Herbs to Protect the Immune System in Elderly Individuals


In the midst of the worst flu season since 2009, anything that can be done to boost the immune system, particularly for seniors, who often are the hardest hit with respiratory diseases, is worth considering.

 According to Christopher Hobbs, a medical herbalist with a doctorate in phylogenetics, evolutionary biology and phytochemistry, there are three levels of herbal immune activities. These are: “deep immune activation, surface immune activation, and ‘adoptogenic’ or hormonal modulation.”

 While many of the herbals listed below have been used in traditional remedies for many years, some may interact with specific medicines or conditions. Always consult with a health care professional, licensed naturopath or M.D. before trying these.

Deep Immune Activation

 These include herbal immunomodulators such as Astralagus (avoid with auto-immune diseases), Schizandra chinensis, Ganoderma lucidum (from Reishi mushrooms). See especially side effects and interactions on linked articles with these herbs.

Bitter tonics may have a role in preventive medicine as well. Bitters seem to function by triggering a response in the mouth that signals the central nervous system to stimulate appetite, increase digestive fluid flow and regulate the production of glucose, glucagon and insulin. Bitters like mugworth and gentian can provide antidepressive actions.

A definite area that can affect senior’s health as they get into the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s is a loss of appetite and thereby increasing digestive problems. Bitters, by stimulating appetite can help in this department as well.

Alternatives to bitters are cleansing herbs that are a bit gentler such as cleavers, nettles, sarsaparilla, and yellow dock. For more insights on Nettles, see the article in the MorningChores blog.

 Surface Immune Activation

 Herbs that help in this area act by increasing immune reaction to infections by microbes. Generally, they are classed as antimicrobials and include the following:

  • Calendula (Avoid with sedative drugs.)
  • Echinacea (Note: Read the full discussion including side effects, interactions and clinical references on this herb in the linked site.)
  • Garlic
  • Myrrh
  • Old man’s beard
  • Onion

 Hormonal Modulation

 As hormones are involved in the immune response, herbs in this category, known as adaptogens, modulate body systems that are stressed, re-setting the system to a normal state. Some typical adaptogens are Siberian Ginseng and Rhodiola.


 Herbs can help detoxify the body, removing waste and poisons. For example, dandelion leaf works as a diuretic, helping remove wastes from the kidneys and urinary system. Mullein or coltsfoot acts as an expectorant or anticatarrhal, helping clear the respiratory system. Dandelion root and milk thistle will aid in eliminating toxins from the liver and blood.


 While a mineral, not an herb, Zinc deserves mention in any article on immune function, particularly in seniors. The article linked above is titled “The Dynamic Link between the Integrity of the Immune System,” and was published in the Journal of Nutrition of the American Society for Nutritional Sciences, Issue #5, May 2000, pp. 1399Si1406S and is part of a series on zinc.

Numerous peer-reviewed articles have established zinc deficiency in many adults and specifically declining levels as we age. They also show a clear link between immune levels and zinc deficiency. Even the popular Cold-EZE for shortening colds contains zinc and other similar studies cover other forms of zinc particularly for colds.  

  Recommended Sources

 Hoffman, David. An Elders’ Herbal: Natural Techniques for Promoting Health & Vitality. (Rochester, VT: Healing Arts Press, 1993).

 For a good overview on the immune system, see Dr. Hobbs class handout, Immune System: An Overview.


4 Replies to “Herbs to Protect the Immune System in Elderly Individuals”

    1. So many systems in the body affect the immune system and many herbs are suggested to boost immune function—many more than just the few listed in this post. Choosing just one is a bit like locating the “Magic Bullet” for immunology. The Magic Bullet concept was developed by the Nobel Laureate Paul Ehrlich in 1900—the idea that one specific agent might kill specific microbes. While there are a number of Magic Bullet’s now, the body’s immune system is so complex that a single approach probably is not possible, at least at this time.
      However, If I had to pick just one, I would start with one of the major parts of the body responsible for immune support, the thymus gland. The thymus gland is of critical importance for immune function. This gland modulates many aspects of immunity, especially the development of “T” (thymus-derived) cells. “The thymus begins to shrink (atrophy) after adolescence. By middle age it is only about 15% of its maximum size.”
      Therefore, I would look at things that strengthen the thymus gland. One supplement seems to have some real possibilities—melatonin. It also is worth mentioning a major factor in immunosenescence. Zinc levels have been demonstrated in study after study to decrease as we age and affect the function immunityOne other supplement has a 2,000-year history in supporting immunity, panax ginseng.

  1. Based on your research, what’s the best herb to help with osteoarthritis pain? I understand that you’re not giving advice . . . thanks.

    1. Several herbal supplements have demonstrated effectiveness in helping with osteoarthritis. These are curcumin and boswellia.

      “Efficacy and safety of curcumin and its combination with boswellic acid in osteoarthritis: a comparative, randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study,” in BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 2018 Jan 9;18(1):7 reports some encouraging results. “The effects of CuraMed® 500-mg capsules (333 mg curcuminoids) and Curamin® 500-mg capsules (350 mg curcuminoids and 150 mg boswellic acid) taken orally three times a day for 12 weeks in 201 patients was investigated in a three-arm, parallel-group, randomized, double-blinded, placebo-controlled trial.” This study concluded that “Twelve-week use of curcumin complex or its combination with boswellic acid reduces pain-related symptoms in patients with OA. Curcumin in combination with boswellic acid is more effective. Combining Curcuma longa and Boswellia serrata extracts in Curamin® increases the efficacy of OA treatment presumably due to synergistic effects of curcumin and boswellic acid.”

      Oral herbal therapies for treating osteoarthritis,” in the CCochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, 2014 May 22;(5):CD002947“reported on a critical trial “. . . to assess the efficacy and safety of curcuminoid complex extract from turmeric rhizome with turmeric volatile oil (CuraMed®) and its combination with boswellic acid extract from Indian frankincense root (Curamin®) vs placebo for the treatment of 40- to 70-year-old patients with osteoarthritis (OA).” The resulted concluded that, “Twelve-week use of curcumin complex or its combination with boswellic acid reduces pain-related symptoms in patients with OA. Curcumin in combination with boswellic acid is more effective. Combining Curcuma longa and Boswellia serrata extracts in Curamin® increases the efficacy of OA treatment presumably due to synergistic effects of curcumin and boswellic acid.

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