Our Healthy Immune System Part 2/2

The right raw materials can…double or triple the protective power of the immune system.”

Dr. Joel Fuhrman


The raw matierials that Dr. Fuhrman talks about are the foods and drink we put into our body. The previous blog on the immune system focused on the benefits from foods.  This blog focuses more on herbs, aromatics, and other natural strategies to help boost our immune systems.  Herbs and aromatics can be broken out into immune modulators, antimicrobials, and immunostimulants.  The first strengthens the immune system, the second kills germs, and the third quickly activates the immune system when we need it most.  We need all three to be at our best!  

Modern medicine is helpful in treating infections when needed, but equally important is what we ingest and how we treat our body to help it fight off infections or prevent them in the first place.  The holistic approach is optimal in building a strong immune system long term.  Herbal therapies can be used alongside conventional medicine to support a healthier body and future overall.  Here’s how! 

1) Immune Modulators 

Immune modulators help balance and strengthen the immune system.  These are the proactive herbs (verses reactive) that improve cell signaling that makes our immune system more robust overall.  This is where mushrooms, astragalus (a supplement you can find at any health food store), and elderberry shine.  Many people take elderberry syrup daily during the winter months to help build up their immune system to fight exposure to the flu or other seasonal illnesses.  Aromatics also help to build up the immune system, such as garlic, onions, ginger, horseradish, and hot peppers.  These boost circulation, improve the flow of mucus (gross I know, but important), improve digestion, and help your body to get rid of pathogens overall.  You can soak pieces of ginger in water overnight and then drink it throughout the next day.  In addition to aromatics, herbs such as oregano and thyme also help to modulate the immune system.  Add them whenever you can!     

2) Antimicrobials 

Antimicrobials kill germs, such as viruses, bacteria, and fungi.  They have disinfectant and antiseptic properties.  Most work against any germs, but some are targeted to focus on a specific type of germ.  These herbs may help with infections of the respiratory and digestive tracts, skin, or other areas of the body. 

Common examples of antimicrobials include oregano, thyme, ginger (fresh), sage, garlic (especially raw), onions, and lemon balm.  The company Traditional Medicinals makes a delicious lemon balm tea.  I buy mine at Whole Foods, but I’m sure other stores sell it as well.  Check it out – it is very mild and soothing!

Echinacea is another herb that can be used as a antimicrobial. People often think of echinacea when they are sick, but it is also an effective preventative measure.  These herbs have additional benefits such as promoting healthy digestion, and can even be applied topically to fight germs.  So what do you do when you start feeling sick? This is where immunostimulants come in…

3) Immunostimulants 

Immune stimulants quickly activate the immune system so that it can effectively fight infections.  As a bonus, they also have antiviral, antibacterial, and antifungal benefits.  These are best taken short term at the first sign of a cold, flu, or other infection.  Common examples include garlic and echinacea.  Heads up that some people are allergic to echinacea and it may cause an autoimmune flare-up.  If you have this reaction, stop taking it right away.  Also, if you have an autoimmune disease, these immunostimulants may be less appropriate.   

If you are beginning to feel sick, then don’t forget to increase the amount and frequency of elderberry in your daily diet.  Also, make sure that you are not falling short on the various items mentioned above (under Immune Modulators) and getting extra sleep. 

A recommended drink to make at the first sign of an illness is Ginger Thermos Tea.  It is easy to make, very soothing, and feels great when you are not at your best. 

Ginger Thermos Tea

Taste For Life – Maria Noel Groves


Add honey and squeeze lemon wedges

You may have noticed that some herbs and aromatics fall into more than one category.  Examples of this include garlic, oregano, and thyme.  I love this!  It makes it easier to make sure that you are incorporating all the necessary categories.  When you are making a salad, throw some fresh oregano or thyme on top. Or, roast some garlic and have it on toast.  It is delicious! 


In addition to food there are many other ways we can help to build a strong immune system.

Exercise and Stress Reduction 

A strategy to boost the immune system would not be complete without the mention of exercise and stress reduction strategies.  One study found that letting kids run around for just six minutes led to an increase of immune cell levels in their blood by 50%!  Another study found that while elderly and sedentary women have a 50% higher chance of developing an upper respiratory illness during the Fall, those who began a half-hour walking program dropped their risk down to 20%.  Exercise directly impacts our immune system, and regular physical activity is a key component of a healthy immune system. 

Meditation, over time, has also been shown to positively impact the immune system.  Forbes magazine recently published an article that looked at efforts from researchers at Harvard Medical School, University of California, and the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.  The study was conducted on the impact of meditation and looked at 20,000 genes to see if there was any associated change.  All groups studied showed shifts in the expression of genes that related to inflammation, stress, and wound healing.  They also appeared to have longer telomeres, which are linked to healthier aging and a shift in the ratio of proteins linked to depression and dementia.   

“Meditation is one of the ways to engage in restorative activities that may provide relief for our immune systems, easing the day-to-day stress of a body constantly trying to protect itself.  The prediction is that this would then lead to healthier aging.”

Rudolph Tanzie – Doctor at Harvard University and Massachusetts General Hospital


It is no surprise that sleep plays an important role in maintaining a good immune system, but why?  When we sleep, our body repairs damage, detoxifies, strengthens our immune system, and balances out our hormones.  In short, sleep is the way that the body restores itself.  At least 1/3 of Americans are sleep deprived.  Not only does that hurt overall cognition and mood, but also our immune system.  In fact, sleeping less than 7 hours a night triples the risk of viral infections.  Another study from Britain found that workers who slept 5 or fewer hours per night had double the risk of death from all causes versus those who average 7 or more hours.  Weight gain is another negative side effect of lack of sleep.  A study found that sleeping for 5 hours a night (versus 7-9 hours) causes a person to increase their caloric intake, making it harder to stick to a healthy diet and thus causing weight gain.  Clearly sleep impacts all parts of our life, not just the immune system.  Try creating a routine before you go to bed.  This could be reading a book for a half hour, taking a bath, or anything else that would train your body to know you are getting ready for sleep.  You’ll find that you start going to sleep easier and have a more restful night. 

Dry Brushing 

This one may not be familiar, but it is hundreds of years old and dates back to Greece and Japan.   Dry brushing is done right before you shower and involves gently brushing your skin with a brush specifically made for dry brushing.  Dry brushing is thought to aid the immune system by reducing the duration of infection and accelerating the removal of toxins from our body.  But how?  The bristles on the brush are thought to stimulate the pores and open them up.  In making it easier to sweat, it is believed that it reduces the amount of toxins flowing through our lymphatic system.  It also exfoliates our skin leaving it softer and smoother.       

Dry brushing can be done a few times a week.  You don’t need to add a lot of pressure.  Gently brush your body in the direction of your heart.  You can get a dry brush at many beauty stores (e.g., Ulta, Sephora) and pharmacies (e.g. CVS, Walgreens).  After your shower, use a moisturizer so that your skin does not dry out.  If you find that dry brushing irritates your skin, you are probably using too much pressure.  Dry brushing is not for everyone and should not be done over eczema, psoriasis, wounds, or other irritations. 

Other Considerations 

Things like smoking, alcohol and sugar work against the immune system.  In addition, drinking or having sugar in the evening can negatively affect your sleep, making it an even bigger hit to your immune system.  

One of the latest fads is to cut out carbohydrates.  Since carbohydrates turn into sugar in our body, this makes sense, right?  No – our bodies need carbohydrates.  But we need the whole food form that is low glycemic and ‘slow-burn’ (beans, whole grains etc.) and not the highly refined type (baked goods, white bread etc.).  You know the phrase ‘don’t throw the baby out with the bath water’?  This applies here – don’t eliminate all carbohydrates just because some of them are bad for us.  Be selective in what you eat and avoid any high glycemic carbohydrates where possible.   

Wash your hands!  We all know to wash our hands after we use the bathroom and before a meal. The CDC reports that ‘handwashing can prevent about 30% of diarrhea-related sicknesses and about 20% of respiratory infections.’ Try adding another time or two to your daily routine.  One idea is to wash your hands every time you arrive home from somewhere else.  That will reduce the chance of bringing germs into your home and keep you and your family healthier.

The key to success in maintaining a healthy immune system is to play the long game.  None of this is miraculous overnight.  But over time, if you eat and drink strategically for your immune system, exercise and meditate and maintain a good sleep schedule, you will have a stronger immune system and overall health bringing you to your healthy and happy future! 

Interested in learning more? If this is you, a great book to read is Body Into Balance, An Herbal Guide to Holistic Self Care Enjoy!

– Happy Eating

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