3 herbs to boost immunity
Jane Wrigglesworth details how to use these plants to increase well-being.
How to grow and prepare them
Ahealthy immune system serves as a means for protecting our bodies from invading pathogens. It is essential for good health, stopping germs in their tracks and repairing cuts and scrapes.
Unfortunately, modern life is full of things that dampen our immune system. These include chemicals (the likes of plastics, solvents, detergents, pesticides, preservatives, food additives, textiles and cosmetics), stress, lack of sleep, poor food choices and overuse of antibiotics.
Regular and recurrent infections are signs that your immune system is weakened.
Support and enhancement of the immune system is key for building resistance to infections.
Once the above stressors have been addressed, these three herbs are particularly useful to boost our immune system and create overall health. Looking for other homegrown remedies? Eat more garlic, which is well-known for aiding immunity. In one study, participants who received a garlic extract during a 12-week trial were almost two-thirds less likely to catch cold than those receiving a placebo.
1Echinacea ( Echinacea purpurea, Echinacea angustifolia and Echinacea pallida)
Echinacea is the herb most of us think to take when we get a cold or flu. Certainly, it’s had the most press – some good and some bad.
Several studies have shown that this immuno-modulating herb can indeed “turn on” the immune system function (or modulate it), activating immune cells for a quicker response to infection, inhibiting the spread of viruses and killing bacteria.
It’s important to note that it may not prevent colds or infections, but research suggests it can help colds that have already begun, at least in adults, by reducing the symptoms and duration – and even stopping a cold that is just starting.
Traditionally, a tincture made from the roots is used to treat colds, while a decoction ( boiling the root in water for 20 minutes) is used as a gargle for sore throats. Echinacea can be taken as a tea, but a tincture is stronger and more effective. Make sure you take it at the very first sign of a sore throat or infection.
You can make your own tincture by soaking the chopped roots in three times its volume in vodka (the highest percentage you can find). Place the roots and alcohol in a jar, screw the lid on tightly and place in a dark room. Shake daily for 4-6 weeks, then strain (the longer you leave it, the better).
Or add sage, which has antibacterial properties, to the mix. An echinacea-sage mix is an excellent treatment for acute sore throats, including strep throat.
To grow your own echinacea, plant in full sun in average, free-draining soil. Echinacea is reasonably drought-tolerant, but will perform better with a little mollycoddling. Young plants, especially, need regular watering until established. They don’t like extremely low pH (acidic) soil conditions either, so top up with lime if your soil is acidic.
The roots are harvested in autumn from four-year-old plants. Dig them up and cut them into 5-10cm long pieces. Wash and let them dry or make tinctures from the fresh roots.
2Astragalus Astragalus membranaceus)
Astragalus is one of the most popular herbs in traditional Chinese medicine. It’s used for a variety of purposes, including strengthening the immune system and preventing upper respiratory infections. It’s considered an excellent herb for people recovering from illness, as well as for general debility, including chronic fatigue syndrome, and for the elderly.
Astragalus appears to activate Band T-cells (essential for immunity) and stimulate macrophage activity (macrophages are white blood cells that locate foreign bodies and “eat” them). Its immune-boosting properties mean that it’s commonly used as a preventative treatment against colds and flu, rather than for an acute infection.
You can make a tincture of the dried roots on its own, or combine it with withania (an excellent adaptogenic herb, which means it helps the body cope with stress.). You can also use the root in teas. In China, the dried roots are added to soups for their medicinal benefits.
Use astragalus after an illness to boost your immunity. It’s not recommended to take during illness as it can aggravate acute infection.
These three herbs are particularly useful to boost our immune system and create overall health.
It’s hard to find this plant in New Zealand although it is possible to order seed from overseas websites under what MPI officially call ‘Basic’ requirements (which are outlined on MPI’s website, and it’s essential you fully acquaint yourself with what is required before making any purchase). Or buy the dried root here from herbal dispensaries.
3Holy basil ( Ocimum tenuiflorum)
Holy basil, also known as tulsi, is revered in Ayurvedic medicine. It’s a herb to take on a daily basis for general health and well-being. It’s especially useful where stress is present (stress lowers the immune system) as it helps to lower cortisol levels. It also regulates blood sugar.
If you are under a lot of stress or going through something particularly emotional – perhaps consistently waking up in the middle of the night – holy basil may be for you.
Sip on holy basil tea during the day, or use as a calming tea before bedtime.
Holy basil, a tender perennial, is available in the herb section at garden retailers in summer. Holy basil seeds are also available from Kings Seeds.
Studies have shown that echinacea can indeed “turn on” the immune system function (or modulate it).