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Your immune system is the keystone to optimal health. When it’s working like a well-oiled machine, your immune system protects you from getting sick, speeds healing, prevents wounds from getting infected, and even destroys cancer cells before they can multiply (1).
The problem is, your immune system is constantly under siege. Environmental toxins, processed foods, stress, and countless other attackers chip away at its strength. This causes the immune system to progressively weaken, leaving you completely exposed.
That’s why taking steps to nourish the immune system is crucial. Along with regular exercise, eating organic fruits and veggies, and cleansing toxins from your body, one of the best ways to restore the immune system is with herbs.
Here are 7 of the most effective herbs to nourish the immune system.
When it comes to healing the immune system, mushrooms are superstars. While considered a veggie for nutritional purposes, mushrooms are widely used in herbal medicine. They have compounds that ease inflammation, balance the immune system, and even help fight infection.
But not any ordinary mushroom will do the trick. Only medicinal mushrooms like shiitake, chaga, turkey tail, tremella, maitake, and cordyceps produce worthwhile immune-modulating effects.
For example, turkey tail has bioactive compounds called beta glucans, which can enhance macrophage and natural killer cell function, making your immune response more effective (2).
Cordyceps mushrooms are bidirectional immunomodulators. This simply means that cordyceps can upregulate the immune system when it’s weak and downregulate it when it’s overactive (3).
Together, maitake and shiitake mushrooms stimulate the cellular and humoral branch of the immune system (4). Some evidence also suggests they can help fight tumors by increasing tumor necrosis factor alpha (5).
Not all medicinal mushrooms are easy to add to your diet, so you can supplement with mushroom extracts to get added immune support.
Echinacea is by far the most popular herb for enhancing immune function. Many immune supplements, cough drops, and other products that help you deal with the sniffles contain echinacea.
Several studies in mice have found that echinacea can support the immune system by activating innate immune cells—the body’s first line of defense against infection (6). The key is to take it while you’re well, to help prevent catching any colds that may be going around (7).
The hemp plant contains a wide variety of beneficial phytochemicals. Evidence suggests that the oil found in hemp can stimulate what’s called the endocannabinoid system (ECS) (8). Among its countless other tasks in the body, the ECS controls how the immune system behaves (9). Why is this important?
By stimulating the ECS, studies have found that it can help the immune system achieve homeostasis, or balance. So, phytochemicals in hemp oil can both inhibit and stimulate the immune system, depending on what’s needed.
This immune-modulating effect is essential because an overstimulated immune system can create autoimmune health challenges. Which is why hemp oil is among the best approaches for supporting immune health.
While it may not technically be classified as an herb, black elderberry is often found in a variety of herbal blends and tinctures that are designed to enhance immune function.
Research indicates black elderberry may bolster the immune system by normalizing and stimulating the production of cytokines—molecules that regulate immunity and inflammation (10).
Elderberry is also rich in quercetin, an antioxidant with anti-inflammatory properties that helps to block compounds involved in allergies (11).
Stress is a surefire way to undermine and weaken your immune system. When you’re subjected to stress, the hormone corticosteroid is released, actively suppressing the immune system and making it more likely you’ll get sick (12).
Aside from learning how to effectively manage stress levels, you can support your immune system with the use of adaptogen herbs. Herbs such as ashwagandha, eleuthero, holy basil, and rhodiola rosea help the body respond to stress and become more resilient against the effects of stress.
In particular, rhodiola rosea has been extensively studied for its ability to strengthen the stress response (13), and reduce stress-induced fatigue (14). Rather than taking one herb, seek out a supplement with multiple extracts to provide the best overall immune protection against stress.
Olive leaf extract contains a powerful polyphenol called oleuropein. This herb is gaining in popularity due to the fact that it contains considerably more oleuropein than olive oil.
Studies have found that oleuropein has antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial, and immune-modulating properties (15).
In addition to these effects, olive leaf extracts were found to increase the production of CD8+ and natural killer cells. Both of these cell types play an important role in eliminating infections and supporting overall health (16).
Although ginger and its components are well-studied in the scientific community, researchers have just begun to realize its immune-modulating potential.
One recent scientific review looked at 59 different studies on the health effects of ginger. The review revealed that ginger can inhibit the production of immune cells that promote inflammation and that its compounds have important anticancer potential (17).
An optimized immune system can quite literally be the difference between sickness and health. It helps you fight off germs, can keep wounds from getting infected, and acts as a sentinel against serious health issues.
With environmental toxins, stress, and processed foods, the immune system can lose its strength over time. That’s why it’s important to take steps to nourish your immune system—to get it back into top shape. Aside from eating organic fruits and veggies, one of the most effective ways to do this is to use immune-modulating herbs. You can also double-down and incorporate immune-modulating mushrooms into your diet for even better results.