Cold and flu season approaches . . . are you waiting for a germ to “catch” you? In reality, we do not “catch” viruses and bacteria. Every day we are surrounded and covered by billions of microbes. A bacteria or virus invades, or overgrows, only when our immune system no longer can fight off the organism.
One of the first defenses against colds and flus is minimizing exposure to viruses and bacteria. Hand washing is one of the simplest, most reliable methods of reducing transmission. Our hands contact numerous objects each day — doorknobs, subway rails, elevator buttons, plates and cups, silverware, and water faucets to name a few. Throughout the day we also rub our noses, push hair away from our faces, and brush food crumbs from our mouths. Unwittingly we deliver all of the germs we have accumulated throughout the day directly to our respiratory and digestive systems, via our nose and mouth. Washing hands and scrubbing under the nails several times each day can minimize these exposures.
Rest is another important factor. The body simultaneously runs two different nervous systems, the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. The sympathetic nervous system primes us to react to stressful situations, triggering the “fight or flight” response in the body. During periods of relaxation, the body’s parasympathetic nervous system predominates, encouraging tissue regeneration and repair.
For many people in today’s culture the sympathetic nervous system predominates, with accompanying chronic low levels of norepinephrine (adrenaline) and other stress-related hormones. In earlier times, we would have expended norepinephrine and other hormones by moving our bodies — running from and/or fighting our attacker. Today, however, the “attacker” may be our boss, our landlady, or the IRS. No longer can we fight or run away; instead, we sit quietly and talk calmly. Our body, however, does not know the difference between a polar bear and an angry boss — the sympathetic nervous system response is the same. Because we do not “use up” the stress related hormones by moving our bodies, we tend to live with chronic low levels of adrenaline in our system. Rarely does the body fully relax, completely activating the parasympathetic nervous system and therefore our body’s repair and regeneration response.
To reduce the impact of low level adrenaline in the body, exercise is extremely important. Regular aerobic exercise (at least 30 minutes four times a week) reduces adrenaline levels and increases relaxation. Guided visualization, meditation, and/or progressive relaxation also encourage parasympathetic nervous system activity.
Certain foods can decrease immune system function. One gram of sugar (sucrose), for example, can reduce immune system activity for up to 24 hours. Heavily processed, refined foods have very little nutritional value yet require a lot of energy for the body to break down and eliminate from the body. Focus on nutrient rich, fresh foods such as steamed vegetables, fruits, whole grains, fish and a minimum of dairy products and red meats in your diet.
Spirulina is a “super-food” packed with nutrients, particularly beta carotene. Animal studies with spirulina demonstrate that this blue-green algae inhibits tumor formation1 and prevents delayed-type hypersensitivity reactions.2 More recent research at Harvard Medical School found that water extracts of spirulina stopped the reproduction of HIV-1 virus in human T-cell lines (in vitro study).3 Spirulina is one of few plant foods that contain vitamin B12 as well as a host of other nutrients and minerals.
In addition to foods, you may want to consider certain herbs to improve immune function. Keep in mind that the herbs never can take the place of a good diet, rest, exercise, and a strong emotional support network. These herbal immune boosters are an important addition to the primary lifestyle choices you make.
Echinacea purpura or angustafolia (Purple coneflower)
Echinacea helps boost immune function by increasing white blood cell activity. Rather than directly “attacking” a bacteria or virus, echinacea acts by stimulating white blood cells to respond to the invader. Currently researchers believe the body “sees” echinacea as something foreign, which increases white blood cell production, thereby bolstering the immune system’s ability to respond to bacterial and viral invaders.
• 1 capsule twice a day OR
• One dropperful of tincture twice a day as an immune support. If you are using herbs to support the immune system (not for an acute illness), rotate the herbs you use every month to six weeks, e.g. use echinacea for a month, then use another herb(s) for a month.
NOTE: a “dropperful” is equal to the amount of fluid drawn into the glass dropper when you squeeze the rubber bulb, dip the glass dropper into the fluid, and then release the bulb. A “dropperful” does NOT mean trying to completely fill the glass dropper.
For a cold or flu, increase echinacea use to 2 capsules or two dropperfuls of tincture every three hours. (The optimal dose, according to pharmacological studies, is 1-2 mg of echinacea for every kilogram (2.2 pounds) of body weight for a ten day period)
Astragalus mongolicus (Yellow vetch)
The Chinese have long used astragalus to tonify and strengthen the immune system, particularly the respiratory system. From Chinese thinking, the respiratory system is like an “umbrella” at the top of the body, providing a protective cover for the rest of the body. The lungs interface with the world outside our body, and as our first organ of contact, the lungs also play a vital role in screening what the Chinese call “external pernicious influences” (EPI’s), such as viruses, bacteria, and the ravages of wind, damp, and cold.
Because astragalus is a tonifying herb, only use astragalus when you are healthy and want to further strengthen the immune system. Tonifying herbs strengthen all current conditions in the body. Taking astragalus while you have a cold, for example, can tonify the illness as well as the respiratory system. Astragalus would be an excellent herb to use during the recovery phase after being sick/after an illness.
• 2 capsules three times a day (total of 6-15 grams of dried herb per day)4
• One dropperful of tincture three times a day.
Lomatium disectum (Biscuit root, Desert parsley, or Toza.
Native people know that the plants to treat most illnesses grow right around us. My personal bias in working with herbs is to rely mainly on the herbs that grow in the local area. Our bodies are more “acclimated” to the area where we live; hence, we often respond best to the herbs that grow in our own bioregion. We have come to rely so heavily on certain herbs that we have harvested them nearly to extinction. Wildcrafters who gather Hydrastis canadensis (Goldenseal), for example, have harvested so heavily that the herb now is rare in its native eastern woodland environment. Herbalists recommend using other herbs, such as Coptis (Golden thread), in place of goldenseal. Ironically, a century ago herbalists recommended goldenseal as a substitute for Coptis, which was over-harvested at that time.
Lomatium grows in the high desert country of eastern Oregon and Washington and has an almost tropical taste. A strong anti-viral herb, lomatium root helps to prevent or resolve viral invasions, including herpes.5,6 Lomatium reduces bacterial and fungal activity as well.
• 20-40 drops of tincture, two to three times a day
• 2 to 6 cups of tea (one teaspoon of dried herb steeped in one cup of boiling water) for chronic infections or viral diseases.
Eleutherococcus senticosus (Siberian ginseng)
Although they share a common name, Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus) is a completely different genus and species from Chinese and Korean ginsengs (Panax). All three of these amazing plants, however, share some similar properties. Siberian ginseng contains ginsenoids similar to those found in the Panax genus7, which may explain the similarity in plant actions. Siberian ginseng acts as an adaptogen, causing a complex series of actions in the body that allow us to adapt more easily to stressful situations.
• 1 dropperful of tincture 2 – 3 times a day
• 2 capsules of dried herb 2 – 3 times a day
Berberis aquafolium (Oregon Grape Root)
Another herb native to the Pacific Northwest, Oregon Grape Root has both anti-viral and anti-bacterial activity. Oregon grape root contains berberine, an alkaloid that effects candida, staph, strep, E. coli and many other organisms. Berberine also stimulates the digestive tract, improving liver and overall digestive function. The medical part of the plant is the root bark.
• 10-40 drops of tincture, 2 to 4 times a day for immune and/or digestive problems.
• 1 teaspoon of powered herb simmered in 2 pints of water, strained, then allowed to cool for eye inflammation. Make a compress for the eyes by soaking a clean cloth or towel in the decoction, then place the compress over the closed eye for 10-15 minutes.
During this autumn season, remember the primary supports for the immune system include a good diet, rest, and basic hygiene. We don’t “catch” bacteria and viruses – they live around us all the time. Whether we succumb or thrive depends on the health of our immune system. The herbal allies echinacea, astragalus, lomatium, Siberian ginseng, and Oregon grape root all can offer potent additional support for the immune system.
1) Schwartz JL, Sklar G, et al. “Prevention of experimental oral cancer by extracts of Spirulina-Dunaliella algae. Nutr. Cancer 11: 127-134.
2) Nagao K, Takai Y, et al. “Exercises of growing mice, and the effect of the intake of Spirulina platensis upon the hapten-specific immune response. Sci. Phys. Power 40: 187-194.
3) Ayehunie S., Belay A. et al. “Inhibition of HIV-1 replication by an aqueous extract of Spirulina platensis (Arthrospira platensis), 7th IAAA Conference. Knysna, South Africa, April 17, 1996.
4) Tierra, Michael. Planetary Herbology. Santa Fe, NM: Lotus Press, 1988, p. 294.
5) Hanson CV, Riggs JL, et al. “Photochemical Inactivation of DNA and RNA viruses by Psoralen Derivatives.” Journal of General Virology, 40: 345-358, 1978.
6) Talib S, Banerjee AK. “Covalent Attachment of Psoralen to a Single Site on Vesicular Stomatitis Virus Genome RNA Blocks Expression of Viral Genes.” Virology, 118:430-438, 1982.
7) Weiss, Rudolph, M.D. Herbal Medicine. Beaconsfield, England: Beaconsfield Publishers Ltd., 1988, p. 177.