Archive for Herbs and Nutrients for Immune Function

Herbs and Nutrients for Optimal Immune Function

Overall good nutrition is essential for general well-being, including a healthy immune system. However there are a number of herbs and nutrients that stand out for their role in supporting immunity.

Until relatively recently we thought that the role of vitamin D was limited to ensuring healthy, strong bones. However, we now know that it has many, more diverse functions including protection from some cancers. It also plays a vital role in immunity and helps protect against autoimmune diseases.

Vitamin D is hard to get through the diet. We rely predominately on sunlight on the skin, which initiates the production of vitamin D from cholesterol. Even in very sunny climates, such as Queensland, vitamin D deficiency is very common.

Vitamin C appears to protect against infection and can reduce many symptoms of colds such as runny nose, sore throat and improves recovery from an infection.

An essential mineral, zinc is vital for an efficient immune system and is often deficient in our diet.

A number of B Complex vitamins are also important, as is sufficient protein. Many of the infection fighting cells in the body, such as antibodies, are made from protein. So a diet deficient in protein can lead to reduced immunity.

Out of all the immune herbs I use in my clinic, Echinacea is probably the most important. One of my colleagues describes Echinacea as immune ‘insurance’ because it is so good at priming the immune system so that it is ready to fight invading infection. So, it is best taken as a preventative and if an infection does occur the immune system is more efficient at fighting it.

Echinacea has been used in Western herbal medicine since the late 19th century, when the Native Americans introduced it to the early settlers. In their culture it was considered to be “a remedy for more ailments than any other plant”. One of their prime uses for Echinacea was for the prevention and treatment of any type of infection.

There are two species of Echinacea used in herbal medicine, Echinacea angustifolia and Echinacea purpurea, and it is the roots of these plants that appear to have the strongest effect on the immune system. The Native Americans told the early settlers, “When chewed the root, if of good quality, imparts a persistent tingling sensation.” We now know from modern science that this tingling is caused by the major active constituents called alkylamides, and it is indeed an instant indication of strength.

There are a number of studies showing that Echinacea is effective for both preventing and treating respiratory tract infections. Most people will also have heard of studies showing that Echinacea is not helpful – these are the ones that get the most publicity in the mass media. However, many of these studies were done before we had a good understanding about how the constituents work and on close inspection we see that many studies used Echinacea products that contain NO alkylamides. It is not surprising that it did not work!! So, what this tells us is that Echinacea has to be of high quality and prescribed in the correct dosage to have its immune enhancing activity.

Andrographis is another wonderful herb that is very effective in supporting immunity. It is traditionally used in the ancient Chinese and Ayurvedic systems of medicine.  There are a number of clinical studies showing its effectiveness in treating respiratory tract infections, particularly common cold and tonsillitis, including in children.

Holy Basil is a beautifully fragrant herb from the Ayurvedic tradition of medicine. It is considered as sacred and is often grown at the entrance to houses and temples. Clinical trials support its use in respiratory tract infections, including in children.

Pelargonium is a native of South Africa and was introduced to Europe by Charles Henry Sevens, an Englishman who experienced relief from tuberculosis whilst visiting South Africa in 1897. There are many clinical studies supporting its use for the treatment of many tupes of respiratory infections including acute and chronic bronchitis, common cold, sinusitis and tonsillitis including in children.

Other herbs that are very effective include Cat’s Claw which improves immunity and Elder Berries that have an anti-viral activity.

It is important to use the correct combination of herbs at the appropriate dosage. This varies between individuals depending on the state of their immunity and the symptoms they experience. The treatment also often changes during the course of treatment as symptoms change.

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