Good immunity is good health, I dare say.
Not only does it help to keep the winter cold and flu bugs away. A healthy immune system can mean prevention of devastating illness. As we are surrounded by cases of Lyme disease, cancer, and various antibiotic resistant infections, strong immunity is always crucial. If we become wounded or undergo surgery, our immune system must be prepared to ensure that no harmful bacteria or viruses can take hold while the body, in its vulnerable state works to restore itself.
Building immunity is a simple holistic process. To illustrate this, I'm presenting here six simple ways to support immune health over the long term.
The first three suggestions are not herbs, but other basic approaches that can go a long way with a little commitment. In the final three picks, I offer some favourite local wild plant foods/medicines that can safely help to build and strengthen immunity.
So here they are. Simple, clear and helpful. Starting with the most important one...
1) GET ENOUGH REST
ALLOW FOR DAILY RESTORATION
A tired body is like an open invitation for invading microbes. Long term exhaustion leads to long term illness. All the cells and tissues of the body (including immune cells) regenerate and strengthen when the body is at rest. The benefits of using sleep for preventative health can not be overstated. Not only will you feel better and resist illness more easily, but you'll make clearer, wiser decisions throughout the day.
There are many herbs that can help to support sleep for those who have a hard time getting there. I've written about two of them in a previous blog which you can read HERE.
If healthy sleep habits are challenging, even conscious efforts towards relaxation and releasing tension, stress, fear, anger and other such challenging emotions built up during the day is significantly beneficial to immune health. Stress eats up many of the nutrients that feed the immune system. And fear exhausts immunity. Anything we do to relax these patterns of thought and the holds they have on the body will be helpful. Restorative yoga, qi gong, tai chi or mindfulness exercises are good practices towards this end.
2) AVOID REFINED SUGAR
BE ON YOUR OWN TEAM
Cancer cells, candida cells and in fact all harmful microbes thrive on sugar. They use it for a quick source of energy, just as we do. Sugar helps them to invade and reproduce more quickly, and at the same time it dampens down our immune response so that our immune cells are less aware of the invading organisms and more sluggish in response to them. For many folks, giving up sugar can be a difficult process, but even making conscious attempts at reducing it bit by bit can be monumental for your general health, and your immunity.
I like to use dates, maple syrup and apple butter or apple sauce in baking and as snacks to fulfill my sweet cravings. Fruits of any kind, fresh, cooked or dried are also good nourishing sweets that will often provide vitamin C as well as numerous other nutrients that build immunity.
3) FEED THE GOOD GUYS
Pro-biotic foods and supplements give our immune systems a boost by increasing the number of healthful bacteria in our systems (mainly in the gut) which can then join the army of immune cells helping to fight off harmful bacteria that can cause illness. A strong immune system has thriving gut flora.
Fresh, organic uncooked vegetables and fruits are good pro-biotic foods because their live enzymes are still present and vibrant when we consume them. If they are preserved through lacto-fermentation (or unpasteurized pickling), these enzymes remain and blend with new helpful bacteria that grow through the fermentation process. This becomes an even more potent pro-biotic.
Unpasteurized or fermented foods that we can buy will always be found in the refrigerators of grocery stores. These include miso, saurkraut, kefir, yogurt and kombucha. Fermented foods can also be made at home, but if you're looking to purchase some excellent fermented foods and you're in Ontario, I would recommend Tradition Miso and Pyramid Ferments.
4) BURDOCK Arctium lappa
MORE FOOD FOR THE GOOD GUYS
Burdock is the plant that makes the burrs that stick to us and our pets as we walk through fields and along forest edges. This plant has a deep tap root that harnesses numerous trace minerals from down in the soil. It is a nutritious and tasty vegetable that can be cooked into soups and stir fries or grated raw into salads. I like to chop it up and infuse it in apple cider vinegar, where its nutty flavour is taken up, and trace minerals like iron are extracted, making them more bio-available.
When harvested in the fall, burdock root is rich in the starch, inulin. Inulin is a key source of food for our gut flora, or our "good bacteria". While pro-biotic foods and supplements give us more gut flora, we can encourage the reproduction of our already-existing gut flora with nutrients that feed it, like inulin. Food for our gut flora is known as pre-biotics. Burdock root is thus an excellent pre-biotic, and in turn it provides much support for our immune health. Winter soups with burdock root added to them are a good way to support immunity using a food that is also an herbal medicine.
PRIMING THE IMMUNE SYSTEM
This is a broad category. We certainly have some mushrooms that are used more as medicine and others used more as food; however what I want to emphasize here is that pretty much any mushroom that is safe for us to ingest is also beneficial for the immune system. Shitake, portabello, oyster, chanterelle, reishi or turkey tail are all mushrooms available in the wild, at farms or grocery stores. All contain complex starches or polysaccharides which not only serve as pre-biotics like the burdock mentioned above, but they also strengthen the immune response in a way that is similar to exercising a muscle.
As these polysaccharides break down, they surround healthy cells, making the cells feel as though they are being attacked by an invading organism. This triggers an immune response as immune cells are called into action. Part of this process involves the production of new immune cells as the body prepares for a potential ongoing attack. Since there is no real offending organism to fight off, as a result of this process, our bodies produce a larger store of immune cells that can be used in the future. The immune system also gets a bit of a workout through a sort of "false alarm". In this way, the entire army is primed and prepared should a genuine offender enter the scene.
Water is the best solvent in which to extract the polysaccharrides from mushrooms. Therefore, a good idea to build your immunity is eating mushroom soup. It actually goes very well with chopped up burdock root, especially with a generous amount of onions, miso and/or soy sauce added.
6) SPRUCE, PINE & OTHER CONIFERS (Picea spp)
VITAMIN C FROM THE GREAT WHITE NORTH
The immune support offered by our hearty conifer trees is manifold. They are a tremendous source of vitamin C, which as most of us know is a key component of immune health. Drinking spruce or pine tea regularly over the winter will help to ensure a good intake of vitamin C from a tree who knows winter well (instead of taking it from a citrus fruit which is a lot less adapted to winter conditions and thus has less support to offer us from that vantage point). Conifers are also deeply warming to the body, helping it to adapt to the cold weather and keep the metabolism and immune function active and vital. Meanwhile conifers are quite strongly antibacterial. Taking conifer tea at the onset of cold or flu symptoms can help allay the symptoms and fight off the bugs before they take hold.
All species of spruce and pine that we find in our region can be used as medicine. The needles can be harvested at any time of year, and at times freshly fallen branches make themselves easily available for collection and use. The needles can be steeped while covered for at least 10 minutes, and drank as tea with honey and/or lemon juice if desired to enhance their flavour.
...and there we have it. 6 tips. All fairly simple and easily accessible. All in support of excellent long term immune health.
I would like to speak more about ways we might approach infections when they do come on and our immune systems must deal with them. That however, is for another post and another day.
For now, we can focus on hibernating, cooking nourishing foods and bringing some of our wild plant food/medicines into the mix...