Boosting the Immune System with Natural Remedies (Part 1)
Low immune function refers to an underactive and poor performing immune system. The immune system’s prime function is to protect the body against infection and the development of cancer. Support and enhancement of the immune system is perhaps
the most important step in achieving resistance to disease and reducing susceptibility to colds, flus, and cancer.
~ Michael Murray, ND, www.doctormurray.com
The overprescribing of antibiotics is rampant in this country. Although administering them can be necessary to kill virulent bacterial infections, these drugs are sometimes prescribed for the wrong ailments and with complete disregard for long-term immunity. Given the potential and common detrimental effects of antibiotics, it makes sense to learn which natural remedies can boost immunity for improved short- and long-term health.
The Immune System: Definition & Challenges
The body’s immune system is a network that defends it against attacks from viruses and foreign invaders (including bacteria, parasites, fungi). When functioning properly, the body’s white blood cells, proteins, tissues, and organs (spleen, bone marrow, and thymus gland) together guard the body against acute or chronic contagious infections and diseases.
Factors that can undermine a healthy immune system include: (1) environmental toxins in food, air, and water that produce cell-damaging free radicals; (2) poor nutrition and hydration; (3) some prescription drugs; (4) stress, anxiety, and depression; (5) unhealthy lifestyle choices (smoking, excessive drinking); and (6) inadequate sleep.
The Limits of Traditional Medicine
Has your doctor ever recommended multiple courses of antibiotics or anti-inflammatory drugs that didn’t resolve your health problem? Traditional medicine certainly has a place when it comes to crisis management, but the conventional physician has only a limited number of drugs in his tiny tool chest to address the most common ailments. Fortunately, healthy food and lifestyle choices, and dietary supplements, offer a broader selection of time-tested ways to boost the immune system.
Start With Healthy Diet & Lifestyle Choices
All unhealthy lifestyle choices burden the immune system. While every person has different dietary needs, following certain basic nutritional guidelines can greatly increase the body’s ability to avoid and combat immune challenges. It is generally wise to avoid (or greatly minimize) inflammation-inducing saturated, hydrogenated, and trans fats (beef, pork, lamb, duck), gluten, dairy, GMOs, caffeine, alcohol, MSG, dyes and chemical additives, and especially sugar/simple carbohydrates (all sugars impair white blood cell function, starting within 30 minutes from consumption and continuing for 5 hours; after 2 hours, sugar intake reduces immune function by 50%).
Barring allergies/food sensitivities or a health condition that calls for a different approach, a healthy diet should generally include high-omega3 wild fish, organic chicken/turkey/eggs, protein powder to supplement inadequate protein intake, whole organic grains, and as many colorful raw foods as possible (bell peppers, low-sugar fruits, almonds, walnuts, pumpkin/sunflower seeds, beans, and a large variety of dark green and cruciferous vegetables).
Reducing stress, anxiety, and depression through psychological counseling, yoga, prayer/meditation/deep breathing, and proper sleep management, is critical to strengthening the immune system. According to Michael Murray, ND, the more significant the stressor, the greater the impact on immunity, and negative emotions suppress immune function while positive emotions enhance it. Chiropractic care, acupuncture, and avoiding cigarette smoke and other inhaled toxins, can also be helpful.
Some Immune-Boosting Dietary Supplements
Limited space allows for only a brief discussion of just a few of the numerous natural remedies available to protect the immune system. Additional supplements will be addressed in Part 2 of this article.
Astragalus – Astragalus is used in traditional Chinese medicine to prevent and treat viral infections, including the common cold. Animal studies suggest that this herb works by stimulating several factors of the immune system, particularly white blood cells and production of interferon (a protein that cells release to fight viruses).
Beta-Glucan – Beta-glucan is a carbohydrate (polysaccharide) that naturally occurs (with varying chemical properties and physiological effect) in the cell walls of yeast, medicinal mushrooms (maitake, shitake, reishi, cordyceps), and bacteria. Scientific studies have shown that beta-glucan supports healthy immune function through its ability to stimulate white blood cell (macrophage) and natural killer (NK) cell activity.
Black Elderberry (Sambucus Nigra) – Studies demonstrate that this herb (especially standardized Sambucol) may have anti-inflammatory, antiviral, anti-flu, antioxidant, and anticancer properties.
Coneflower Tincture (Echinacea Purpurea/Angustifolia) – The NIH National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health reports that study results are mixed on whether echinacea can prevent or effectively treat upper respiratory tract infections. However, clinical experience has shown this herb to be tremendously effective in strengthening the body’s defense mechanisms against cold, flu, and sinusitis. Individuals who are allergic to plants in the same family, including ragweed, chrysanthemums, marigolds, and daisies, may experience allergic reactions to echinacea (rashes, asthma, anaphylaxis).
Curcumin from Turmeric – Curcumin is derived from turmeric, which has been used for more than 3000 years in traditional Indian medicine (Ayurveda). Its efficacy derives from its ability to combat both inflammation and oxidation, twin causes of most illnesses. Extensive clinical trials over the past twenty-five years have shown that curcumin has therapeutic application against inflammation, infection (bacteria, including H. pylori, fungus/yeast, and viruses), lifestyle-related diseases, and neurological disorders. It thus has potential activity against diabetes, allergies, arthritis, Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, and other chronic illnesses.
Oregano Oil Extract – This herb combats bacteria, fungus, viruses, and parasites. Products standardized for the highest levels of carvacrol, a phenol with antioxidant powers, have shown to be most effective, particularly against Candida albicans (yeast), staphylococcus, E. coli, salmonella, , the aspergillus mold, giardia, , and listeria.
The human digestive system (stomach, small and large intestines) contains 70-80% of all of the body’s immune cells. It thus follows that a strong immune system begins with healthy digestion. The flora of the digestive tract can be readily thrown off balance not only by antibiotics, but also by stress (which yields cortisone), prednisone (a drug form of cortisone), and oral contraceptives. As with diet, probiotic needs are highly personalized. While extensive research supports the efficacy of many types of strains, each adult requires a different combination and potency of probiotics. When selecting a product, look for one that ideally: (1) is refrigerated (to preserve the live flora) (some manufacturers maintain that their proprietary technology renders their products shelf-stable without refrigeration); (2) has 10 or more types of friendly bacteria strains; (3) is enteric coated or has other technology that protects the flora from stomach acid, allowing them to be delivered alive to the intestines; (4) contains a pre-biotic that feeds the ”good” bacteria (e.g., FOS, Inulin); (5) has at least 15 billion microorganisms (some may need to build from a lower count); and (7) is dairy-free (especially if dairy intolerance is present).
Thymus Glandular Extract (Usually Bovine) – The health of the thymus gland largely determines the health of the immune system. It is active only through puberty, after which it begins to shrink slowly. By age 50, only 1/16 of the thymus gland remains to support health, and it turns to fat by age 75. The thymus gland’s production and release of the hormone thymosin stimulates the production of white blood cells (T lymphocytes, or T cells) that travel to the lymph nodes to fight infection. It also releases other hormones (thymopoeitin; serum thymic factor) that regulate many other immune functions. Studies have shown that thymus extract functions as a thymus gland substitute particularly against respiratory and other infections, asthma, food allergies (with an elimination diet), and hay fever.
While acute and chronic health conditions can certainly call for physician intervention, the natural remedies discussed above are time-honored and well-studied approaches to boosting and maintaining the immune system.
The statements in this article have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration and are not intended to take the place of a physician’s advice. The natural remedies discussed herein are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.
Submitted by Michael Dworkin, PD, CCN, a Registered Pharmacist and State Certified Clinical Nutritionist (CT Cert. No. 232), with J. Erika Dworkin, Certified Lifestyle Educator and Board Cert. Holistic Nutrition (Cand.). Co-owner of the Manchester Parkade Health Shoppe (860.646.8178, 378 Middle Turnpike West, Manchester, CT, www.cthealthshop.com), Pharmacist Dworkin has been guiding patients since 1956. Erika is available to speak to groups.
All statements in this article are research-based and references are available upon request.