Man holding a tissue

How Herbs and Plants Can Help Your Body’s Immune System

Your immune system is designed to protect your body against many diseases. There are a number of ways you can support your immune system, including by maintaining good hygiene and nutrition, and avoiding unhealthy activities and excess stress.

Plants and herbs can also help your body’s immune system. Let’s look at how.

Brief history of plants as medicine

Humans have long sought treatments from their natural environment. There is plenty of archaeological evidence of the use of plants as medicine.

This includes, among many others, a 5,000 year-old Sumerian clay slab containing recipes for drug preparations from various plants, and ancient Indian holy books that mention plant treatments using spices such as cloves and nutmeg.

While the ‘immune system’ as such had not yet been discovered, some physicians even in ancient times observed that people appeared to develop immunity to certain diseases after contracting them one time. It was also noted that herbs and plants could help promote good health in patients.

How herbs and plants help support immunity

Plants and herbs contain micro amounts of many different compounds that help support human health through:

  • Antioxidant activity – antioxidants are compounds found in many plants that help prevent oxidative ‘free radical’ damage caused to the immune system. Certain vitamins, minerals and plant phytochemicals demonstrate antioxidant activity.
  • Antibacterial activity – extracts of certain plants have been shown to have antimicrobial properties and may protect against certain bacteria and viruses.
  • Anti-inflammatory effect – some plants have anti-inflammatory properties that provide protection against chronic disease.

Immunomodulatory effect of medicinal herbs

Studies also show that some medicinal herbs act as immune modulators. This term refers to modulation of the immune system through the stimulation or inhibition of immune responses. They do this by influencing cytokines – small proteins that play a role in cell-signalling. The root extract of Astragalus for example has been shown in lab studies to lower IL-6, a pro-inflammatory cytokine.

A few beneficial herbs and plants

Some of the plants and herbs to pay attention to include:

  • Ginger – studies of ginger show it has both antioxidative and anti-inflammatory effects which may provide protection against chronic diseases and cancer. A review of studies on ginger provide evidence of its anti-inflammatory effects.
  • Elderberries – this fruit contains phytochemicals that may help minimise the effects of viral infections. A 2019 study at Sydney University indicates an antiviral effect of elderberries against influenza symptoms.
  • Echinacea – a plant often made into preparations to fight colds and flu symptoms through an anti-inflammatory effect.
  • Garlic – the allicin in garlic has an antimicrobial effect.
  • Ashwagandha – sometimes called ‘Indian Ginseng’, this plant has adaptogen effects that help protect against stress.
  • Astragalus – this herb has long been used in traditional Chinese medicine and has an antioxidant effect.
  • Turmeric – curcumin, the compound that gives turmeric its yellow colour, has been shown to have anti-inflammatory properties.
  • Hawthorn berry – this plant shows antioxidant activity and contains the heart-protective compound
  • Rosehip – this plant is very high in Vitamin C and has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. A meta-analysis of studies on rosehip powder demonstrated it may have a role to play in reducing arthritic pain.

Can stress affect immunity?

Our response to stressful events in our lives can have an impact on our immunity.

While studies indicate that temporary ‘fight or flight’ stressors may actually be beneficial to immunity, they also show that chronic longer-term stressors can be detrimental to it.

For example, when we experience chronic stress, the stress hormone corticosteroid can reduce our level of lymphocytes (immunity cells) and interfere with our ability to fight off antigens (foreign harmful substances). This in turn can lead to an increased risk of chronic diseases and disorders.

Adaptogens however, substances found in herbal pharmaceuticals that can help us counteract the effects of stress, may create a positive effect on immunity. Adaptogens found in herbal medicines have been studied for decades and have been shown to reduce stress-induced disorders and fatigue.

Want immune support in a teacup?

Our chief naturopath and expert tea blender, Chalimah Jeanne, has spent many years perfecting her Immune Tea recipe.

This tea contains many of the herbs mentioned above, such as ginger, rosehip, elderberry and echinacea, as well as others such as peppermint and elderflower. To order some now, go to our product page.