Your immune system is complex and crucial to your overall health, and it is attached to every other system in your body. The immune system's health affects hormones, neurotransmitters, mood, and more. On the flip side, it is common that our immune systems are not working as optimally as they could be; poor diet weakens them, environmental toxins, and - most significantly - stress!
For herbalists, the immune system should always be considered when creating any sort of herbal formula.
Thankfully, though our bodies and immune systems are complex, the approach to adding support with herbs doesn’t always have to be. We humans like to reduce most things into categories and boxes, and whole medicinal plants don’t often fit into either; they are whole and multi-faceted, just like we are. That said, for simplicity, let’s try breaking them down into 3 broad categories.
Famous Herbalist and Biologist, Christopher Hobbs, described three levels of Herbal Immune Activity: Deep Immune Activation, Surface Immune Activation, and Adaptogenic Action or Hormonal Modulation.1
Deep Immune Activation herbs are used in chronic ailments or to strengthen the immune system.1,2 They act deeply within the tissues of the body. They are also considered immunomodulators, meaning they support the cells involved in immunological defences and support immune defence.3
Many herbs in this category can also be considered adaptogenic, meaning they support the body’s ability to handle and adapt to stressors, strengthening the systems of the body to react optimally. Herbs in this category include: Astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus), Codonopsis (Codonopsis tangshen), Reishi mushroom (Ganoderma lucidum), Shiitake mushroom (Lentinus edodes), and Schizandra (Schisandra chinensis).2
These herbs deeply support and improve the body’s ability to defend and protect against invading pathogens or changes in the atmosphere that may lead to imbalance and illness.
I often use these herbs preventatively, or in the case of weak immune system or chronic illness, while avoiding use in cases of acute illness. These strengthening herbs can so strongly support the body that they focus more on rebuilding than on eliminating/ridding the body of pathogens. In the case of acute illness, I would rather focus on detoxifying the body of the invading offender, as Surface Immune Activation herbs - the next category I will summarize - can do.
Surface Immune Activation herbs “boost” the immune system and improve anti-viral, anti-bacterial, and anti-fungal action.1,2
They also stimulate immune function (note that they stimulate here rather than modulate). Herbs in this category include: Garlic (Allium sativum), Calendula (Calendula officinalis), Myrrh (Commiphora molmol), Echinacea (Echinacea spp.), Northern White Cedar (Thuja occidentals), and the lichen Usnea (Usnea spp.).2
I think of Surface Immune Activation herbs as the treatment to the offender.
This category consists of the herbs that often stimulate a short-term immune response and are usually only needed short-term.2
These are your wound healers, anti-inflammatories, and antimicrobials.
Hormonal Modulators are herbs that work through hormonal modulation of the immune response.1,2 Adaptogens can be included in this category, as they work on the adrenal glands and the general adaptation system.2 Adaptogenic Hormonal Modulators include Siberian Ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus), Korean and American Ginsengs (Panax spp.).2
Though those three categories sum up a herbal approach to immune system support well, it is always important for a holistic herbalist to incorporate herbs that support other areas that may need attention.
At the times of year where we know we are prone to infection - whether due to weather change, high stress, lack of sleep, excess toxicity, or poor diet - we can add plant support into our lives to help support our immune function.
We may choose deeper immune activating herbs during these periods. When we do get taken down by whatever pathogen or factor that causes us to feel ill, there are plant remedies we can call on to help encourage a healthy and hasty recovery.
These remedies may be our surface immune activation herbs. Of course, sometimes the best medicine is rest and time; as Dr. Aviva Romm says, “rest is the best adaptogen”.4
’ll leave you with a delicious recipe full of some surface immune activation herbs:
Elderberries are diaphoretic, meaning they encourage helping and may help to “sweat out” a fever.5 They are also anti-viral, and have been effective in vitro against 10 strains of influenza virus, and, in one study, shown to reduce flu-symptoms to 3 to 4 days.2 The Elder flowers are also wonderfully effective in reducing mucus and fighting colds.2,5 Consider making this delicious Elderberry Syrup at home and keeping it in your fridge to use preventatively or have on hand when needed (kids like it too!).
1 cup dried elderberries (can be found at local herb stores or even Amazon).
1 cinnamon stick and/or 1/4 tsp of cloves
1 tsp freshly grated ginger root
2 cups of water
Raw unpasteurized liquid honey (note: honey is not suitable for babies under 1, and should never be over-heated).
Combine all except honey and bring to a boil; reduce the heat and allow to simmer for about 40 minutes or until the liquid has reduced to half (leave lid slightly ajar so steam can escape).
Remove from heat and mash berries to release their juices. Then use fine metal sieve to strain into a large jar. Measure the liquid and stir in the equal amount of honey (about 1 cup). Store in fridge for up to 6 months.
For adults, take 1-2 tablespoons several times throughout the day to fight a cold or flu (max 8 tbsp per day).
The information written in this blog is not intended to prescribe. Please seek health professional for specific guidance.
Lauren Truscott Waddell, RHT, CHHC
Hobbs, Christopher. (1994). Foundations of Health: Healing with Herbs and Food. Botanical Press US
Hoffman, David. (2003). Medical herbalism: the science and practice of herbal medicine. Healing Arts Press.
Singh, N., Tallang, M. and Mehta, S.C. (2016). A review on herbal plants as immunomodulators. International Journal of Pharmaceutical Sciences and Research, 12(10), 3602-10: https://ijpsr.com/bft-article/a-review-on-herbal-plants-as-immunomodulators/
Romm, Aviva. (2021). Hormone Intelligence: The complete guide to calming hormone chaos and restoring your body’s natural blueprint for wellbeing. HarperOne.
Gladstar, Rosemary. (2001). Family Herbal: A Guide to Living Life with Energy, Health, and Vitality. Pownal, VT: Storey Books.