The wear-and-tear of daily living puts an enormous burden on the immune system. Add to that toxins in the environment, infectious diseases, and chronic stress, and it’s likely that your immune system could use some support. Whether you’re looking to shore up your defenses during cold and flu season, or create long-term immune support to help protect against cancer and other diseases, supplements can help.
1. Mushroom Extracts that contain reishi, maitake and/or shiitake mushrooms are high in beta-glucan, a powerful antiviral agent and immune system modulator. Recent studies suggest that mushroom extracts inhibit tumor growth and can protect against cancer. Look for them in capsules or liquid extracts, with combinations of several varieties of mushrooms and other immune-supportive ingredients; or go traditional and brew a tea from the whole mushrooms.
2. Zinc is critical for optimal functioning of the immune system. The body requires zinc to develop and activate T-cells—important players in the immune system—and several studies have shown that even mild deficiencies can impair natural killer cell activity and other components of the immune system. Look for it in tablets and capsules for long-term immune support, or in homeopathic lozenges (Zincum gluconicum, Zincum aceticum or other forms) for immediate relief; studies have found these lozenges can dramatically shorten duration and lessen symptoms of colds and flu.
3. Selenium, a mineral found in high concentrations in Brazil nuts and seafood, is a powerful antioxidant that’s been shown to improve immune response. Studies have shown that selenium increases activity of natural killer cells, and deficiencies have been shown to hamper immune response. Look for it in tablets or capsules, as a single supplement or in combination with zinc, vitamin E, or immune-supportive herbs.
4. Elderberry has been used for hundreds of years to fight colds and flu; it’s high in anthocyanins, antioxidants that protect the cells from damage and activate the immune response. In one study, elderberry was more effective than echinacea or propolis in activating immune response. Other studies have confirmed the antiviral properties of elderberry, and suggest that taking elderberry at the first sign of illness can substantially shorten the duration of flu, and may be especially effective in treating upper respiratory tract infections. Look for it as an extract or in lozenges, capsules, quick-dissolve tablets, and syrups, alone or in combination with other herbs.
5. Cordyceps is a fungus—traditionally used in Chinese medicine—that enhances immune activity and reduces inflammation. It’s used primarily for long-term immunity, and some studies suggest cordyceps may help protect against cancer. Cordyceps may also reduce the effects of aging and increase learning and memory, probably because of its significant antioxidant capabilities. Look for it in tablets and capsules.
6. Echinacea, also known as the purple coneflower, has been traditionally used for centuries to treat infections and injuries; it’s known for its antiviral and antimicrobial activities, and its ability to support immune system function. Though research is mixed, many studies suggest that echinacea reduces the incidence and duration of the common cold; additionally, it appears to have potent adaptogenic (or stress reducing) effects, which may enhance immune system activity in the long run. Look for it in capsules, teas, lozenges, or standardized extracts, either alone or in combination with goldenseal, green tea, astragalus, and other immune-supportive herbs and supplements.
7. Pelargonium Sidoides, also known as African geranium, is an African herbal extract with powerful antimicrobial, antiviral, and immunomodulatory effects. Pelargonium also acts as a natural expectorant to dispel excess mucus, and is especially effective at helping to clear up bronchitis, sinusitis, and other respiratory infections. It’s also called umckaloabo and sold under the brand name Umcka by Nature's Way. Look for it as a standardized extract, or in capsules, tablets, syrups, and chewable tabs.
8. olive leaf extract—from the leaves of the olive tree—has been used for many years as a traditional treatment for colds, flu, and infection. It contains a compound called oleuropein that has antibacterial, antiviral, and anti-inflammatory properties. Look for it in capsules or as an extract.
9. Probiotics are one of the safest, most effective therapies for long-term support of the immune system. They’re especially effective at preventing and treating infectious diarrhea, as well as diarrhea associated with antibiotic use, and also have potent anti-inflammatory actions. Many studies also suggest probiotics may help protect against cancer, especially cancers of the gastrointestinal tract and possibly breast cancer. Look for them in capsules, liquids or chewables, as single strains, or as a broad-spectrum blend of varieties.
10. N-acetyl cysteine (NAC), from the amino acid L-cysteine, is used by the liver to form glutathione, the body’s primary antioxidant that’s critical for immune health. NAC is especially important for anyone who has liver problems, since a compromised liver will be unable to produce adequate glutathione. A number of studies have pointed out NAC’s ability to regulate and enhance immune-system activity. Look for it in capsules and tablets, alone or in combination with antioxidants, herbs, and other immune-supportive ingredients.
11. Astragalus is a traditional Chinese herb that’s considered an adaptogen, a compound that helps the body naturally adapt to stress and illness. It’s high in polysaccharides and flavonoids that enhance immune function and help protect against the flu. Some studies have also found that astragalus inhibits the development of atherosclerosis and may help to protect against cancer. You’ll find it in capsules or as a tincture, alone or in combination with other herbs like schisandra or echinacea.
12 Larch, from the wood of the Western larch tree, is high in a compound called arabinogalactan, a polysaccharide that enhances immune response to viral and bacterial infections. In studies, larch increases the body's potential to defend against the common cold, and it also shows promise as a potential cancer-protective treatment. Find it in capsules, powders, and liquids.
Five Immune Busters
What you avoid is often as important as what you emphasize. Steer clear of these five common immune-busters:
1. Calories. Or, at least, too many of them; in one recent study, restricting calories by 10 percent improved immune function. And overall incidence and severity of specific types of infectious illnesses are higher in obese people.
2. Sugar. It suppress immune function; in one study, drinking 24 ounces of soda depressed the activity of white blood cells that fight infection by 50 percent; orange juice has shown similar effects.
3. Allergenic foods. Food allergies and sensitivities suppress immune function by creating chronic, underlying inflammation in the body. Avoid common allergens like gluten, dairy, soy, and corn, and if you suspect sensitivities, get tested.
4. All-nighters. Sleep deprivation can negatively impact immune function; studies show that lack of sleep leads to a decrease in T-cells activity and increase in inflammatory cytokines.
5. Stress. It leads to chronically high levels of cortisol that, over time, can have immunosuppressive effects. Chill out; studies show that stress-management techniques like meditation and guided imagery lower cortisol levels.
Eating For Immunity
11 immune-boosting snacks
Ready to eat your way to a healthier winter? Ward off colds and flu with these low-cal (each about 75 calories), high-immunity foods that feed your immune system—not your cold.
1. Brazil nuts are one of the best food sources of selenium, a well-researched antioxidant that improves immune response. In one study, a daily Brazil nut was more effective than selenium supplements in increasing blood selenium levels. Snack on: Two Brazil nuts chopped and sprinkled on a cup of steamed broccoli florets.
2. Yogurt is rich in probiotics, beneficial bacteria that favorably influence certain aspects of the immune system, such as increasing the numbers of some T cells. Snack on: ½ cup non-fat Greek yogurt with ½ cup blueberries.
3. Oats contain beta-glucan, a type of fiber that enhances the ability of immune cells to move quickly to infection sites and eliminate bacteria. Snack on:½ cup cooked oatmeal, sweetened with stevia.
4. Okra supports the body’s production of glutathione, a powerful antioxidant that supports the immune system. Snack on: 1 cup cooked okra drizzled
with olive oil and sprinkled with (immune-boosting) turmeric.
5. Fish is high in protein and rich in omega-3 fats, which are critical for fighting inflammation and enhancing immune function. Snack on:Three small sardines on a bed of chopped basil and spinach.
6. Grapefruit contains hesperidin, an antioxidant that’s been shown to repair damaged immune function and lower inflammation. Snack on: Half a grapefruit drizzled with raw, unfiltered honey.
7. Oysters are the best food source of zinc. Many studies have shown that even a mild zinc deficiency suppresses immune function. Snack on: Three small oysters with a dash of inflammation-busting hot sauce.
8. Papayas are rich in vitamin C, which improves many components of the immune system, including natural killer cell activities. Snack on: One small papaya, with a squeeze of lime and a sprinkle of coarse sea salt.
9. Brussels sprouts are high in cysteine, an amino acid that lessens inflammation and promotes white blood cell activity. Snack on:1 cup of thinly sliced Brussels sprouts sautéed in 1 teaspoon olive oil and sprinkled with smoked paprika.
10. Pumpkins are loaded with alpha-carotene and beta-carotene, which the body converts into immune-supportive vitamin A. Snack on:1 cup steamed pumpkin, mixed with cinnamon and nutmeg and drizzled with raw, unfiltered honey.
11. Spinach is a low-calorie source of vitamin E, which is essential for immunity. Studies have shown that even a small vitamin E deficiency can impair the response of certain immune system functions. Snack on: 2 cups of chopped spinach tossed with balsamic vinegar
Lisa Turner is a food writer and holistic nutritionist based in Boulder, Colo.
HOST DEFENSE MYCOMMUNITY COMPREHENSIVE IMMUNE SUPPORT boasts a full spectrum of potent constituents from 17 mushroom species—bugs and viruses don't stand a chance.
NATURE'S WAY SAMBUCUS IMMUNE delivers naturally extracted elderberry, plus echinacea, zinc, and vitamin C in a soothing, raspberry-flavored syrup—great to have on hand throughout the year.
QUANTUM HEALTH THERA ZINC ELDERBERRY LOZENGES in Raspberry flavor helps halt cold and flu symptoms fast with zinc gluconate (a highly absorbable form) and immune-boosting elderberry.
ENZYMATIC THERAPY PEARLS IMMUNE is a proprietary probiotic blend including Lactoferrin for both immune and digestive system support. It's "pearl" form guarantees intact delivery to the intestines.
BARLEAN'S OLIVE LEAF COMPLEX encapsulates the antioxidant, antiviral, and antibacterial power of freshly picked, freshly pressed olive leaves in convenient softgels.