We may wonder why some people seem to catch every bug that comes around, while others have an immune system that provides an impenetrable defense against the constant onslaught of infectious germs.
According to principles of natural medicine, your strength and vitality controls your immunity and determines your susceptibility to illness more than the bacteria, viruses, or other bugs that you are constantly exposed to.
In your busy, hectic life, many habits deplete rather than strengthen your immune system and many of the ill-effects that result are caused by getting too much or too little of one thing. One can overeat, over stress, and be overly sedentary just as easily as they can suffer from a lack of dietary variety or get too little sleep. Such habits increase your susceptibility to the current malady spreading through friends, coworkers, or people you come in contact with throughout the day.
The ancient wisdom of traditional medicine offers a plethora of remedies to bolster your vitality and immunity.
Although the reason behind an individual’s low immunity can vastly differ from person to person, traditional medicine offers some universally beneficial practices. Merely changing habits and integrating nurturing practices into a daily routine can boost your defenses. Some important rituals and routines include quieting the mind – meditating, exercising regularly and appropriately, enjoying adequate sleep, drinking enough pure water, avoiding or limiting caffeine, and including herbs and foods to build immunity in a daily diet.
The process of healing and strengthening your vitality begins with the mind, according to Paul Pitchford, author of Healing with Whole Foods: Asian Traditions and Modern Nutrition (North Atlantic Books, 2002). Your attitudes and thoughts begin to set the tone for the rest of your body. A quiet mind allows you to make better choices throughout the day to support your health. It also allows you to direct your body’s own chi, prana, or life force, to strengthen your body via your spirit. Meditation, prayer, examining your attitudes, positive thinking, and engaging in mind-body exercise are all beneficial techniques. However, even with a quiet mind and positive thoughts, it is still important to take care of your body to build immunity.
Moderate exercise is one of the most important activities to include in a weekly schedule to strengthen the immune system; Pitchford feels that exercise is even more important than what you eat to build immunity. Unfortunately, exercise is often overlooked in the modern lifestyle. While it is possible to wear down the immune system through excessive exercise, a regimen that is moderate for your own fitness and ability level is beneficial. Exercise stimulates lymphatic circulation, which carries white blood cells throughout the body and assists with detoxification. Exercise also helps to integrate mind and body, particularly activities like yoga, chi gung, tai chi, and Pilates. Since your thoughts may easily run from you, contributing to stress, anxiety, and tension, integrating mind and body allows you to slow your thoughts and become more deliberate in your actions, which increases your vitality and defenses.
Yoga is particularly beneficial for building the immune system. Twisting poses increase the digestive fire and stimulate the lymphatic system. Sidebends increase movement of fluid through the vital lymph nodes around the chest. And backbends increase breath capacity by stretching the chest and stimulate the immune system by activating the thymus gland behind the breastbone.
You’ve heard the old adage, “an apple a day keeps the doctor away.” Food has a tremendous impact on the immune system. Nutritionist Jennifer Workman, owner of the Balanced Approach and author of Stop Your Cravings (Simon & Schuster, 2002), begins with organic food that is clean and free of pesticides. Pesticides are potential carcinogens that weaken the body’s defense systems. When taking people shopping, she makes sure to include immune system-enhancing foods like dark green leafy vegetables, garlic, onions, fresh ginger, burdock, shiitake mushrooms, lemons, miso soup, and root vegetables like sweet potato. Workman encourages rotating foods throughout a weekly diet to ensure an adequate intake of a variety of vitamins, minerals, and immune-strengthening phytochemical. See 5 Powerful Healing Foods > HERE
Eating whole foods, rather than fast foods, provides you with more nutrients, as well as more vitality-increasing prana, chi, or life force in your food. Choose unrefined cold-pressed oils that retain vitamin E, minerals, and lethicin; and be sure to include essential fatty acids with omega-3 and 6 to build your cellular defense system. Pitchford says that whole grains also significantly impact the immune system as they pack a powerful punch of minerals and antioxidants including magnesium, selenium, and zinc that are missing from refined flours.
When working with immunity, Pitchford feels that it is often what is taken away that makes the biggest impact. He cautions people to avoid fluoridated water and insists that people remove refined flours, oils, and margarines from their diets.
A number of minerals are crucial components of a diet to increase immunity, particularly zinc, magnesium, and selenium. It is important, however, not to overdo vitamin or mineral supplements. Just because zinc is beneficial, it does not mean that more is necessarily better. Vitamins invaluable to proper immune system function include the array of B vitamins, as well as C and E. Include foods with these vitamins daily, like orange or other fruit juices for vitamin C, avocado or olive oil for vitamin E, and whole grains for B vitamins. Proteins and amino acids are necessary for building both white blood cells and manufacturing antibodies. Be sure to also incorporate a source of essential amino acids like miso, Bragg’s liquid aminos, or high protein foods such as eggs, beans, or high-quality meat or dairy into your daily diet.
Chicken soup isn’t just for the soul; it really is medicine for the common cold. The protein in chicken soup helps feed the immune system and the soup itself has been experimentally shown to reduce inflammation and fight colds. So your mother’s advice has some scientific basis.
There are herbal remedies that support or stimulate the immune system, along with tonics that are antimicrobial and can shake off unwanted invaders. Echinacea or purple coneflower stimulates the production of white blood cells thus improving their effectiveness in fighting infections. Herbalists and nutritionists suggest taking echinacea at the first sign of a cold or other malady. It can be as often as every two hours. Using a tincture of echinacea, either in alcohol or glycerin, is the most potent. Herbalists, however, suggest taking it for a maximum of 6-8 weeks as it becomes less effective when taken continuously. There are several varieties of echinacea; the three most commonly used medicinally are Echinacea angustifolia, E. pallida and E. purpurea. Many formulations include a combination of these, and they are all effective.
Osha, like echinacea, is a North American native. It is fabulous when the upper respiratory system is compromised. Osha can be used in a tea or tincture. Goldenseal is another North American herbal celebrity that has antibacterial and antimicrobial properties; however, there are concerns regarding over harvesting this immune-enhancing herb.
Amadea Morningstar, author of the Ayurvedic Cookbook (Lotus Press, 1990) and Ayurvedic Cooking for Westerners (Lotus Press, 1995), raves about turmeric. Most people only eat turmeric because it is the coloring in mustard, but turmeric is one of the great Ayurvedic remedies. It is also a spice that can be easily included in a daily diet to strengthen defenses. Morningstar utilizes an Ayurvedic tea of tulsi, ginger, licorice, and turmeric. Tulsi or holy basil is an Indian variety of basil, which supports the health of the respiratory system. The respiratory system is both one of our first lines of defense, as well as one of the first systems to be compromised when immunity is low. You can add osha if you have a cough or sore throat.
Another traditional Ayurvedic remedy for strengthening the immune system is Chavynprash. The primary ingredient in this herbal jam is the amalaki fruit, which is high in vitamin C, along with other immune-strengthening herbs. Chavynprash can be taken daily as a tonic and preventative, or every few hours when sick.
In Chinese medicine, one of the great immune system strengtheners is astragalus. Although astragalus may be too heating and drying for some people, it is the king of immune-enhancing herbs. Acupuncturist Scott Blossom suggests adding a stick of astragalus root to oatmeal while it is cooking, and allow it to boil for 5-10 minutes. An astragalus stick can also be added to soup stock and simmered to impart its immune-enhancing effects to the entire meal. Miso, scallions, and astragalus can be combined to make soup that is a powerful vitality tonic.
Behaviors as simple as regular hand washing can also stave off illnesses. Research shows that frequent hand washing is one of the best ways to prevent not only the common cold but also the spread of numerous diseases. Soap used for hand washing doesn’t have to be antibacterial, any brand will do. Just make sure to moisturize hands well, as cracked or dry skin caused by too much hand washing can harbor infection.
With water everywhere, make sure you stay well hydrated to remain well defended. While the exact amount of water needed varies individually, a good general rule is eight 8-ounce glasses per day. Coffee, tea, and juice don’t count. You need pure water to flush toxins, eliminate waste, and support health and vitality.
Building immunity is a daily practice, and your activities and habits can build your strength. An important caution: even if you do everything perfectly, it is still possible to succumb to becoming ill. So don’t be discouraged or hard on yourself if you still get sick. Building immunity and vitality is a lifelong process.
Immune-boosting tea suggestions:
Immune-boosting/Digestive Cleansing TeaFrom Amadea Morningstar, Ayurvedic Cooking for Westerners, (Lotus Press, 1995) used with permission of the author
5 cups water
1 tbs. fresh grated ginger root
1 tbs. chopped fresh turmeric or powdered turmeric
1 tbs. dried licorice root, whole or chopped
1 tbs. dried tulsi leaves
Bring water to a boil. Add ginger root, turmeric, licorice root, and dried tulsi leaves. Cover and reduce heat to simmer. Cook 10-15 minutes, strain and drink.
Quick Immunity-Boosting Tips
Supplements and herbs:
Ginger, tulsi, echinacea, goldenseal, osha, astragalus, reishi, shiitake, licorice
B vitamins, vitamin C, zinc, vitamin E
Emergen-C for B vitamins along with immune-enhancing C, www.alacer.com
Ola Loa Energy Super Multi vitamin www.olaloa.com
Yoga poses to boost immunity:
Backbends including cobra, bridge, sphinx, camel
Triangle, Warrior poses
Other necessary tips:
Stay well-hydrated and find a good source of filtered or bottled water.
Avoid caffeine and other stimulants and diuretics.
Walk daily, swim, do some easy jogging, tai chi, chi gung, Pilates, or yoga.
Laugh, meditate, relax, play, exercise, sleep enough, eat well.
Wash your hands. If you don’t have immediate access to a sink, carry around some hand sanitizer to kill germs and defend yourself.
Banyan Botanicals, banyanbotanicals.com
Nature’s Formulary, naturesformulary.com
Om Organics, omorganics.com