The immune system is responsible for protecting the body against infection and illness. A healthy immune system is associated with an increased resistance to disease and a reduced tendency towards infections such as colds and the flu. Conversely, a weakened immune system results in increased susceptibility to illness.
Unlike other bodily systems, the immune system is not a group of physical structures but a connection of different organs, cells and chemicals including the thymus, spleen, tonsils, white blood cells, antibodies and interferon. These components work in conjunction to maintain the body’s immune system.
Immunity can be divided into two types: innate and adaptive. Innate immunity is the immunity present at birth and acts as the first barrier against micro-organisms. The skin, mucous secretions and stomach acid make up parts of the innate immune system and are involved in preventing undesirable pathogens taking hold in the body.
Adaptive immunity is the second defence against infection. This type of immunity arises after immunisation or following an infection, resulting in the immune system being able to remember and identify pathogens it has encountered in order to prevent them causing infection in the future. Such immunity explains why chickenpox, a common childhood illness, does not tend to affect most adults.
Frequent infections are a sign of depressed immunity. A weakened immune system increases the body’s susceptibility to infection, and illness further depletes the immune system, which can result in a vicious cycle of repeated infections. Supporting the immune system is therefore vital for good health and can be achieved through adopting a healthy diet, preferably consisting mainly of whole foods; taking regular exercise; and getting a good night’s rest. Ideally, these measures should be accompanied by supplementation of nutrients and herbs to help strengthen the immune system.
Echinacea is arguably one of the most popular herbs used for treatment of minor infections. Recently researchers set out to evaluate the effectiveness of the herb for the treatment of the common cold by performing a meta-analysis which involved reviewing 14 studies on the herb. The results showed that echinacea reduced the chance of developing a cold by 58% and the duration by 1.4 days.
Echinacea is renowned for its immune boosting potential, making it a first choice for many practitioners in supporting immune health. A recent study confirmed that echinacea is helpful for both the prevention and limitation of cold symptoms. Goldenseal, another immune boosting herb, is sometimes taken with echinacea to complement its activity.
For effective supplementation, a standardised extract of echinacea, which guarantees a level of at least 4% phenolic compounds, one of the active constituents of the herb, should be used. Echinacea is best taken for 2 to 3 weeks.
Traditionally, goldenseal, a relative of the buttercup has been used for strengthening
the mucous membranes. It is now recognised however that the herb is an all round powerful immune booster, with the potential to target viruses and bacteria directly. Studies on goldenseal have identified the alkaloids as being one of active components in the herb.
Experts recommend taking a goldenseal extract standardised to contain between 8 and 10% alkaloids.
Multivitamin & Mineral Complex
Nutrient deficiency is one of the major causes of weakened immunity. Lack of vitamins A, C, the B-complex vitamins, zinc and selenium are thought to deplete immune health since they are critical for proper immune function.
Nutritional surveys of the UK population have repeatedly shown that generally intakes for these nutrients fall short of the optimum levels. Taking a broad-spectrum multivitamin and mineral complex is a simple but effective way of boosting nutrient intake to support the immune system.
Vitamin C has been shown to have many immune boosting effects, such as enhancing white blood cell response, increasing interferon (a chemical factor that fights infection) and strengthening the integrity of the linings of the mucous membranes. These effects may underlie clinical data showing that vitamin C minimises the symptoms of infections.
During illness the body’s requirement for vitamin C sharply rises to meet the demands of fighting an infection. However, the body can only use small amounts of vitamin C at a time so it is preferable to take a Time Release Vitamin C as it is gradually released over several hours, optimising the body’s use of it.
Medical herbalists have long employed both Korean and Siberian Ginseng in supporting the health of the immune system. It appears that both types of ginseng are capable of stimulating specialised immune cells called killer T Cells which fight damaging viruses and bacteria.
Ginseng is typically suggested in the recovery phase of illness when the immune system is vulnerable and in need of extra support. Siberian ginseng is ideal for those who have experienced a long bout of illness and is best used for 3 months followed by a 1-month break. In contrast, Korean ginseng is recommended after a short spell of ill health and is usually used for 3 weeks followed by a 1 week gap. Both ginsengs can be rotated with other immune stimulating herbs such as echinacea and goldenseal.
St John’s Wort
The potential antiviral effects of St John’s Wort are perhaps not as well known as its other properties; however, this herb is often used in practice as an adjunct to other immune boosting botanicals. Individuals taking medication should consult their doctor before taking St John’s Wort since the herb is known to interact with certain medications.
Fish oils are a good source of omega-3 fatty acids, which are considered to be important for all aspects of health including immunity. Oily fish, such as sardines and mackerel, are believed to be one of the best sources of the omega-3’s but unfortunately most people do not consume enough of this food to achieve their daily omega-3 requirement.
Consequently, supplementation with fish oils may be helpful in overcoming inadequate dietary intake of omega-3 fatty acids.