An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure – and that is particularly true in cold and flu season. Whether or not you “catch” a cold depends on the strength of the virus or bacteria and the health of your immune system. The intersection of these two major factors determine whether or not you get sick.

Below is a list of eight steps you can take to boost your health and bolster your immune system:

  • Handwashing. 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 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. Lack of sleep depresses immune function, including natural killer and B cell levels, and increases your risk for wide variety of illnesses include heart disease and cancer.[i] [ii] [iii] [iv]
  • Stress reduction. 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.
  • Exercise. 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.
  • Eliminate sugar. 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.
  • Supplement spirulina. Spirulina is a “super-food” packed with nutrients, particularly beta carotene.  Animal studies with spirulina demonstrate that this blue-green algae prevents oral cancer[v] and prevents delayed-type hypersensitivity reactions.[vi] 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).[vii]  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, 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.

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 genus[viii], 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.

Recommended use:

  • 1 dropperful of tincture 2 – 3 times a day
  • 2 capsules of dried herb 2 – 3 times a day

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 for prevention or during the recovery phase after being sick/after an illness.

Recommended use:

  • 2 capsules three times a day (total of 6-15 grams of dried herb per day)
  • One dropperful of tincture three times a day.

The good news is that all of these lifestyle factors – diet, sleep, and stress reduction – are in your control. Adding these good health “deposits” to your daily routine will reward you in many ways.

Visit here for more information from Dr. Judith Boice about using natural medicines for common health conditions and home emergencies.

[i] Krueger, J. and Majde, J. (1990). Sleep as a host defense: its regulation by microbial products and cytokines. Clinical Immunology and Immunopathology 57(2), 188-199.

[ii] Hu, et al. (2104) Deregulated expression of circadian clock genes in gastric cancer. BMC Gastroenterol. 14, 67. doi: 10.1186/1471-230X-14-67.

[iii] Luojus, M., Lehto, S., Tolmunen, T., Erkila, A., & Kauhanen, J. (2014). Sleep duration and incidence of lung cancer in ageing men BMC Public Health, 14, 295. BMC Public Health.,14, 295. doi: 10.1186/1471-2458-14-295.

[iv] Thompson, et al. (2011) Short duration of sleep increases risk of colorectal adenoma. Cancer, 117(4), 841-7

[v] Schwartz JL, Sklar G, et al.  “Prevention of experimental oral cancer by extracts of Spirulina-Dunaliella algae.  Nutr. Cancer 11: 127-134.

[vi] Nagao, N., Takai, Y., and Ono, M. (1991). Exercises of growing mice, and the effect of the intake of Spirulina platensis upon the hapten-specific immune response. Tairyoku kagaku. Japanese journal of physical fitness and sports medicine, 40(2), 187-194. DOI: 10.7600/jspfsm1949.40.187

[vii] 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.

[viii] Weiss, Rudolph, M.D. (1988).  Herbal Medicine, p. 177.  Beaconsfield, England: Beaconsfield Publishers Ltd.