Let’s explore simple ways we can support a healthy immune system to prepare for cold and flu season
Cold and flu season is upon us. A time to kick up the immune support using strengthening herbs, whole food nutrition, and a healthy mindset. Before we get started on what we can do, let briefly highlight what our immune systems are. They are complex, orchestrated within many organ systems. Including our microbiome (the flora), digestion, thymus, spleen, lymph, liver, appendix, and bone marrow.
Studies show stress, trauma, and negative beliefs/thoughts inhibit our immune functions. This is fascinating research, and we have solutions we can use to support healing in these areas to support a healthier immune response.
To fully support our immune resilience, we need to nourish the entire body and all organ systems. We do this through plant nutrition and by integrating the lifestyle practices that support the wellbeing of our mind, body, and spirit.
I encourage everyone to use this time to focus on creating habits such as:
These simple lifestyle practices can do wonders for our immune system and resiliency against harmful pathogens. If you are feeling intimidated by lifestyle changes, explore one positive lifestyle practice every week or two along with increasing your plant diversity. You may be amazed at how small changes can accumulate to profound lifestyle habits.
Fascinating studies show how negative thoughts, anger, resentment, shame, and unaddressed grief reduce the body’s ability to heal and recover from illness. On the other side, thoughts and feelings of love, peace, acceptance, and gratitude improve immune and organ functions. I think this is becoming more important to maintain our overall health during the current political, economic, and social climates.
Take a few deep breaths right now. Think of three things you are grateful for and begin sending signals throughout your body and mind for a resilient and adaptive immune system and stress response. Enjoy this feeling and smile while we continue talking about the role of plants and nutrition.
Food and Herbs:
When we use herbs and food to support our immune system, we bring in the nutritional building blocks that fuel and support our immune functions while inhibiting the growth of harmful viruses and bacteria. If we do not have diverse nutrition from plants, our immune system has no materials to create the defenses. The beneficial flora will not be populated or diverse enough to play their essential role either. Resulting in less overall resiliency and increased opportunities for harmful pathogens to take advantage. This leads to an increased frequency of illness, duration, and symptoms.
We can use many herbs to support the symptoms when we do get sick and encourage our body’s ability to clear out the illness. This article will focus on building and strengthening immunity to prevent. We use different plants to prevent pathogen-related colds, flu, and respiratory ailments than the herbs used to reduce symptoms and support us when we are sick. We often call these herbs deep immune tonics or adaptogens. They are nourishing and often help many of the other organ systems supporting our immunity like digestion, liver, and spleen/lymph.
I will highlight a few essential nutrients known for their vital role in our immune functions and how we can naturally source them from plants below. Keep in mind we need diversity of all nutrients to support the complex picture of health and resilience.
Vitamin C via Seasonal Fruit & Leafy Greens
Most of us are aware Vitamin C is essential for our immune system and is used to create immune cells. One of the best ways we can increase our bioavailable sources is from fresh seasonal fruit. During this time of year, explore those hearty fall and winter fruits like apples, oranges, rosehips, elderberry, mulberry, cranberry, pomegranate, and passion fruit.
Remember those dark leafy greens that commonly grow in winter and early spring, including kale, chard, dandelion, nettle, chickweed, minor’s lettuce, beet greens, turnip greens, etc. They feed the beneficial flora and support liver and kidney health, digestion, elimination, blood cleansing, and more.
Here is more information about two herbal berries rich in vitamin C and immune support: elderberry and rosehip.
Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis; S. nigra; S. spp.)
Elderberry is a very potent anti-viral, most specific for the flu virus. It is best when taken daily to prevent getting sick as it has a protective nature. It coats the cells throughout our respiratory tract and creates a barrier of protection, inhibiting viruses from finding a home in our cell. Without a host, the virus dies and is unable to replicate. Then it is cleared out through the mucous or lymph.
Use the dried berries in tea, syrup, tincture, oxymel, supplement, honey, jam, or compote preparations. If you are harvesting your own, be sure you are gathering from the blue or black elder as there are non-medicinal species.
Rosehip (Rosa spp.)
The hips or berries from the medicinal or wild rose develop after the petals fall, and they ripen in the frost. Rosehips are among the few food sources found during the cold winter months, especially in areas with snow. They contain high levels of vitamin C (20 times more than oranges by weight), antioxidants, and flavonoids to enhance white blood cells’ functions and build immunity. They are delicious in tea, syrups, jam, and compote.
Medicinal Mushrooms & Vitamin D
Did you know edible and medicinal mushrooms are a food source providing bioavailable vitamin D, an essential hormone/nutrient to support a robust immune system? There is a whole body of research from the COVID pandemic indicating Vitamin D’s vital role in supporting the illness’s overall recovery. Those deficient in vitamin D have a slower recovery and more symptoms than those within the recommended range. As we go into the shorter days of late fall and winter, mushrooms become an excellent way to make up for our lack of sun exposure.
Mushrooms are known for protecting the cells against damage and strengthening the structural integrity of our cells. They directly support the production and efficiency of our immune cells and digestion, liver, lymph, stress, and detoxing. Mushrooms address every aspect of building a resilient immune system ready to fight off illness upon exposure.
Eat your mushrooms, make broths, soups, stews, and sauces, and add them into stir-fries, vegetable dishes, and more. They are so versatile. You can also find high-quality mushroom supplements, powders, teas, and extracts. Explore the diversity of seasonal mushrooms when you can. A few of my favorites include Chaga, reishi, shitake, and lion’s main.
As the plants die back during the colder months, we are left with many hearty and nourishing roots as a primary food source. Roots and tubers have a deep nutritious quality and tend to be very mineral-rich with various enzymes and beneficial bacteria they receive from the soil. Many roots provide complex carbohydrates and are high in antioxidants, vitamin A, vitamin C, potassium, magnesium, dietary fiber, inulin, and more.
Root vegetables are known to help reduce inflammation and protect the cells from free radical damage. They nourish and protect skin and eye health, help lower cholesterol, support a happy heart, improve cognitive functions, nourish the liver, regulate insulin by slowing sugar conversion, and more. Root veggies are beneficial as a prebiotic to feed and create an environment for beneficial bacteria to thrive. All these benefits can be enjoyed by eating roots and making decoctions to drink throughout the day.
Some examples of winter root vegetables include beets, rutabaga, parsnips, turnips, sweet potatoes, potatoes, onion, garlic, leeks, horseradish, radish, daikon radish, carrots, burdock, dandelion, yellow dock, etc.
“Because these subterranean foods were great for stocking winter food stores, the symbolism and ritual surrounding roots and tubers often pertain to the foresight, strength, and fortitude needed to withstand the cold months.”
~The Sacred Cookbook by Nick Polizzi
Have delicious fun in the kitchen and spice up your life!! Almost all spices have benefits for our immune system. They support a diverse population of healthy flora by feeding the good bacteria and inhibiting harmful growth. Spices also support digestion, gut health, liver health, and more. Incorporate chai-like beverages, mulling spices, curry spice blends, Mediterranean spices, Indian Spices, Asian Spices, and any other cuisine you enjoy.
Bring in your favorite fresh spices like garlic, onion, ginger, turmeric, chives, rosemary, sage, oregano, thyme, and parsley, when you can. Remembering diversity is key! (Note: If you run hot all the time, even in cooler weather, limit heating and pungent spices and focus on more neutral or cooling ones instead.)
Nourishing Immune Boosting Broth
Use any combination of Mediterranean herbs (i.e., oregano, thyme, rosemary, marjoram, bay, basil, etc.) along with nourishing herbs such as nettle, dandelion leaf, or burdock root. Include immune-enhancing mushrooms (shitake have the best flavor), astragalus root, and seaweeds. Chop up some onion and garlic (as much as you can palate) and incorporate chicken or other meat for protein, if desired. Add any veggies or scraps you have for additional nutrients.
Sauté any vegetables and spices in oil for a few minutes, add water and simmer on low heat for 1-3 hours covered. Strain and drink or use as a base to make soup, cook beans, grains, and other meals.
Zinc via Nuts, Seeds, and Legumes
Zinc is a mineral required to support our immune cells’ production and utilization to fight off pathogens. We can naturally source it from various beans, lentils, oats, nuts, seeds, tofu, and mushrooms. Zinc can be found in animal sources, including meat, oysters, dairy, cheese, and yoghurt. I like the idea of making sure I eat nuts and fruit daily for vitamin C and zinc combination. Sometimes with a little yoghurt if I am not avoiding dairy.
Since stress is a leading factor that inhibits our immune resilience, having a relaxing formula on hand will be supportive. Enjoy some lemon balm or chamomile tea in the evenings. I also love the Five-Flower Formula Flower Essence from The Flower Essence Society to support the emotional healing behind stress.
If you are prone to insomnia or restless sleep, enjoy a more potent and sedating blend in the evenings to improve your sleep quality.
Many of the immune-supporting herbs support a healthier stress response to manage how we react and respond to stressors in our lives. For additional support, you can use an adaptogen formula. I find the herbs are more effective when we also address mindset. Using various mindfulness practices such as Tapping, Tai Chi, Qigong, and Yoga are necessary to manage and prevent stress.
In summary, our immune system is complex and holistic. It relies on all the functions and organ systems of our body. It is either driven or inhibited by the flora residing in our body, diet, stress, and overall attitude towards our environment. Come back to the plants for your medicine and food to support your healthy immune resilience.
About Candice Brunlinger:
Candice Brunlinger is a Clinical Herbalist, Intuitive Healer, Health & Wellness Educator, and Mindfulness Coach with an integrative approach to healing using plants, nutrition, self-care, and energy practices including Tai Chi, Qigong, and EFT.
She supports others with simple solutions to empower health through whole food nutrition, emotional freedom, and mindfulness.