Photo of elderberries
Elderberries are a traditional remedy that has been proven by modern science to help boost immunity

A botanical boost to immunity

4 October, 2012

Nobody likes to get sick but, at some point, all of us do.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that around 95% of illnesses are self-limiting. In other words, they will heal by themselves and don’t require much in the way of intervention.

You could reach for any of dozens of over-the-counter remedies, but in many cases suppressing symptoms by taking these medications can actually make things worse because they never really tackle the cause of the problem.

Then there is the other issue: most conventional medicines have been found – through objective, scientific studies – to be useless.

The most popular varieties use a scattergun approach, mixing several different types of medications. But the more ingredients, the greater the chance of a variety of side effects, which means that you may ultimately end up substituting one type of symptom for another, all the while blaming those nasty ‘germs’ for making us ill, when the truth is ‘germs’ – which are in us and around us all the time – are only part of the story.

So why do we get sick?

Most people think the answer to this one is easy – we get sick because of germs. Or we get sick because we are exposed to toxins in the environment.  But this is only partly true. Studies of twins, for example, have shown that two similar people can be exposed to the same germs and toxins but both may not get sick.

For the most part it’s not the things we are exposed to but how healthy our own internal defences are that determines whether or not we get sick.

Things that can break down those internal defences include:

  • Emotions – Depression, negative states of mind, grief, and stress for example, stress produces corticosteroids which depress immune function.
  • Exercise – Going for the burn isn’t as good for us as previously thought. Too much vigorous exercise also produces stress hormones called corticosteroids which can depress immune function. Moderate exercise or Tai Chi, yoga, pilates etc actually boost immunity by up to 40% and reduce stress. But remember too little exercise can lead to a stagnant lymphatic system.
  • Over-work and poor sleep – Both are major contributors to poor immunity

Diet also plays a part

Most of us know that too much sugar and processed or high fat foods, caffeine and alcohol in the diet can lower immunity. But just as bad can food lower immunity, good food is the basis of staying well, or if you do get sick, speeding your recovery.

During an infection the body uses a lot of protein to create immune cells, therefore moderate quantities of good quality protein are essential, preferably of a vegetarian source. But once again getting the balance right is important; too much protein suppresses immune function.

Another reason to avoid animal products when you are ill is that they can be high in saturated fats which suppress immune function and clog up the lymphatic system. However the essential fatty acids found in avocados, nuts and seeds boost immunity.

Plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables in the diet will maximize nutrition for a faster recovery and they are packed full of antioxidants to protect the body from free radical damage. Foods rich in beta-carotene such as: carrots, beetroot, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, watermelon, berries for instance are very useful too. Try to eat as much food as possible in it’s raw form for maximum benefit.

During a viral infection it advisable to avoid foods that stimulate mucus production, such as meat, dairy and eggs, as well as any foods you may be allergic too. Include more aromatic spices in food, for instance in salad dressings, since many of these can help speed the removal of mucous from the body.

And don’t forget the garlic – 2-6 cloves a day when you are ill. Garlic contains allicin a phytochemical that is antiviral, anti-fungal, anti-bacteria. Garlic is also antioxidant and sulphur rich, making it great for fighting infections.

If you don’t want cold food vegetable broths are great since you cook everything in one pot and all the vital nutrients stay in the liquid. Likewise, juices filled with vegetables, herbs, ginger, spirulina, seaweeds (in powdered form or just empty the contents of supplement capsules into the mix) and herbal tinctures emptied into them is a very fast way to give your body lots of immune support in a very digestible way.

When good food is not enough

Much of the food we eat is not as rich in nutrients as it once was due to chemical farming. Pesticides and fertilisers have changed not only our soil but in some cases can hamper a plant’s ability to absorb what nutrients there are in the soil.

These days a multivitamin supplement is a simple kind of insurance against what has been lost through careless food production. But when your immune system is particularly stressed certain extra nutrients may help.

An efficient immune system requires a good supply of nutrients especially vitamins A, B1, B2, B6, B12, folic acid, C and E as well as the minerals zinc, iron, magnesium and selenium.

It also requires adequate amounts of antioxidants. Most viral and bacterial invaders produce free radicals to fight off attack from our immune system. Antioxidants disarm the free radicals, weakening the these microbes.


  • Vitamin A strengthens cell membranes making them more resistant to attack from viruses
  • Zinc is better used for viral infections than bacterial due to the above point.
  • Vitamin C – the master immune boosting supplement, it helps immune cells mature, has an antihistamine effect, controls excess levels of the stress hormone cortisol (which can suppress immunity) and is antibacterial and antiviral

Also don’t forget probiotics. When your gut is healthy the rest of you is too. Very often when we get ill it is because numbers of ‘bad’ bacteria – E. coli, Enterobacteria, Staphylococci, Salmonella, Campylobacter – have begun to outnumber the good bacteria in the gut. Good quality probiotic supplements can help give the good guys the edge as well as helping to kick-start your immune system.

Botanicals that can help

The immune system is your body’s ultimate defence system against infectious agents such as bacteria and viruses. Traditional medicine uses botanicals and other natural substances to stimulate these defence mechanisms rather than over-ride or act as a substitute for them, as is often the case with modern Western medicine

Many botanicals such as liquorice, echinacea and astragalus owe their beneficial effects in part to polysaccharides – complex carbohydrates that have the ability to activate white blood cells which are on the front line of cellular defence.  The polysaccharides also stimulate T-cell formation and the T-cells in turn direct other cells involved in our immune response.

Some herbal medicines isolate specific compounds from the whole herb, however many herballists belive that it’s often best not to isolate beneficial compounds form the herb complex since multiple components appear to be involved in the therapeutic benefits of plant remedies.

Try these first before you turn to conventional medicines:

Elderberry (Sambucus nigra)

A traditional remedy for colds, coughs and sore throats, that can be used as prevention and for treatment. The berries are high in vitamin C and iron and have anti-viral and immune boosting properties. Taking elderberry syrup is proven to shorten the duration of colds and flu.

Elderflowers are also great to use for colds and flu as they are anti-catarrhal and great for decongesting the upper respiratory tract in conditions like sinusitis, congestion and coughs. Try brewing the dried flowers into a soothing tea.

Astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus) A well known Chinese tonic herb, more suitable for young people than ginseng.  It’s most well known for its action on boosting the immune system by supporting the vital energy of Qi of the body. Practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine also believe it can strengthen the external Qi (the field of energy that surrounds the body) thus helping prevent entry of pathogens.

Astragalus helps to restore a depleted immune system and may speed recovery of people who have undergone chemo or radio therapy. It enhances the production and function of white blood cells and increases resistance to viral infections and has antibiotic properties. Astragalus should not be used in cases of acute illness such as colds.

Rosehip (Rosa canina) Traditionally used as a syrup to prevent and treat the common cold and coughs. Rosehips are rich in vitamin C in its natural bioflavonoid rich form, making it very easily absorbed. They also contain beta carotene, vitamins B1, B2 and B3 and vitamin K. Rosehips also help maintain healthy collagen – the gelatinous substance that holds cells together – and and the health of all tissues throughout the body.

Thyme (Thymus vulgaris) Great to use throughout the winter months if you know you’re prone to coughs, colds and infections as it gives the immune system a gentle lift.  Thyme has warming properties, helping the circulation to throw off chills. Thyme is antibacterial, antiviral and antioxidant. It can help re-establish healthy gut flora in the bowel through its antiseptic action. It’s anti-fungal properties may help fight candida.

Echinacea (Echinacea angustifolia/Echinacea purpurea) One of the most famous herbs for fighting infections, through its ability to enhance the action of the immune system. Echinacea is antibiotic and antiviral; it also has a powerful lymphatic action, clearing congestion and swollen lymph nodes whilst boosting the white blood cell count, for sore throats it can be used as a gargle. It stimulates the circulation and sweating, acting together to bring down fever. A good herb for someone with a run-down immune system, prone to getting one illness after another or at the first sign of a cold or flu when it shortens its duration.

Sage (Salvia officinalis) A powerful antioxidant herb, used of old for coughs, colds and sore throats. Great to take at the first sign of an infection to bring down fever and for its antiseptic action, it makes a wonderful gargle for sore throats and tonsillitis. Sage helps to expel excess mucus, phlegm from the chest and to reduce catarrh. It enhances immune function, helping those with impaired immunity and to prevent infections. Like thyme it’s a great herb to drink throughout the winter if you’re prone to illness. Don’t use sage if you are pregnant.

Marigold (Calendula officinalis) Marigold has antiseptic and astringent properties making it useful for stimulating immunity. It helps the body fight infections like flu and herpes with its antiviral action. It reduces lymphatic congestion and swollen lymph nodes. It also has an antibacterial action fights fungal problems like thrush. A hot infusion boosts the circulation and promotes sweating, used in colds and flu. Don’t use marigold if you are pregnant.

Don’t forget essential oils

Used as inhalations or in massage oil or in an essential oil burner, many essential oils can help support healthy immune system. Keep some on hand at home and at work to help fight off whatever’s ‘going around’. Our favourites are:

Eucalyptus (Eucalyptus globulus) Best known for its decongestant action in respiratory complaints and catarrh. In traditional Chinese medicine eucalyptus is classed as a lung tonic in Chinese medicine it enhances breathing and oxygen uptake by red blood cells. It has antiseptic, antiviral and expectorant properties with strong action against several strains of streptococcus. Eucalyptus is also rich in cineole, an immune stimulating substance  that makes it a good immune system stimulants. Other essential oils with a similar immune stimulating effect are frankincense, rosemary and bergamot.

Ravensara (Ravensara aromatica) A tree indigenous to Madagascar, it grows to about to about 20 meters in height. The oil is distilled from the leaves and twigs and is antiseptic, antimicrobial, antiviral, expectorant and immune stimulating making it a good choice for the treatment of flu. Ravensara makes a good chest rub combined with Eucalyptus. Use at the first sign of chills, shivers and tiredness. Useful for mental and physical exhaustion.

Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) In traditional Chinese medicine Rosemary is known as a yang tonic, promoting circulation of the blood and Qi. Yang tonics are known for their strengthening qualities so re a good choice if you are worn out and feeling lethargic. Rosemary has a detoxifying effect. It is good for respiratory complaints with lots of mucus and has a generally strengthening effect on immunity.  Not to be used if epileptic.

Tea tree (Melaleuca alternifolia) Known as an immunostimulant, when the body is threatened with any infection tea tree increases its ability to respond. In traditional Chinese medicine tea tree helps prevent infections by strengthening the Defensive Qi (roughly equivalent to the autonomic and immune systems) of the body. The Aborigines simply crushed fresh leaves and inhaled the volatile oils to relieve colds and headaches. Modern research has shown that tea tree is antimicrobial, antiseptic, antiviral, anti-fungal, bactericide and expectorant actions against a broad spectrum of microbes.

Lemon (Citrus limon) Known for its antimicrobial and bactericidal properties, lemon oil it useful for treating colds, flu and bronchitis. In the laboratory even very low dilutions have been shown to kill the Diphtheria bacilli. It has an immune enhancing action, and helps stimulate the production of white blood cells. It’s also a tonic for the circulatory system and aids lymphatic drainage.

Support yourself

We all get sick from time to time and sometimes it’s a message from our bodies to slow down, and reassess our stressful lifestyles. If you are prone to colds it may be time to take that kind of inventory. And remember even in a stressful life there are some things you can do to help yourself.

Moderate exercise to increase stamina, move the lymph and boost immunity by up to 40%. If you can exercise outdoors in preferably in open spaces with clean air. Walking in green spaces by calms the mind and rejuvenates the body.

At work go for a walk on your lunch break, especially if your office is over heated or air conditioned. If you can burn antibacterial essential oils in the office when others are ill.

Meditation has been proven to improve immune function. It calms the mind and has been proven to significantly strengthen immunity. And, finally, remember get as much good quality sleep as you can because during sleep the body rebuilds and repairs itself.