Plants & Herbs for Your Immunity


Continued from our Retreat & Renew Daily Tip.

Don’t let the cold and flu season get you down. Try these natural remedies from Mother Earth to keep you healthy and energized all winter long.

With the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control gearing up for a pandemic H1N1 flu season and the Farmers’ Almanac calling for the coldest, wettest winter in recent history, now is also an opportune time to reexamine dietary choices and shore up our immune systems with food and herbs. And though there is no sure fire regimen that will guarantee wellness, Nathaniel Whitmore, Herbalist at The Lodge at Woodloch, says, “Anything that’s going to run you down is going to make you more susceptible to disease. The first important thing in prevention and treatment is to realize how important general well-being is. Herbs, foods, exercise and a positive outlook all help keep you healthy.”

Plants & Herbs Unlike the respiratory or circulatory systems, Whitmore points out, “The immune system is not a particular system or a particular organ.” It is comprised of several different components of the other bodily systems. The digestive system plays a role, in breaking down foods, absorbing nutrients and neutralizing toxins ingested through the mouth. The liver and spleen help to cleanse the blood and remove worn out cells and dead bacteria. The lymphatic system is also critical, producing and circulating white blood cells and disposing of wastes. All of this is orchestrated by the thymus gland, which, along with bone marrow, produces special disease fighting white blood cells. Understanding this underscores the need for a holistic approach to boosting immunity. Adequate sleep, enjoyable exercise, massage and bodywork can all contribute, but as as Whitmore notes, “Foods and herbs are vital parts of our general health and our nourishment…. They have always been used this way.”

Keri Marshall, ND and Medical Director for Gaia Herbs adds, “Diet in general is so huge. I recommend emphasizing brightly colored fruits and vegetables, at least five servings per day, because they provide antioxidants that protect and nourish the cells and offer naturally occurring vitamins and minerals which are more absorbable.” In addition to eating a colorful assortment of organic produce, there are a handful of foods and herbs worth emphasizing throughout fall and winter for their specific immune enhancing benefits.

Garlic, Onions & Ginger

These are the trifecta of healthy, flavorful additions to any and every home cooked meal. Garlic is, “the most powerful herb for the treatment of antibiotic resistant disease… No other herb comes close to the multiple system actions of garlic, its antibiotic activity and its immune-potentiating power,” writes Stephen Harrod Buhner in his book Herbal Antibiotics – Natural Alternatives for Treating Drug-Resistant Bacteria (Storey Publishing, 1999). Garlic is most potent when juiced, however, a little goes a long way, and too much causes nausea and vomiting. Capsules of garlic-derived allicin are thought to be equally effective without the side effects. For their part, onions possess many of the same characteristics as garlic, albeit in a weaker form. Whitmore notes that, “Onions are good for the lungs and clearing up mucus.” As with garlic, the rawer the better. Fresh ginger root, pickled ginger or even candied ginger are wonderful immune boosting foods. Ginger is antiviral, antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, diaphoretic (sweat-inducing) and has been shown to be comparable to codeine in it’s antitussive (anti-cough) action [Buhner], so it is particularly effective for the prevention and treatment of colds and flu. Whitmore adds, “Garlic and ginger are warming diaphoretics, so should be used for those chilly with fever, or the person that tends to be more mucus-y and congested – kaphic people in Ayurveda.”

Wild Mushrooms

Though not yet a staple in the Western Hemisphere, wild mushrooms like shiitake, maitake and reishi are being used in Asia to treat cancer and other immune system disorders. Whitmore says, “Mushrooms are high in polysaccharides that are medicinal and immune boosting.” Mushrooms are also high in the minerals iron, selenium and zinc, two nutrients that play an important role in the functioning of the thymus gland and white blood cell function. Additionally, wild mushrooms contain high concentrations of a potent antioxidant called L-ergothioneine which helps fight free-radical damage.


“One of the best foods for the immune system is miso soup,” Whitmore argues. Adding, “Properly made miso that’s still active. You want the live food, the cultured food.” He suggests adding shiitake mushrooms and sea vegetables like arame or wakame to the soup to boost the immune benefits. Miso, a fermented soybean paste often used in Japanese cuisine, contains the nutrients manganese, zinc, copper, vitamins K and B-12 and omega 3 fatty acids. It is also a good source of vegetarian protein, providing two grams per tablespoon. It can be enjoyed as soup, or in dressings, marinades or as a salt substitute, as it is high in sodium.


Another cultured food that has excellent immune benefits is yogurt. The healthy, live bacteria found in high quality yogurts replenishes the beneficial bacteria our digestive system needs to function optimally, keeping pathogens in check, and aiding in the digestion and absorption of nutrients. Probiotic foods like yogurt and kefir have also been credited with boosting overall immune function. To keep yogurt a health food, opt for an organic, unsweetened variety and top with berries or drizzle with raw honey (see below).


Raw, local honey is something of a superfood. It is naturally antibiotic and antiviral and contains an assortment of enzymes, trace minerals, vitamins A, C, D, E and K, all the B vitamins, as well as iron, potassium, magnesium and more. It is also particularly effective in treating respiratory ailments, including colds, flus and bronchitis. Whitmore notes that honey is particularly good for “dry” lung conditions. Seeking out raw honey ensures that these nutrients are intact (pasteurization kills more than bacteria). Choosing local honey gives you the added benefit of honey’s anti-allergenic properties. Take by the spoonful as medicine for acute conditions, or use daily in teas, over cereals or on toast for overall immune benefits.


“European Elderberry,” says Marshall, “is probably the single most important botanical for boosting the immune system.” Since it is high in vitamins A, B and C and bioflavonoids, it functions well as a preventative medicine, but has also been proven to be effective in shortening the duration and severity of cold and flu symptoms. The dark purple fruit is made into syrups and tinctures, and has a pleasant taste, making it particularly useful in treating children. Marshall recommends one teaspoon per day of Gaia’s potent Rapid Relief Elderberry Syrup for preventative purposes.


This lean flowering plant has gotten a lot of press in recent years, and rightfully so. Echinacea remains one of the most potent immune enhancing herbs available, effective for both preventing and treating infectious disease. According to Marshall, “Recent research sponsored by National Institutes of Health, indicates that the aerial (above ground) parts of the echinacea plant help to boost immunity and prevent disease, while echinacea root helps after the onset of symptoms.” Echinacea root works by increasing phagocytosis, the destruction of infecting organisms by lymph and white blood cells, thereby reducing and relieving cold and flu symptoms more quickly, but according to Buhner, it needs to be taken in large doses (1 dropperful of tincture per hour until symptoms subside) at the earliest sign of infection. For prevention, take 5 ml of tincture daily throughout the cold and flu season. Contrary to widespread belief, echinacea is safe for long term use, according to Kerry Bone, medical herbalist and co-author of The Principles and Practice of Phytotherapy (Churchill Livingston, 2000).


An excellent preventative and a favorite herb in Traditional Chinese Medicine, Astragalus root is an immune enhancer, stimulant and restorative. It has benefits for the lungs, spleen and digestive system. Marshall notes that astragalus “helps the body adapt to stress, and stress can fuel illness. It also helps with natural killer cell production.” Simmered in hot vegetable broth, astragalus makes a tasty soup, or can be brewed as an infusion. It is readily available in capsule and tincture form.

Avoiding illness this fall and winter may be an uphill battle, but with these powerful herbal and nutritional allies in your kitchen, you will be giving your immune system a nourishing boost to fight off, or at least minimize, the affects of colds and flu. Partnered with common-sense practices like washing hands, covering coughs, drinking plenty of water and getting enough sleep, these culinary medicines are vital (not to mention tasty) tools for fine tuning your immune system.

Tanya Triber is a freelance writer, licensed massage therapist and work-from-home mama based in Asheville, NC. Her love affair with herbs and medicinal foods is in its fourth year, and grows stronger every flu season.

Try this Garlic Elixir, compliments of Red Moon Herbs
Makes 1 quart; for smaller batch use same ratio

Prep time: 30 min + 6 weeks brewing time


10 oz garlic
16 oz apple cider vinegar (or other)
5 oz honey


1. Break apart several heads of garlic into individual cloves (leaving the skins on is fine) and roughly chop with a knife or minimally chop in a food processor.

2. Fill a quart jar two-thirds full with chopped garlic.

3. Mix together 3 parts vinegar to 1 part honey. If your honey is too thick to mix, warm it in a saucepan over low heat until it becomes thin.

4. Pour the honey-vinegar mixture over the garlic until the jar is full. Use a plastic lid or cover the mouth of the jar with wax paper before securing the lid (the vinegar tends to rust metal lids).

5. Tend your brew every couple of days for the first week, then once a week after that. Poke it with a spoon to release air bubbles, then top it off with the vinegar.

Note: the garlic will change colors – this is normal!

After 6 weeks, strain out the garlic and enjoy!

By Tanya Triber

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