Discover various organ systems and their role within the immune system, in addition to some of the most powerful immune-boosting herbs
Being familiar and skillful with powerful immune-boosting herbs is a very important topic among herbalists. Which herbs and herb combinations to choose for different immune situations is a commonly asked question, particularly during seasonal changes when people tend to get sick more often, and especially this year considering COVID-19. In this part of the country, it’s also an ongoing question because of Lyme disease. Not to mention the colds, flu, and other common infections that regularly afflict a large percentage of people.
However, in order to be more savvy when choosing immune-boosting herbs, we first need to understand the different levels of the immune system, because different herb categories will apply to each of them.
Understanding parts of the immune system along with the most powerful immune boosting herbs
First, let’s consider the surface immune system and lymphatic system. It’s important to keep the surface immune system and white blood cells circulating well. This system must stay vigilant, but not overly vigilant so that it leads to allergic reactions.
Then there are the immune-stimulating herbs that help to spark immunity when we feel the oncoming infection of viruses or bacteria. We use these herbs in hopes of heading the infection off at the pass so that we vanquish it before it takes root and develops into a legitimate illness, complete with troublesome symptoms. We can also take these same herbs once sick so that we help to move illness along faster while experiencing milder symptoms for a shorter duration.
Next, there are the true antiviral and antibacterial herbs working to directly aid the immune system or directly interfere with the viruses or bacteria. Many of the herbs in this category are working both sides of the fence, being simultaneously antiviral and antibacterial, and so we often say these herbs are antimicrobial in nature.
Then there’s the deep immune reservoir, which is basically deep constitutional wellness. This core immune reservoir contains good vitality to draw upon when we need it and it operates best when we are not run down, over-extending our organ systems, or stressing out our immune system through the nervous system. We want to have immune-nourishing, building, and strengthening herbs for this deep reservoir. Blood-building herbs, marrow-strengthening herbs, and what Chinese medicine calls Yin-Tonifying and Qi-Tonifying herbs (and mushrooms) figure prominently here.
We should also mention lung vitality. The lungs are responsible for creating what Chinese medicine calls the Wei Qi barrier (immune barrier). This is the health aura that emanates from our skin pores and creates what amounts to a deflector shield. Healthy lungs are vitally important to maintaining this immune barrier and a healthy immune system. If our lungs are not healthy because they are weak, deficient, inflamed or congested, then they need to be strengthened as well. Fortunately, many of the Yin-Tonifying and the deep immune strengthening herbs also help to strengthen the lungs. So, even though the lungs are responsible for creating this most surface-y of immune protection levels, we must utilize at least some deep-tonic herbs to achieve that.
Considerations on the most powerful immune boosting herbs
There are several go-to herbs in the immune-stimulating category herbs. Some of my favorites here include both berry and flower of elder (Sambucus canadensis), leaf and flower of boneset (Eupatorium perforatum), and all parts of echinacea. I like to make a strong, triple extraction of a mixed blend of E. angustifolia root (narrow-leaf coneflower) along with all parts of E. purpurea (purple coneflower), which is the common variety that people often grow in gardens around here. That’s my triple threat go-to combo for keeping the surface immune system and lymph on its toes: elder, boneset and echinacea.
I will also often reach for blue vervain (Verbena hastata), calendula (C. officinalis) , and spilanthes (S. oleracea, S. acmella), which is native to South America but which grows easily here in gardens as an annual. I also like using hyssop (Hyssopus officinalis), angelica (A. spp.), and old reliables like ginger and garlic.
When it comes to antiviral herbs, in addition to stimulating the immune system with boneset, elder, echinacea, spilanthes, blue vervain and the like, I always strongly consider St. John’s wort (Hypericum perfoliatum). St. John’s wort is famously known as an antidepressant, yet it’s even better as an antiviral. Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis), another heart-gladdening herb like St. John’s wort, is also a strong antiviral herb.
Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra, G. uralensis) is another prominent antiviral herb on this list in both Western-based and Chinese medicine. From the Chinese pharmacopeia, we also have powerful antiviral herbs like andrographis (A. paniculata) and isatis (I. tinctoria, Baphicacanthus cusia), which is known in the West as woad. I’m only mentioning a few here. There are many.
Antibacterial properties coming from some of the most powerful immune-boosting herbs
In the category of antibacterial herbs, in addition to choosing several of the herbs mentioned above (garlic, isatis, hyssop), I’m often also reaching for herbs that are sometimes called “plague herbs,” like thyme (Thymus vulgaris), sage (Salvia officinalis), oregano (Origanum spp.), and rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis). I also utilize the berberine-rich herbs like goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis) and barberry (Berberis spp.). Japanese knotweed (Polygonum cuspidatum) and myrrh (Commiphora molmol), which are very strong antiviral and antibacterial herbal medicines, also work great here. Other potent antibacterial herbs utilized in Chinese medicine include Baikal skullcap root (Scutellaria baicalensis), Japanese honeysuckle blossom and stem (Lonicera japonicus) and forsythia fruit pods (F. suspensa). North American antibacterial herbs include juniper berry (Juniperus communis), white pine bark (Pinus strobus) and bidens (B. spp.). Bidens, although not a native, can be found in almost every state, and has gained notoriety recently because of Steven Buhner’s deep research on Lyme disease.
Don’t forget mushrooms and adaptogens when considering some of the most powerful immune-boosting herbs
The entire world of medicinal mushrooms works for deep core strengthening (Yin and Qi-Tonifying). This includes shiitake (Lentinula edodes), maitake (Grifola frondosa), turkey tail (Trametes versicolor), reishi (Ganoderma spp.), cordyceps (C. spp.), lion’s mane (Hericium erinaceus) and chaga (Inonotus obliquus). This list will continue to grow as well. Shiitake, lion’s mane and maitake serve double duty as they are also quite nutritious and delicious.
The world of adaptogens also falls into the category of core immune-strengthening medicines, especially the less stimulating ones. Astragalus (A. membranaceus) and codonopsis (C. pilosula) are on this list. Licorice as well, although some consider it to be pretty stimulating. You can even include the more invigorating ones like eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus), ashwagandha (Withania somnifera), rhodiola (R. rosea), schisandra (S. chinensis), and ginseng (Panax panax), to name a few. Most adaptogens and Yin- and Qi-Tonifying herbs are Asian in origin, but they’re found or grown here, too.
Finally, let’s consider some of the lung-strengthening herbs. I want to mention first and foremost that honey is on this list, especially if the lungs feel weak. Licorice, again, is on this list. Mullein leaf (Verbascum thapsus) is a big one on this list as well.
There are sweet herbs, roots especially, originally native to Asia, that are also on this list. Chinese asparagus root (Asparagus cochinchinensis), monkey grass root (Ophiopogon japonicum), glehnia (G. littoralis), tiger lily bulb (Lilium lancifolium) and shatavari root (Asparagus racemosus) from India. Solomon seal root (Polygonatum biflorum), a native of North America, is also on this list. Others include marshmallow root (Althea officinalis) as well as plantain leaf (Plantago spp.).
In addition to using some of the most powerful immune boosting herbs, it is also very important to keep yourself vital through exercising, good hydration and sufficient sleep as well.