As the world begins to open up once more, concerns about infection are still naturally high. One vital measure we can take to protect ourselves at this time is to ensure our immune systems are all functioning optimally.
Picture the immune system; where is it in the body? What do you see? Most commonly thought of are the white blood cells that circulate in the lymph and blood, protecting the body from infectious disease. These cells are made in the bone marrow. They circulate in lymphatic tissues throughout the body – the tonsils, adenoids, spleen and Peyer’s patches in the gut as well as the network of lymph nodes and vessels; all of these structures and cells make up the immune system.
In addition to recognising and destroying unwanted pathogens – including viruses and bacteria – the immune system also keeps our own cells in check, destroying old, damaged or malfunctioning cells such as cancer cells. These can be dealt with without difficulty in ordinarily low numbers.
The closer we study the immune system the more roles we find it has. Recent research has found that specific immune cells known as macrophages stimulate the heart muscle helping it to maintain a steady beat. Other research has found that immune cells clear out dead brain cells after a stroke, secreting substances that are thought to encourage the repair of damaged brain tissue.
It’s a powerful biological system, so how do we keep it strong and effective?
Your mind comes with you everywhere you go. It is the number one influential factor on your health. Persistent negative thinking and chronic stress induce physiological responses that are connected to a myriad of health problems from heart disease and obesity to Alzheimer’s and lowered immunity.
The research: One study exposed 276 healthy adults to the common cold virus and monitored them in quarantine for five days for signs of infection and illness. Those who had experienced a prolonged stressful event prior to exposure were more likely to develop colds when exposed to the virus.
To get results: Check in with yourself regularly throughout the day and monitor your emotions. This should be as regular and habitual as doing the housework or cleaning your teeth. Instigate methods that reliably bring you back to your centre of being and contentment. Seek guidance to resolve past traumas that cause you ongoing anxieties and disruption.
Our immune functions are closely tied to the circadian rhythm of the body, the natural internal process that regulates the sleep and waking cycle over 24 hours. During the day we experience a peak of those immune cells responsible for efficient and fast combat of invading pathogens. At night the body makes use of the time we are in a deeply restful state to form immune memory cells – those capable of responding quickly to a future encounter with the same pathogen, as well as generating more immune cells and digesting captured foreign material.
The research: 153 healthy men and women volunteers, reported their sleep duration and sleep quality over 14 days. They were then given nasal drops containing a rhinovirus and quarantined. Those who had less than 7 hours of sleep per night were nearly three times as likely to develop a cold than those who had 8 hours or more. Feeling well rested after sleeping was also a significant factor in not developing a cold.
To get results: Ensure you’re getting at least seven hours sleep each night, more if you know you need it. For some this may be particularly difficult – address any sleep disorders if necessary. If you miss a night’s sleep or have a particularly disturbed night, prioritise time to catch up and have a few early nights.
Many herbs have potent antimicrobial and an-tiviral properties as well as having a beneficial effect on the gut flora, all of which can strength-en the immune system. Some herbs have very specific effects on immunity, improving the effectiveness of the immune cells themselves.
The research: Sambucus nigra (Elder) – Elderberry has been proven effective against eight different influenza viruses, thus a useful defence against mutating flu viruses. The active compounds in elderberry were found to disarm enzymes produced by the influenza virus which allows it to penetrate the cell walls of a healthy organism. One study of 60 adults found that an elderberry syrup used 48 hours after onset of symptoms, decreased duration of illness by 4 days compared to a placebo1.
Additionally, berries in general contain antho-cyanins – the red and purple pigments – which stimulate immune function.
Echinacea purpurea – particularly useful as a preventative measure, taken over a period of several weeks, Echinacea reduces the likelihood of contracting the cold virus. It does this by increasing immune cell activation, including macrophages, leukocytes and natural killer cells2.
Medicinal mushrooms – Mushrooms contain complex starches (polysaccharides) that stimulate the immune response as well as teaching immune cells to become more discerning; honing-in on true pathogens while leaving harmless allergens alone. Simply eating a small portion of shiitake mushrooms daily has been found to improve immunity and reduce inflammation. Mushrooms that offer immune system support include reishi (Ganoderma lucidum), maitake (Grifola frondosa), shiitake (Lentinula edodes), turkey tail (Trametes versicolor), cordyceps (Cordyceps sinensis), and chaga (Inonotus obliquus)
To get results: Use immune tonics such as Echinacea and medicinal mushrooms to build up the immune system before an infection takes hold, as well as including plenty of berries and a range of mushrooms in your diet. Use Elderberry at the first sign of a viral infection (particularly respiratory infections) to reduce the duration of illness.
If you are pregnant or taking any medication, please consult a practitioner before using herbal medicines.
- Zakay-Rones Z. Randomized study of the efficacy and safety of oral elderberry extract in the treatment of influenza A and B virus infections. J Int Med Res. 2004 Mar-Apr;32(2):132-40.
- Barrett B. Medicinal properties of Echinacea: a critical review. Phytomedicine. 2003 Jan;10(1):66-86.
The Herbal Clinic, 32 King Edward Road, Swansea SA1 4LL
MEILYR JAMES BSc(Hons) DBTh DAcu AcuC Dir MGNI Registered Medical Herbalist, Iridologist & Acupuncturist
T: 01792 474356 W: herbalclinic-swansea.co.uk E: firstname.lastname@example.org