Our immune system is comprised of many biological structures, and is quite a wondrous thing. Give it the tools it needs, and it detects and protects us from potentially fatal invaders including bacteria, parasites, and viruses. As with anything else if you don’t put the right fuel in it’s not going to be able to perform at its best, so here I’ll discuss how to do that in a way that isn’t counterproductive.
With flu season upon us, “immune boosters” are all the buzz. No one wants to get sick! Nature provides medicine for every ailment – if you have even a bit of influence over whether you get sick or not or how quickly you recover from illness, why wouldn’t you want to take advantage?
However, there is such a thing as doing it wrong.
Let’s look at it as three different categories- immune stimulators, immune modulators, and immune essentials.
Many people refer to these as “immune boosters,” but I much prefer to use the term “stimulators.” These are the warriors you keep in your medicine cabinet to launch an attack when you get an invader. They rev up your immune system for war- they can be used prophylactically after exposure, used to kick out a pathogen at the first sign of illness, or used to reduce the duration of an illness. They are not required for immune function, but they can be extremely effective at helping and most have the research to back that. (See a sampling of available studies below- 111 of them!)
However, you don’t always want to stimulate, or “boost” your immune system. These should only be taken on an as-needed basis, not daily. Think of it as sending soldiers out to war- fighting off the enemy is a really tough job. Imagine if you were to send those soldiers off every day to fight, whether they were needed or not. They’d get tired and burnt out after awhile, wouldn’t they? Generally immune stimulators want to be used for 3-4 days, or as directed for your particular ailment by your naturopathic practitioner or herbalist. Immune stimulators are not ideal for those with autoimmune disease or those on immune – suppressing drugs. The following are some of my favorites.
Examples of immune stimulators:
- Tinder conk mushroom
- Birch polypore mushroom
- Oyster mushrooms
- Star anise
- Cats Claw
These are the immune regulators; it is their job to keep the immune system at a healthy baseline. Modulation means being strong enough for pathogens and foreign cells to be destroyed, but also not hyper-reacting to common foods, allergens, environmental organisms, or your own body cells. Take these daily as gentle therapeutics, use prophylactically after exposure, or to support your system in fighting off pathogens at the first sign of illness. Some modulators can also help to stimulate but due to regulating activities that are stronger than their stimulating activities, they are safe for autoimmune disorders. To determine whether a substance in question falls under the category of stimulator or modulator, I generally dissect the individual compounds and study their effect on the immune system. Even with a few modulating phytochemicals, if there is a strong presence of stimulators it will likely provoke the immune system. Alpha-amyrin and astragalin are examples of immune stimulants found in elderberry, for example, that contribute to its stimulating effects.
Examples of immune modulators:
- Colorado reishi mushroom
- Reishi mushroom
- Maitake mushroom
- Chaga mushroom
- Lions mane mushroom
- Turkey tail mushroom
- Shiitake mushroom
- Oregano (only use the whole plant extract for internal use, not the essential oil. Get mine here)
- Panax ginseng
When using medicinal mushrooms it’s very important to avoid the term ingredient “myceliated grain” or “myceliated rice,” as this means your product contains the root structure of the mushrooms grown on grain, instead of the actual mushrooms. It’s a cheaper and more easily mass-produced way of marketing mushrooms without having to go through the effort and expense of providing the actual fruiting bodies. They are not the same thing. If you’re ever in doubt with your mushroom product, buy from the hand that picks your mushrooms so that you know you’re getting the real thing.
Immune essentials are crucial nutrients that are required for functioning of the immune system. They are not optional. A balanced diet should provide most of what we need, however many times a supplement is helpful for filling nutritional gaps, especially if your diet is not ideal. In the presence of illness or as a prophylactic help, higher doses than the minimal amount to prevent deficiency can be helpful. For example, I like to take a gram of vitamin C every couple hours when I’m feeling under the weather. However, more is not always better for many vitamins and minerals- you want daily levels that allow the body and immune system to function at optimum levels, without overdosing. For example, overdosing on the vitamin D via supplementation can cause health issues such as a decrease in bone mass. Too much zinc (over 100 mg/day) can actually suppress your immune system. Consult your health practitioner for doses that are right for your body.
Examples of immune essentials:
- Vitamin C
- Vitamin A
- Vitamin D
So to sum up, these natural medicines can be a wonderful, effective way to stay healthy, but be sure to choose the methods that are right for you- rev up and/or regulate your immune system, and of course supply the vitamins and minerals that are the basic foundation of our bodily functions.
Megan Normansell (Kerkhoff), CHC, AADP, CFH
Certified Holistic Practitioner/Holistic Nutrition/Herbalist/Wild Edibles Guide
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