One function of the immune system is to recognize and eliminate cancer cells that arise within the body. This process is known as immune surveillance.
Although a lot has been discovered in recent years about the immune system and how it works, it still poses many mysteries for the scientists who study it. It is still unclear just how the immune system performs even its most basic functions. Fortunately for us, we do not have to wait for scientists to catch up with the wisdom of the body. Our immune systems have performed wonders for many years and will continue to do so as long as we maintain our health.
Support for the Immune System
“Our mode of life itself, the way we live, is emerging as today’s principal cause of illness.” Dr. Joel Elkes, director of Behavioral Medicine at the University of Louisville
What we eat and drink and how we live are key factors in keeping our immune system running at optimal capacity. Recent research on the immune system has demonstrated the importance of vitamins A, C, and E and the minerals zinc and selenium. Vitamins A, C, and E are important for the formation of white blood cells. Selenium stimulates the formation of antibodies to combat viruses and bacteria. Zinc stimulates the “killer” cells that search out and destroy harmful viruses and bacteria.
We make choices every day that affect our immune system and our health—the foods we eat, the exercise we get (or don’t get), the nutritional supplements we take, our mental attitude, whether or not we smoke, etc. Bad choices weaken our bodies and our immune systems while good choices strengthen our bodies and our immune systems. Other factors, such as age and heredity, also play a part but their role is much less important than the part we play in our lifestyle choices.
What Can We Do to Strengthen Our Immune System?
- Eat a sensible diet including the recommended five daily servings of fruits and vegetables. Fruits and vegetables contain “phytonutrients” and “antioxidants” that support the immune system and protect our health.
- Cut back on “junk foods.” Junk foods and processed foods are low in vitamins and often contain chemicals that weaken the body. They are also high in fat, which places additional stress on the body and increases our risk of cancer and heart disease.
- Don’t smoke. If you drink alcohol, keep it moderate. These rob our bodies of nutrients and antioxidants that are needed to support the immune system. They also produce free-radicals that injure the immune system and our health.
- Take a good multiple vitamin/mineral supplement, such as Super Supplemental Vitamins and Minerals. It is a balanced formula consisting of natural vitamins and minerals in their bioavailable (highly usable) forms. It is very strong in the B vitamins—which help us with stress—and the important vitamins A, C, and E and the minerals zinc and selenium, essential for the immune system.
- Get regular vigorous exercise, such as walking. Exercise has many benefits including weight control and cardiovascular fitness. Exercise also stimulates the circulation (including the lymphatic system) which helps the immune system do its job more efficiently.
- In addition to the above, many herbs and herbal combinations have been used by herbalists for centuries to strengthen and support the immune system. These may be used during special times of need, such as season changes or during the “cold and flu season”; and may also prove helpful for those who have weakened immune systems, such as the elderly.
Herbs for the Immune System
Recent scientific research has confirmed much of what traditional herbalists have known for years, proving that many herbs do indeed help the immune system, either by nutritionally supporting and stimulating the white blood cells and the organs that produce them or by a direct effect on the harmful organisms themselves. In the remainder of this lesson, we will explore some of these herbal alternatives.
Echinacea was widely used by the Plains Indians of North America. American settlers also adopted its use and the herb has been valued by natural health advocates since. Herbalists have used Echinacea for years to support the immune system, especially during season changes and during the cold and flu season.
Echinacea is one of the most useful herbs because it does more than nourish the immune system. It is also known as the “King of the Blood Purifiers.” And Echinacea has no dangerous side-effects.
Echinacea has been one of the most scientifically studied herbs. It has been found to contain natural chemicals, echinacoside, that are beneficial to the immune system by increasing white blood cell activity against tumor cells, Candida Albicans, and pathological microorganisms. Echinacosides are also very powerful free radical scavengers.
There are three species of Echinacea that are valued by herbalists today; Echinacea purpurea, E. augustifolia and E. pallida. Echinacea purpurea is the Latin name for purple coneflowers (pictured), an herb native to the central and southwestern U.S. and widely-planted today as an ornamental flower. It grows in open fields and rocky soils and bears purple flowers that resemble black-eyed Susans. Extracts of Echinacea purpurea were found to enhance the cellular immune function of normal individuals and patients with depressed cellular immunity (patients with AIDS and individuals with chronic fatigue syndrome.) 1
All three species of Echinacea were used by the Indians and have been studied for their beneficial effects on the immune system. Many herbalists believe that the most beneficial Echinacea supplements contain a combination of at least two, and perhaps all three species.
The dietary virtues of garlic are well-known the world over. Garlic has served humankind for centuries. It has been scientifically proven to be very beneficial for both the immune and circulatory systems. The only problem with getting enough garlic into the diet has always been the odor it leaves on the breath. Recent technological breakthroughs have made it possible to manufacture “odorless garlic.” The question is, does it retain the potency of fresh garlic? Studies have shown that odorless garlic does not have the same health benefits as real garlic.
Nature’s Sunshine Products (NSP) offers the most potent garlic on the market today with a special coating that controls the garlic’s odor. When broken open, these tablets have a strong garlic odor—unlike the odorless garlic products. Careful preparation of each tablet gives NSP’s high-potency garlic a chlorophyll coating, which controls odor while assuring a long shelf-life.
Because the tablet’s coating does not break down until it reaches the small intestine where absorption takes place, you receive the full nutritional value of garlic without the undesirable taste. Moreover, comparing total allicin potential (TAP), Nature’s Sunshine’s garlic is far more potent than any of the top-selling brands. One tablet a day is sufficient for most people.
Golden Seal Root
Golden Seal is a native North American herb that grows in the Appalachian Mountains and surrounding areas. The Cherokee Indians valued the root for health purposes and also for the yellow dye it produced. Once widely available in the wild, the plant has been over-harvested for years and is now mostly available through commercial cultivation. Its properties are mostly due to its alkaloids, which include berberine, hydrastine, and canadine. Because demand for the herb is high and supplies are low, goldenseal is one of the most expensive herbs on the market, and also one of the most counterfeited.
Many herb suppliers are tempted to adulterate supplies of goldenseal with other herbs of similar chemical composition, such as Oregon grape. However, only goldenseal contains the important alkaloid hydrastine. It is important to buy goldenseal root from a reputable company that has the technology and expertise needed to test it for hydrastine content—thus ensuring a pure, unadulterated herb.
For children who can not yet swallow capsules or tablets, a liquid herbal extract in a glycerin base is often the most beneficial way to supplement. Ultimate Echinacea is, therefore, an excellent choice for children. Another liquid extract good for children, as well as adults, is Echinacea/Golden Seal Liquid Herb. It includes two species of echinacea—E. purpurea and E. Angustifolia. NSP uses only the roots of these botanicals.
The roots contain greater amounts of beneficial components. Each 5 ml serving provides 125 mg of the echinacea combination and 125 mg of goldenseal root—a powerful combination to support the immune system and to help the body maintain health. Another great immune-building supplement for children, especially when respiratory problems are a concern, is Chewable Elderberry Plus.
Chinese Herbal Combinations
The Chinese have practiced herbology continuously for thousands of years and have accumulated much wisdom in their use. Today, we can all benefit from the knowledge they have acquired. The Chinese usually use herbal combinations rather than single herbs. The herbs in these combinations are chosen for their synergistic effects and, as a result, traditional Chinese formulations are quite effective.
One of my favorite Chinese herbal combinations for the immune system is Trigger Immune, which consists of 18 herbs. This formulation is useful not only for an impaired immune system but for chronic poor health and fatigue as well. This formula has also been used traditionally for the depressed, impotent and those suffering from hemorrhoids. It generates Chi, according to Chinese herbology, supplementing deficient conditions.
Other Immune System Boosters
In recent years scientists have discovered several new substances that have proven to be very beneficial for stimulating and supporting the body’s immune system. I will briefly discuss few of these below:
Beta-glucans are long-chain polysaccharides that stimulate the immune system into action. Beta-glucans trick the body into an immune response, triggering an increase in the production of macrophages, T-cells, natural killer cells and cytokines.
Arabinogalactan stimulates natural killer cell and macrophage activity. It also helps increase the flora of Bifidobacteria and Lactobacillus, two beneficial types of bacteria.
Colostrum is the first milk produced by mammals before the onset of lactation. Rich in protein and immune-protecting transfer factors, colostrum supports the immune system of the newborn, and it can also improve health later in life. It helps increase immunoglobulin protein levels in the intestinal tract to fight foreign microorganisms.
Reishi mushroom and maitake mushroom are from the same family (Polyporaceae), and their similar polysaccharide content is thought to boost immune activity, increase the activation of natural killer cells and activate macrophages.
Cordyceps, a Chinese herb, protects genes by promoting the repair of DNA. Cordyceps increases T-cell and B-cell activity. These two groups kill foreign invaders.
The immune system is composed of the lymphatic system, blood proteins (known as immunoglobulins), specialized white blood cells such as lymphocytes, as well as the organs that produce these cells and the blood vessels that transport them. All are designed to react rapidly to disease-producing organisms and their toxins.
Our immune system is our body’s natural defense against sickness and disease. It is like the security forces of a city. This system continually monitors the body for anything that is out of place and deploys appropriate defense mechanisms when needed.
The body constantly battles mutant (cancer) cells. Some immunologists believe that there are always malignancies in the body. Fortunately, these are usually recognized and destroyed by the immune system before they can cause trouble.
There are many nutrients that affect the immune system. Therefore, a balanced diet is probably the most important consideration in maintaining a healthy immune system. Many vitamins and herbs can help the immune system function more effectively. There are many herbs, combinations, and nutrients that have proven useful in supporting the immune system.