Immunity in Times of Uncertainty and Beyond

It has been a few weeks since we have checked in with all of you and we wanted to see how everyone is holding up as well as follow up with some herbs and products that will support you on all fronts during this time. 

A huge lesson that we have learned is that health and wellness tend to be taken for granted when times are great. We don’t like to think about worse case scenarios and in so doing, we go about our daily lives as though life is a guarantee. However, what this situation has taught us is that we should always be at the top of our health game so that we can confront all that life throws our way and handle it as best as we possibly can. Also, with possible isolation restrictions being eased, we all want to make sure we are going out into the world as healthy and strong as possible.

We wanted to go over some of our favorite herbs and resources that we are turning to at this time. First of all, here are some herbs that have been on rotation around here.

We will discuss the immune supportive herbs but first lets look at both nervine, adaptognic and lymphatic herbs.

Nervines and adaptogens - for those of us who have experienced job losses, schedule disruptions, food security issues, financial panic, and overall nerve-wracking cortisol spike this pandemic has produced. These both increase and normalize the body's ability to deal with stress which is intricately woven in with our immune health. In particular, we love skullcap, ashwagandha, tulsi, and milky oats here. Find these in our Tulsi Delight Tea, Tulsi Stress Soother by Wooden Spoon Herbs, Anxiety Relief by La Terre, Happiness Tonic by Anima Mundi Apothecary and many more in our Stress/Anxiety section.

Detoxifying herbs - Of course, supporting the liver's efficient processing of toxins in this scenario is key and may be aided by dandelion, yellow dock, burdock, or a combination of these such as digestive bitters. Find these herbs in the Spring Oxymel by Red Root & Co., Viridem Cleansing Elixir by Anima Mundi Apothecary, and Digestive Bitters by Urban Moonshine.

Lymphatic herbs - Once the liver has cleared your body of toxins. They need somewhere to go and this is helped by your lymphatic system. Herbs that encourage lymph flow include chickweed, cleavers, and calendula. Find these herbs in the Spring Oxymel by Red Root & Co.

Digestive herbs - We are keeping our digestive bitters, Digest Well Tea and Joyful Belly Elixir on hand in the event gastrointestinal support is needed as some cases have indeed been shown to exhibit.

Respiratory herbs - A dry, inflamed lower respiratory system may be soothed and nourished by cooling, mucilaginous herbs. Our top choices are wild cherry bark (a well-known sedative for the lungs), elecampane, and hyssop. I think we may find elecampane indispensable in this situation. A general respiratory tonifying formula such as Clear Chest or Manuka Honey Drops is not a bad idea.

Immunomodulating herbs - Our top go-tos which are showing up again and again in the building literature surrounding this pandemic are astragalus, any and all medicinal mushrooms (reishi, turkey tail, chaga, lion's mane, and Mushroom Elixir are favorites), and adaptogens including ashwagandha and ginseng. Echinacea and usnea are both effective immune stimulants and usnea has an affinity for the lungs which may prove relevant here. Astragalus and reishi are particularly gentle and good for all ages. We love the whole line by Forest Folk including Elderberry Reishi Elixir and Mushroom Immunity. We also love SOMA Elixir by Anima Mundi Apothecary.

Now for the immune-supporting herbs - 

Elderberry– has a long history of use for treating colds, flus & respiratory disorders. Elderberry prevents viruses from attaching to host cells and is a great herb to use to prevent infection. It can also be used to shorten the duration of infection when taken frequently during the first stages. The flower of elder is also antiviral and diaphoretic (diaphoretics help bring on a fever; remember, fever is a friend. Elevated body temperature is our innate way to disable viruses). Elder is incredibly safe, can be given to infants, and has no known drug interactions. There has been a lot of speculation about elderberry contributing to cytokine storms going around the internet recently. Please see the comments on this topic at the end of this article. Find our Elderberry Syrup by Red Root & Co. to take daily and preventatively.

Licorice– an adaptogen, immune amphoteric, antiviral and demulcent herb. Licorice strengthens endocrine function. It soothes & heals mucus membrane tissue in the lungs. As an immune-amphoteric, it can strengthen a weak immune system while simultaneously reducing a hyperactive immune response (i.e. cytokine cascades). Licorice strengthens T-cell counts and can prevent viral attachment.

Cordyceps– also known as caterpillar fungus, is tonic for the immune system, blood, kidneys & lungs. adaptogen, immune amphoteric. Another immune amphoteric (like licorice) it can reduce excessively high immune activity (cytokine cascade) or enhance excessively low immune activity. It protects the cilial cells, endothilial cells and kidneys while stimulating dendritic cell maturation. Cordyceps can also improve energy and strengthen the heart. It is used in TCM to treat chronic coughs.

Astragalus– immune tonic with a special affinity for the lungs. Specific for depleted immune reservoirs (i.e. cancer). It is known to stimulate the body’s natural production of interferon, a chemical that helps our own cells communicate during a viral infection.

Usnea, St. John’s Wort, Lemon Balm, Isatis root and Hyssop are other antiviral herbs worth exploring. There are so many options provided by the plant kingdom! When in doubt, go for the food-grade herbs: you really can’t go wrong with elderberry, garlic, ginger, astragalus, and medicinal mushrooms. If you do get sick and need symptomatic relief, expectorants & diaphoretics can support your respiratory system: Hyssop, thyme, elder flower, peppermint

Following viral infection, it’s good to support the lymphatic system with herbs like Cleavers, Red Clover, Calendula, Violet, Nettle, Mullein or Chickweed to help with the resolution phase. Any and all products in this section would work amazingly!

 

Ways to keep your immune system strong to prevent infection:

Hygiene. Wash your hands often, avoid contact with your face/mouth.

Get plenty of rest and avoid stress. We are all incredibly busy and stressed out, but if we don’t start prioritizing sleep over other seemingly important things, we will be much more vulnerable to all kinds of negative influences. Stress suppresses immune function (it diverts energy to other organs/tissues that help us fight/flight.)

Avoid sugar. Sugar suppresses your immune system. 1 tsp will suppress immune function for several hours (so don’t eat sugar before going out into the world).

Eat fruits & vegetables high in Vitamin C, E, beta-carotene, and zinc. Having a baseline of nutrient-dense foods and minerals is key to supporting the body's natural defenses. Drink your nourishing herbal infusions (oatstraw, nettle, and linden especially) if you can and eat as many nutritional powerhouse foods as you are able.

Use your kitchen herbs. Simmer a little fresh ginger and add honey and lemon, drink this concoction daily. Add turmeric to your food and beverages. Add droppers of each ginger and turmeric to your tea. Consume garlic or Cold’s Cocktail daily. Throw your (organic) citrus peels in with your decoctions or simmering teas and throw all your vegetable scraps in with seaweed, mushrooms, and bones to make broth. The power of onions should not be underestimated and here is an excellent profile on this powerful kitchen staple. Good recipes to incorporate here would include the Reishi Immunity Broth, Golden Milk, Fire Cider, and Tulsi Chai.

Eat mushrooms. Medicinal mushrooms strengthen the immune system. Maiitake & Shiitake mushrooms are good in soups and stir-fries. Reishi, Chaga, Turkey tail and others can be taken as a tincture, capsule or decoction, but aren’t very good as a culinary herb.

Get your Vitamin D. Vitamin D modulates both innate and adaptive immune responses. Without it, T-cells cannot react to an infection. 15 minutes of sunlight per day is recommended, and vitamin D supplements are affordable if you can’t make enough from sunlight.

Stay hydrated. Our mucus membranes are our first layer of defense against pathogens. Keep them moist by drinking plenty of water.

Build healthy gut flora. Lactic acid bacteria have been found to enhance the immune system and reduce the risk of cancer. Beneficial bacteria interact with various receptors and immune cells in the gut and help to maintain the antimicrobial barrier of the mucosa. Eat sauerkraut, kimchi, yogurt, kefir, etc. and take probiotics if you can’t regularly get lots of fermented foods in your diet.

 

Is Elderberry Safe?

There are conflicting opinions about this, as one theory suggests that because elderberry has been shown to increase interleukin-6 (IL-6), which is an immune mediator that acts as a pro-inflammatory cytokine. This is a theoretical position, and is a highly reductionist perspective that does not take into account the whole picture of elder, immunology, or the individual infected. It is true that IL-6 can be pro-inflammatory, but it simultaneously acts as an anti-inflammatory. Anyone who has taken a class in immunology knows that immunity is a complex web of feedback loops and that it is impossible to predict how one person’s immune system will respond to one simple stimulus. Elderberry has been shown to stimulate both inflammatory and immunoregulatory cytokines, with a net non-inflammatory effect. Because of the complexity of herbs, it is very rare for an herb to incite a cytokine storm. One exception may be in people with autoimmune conditions, specifically with already over-active immune systems who already have excessive inflammatory cytokine activity. This is the only time that herbalists have reported observing pro-inflammatory effects in clients using elderberry.

It should also be noted that a cytokine storm is a phenomenon that occurs in advanced stages of infection. If someone is experiencing a cytokine storm, they should be in the hospital and not trying to self-medicate with elderberry. If elderberry doesn’t seem to be working after a few days, you may want to move on to stronger antiviral herbs.

Our experience of elder is that she is incredibly gentle. The fact that elder is indicated for both the very old and the very young, and that there are no known drug interactions, makes us trust that her chemical profile is well-balanced and that she does not strongly or directly stimulate or suppress any specific processes in the body.

When things start to get confusing, we like to come back to our senses- literally. Make a strong cup of elderberry tea. Breath in the aroma. Notice the smell. Take one sip and pay attention. How does it taste? How does your body respond? You can tell a lot about an herb just from a few sips, if you sip them with intention and awareness. If elder is for you, then it will taste and feel good. If you feel any aversion to it, maybe it is not right for you at this time.

**This article is for educational purposes only. It is not meant to diagnose, treat or cure any disease*