Our immune systems work around the clock protecting us from infection and disease. Feeling ill is never a good experience. Whether it be a seasonal cold, an ear infection, thousands of other potential ailments, we feel discomfort, a lack of energy, and even pain. The good news is that our immune system exists specifically to help keep our cells and organs properly functioning so that we feel well, stay healthy and live longer. It is the built-in first line of defense for our bodies.
While the immune system has always had a vital role in human health and wellbeing, it has gained even more attention over the past several months as the world battles the COVID-19 pandemic. We’ve been presented daily with evidence of the immune system’s amazing strengths and heartbreaking vulnerabilities. The population, doctors, and researchers alike have had a growing interest in understanding how we can better prepare our bodies to respond and defend if exposed to the virus.
This article gives you an easy-to-read overview of the immune system and discusses actions you can take to help support the natural immune response. In addition to evidence-based lifestyle suggestions and a close look at conventional treatments, we look at the evidence behind how different natural supplements support a healthy immune system.
What is the Immune System?
organs, and chemicals responsible for identifying and removing cells, toxins, bacteria, viruses, and fungi that could potentially cause a person to get sick.
When the innate immune system cannot stave off an illness, the adaptive immune system takes charge. This second line of defense works to build and activate cells called B cells and several types of T cells. These cells are responsible for identifying specific illness-causing cells and creating a response system to eliminate cells that are causing illness so that they can feel well again.
In most cases, the immune system remembers how to fight against certain types of viruses and bacteria so that, if a person is exposed to the same pathogen again, it can respond well enough, so we don’t get sick.
How to Support Immune System Health
Lead a Healthy Lifestyle
Several lifestyle factors are at the base of healthy immune system function. These include:
- A balanced diet that supports optimal nutrient intake and weight management
- Minimizing sugar intake, as this could trigger an immune response
- Regular physical activity and exercise
- Avoiding exposure to toxins
- Minimizing stress
- Getting enough sleep and rest
Despite everything we know about living a healthy lifestyle, normal life circumstances do not always make it realistic to lead a perfect immune-supporting diet.
When we experience stress, are overloaded with toxins, aren’t getting enough sleep, or aren’t eating a balanced diet, the immune system can become overwhelmed or deficient. We are at greater risk of getting sick, and our bodies may have a more challenging time fighting off illness.
In these cases, treatments and supplements may help support the immune system response, reduce illness time, or alleviate symptoms.
Conventional Treatments for Seasonal Illness
When you get sick with the common cold or flu, there is no cure. You must wait until your adaptive immune system responds to the illness. In the meantime, it is common for people to take conventional over-the-counter medicines like paracetamol, ibuprofen, acetylsalicylic acid, and antiviral drugs. In most cases, these drugs only address illness symptoms without supporting natural immune activity, and they may have unpleasant side effects.
As a result, researchers have gained a growing interest in natural supplements that enhance natural immune function to take in addition to, or instead of, conventional treatments.
Natural Herbs and Nutrients (Vitamins and Minerals) that Support the Immune System
This section includes a description of nine herbal extracts and naturally-occurring vitamins that researchers and herbalists have identified as natural treatments to support the immune system. For each natural supplement, we describe how they work and what the research says regarding its role in preventing and treating different illnesses.
Andrographis extract comes from the Andrographis paniculata plant, which is commonly known as create or green chiretta. It is an ancient herb that has been used in Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine for centuries for many chronic diseases and acute ailments, including cancer, diabetes, high blood pressure, skin diseases, upset stomach, and influenza.
Researchers have identified many of the properties of Andrographis extract that help support the immune system and relieve symptoms. Some of the most essential conclusions of research on the effects of Andrographis extract include:
- Combats the symptoms of respiratory infections, the common cold, earaches, throat infections, and other viral illnesses.
- May protect you from contracting the common cold.
- May reduce the intensity of the common cold.
- Supports the adaptive immune response .
How does it work? Many of the immune-supporting properties of Andrographis extract are due to the high concentration of andrographolide lactones found in the plant. These lactones stimulate the immune system and have potent antiviral, anti-allergic, anti-diarrheal, hypoglycemic, and anti-inflammatory effects.
Some of the research conclusions that support the use of Siberian ginseng for immune health are as follows:
- Increases the number of T lymphocyte cells, which are essential elements of the body’s adaptive immune system.
- Reduces swelling and inflammation.
- Boosts the function of Andrographis extract.
Siberian ginseng is useful for supporting the immune system because of its strong and stable antiviral properties, including preventing virus multiplication.
Elderberry extract is one of the best-known natural remedies against infections across the globe.
Some of the most research benefits of elderberry extract for the immune system include:
Elderberry extract has been researched in the lab for centuries, and scientists have identified multiple properties that are to credit for the herb’s immune-supporting effects. It has explicit antiviral activities, even inhibiting the replications of certain viral strains.
It also has a potent antioxidant profile, which explains its ability to eliminate free radicals that could damage immune cells. Additionally, elderberries have properties that prevent the replication of certain types of bacteria in the body.
Vitamin A is a vital component for immune system development and maintenance. Vitamin A has confirmed anti-inflammatory capabilities and can boost immunity. Some of the most recent research has confirmed that vitamin A may:
- Improve the way our bodies respond to infectious diseases, with some studies showing that it may reduce the mortality of measles and diarrhea in populations with malnutrition.
- Supports the strength and integrity of skin and tissue surfaces, and supplementation can help improve the intestinal health of children with infections and nutritional deficiencies.
Vitamin A likely works to boost immune health in many ways, including supporting the production of cells that are part of the adaptive immune system, including T-cells, antibodies, and antigens.
Vitamin C is one of the best-known nutrients known to support the immune system. It is essential for the healthy functioning of immune cells. Yet, since vitamin C deficiency is relatively common, most people’s immune response is also depleted.
Some of the research-backed benefits of vitamin C for the immune system include:
- Improvements in infectious disease symptoms, including in people with recurrent infections.
- Supports critical activities of immune cells, from the structure of immune cells to their effective function.
Most people know of vitamin D as a nutrient that supports bone health. While this is true, it is also essential for immune health. In fact, before the invention of effective antibiotics, vitamin D was used to support immune response. Scientists know a lot about the role of vitamin D in immune response. Vitamin D:
- Contributes to immune functioning: in populations with vitamin D deficiency, there are higher risks of some types of infection.
- Modulates adaptive immune response cells. In people with autoimmune diseases, vitamin D has a vital role in supporting the healthy activity of B cells and T cells, which are the main response cells of the adaptive immune system.
Vitamin D is an essential component of several vital cells in the immune system. Its presence supports the physical barrier of cells in the immune system and supports the capacity of immune cells to eliminate pathogenic cells through a process called phagocytosis.
- Supporting the normal functioning of adaptive immunity, including the generation of cells called cytotoxic T lymphocytes.
- Critical for the makeup of adaptive immune B and T cells
Even though humans only need chromium in trace amounts, it is not easy to obtain in significant amounts in commonly consumed foods. Deficiencies in chromium are associated with a range of chronic diseases and metabolic deficiencies that influence immune health.
Research has shown that chromium deficiencies influence immune health by:
- Impacting immune cell production, including that of T and B lymphocytes, macrophages, and cytokines.
- Helps to regulate blood glucose. Since high blood glucose can alter the immune response, chromium could benefit the immune system in this manner.
Zinc is essential for both innate and adaptive immunity. It is crucial for stabilizing cell membranes, including the membranes of cells that are exposed to pathogens. Zinc also has antioxidant functions that scavenge substances that can damage cells. Some of the leading research findings of the role of zinc in the immune system include:
- Implicated in infectious diseases: people with infectious diseases like HIV, tuberculosis, and pneumonia are more at risk of having a zinc deficiency. Deficiencies of zinc are also linked to excessive inflammation and poor outcomes, and zinc supplementation has an essential role in preventing complications.
- Supports healthy immune cell function: Zinc is vital to the healthy functioning of several immune cells of the innate and adaptive immune systems, and zinc deficiency interrupts the function and multiplication of healthy cells.
- Helps to eliminate pathogens due to zinc’s antioxidant properties and due to its ability to signal dangerous cells.
- Regulates anti-inflammatory function by controlling exaggerated immune responses while signaling immune cells when an inflammatory response is appropriate.
Having a stable immune system is essential for living a healthful life. While our DNA gives the immune system instructions on how to develop and when and how to respond, there are daily actions that we take that can either support or weaken our immune response.
A healthy lifestyle, including a nutrient-dense diet, regular exercise, and rest, are essential for supporting the immune system. However, factors over which we have less control, like stress levels and exposure to toxins, and exposure to viruses and bacteria for which the body is not prepared, make it almost impossible to continually have a healthy immune system.
One of the ways to support immune health is through taking natural herbs and supplements. In this article, we reviewed nine herbal extracts and vitamins that are scientifically-shown to have potent properties that support the immune system response while also reducing the symptoms of illnesses.
For more details on how to support the immune system naturally, you can read my WHITE PAPER.
To the Best of Health,
Curt Hendrix, M.S., C.C.N., C.N.S.
Chief Scientific Officer, Akeso Health Sciences
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