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.
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.)
- Old man’s beard
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.
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.