When it comes to taking care of your immune system, there are a couple of things you can do to give it a little boost. The main (and best) way to do it is by taking a holistic approach: eating well, getting enough sleep, exercising, limiting your alcohol consumption, and trying to keep your stress in check. But sometimes, you need extra support, and that's where certain vitamins, supplements, tinctures, teas, etc. can come in handy. A lot of these products contain specific herbs that have been used for centuries for immune and health support.
"Even a glimpse inside traditional Chinese medicine, Ayurvedic, and Native American healing practices will highlight the use of native plants to support health in many ways," explains Serena Poon, CN, CHC, CHN, chef, nutritionist, Reiki master, and founder of the Culinary Alchemy program. "The scientific community has begun to take more interest in traditional remedies, and we are starting to see a beautiful meeting of science and tradition as it relates to wellness."
Herbs might be an all-natural addition to your wellness routine, and there are so many options out there with different uses and benefits that you might be able to do some experimenting with to see which work for you. But you don't want to just jump into it without doing your research first. We asked the experts for some tips and recommendations:
How to Use Herbs
Mona Dan, LAc, MTOM, herbalist, acupuncturist, and founder of Vie Healing, says that herbs can be incorporated in various ways, like in the form of teas, loose powders, and salves. They're so versatile and have many uses.
"There are many herbs that you are likely familiar with that you can simply add to your culinary repertoire and reap lovely health benefits," Poon says. "Herbs such as thyme, oregano, sage, and basil can be used fresh or dried in dishes, infused into oils, or, if you’d prefer, purchased in tincture or capsule form. Other herbs that might not be as familiar but traditionally support wellness—such as echinacea, astragalus, and neem—can be dried and consumed as a tea or can also be purchased in concentrated forms."
When sourcing herbs, you want to look for quality above all. Poon says one of the best ways to get herbs is by purchasing organic seeds and growing your own at home. If you can't do that, Poon recommends purchasing herbs from local farmers, seeking out organic produce, and researching purveyors.
What to Be Mindful Of
Photo:Aniko Hobel/Getty Images
Before adding any herb to your routine, you'll want to make sure it will work with your lifestyle, including the types of medications you're taking, because some herbs can have contraindications. "First, if you are taking prescription medication, speak with your doctor about both your drug and supplement programs. They will be able to let you know if there are any specific concerns," Poon says. "Regardless of whether or not you are on medication, I always recommend learning to take note of how new foods and herbs make you feel. Try consuming a new herb on its own and notice any signs of allergic reaction—skin rash, itching, tingling, or digestive discomfort. Even slight occurrences of these symptoms might mean that this herb is not right for your unique constitution."
If you are interested in taking Chinese herbs, Dan highly recommends working with an herbalist or acupuncturist. "There is so much behind the proper diagnosis of herbs," she says. "We need to see what the constitution of your body is. For example, some people run hot, while others run cold. Some people are always dry, while others have more mucous. All these indications are a guide to your constitution and what needs addressing."
Herbs That Can Boost the Immune System
Ready to explore herbal remedies? The experts shared which herbs and ingredients can help support the immune system. Some can be ingested, while others can be used as aromatherapy or topical treatments. Take a look below.
1. Aloe Vera
"Aloe vera improves digestion, strengthens the immune system, delays the aging process, alleviates menstrual problems, reduces arthritis pain, heals wounds, cures nausea, eliminates ulcers, lowers blood sugar levels, reduces oxidative stress, inhibits cancerous growth, treats the side effects of radiotherapy treatment, promotes hair growth, and soothes acid reflux symptoms," says Linné founder Jenna Levine, who's certified in California native plant botany and herbal medicine. "Aloe vera is rich in vitamins B12, B1, B2, B6, A, E, and C, niacin, and folic acid. These vitamins are vital for proper bodily function." You can use it as a topical treatment, but you can also add it to juices and smoothies.
2. Asian Ginseng
According to Dan, this is a great immune booster that also supports endurance and strength and boosts mental capacity and alertness.
3. Astaxanthin Algae
Astaxanthin is a powerful antioxidant that protects against free radicals and has amazing skin benefits, such as promoting moisture and elasticity and fighting UV damage. "Astaxanthin algae is well known for its use as a dietary supplement, as the antioxidant activity and cellular protection can also be beneficial for one's vision and in cases of cardiovascular, immune, inflammatory, and neurodegenerative diseases and even for antitumor therapies and prevention," Levine says. "It is widely considered to be one of the most valuable compounds in a wide range of applications in the food, feed, and pharmaceutical industries." It's also said to enhance athletic performance, increasing stamina and helping with muscle recovery.
"It fortifies the lungs, strengthens immunity, and indirectly protects against external pathogenic factors," Dan says. "It increases the number of active immune cells as well as their activity. However, it primarily acts to fortify the already existing immune system and not to attack the pathogenic agents. Therefore, it should only be taken while healthy and not during a cold or flu."
"Basil is a beautiful herb that originates from India and has been used for thousands of years in Ayurvedic medicine and traditional Chinese medicine," Poon explains. "Basil has a rich antioxidant profile, is packed with vitamins, and has been shown to have numerous health benefits, including immunity enhancement, anti-aging properties, antibacterial properties, antitumor and antidiabetic uses, and so much more. My favorite way to consume basil is raw on top of salads or dishes."
Levine says chamomile is rich in antioxidants that strengthen the immune system and protect the skin from free radical damage. It can be applied topically or ingested as a tea.
"Cleavers support the immune and lymphatic system as well as liver and kidney function," Levine says. "Applied topically and drank as a tea, it helps improve skin, and it helps improve skin disorders such as acne, psoriasis, eczema, abscesses, and boils."
"Cordyceps (dong chong xia cao) tonifies the kidneys and adrenals and improves overall bodily constitution," Dan says. "Cordyceps has marked immunomodulatory functions while enhancing overall immunity by increasing lymphocytes and natural killer cells."
"Echinacea is a flowering plant native to North America that has been used in healing by indigenous people for centuries," Poon says. "Research supports its therapeutic benefits, demonstrating that echinacea has anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, and pain-relieving properties and is also one of the top herbs for immune support. I love using dried echinacea in my evening tea."
10. Ganoderma Reishi
Dan says it can tonify blood and provides vital energy, which is great in rebuilding a patient's constitution. She adds that it can increase the number of white blood cells and inhibits the growth of various viruses and bacteria associated with the flu.
This plant is native to North America and is commonly used as a cold and flu remedy. It also has many other therapeutic uses. "The active compound of goldenseal is berberine, which research has shown to protect against microbes and inflammation, decrease blood sugar, and protect components of the nervous, cardiovascular, and gastrointestinal systems. I usually take goldenseal in a high-quality capsule form," Poon says.
12. Kakadu Plum
Kakadu plum is said to have the highest concentration of vitamin C of any edible plant. Vitamin C is one nutrient that is essential to the immune system. It's also a source of minerals, ellagic acid, and antioxidant-rich polyphenols.
"When regularly applied topically, Kakadu plum extract has been shown by clinical studies to dramatically increase skin hydration and elasticity and to reduce pigmentation, redness, and dark spots," Levine says. "It is known to stimulate the body's own production of procollagen and hyaluronic acid, thereby protecting the skin from damage caused by free radicals and UV rays, reducing signs of aging, improving skin texture, and restoring a bright, youthful appearance. It also contains strong anti-inflammatory properties that work to increase the synthesis of collagen, lessen hyperpigmentation, and reduce the appearance of fine lines, wrinkles, and dark circles or under-eye puffiness." It can also be used to treat sunburns and open sores.
You can use it topically, and you can also find it in supplements and health foods like granola.
Native to India and Africa, neem is used in Ayurvedic medicine. "It isn't just a folk remedy. There is evidence that neem can protect against microbes, malaria, bacterial viruses, and insects," Poon says. "To incorporate this miraculous herb into my daily routine, I drink teas that are blended with dried neem."
14. Olive Leaf Extract
"Olive leaf extract is derived from the ground leaves of the olive plant and has been proven to have tremendous protective benefits," Poon says. "Olive leaf extract has been shown to be a robust source of antioxidants, support heart health, protect the body from free radicals, and support the body's immune function. Look for olive leaf extract as an ingredient in your immune-supportive supplements."
It's a common ingredient in dishes, but it also has some therapeutic uses. "Its evidence-backed benefits include having antimicrobial, antiviral, antifungal, antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antidiabetic, and cancer-suppressing properties," Poon says. "For best results, take a diluted drop of oregano oil immediately if you start to feel any symptoms of a cold coming on. One important note is that moderation is key with oregano in the form of a concentrated therapeutic and food-grade oil extract, as it can be very strong and may burn your mouth or esophagus or disrupt your digestion."
Poon says that peppermint—in oil or whole-leaf form—has been shown to support digestive function, which can be helpful for fighting off sickness. Enjoy fresh peppermint as a tea or nibble on the raw leaves.
Immune-boosting rooibos teas contain antioxidants and nutrients such as iron, calcium, vitamin D, potassium, copper, manganese, zinc, magnesium, and alpha hydroxy acid. "Rooibos is used as an effective curative to treat allergies such as hay fever and allergy-related bronchitis," Levine says. "Rooibos extract also has anti-aging effects in terms of cognitive ability because it reduces the impact of oxidative byproducts in neural pathways, stimulating concentration and focus! Rooibos extract is also known to contain certain rare nutrients that work to fight free radicals and ones such as bioflavonoids, which work to improve blood circulation and, thus, prevent hemorrhaging and high blood pressure, offering potential cardiovascular benefits."
"Rosemary's ability to increase circulation, to decrease cortisol levels, and to generally act as a stimulant to the body allows it to provide a boost to the immune system and, thus, help the body fight off diseases caused by free radicals," Levine says. "Applied topically, it is an aid to sore muscles, joint pain, headaches, and respiratory infections." When used in skincare as an essential oil, it has antibacterial, astringent, anti-inflammatory, and antifungal properties.
A member of the mint family, sage has been used therapeutically for a long time. "Sage has been used for digestive problems, respiratory issues, and many other diseases," Poon explains. "Research has shown that sage has antibacterial, antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, free radical–scavenging, and antitumor activities, protecting the body from a slew of illness-causing conditions. I love making sage tea or using crispy sage in my culinary dishes. Its earthy flavor and texture add a unique touch to salad dishes or entrees."
Thyme isn't just for making dishes taste better—it's also got health benefits. "Research has shown thyme to be a truly incredible herb," Poon says. "It supports the respiratory, nervous, cardiovascular, and immune systems; protects against carcinogens, inflammation, and free radicals; and tastes delicious! I like to add fresh thyme sprigs to hot water with a little bit of lemon, echinacea, and manuka honey for cold and flu support."