Optimizing Immunity for the Winter Months ll Megan Anderson

The weather may still average 90 degrees (minus a freak snow storm or two), but most folks know that when September rolls in, cold and flu season is just around the corner. Typically this might mean stocking up on whatever your preferred medications happen to be, or even getting a flu shot, but this year, with a pandemic still hanging over our heads, things probably feel a little bit different.

There is a lot of talk of “boosting” immunity, which, though well intended, may not actually be ideal. Sending the immune system into overdrive unnecessarily can cause stress on the body, inducing allergies or inflammation, and in worst case scenarios, causing an autoimmune response. 

Another way to approach the idea might consider “optimizing” immunity, meaning that we support our body’s natural defense system by supporting it with what it needs and stripping away the things that detract from its ability to function well. 

Back to Basics

I may have mentioned this in previous articles, but it’s so easy to forget that it’s worth repeating. Any time a person has health issues they want to address, the first place to start is with the basics, including nutrition and adequate rest. Whole foods, especially an array of fresh vegetables, is vital to our body’s ability to function well. Fresh produce, healthy fats and protein are the premium fuel that our bodies run on. The more artificial ingredients a person ingests, the more deciphering the immune system has to do to figure out what’s safe and what isn’t as it works its way through the body. This takes up valuable energy that could be spent in other ways.

Soil based (as opposed to lab created) vitamins are an excellent addition to any health regimen. Even a diet rich in fruits and veggies can benefit from a balanced multivitamin, especially as we go into the colder months. Vitamins D and K are vital to immune health, and D has the added benefit of aiding mood and digestion, two components directly related to immune health (it’s not just a coincidence that you’re more likely to get sick when you’re under high stress). 

Additionally, probiotics support the gut not only in ease of digestion, but also fortifying the digestive tract as one of the front lines of immune defense. Beneficial bacteria support so many functions within the body that we haven’t even begun to understand. If you are familiar with the way mycorrhizal fungal networks help trees communicate with each other, I like to think of the beneficial bacteria within our bodies in a similar way, working to communicate between and support the various bodily systems on a micro level. 

Finally, rest often, and rest well. The human body does the vast majority of its healing work (i.e. immune defense work) during sleep. While it may be tempting to medicate yourself and work through a rough cold, you’ll actually end up staying sick longer, which will make you extra vulnerable to other infections for a longer period of time. Also, keep in mind that 8 hours is an average recommendation, and some people need more than that to function well. If you are sick, you will most likely need even more sleep in order to heal and feel better, so if you find yourself sleeping 10 or 12 hours, enjoy the rest. Your body is extremely intelligent and is working to do what it needs to do to get you feeling better. 

If All Else Fails

There is a saying in ancient Chinese medicine that goes something like this, “If we must resort to the use of herbs and treatments, we have already failed.” It’s a bit of a dim outlook, but the essence of the message is fascinating: the idea is that if we take care of ourselves with proper rest, movement, meditation and nutrition, our bodies will not become sick in the first place. 

That being said, we all need a little extra help sometimes. Here are some herbs that work as immune modulators, meaning they do not necessarily “boost” the immune system, but they help it to work in its most beneficial way. Herbs in this category tend to be high in polysaccharides and saponins, which benefit immunity. Often the herbs in this category also work to tonify the nervous system (again we see the nervous system / immune system connection). 

Astragalus  Astragalus membranaceous – Astragalus is a deliciously sweet root often simmered in teas, soups and stews to ward off colds and viruses. A member of the pea family, it, along with garden peas, are actually some of the few non-toxic plants in this family. It supports the adrenal glands, heart, lungs and liver. Research has shown that astragalus increases the production of white blood cells, antibodies and interferon, but in such a way that is safe to take over an extended period of time. In TCM, astragalus is believed to strengthen the wei qi, an energy that guards the body against imbalances caused by external influences (such as colds and viruses). 

Licorice Glycyrrhiza glabra – Another (non-toxic) pea family plant, licorice is often mistaken for anise, which is actually closer in flavor to the classic black licorice candy. Licorice root is sweet and moistening, supports adrenal function, and is quite a well-known antiviral plant. It can keep viruses from entering cells, stop their replication, inhibit their growth, and also encourage the immune system to work against infection. Its primary antiviral component is glycyerrhizin (of Greek origin, meaning “sweet root”), which is 50 times sweeter than sugar and gives licorice root its signature taste. Like astragalus and reishi, licorice is used to feed and strengthen qi, or the intrinsic life force. Note: licorice should not be taken regularly by those with high blood pressure, or at high doses for an extended period of time as it can increase blood pressure in general. It is also quite sweet so you don’t need take a lot to get the benefits!

Reishi Ganoderma lucidum, Ganoderma tsugae – Reishi mushrooms are considered the “elixir of life” in much of traditional Chinese medicine. They are, in fact, a powerhouse of a fungus, supporting the immune system and the nervous system, among a host of other benefits. Taken daily, reishi tonifies the parasympathetic nervous system as well as the adrenal cortex. Studies have shown reishi to regulate (i.e. increase or decrease as needed) cytokine response, and to improve T lymphocyte and macrophage production. This is only a short list of the many benefits reishi provides. If I could only use one medicinal herb for the rest of my life, it would probably be reishi!

Any of the above herbs can easily be found at health food stores in tincture (alcohol-based) form, and dried astragalus and licorice can easily be simmered in a tea mixed with other herbs such as mint, rosehips or elder berries (1T of tea mix for every 8 ounces of water, simmer, covered, for 20-30 min.). Reishi is a bit trickier as it’s extremely dense and takes several hours to extract in water, therefore tincture is often the preferred method of use.

I hope this has been a helpful starting point for your winter wellness routine. If you are interested in a custom tea blend, you can reach out to me at Megan@Freyjaha.com. May the cooler months offer a warmth of spirit!