period of time, immune stimulants are best used on a short term basis. The best time is right as you’re starting to get sick, or anytime you’ve been exposed to an illness. Those times when someone coughs right on you, or you’re about to go on a long flight where there may be extra pathogens in the recirculated air. Examples include Echinacea and usnea lichen.
- Herbal Immunomodulators (or Immune Tonics) ~ Often used over a long period of time, immunomodulators are tonics for the immune system. They’re not meant to be overtly healing during acute illness, but rather to help balance your system and promote a healthy immune response. Examples include tulsi (holy basil) and reishi mushrooms.
- Anti-Microbial Herbs ~ While they may not directly impact the immune system, they’re helpful in treating illness and maintaining health. While prescription antibiotics have their place, minor illnesses (or injuries) can be treated with anti-microbial herbs instead. Some are specifically antifungal (for topical issues) while others are more generally antimicrobial. These disserve an article in their own right, and I’ll cover them briefly at the end.
While these three classes of herbs are somewhat different from each other, the terminology often gets mixed, even in peer-reviewed scientific journals. Some, in fact, fall in multiple categories. The main thing to keep in mind is that not all herbs are for long term use and not all herbs for the immune system will have a direct impact if you’re already sick.
There are a lot of factors in our daily lives that affect our immune system. Stress, anxiety and even feelings of social isolation can negatively impact your immune system, along with exposure to toxins and all manner of other environmental factors. That is just too much to cover, and we’ll assume that all things being equal, you’re doing your best to live a low-stress life and are otherwise taking care of yourself.
Exercising, eating right, getting outside and regularly playing in nature. All the good stuff.
Once you’ve got the basics covered, here’s a few immune-boosting herbs that have been shown to help support a healthy immune system. (I’ve also thrown in a few spices, roots, lichen and mushrooms too, for good measure.)
ASHWAGANDHA (IMMUNE TONIC)
An ancient ayurvedic herb, ashwagandha has a long history of medicinal use. It’s an adaptogen, which means it helps your body cope with whatever life throws at it.
Studies show that “Ashwagandha improves the body’s defense against disease by improving the cell-mediated immunity. It also possesses potent antioxidant properties that help protect against cellular damage caused by free radicals.” It also “acts as an immunomodulator and hence can enhance life span of cancer patients, where lowered immunity states of the patient are the cause of concern.”
Known as Indian ginseng, it can increase stamina, improve memory and that it has anti-tumor effects.
We grow ashwagandha in our Vermont garden as an annual, it’s not hard to harvest your own even in cold climates.
ASTRAGALUS (IMMUNE TONIC)
Another adaptogen, astragalus is well known in eastern and western herbalism for its immune tonic properties.
A study in humans found that Astralagus helped in “priming for a potential immune response as well as its effect on blood flow and wound healing.”
Two different studies in mice/rats confirm it’s immune-modulating effects. In one study, Astralagus boosted the immune systems both healthy and immune-compromised mice Another study on rats with cancer found that “polysaccharides of Astragalus present significant immune-modulating activity, thus supporting the popular use…”
As a plant in the bean family, it’s both a medicinal herb and a food. The sliced roots, either harvested fresh or purchased dried, can be cooked into soups or added to all manner of dishes, which makes it easy to incorporate astragalus into your diet. (It’s also commonly taken as a supplement.)
While I had intended to grow astragalus as an annual in our garden, it’s come back year after year from tiny pieces of roots left in the soil post-harvest. I’d been told it was only marginally hardy here, but it weathers our zone 4 winters like a champ.
CALENDULA (IMMUNE TONIC)
The beautiful glowing yellow/orange flowers of calendula brighten up any garden, and they’re both edible and medicinal.
Calendula is usually used topically in creams and oils for it’s anti-microbial, anti-fungal and anti-inflammatory properties. You’ll see it made into all manner of lotions, creams and healing salves.
Beyond their topical anti-microbial uses, the dried whole flower heads have been used as an immune tonic for centuries. According to the Chestnut School of Herbal Medicine:
“The whole flowers can also be dried and added to soups and stews as a winter immune tonic. This traditional folk use heralds from medieval Europe, where the flowers were likewise added to bread, syrups, and conserves. In the classic 1863 text The Complete Herbal, Nicholas Culpepper wrote,
‘The flowers, either green or dried, are much used in possets, broths, and drink, as a comforter of the heart and spirits, and to expel any malignant or pestilential quality which might annoy them.’”
Modern herbalists often add calendula to nourishing winter broths, and sometimes incorporate other savory immune-stimulating mushrooms like turkey tail or reishi to boost the effect. Try this herbal healing mushroom broth, or this immune-modulating mushroom broth, both of which contain calendula as well as a mix of other immune-boosting herbs and mushrooms.
CHAGA (IMMUNE TONIC)
Perhaps the best known of the many medicinal mushrooms that grow on birch trees, Chaga mushrooms are being studied for all sorts of potential health benefits.
According to WebMD, Chaga has antioxidant properties and has the potential to stimulate the immune system, as well as lower blood sugar and cholesterol. It’s also studied for potential anti-cancer treatments.
One study found that a tea made from Chaga boosted the immune function of immunosuppressed rats, and noted that “These results strongly suggest the great potential of the aqueous extract from Inonotus obliquus as immune enhancer during chemotherapy.”
As with most medicinal mushrooms, the most common way to take it is in a double extraction tincture, since some of the compounds are alcohol soluble, while others are water-soluble.
The mushroom compounds are first extracted in alcohol and then extracted by prolonged boiling. The alcohol extract is then added to the cooled water extract in a ratio that preserves both.
The result is then sold under the name Chaga tincture or Chaga extract.
ECHINACEA (IMMUNE STIMULANT)
Provided you haven’t been living under a rock for the last decade, you’ve already heard about the immune-boosting properties of echinacea. It’s by far the best known herbal immune stimulant, and it’s widely accepted even by the medical community as a powerful herbal tool.
A study reviewing the medicinal benefits of echinacea concluded that,
“The consensus of the studies reviewed in this article is that echinacea is indeed effective in reducing the duration and severity of symptoms…”
But the researchers also noted that there’s some debate as to which preparations (tincture, tea, etc) and which parts of the plant (flowers, roots, leaves, etc) are most effective.
ELDERBERRIES (IMMUNE TONIC)
While echinacea is an immune stimulant that’s best taken to combat illness, elderberries are perfect as a year-round immune tonic. That’s convenient because while echinacea tastes like medicine (translation…horrible), elderberries are a tasty and versatile berry with wonderful flavor.
Like many berries, they’re antioxidant, but elderberries have also been shown to boost immune function. Numerous studies document the almost miraculous benefits of elderberry syrup.
In a placebo-controlled study on flu patients found that with a tablespoon (15 ml) of elderberry syrup taken 4x per day, “Symptoms were relieved on average 4 days earlier and use of rescue medication was significantly less in those receiving elderberry extract compared with placebo. Elderberry extract seems to offer an efficient, safe and cost-effective treatment for influenza.”
While elderberry syrup is one of the most popular preparations, there are literally dozens of other ways to take it.
- Bake up a whole elderberry pie, using either fresh or rehydrated dried elderberries.
- Make an old fashioned elderberry oxymel with raw cider vinegar and honey.
- Elderberry gummy bears are incredibly easy, and only take about 20 minutes to make at home. (They’re also available commercially, and mixed with other immune-boosting herbs.)
- Cooking up an elderberry jelly lets you take your medicine on your morning toast.
- These days we don’t often drink our herbs, but historically herbal ales and meads (honey wine), like this elderberry mead, were the preferred methods.
GARLIC (IMMUNE STIMULANT AND ANTIMICROBIAL)
Let your food be your medicine, and garlic is a tasty way to make it happen.
Garlic has been a part of folk medicine for millennia, but modern science is just beginning to confirm it’s medicinal benefits. Don’t believe it? Listen to what the scientists have to say…
“Garlic (Allium sativum) has been used for centuries as a prophylactic and therapeutic medicinal agent. Importantly, garlic has been suggested to have both cancer-preventive potential as well as significant enhancing effects on the immune system… these observations are supported experimentally both in vitro and in vivo…”
A little garlic added to meals is tasty, but you’ll likely need a more concentrated dose for medicinal effects. Homemade fire cider and fermented honey garlic are some of the most popular ways to take a therapeutic dose of garlic.
Fresh organic garlic is often around $18 per pound locally, but we plant garlic every fall and it’s easy enough to grow. Every few years we try a new garlic variety, and it’s amazing how varied the flavors (and colors) can be.
GINSENG (IMMUNE TONIC)
Ginseng is one of the few immune tonic herbs that we don’t grow ourselves, though we could on our woodland homestead. There are detailed instructions for cultivating ginseng in the book Farming the Woods, one of my favorite permaculture books.
It takes years to mature, and has been overharvested to near extinction in the wild. It’s tightly regulated at the federal level, which means that it can be tricky to purchase unless you’ve got a gold bar hidden in the back of your closet.
With so many other immune-boosting herbs available, I don’t honestly see any compelling reason to opt for this both threatened and prohibitive expensive species.
None the less, it’s been used for millennia, and no list of immune-supportive herbs would be complete without ginseng.
JAPANESE HONEYSUCKLE (IMMUNE STIMULANT AND ANTIMICROBIAL)
Just the opposite of ginseng, Japanese honeysuckle is an invasive species that’s spread around the world. Once you’ve positively identified the plant, feel free to harvest as much as you need without the risk of really damaging this incredibly prolific flower.
Be aware though, as with other medicinal invasive species (ie. Japanese Knotweed), it’s important to be sure that it hasn’t been sprayed with herbicides.
Japanese honeysuckle is one of the few immune stimulant herbs, and it’s also antimicrobial. Most of the studies on its effectiveness are done in livestock or food animals, as organic farmers look for more natural ways to keep their animals healthy.
There have been studies in egg-laying chickens, as well as aquaculture projects for fish and shrimp, all of which concluded that Japanese honeysuckle is a natural immune stimulant and/or antioxidant agent.
The bees and other pollinators love honeysuckle, largely because it’s sweet and fragrant. That makes it a tasty medicine, and it’s prepared in all manner of ways. Most commonly though, as infusions or extracts such as Honeysuckle Glycerite or honeysuckle vodka.
LION’S MANE MUSHROOM (IMMUNE TONIC)
There’s a lot of promising research into the medicinal uses of lion’s mane mushrooms. Researchers are especially excited about their ability to improve cognitive function in Alzheimer’s patients, as well as regulate blood sugar for diabetics.
Studies show that they also happen to be an immune tonic, adding yet another reason to seek out this awesome mushroom.
Though they’re supposed to be somewhat rare in the wild, we have plenty of them on our 30 acres. Lion’s mane mushrooms are easy to identify, and the bright white shaggy fungus is hard to miss.
If you cant find them in the wild, there’s always mushroom supplements. Host Defense makes a lion’s mane mushroom capsule as well as a comprehensive immune support capsule containing many different immune-supporting mushrooms.