As a functional medicine practitioner, here’s what I have been doing lately to support my immune system:
Next time you’re at the grocery store, pick up some fresh ginger. Not only is it one of the most affordable herbs, fresh ginger has also been shown to prevent the human respiratory syncytial virus (HRSV) from attaching to cells and forming plaque in the airways (1). This is likely thanks to gingers many active compounds, including terpenoids, gingerol, and flavonoids, which work together to fend off the development of pathogenic biofilms. You can juice ginger, make fresh ginger tea, or incorporate it into recipes.
2. Manuka honey
Manuka honey is like regular honey on steroids. Produced only in New Zealand, this honey has powerful anti-inflammatory properties and has been shown to help fend off illness thanks to its high propolis content. Propolis contains a number of plant compounds that can support our immune system; in fact, Manuka honey has even been studied for its ability to fight off the influenza-A virus. (2)
Cinnamon is one of my favorite herbs; not only can it help stabilize blood sugar, but it can also work as a next-level immune system supporter. I often suggest cinnamon to my patients with blood sugar issues due to its ability to help stabilize blood sugar levels, but it also works as a next-level immunity supporter thanks to its high antioxidant content (3), which protects cells from damage. One study even showed that cinnamon can block the powerful flu strain (H7N3) from entering the body’s cells (4). You can buy cinnamon tea, take it in a capsule, or sprinkle ground cinnamon on your yogurt, oatmeal, or into your smoothies and coffees.
You probably recognize echinacea from the cold and flu aisle in the drug store. This herb works against both bacteria and viruses (5) and has also demonstrated an ability to block the release (6) of cytokines, which are inflammatory proteins that perpetuate viral infections and sabotage the body’s natural healing process. You can find echinacea in most immune-boosting supplements and you can also find it as a tea.
We may be under “stay at home” orders, but that doesn’t mean we should skimp on a daily dose of sunlight if at all possible. Sunlight has demonstrated incredible healing properties; in fact, during the 1918 flu pandemic, health experts found that putting sick patients out in the sun helped deactivate the virus (7). We’re not exactly sure why sunlight is so healing, but it could have something to do with its influence on vitamin D production, which plays a role in dozens of pathways that are needed to fight off various illnesses. Not to mention, sunlight helps our body’s natural circadian rhythms, which emerging research suggests can regulate our inflammatory response to viruses (8).
Astralagus is part of a larger family of plants called adaptogens, which are my go-to’s for boosting immunity. Traditional Chinese medicine practitioners have been using astragalus for years for this exact purpose and recent research studies have actually confirmed its ability to fight off the influenza virus (9). You can find astragalus in capsules or in powdered form to add to teas and smoothies.
We all know that saunas are incredibly relaxing and comforting. But did you know that researchers have started studying the relationship between regular sauna sessions and decreased risk of respiratory diseases like pneumonia? It’s true. If fact, one study showed (10) a direct relationship between the number of sauna sessions per week and decreased risk.
So what explains these benefits? One theory is that saunas activate heat shock proteins (11) in our bodies. These proteins are produced naturally in response to stressful conditions (such as intense heat or cold) and work to increase the antiviral activity of prostaglandins (12), which are a group of lipid compounds that can inhibit RNA-based viral replication. This can slow — or even halt in some instances! — the ability of a virus to develop and grow in your body.
Thanks to a compound called allicin, garlic is one of nature’s most potent antimicrobials. It’s shown promise for fighting the development of pneumonia, sinus infections, the common cold, and the influenza virus (13)— just to name a few. Garlic has fascinated researchers for decades; in fact, two separate clinical trials (14) showed garlic supplementation (15) prevented and diminished symptoms of the common cold.
9. Fresh air
We already know that sunlight was helpful during the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, but doctors also found that open-air therapy dramatically improved the health of patients. This is something referred to as the “Open Air Factor,” where fresh air is thought to help to kill off bacteria and the influenza viruses compared to indoor air, both during the day and during the night. Decades later in the 1960s, the Ministry of Defense confirmed the therapeutic benefits of fresh air (16).
Drinking echinacea tea, getting outside for some sun and fresh air, and sprinkling cinnamon on my morning drink are just a few of the things I’m doing to support my immune system. And as always, don’t forget about the importance of decreasing stress as much as possible and prioritizing at least seven hours of restful, deep sleep (you can do this by cultivating an expert bedtime routine). Your body will thank you!
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