We are continually exposed to organisms that are inhaled, swallowed or inhabit our skin and mucous membranes. Whether or not these organisms lead to disease is decided by the integrity of our body’s defense mechanisms, or immune system. When our immune system is working properly, we don’t even notice it. But when we have an under- or over-active immune system, we are at a greater risk of developing infections and other health conditions.
If you are wondering how to boost your immune system, look no further — these 10 antimicrobial, immune-stimulating and antiviral supplements and essential oils can be used at home to improve your health.
What Is the Immune System?
The immune system is an interactive network of organs, cells and proteins that protect the body from viruses and bacteria or any foreign substances. The immune system works to neutralize and remove pathogens like bacteria, viruses, parasites or fungi that enter the body, recognize and neutralize harmful substances from the environment, and fight against the body’s own cells that have changes due to an illness. (1)
The cells of the immune system originate in the bone marrow, then migrate to guard the peripheral tissues, circulating in the blood and in the specialized system of vessels called the lymphatic system.
When our immune system is working properly, we don’t even notice it. It’s when the performance of our immune system is compromised that we face illness. Underactivity of the immune system results in severe infections and tumors of immunodeficiency, while overactivity results in allergic and autoimmune diseases. (2)
For our body’s natural defenses to run smoothly, the immune system must be able to differentiate between “self” and “non-self” cells, organisms and substances. “Non-self” substances are called antigens, which includes the proteins on the surfaces of bacteria, fungi and viruses. When the cells of the immune system detect the presence of an antigen, the immune system recalls stored memories in order to quickly defend itself against known pathogens.
However, our own cells also have surface proteins, and it’s important that the immune system does not work against them. Normally, the immune system has already learned at an earlier stage to identify these cells proteins as “self,” but when it identifies its own body as “non-self,” this is called an autoimmune reaction. (3)
The amazing thing about the immune system is that it’s constantly adapting and learning so that the body can fight against bacteria or viruses that change over time. There are two parts of the immune system — our innate immune system works as a general defense against pathogens and our adaptive immune system targets very specific pathogens that the body has already has contact with. These two immune systems complement each other in any reaction to a pathogen or harmful substance. (4)
Immune System Diseases
Before learning exactly how to boost your immune system, first understand that most immune disorders result from either an excessive immune response or an autoimmune attack. Disorders of the immune system include:
Allergies and Asthma
Allergies are a immune-mediated inflammatory response to normally harmless environmental substances known as allergens, which results in one or more allergic diseases such as asthma, allergic rhinitis, atopic dermatitis and food allergies. When the body overreacts to an allergen, such as dust, mold or pollen, it causes an immune reaction that leads to the development of allergy symptoms.
Allergies and asthma is a growing epidemic, affecting people of all ages, races, genders and socioeconomic statuses. In the U.S., it is estimated that more than 35 million people, mostly children, suffer from asthma symptoms. (5) An immune response to an allergic can be mild, from coughing and a runny nose, to a life-threatening reaction known as anaphylaxis. A person becomes allergic to a substance when the body develops antigens against it and has a reaction upon repeated exposure to that substance.
Immune Deficiency Diseases
An immune deficiency disease is when the immune system is missing one or more of its parts, and it reacts too slowly to a threat. Immune deficiency diseases can be caused by medications or illness, or it may be a genetic disorder, which is called primary immunodeficiency. (6)
Some immune deficiency diseases include severe combined immune deficiency, common variable immune deficiency, human immunodeficiency virus/acquired immune deficient syndrome (HIV/AIDS), drug-induced immune deficiency and graft versus host syndrome. All of these conditions are due to a severe impairment of the immune system, which leads to infections that are sometimes life-threatening.
Autoimmune diseases cause your immune system to attack your own body’s cells and tissues in response to an unknown trigger. Autoimmune diseases have registered an alarming increase worldwide since the end of the Second World War, with more than 80 autoimmune disorders and increases in both the incidence and prevalence of these conditions. (7)
Fifty million Americans are living with an autoimmune disease today, and for many of them, it’s hard to get an accurate diagnosis right away. In fact, it often takes about five years to receive a diagnosis because autoimmune disease symptoms are so disparate and vague. Examples of autoimmune diseases include rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, inflammatory bowel disease, multiple sclerosis, type 1 diabetes, psoriasis, Graves’ disease (overactive thyroid), Hashimoto’s disease (underactive thyroid) and vasculitis.
Treatment for autoimmune diseases typically focus on reducing the immune system’s activity, but your first line of defense should be addressing leaky gut and removing foods and factors that damage the gut. Several studies have shown that increased intestinal permeability is associated with several autoimmune diseases, and it appears to be involved in disease pathogenesis. (8)
Top 10 Immune System Boosters
When searching for how to boost your immune system, look to these 10 herbs, supplements and essential oils.
Many of echinacea’s chemical constituents are powerful immune system stimulants that can provide significant therapeutic value. Research shows that one of the most significant echinacea benefits is its effects when used on recurring infections. A 2012 study published in Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine found that echinacea showed maximal effects on recurrent infections, and preventive effects increased when participants used echinacea to prevent the common cold. (9)
A 2003 study conducted at the University of Wisconsin Medical School found that echinacea demonstrates significant immunomodulatory activities. After reviewing several dozen human experiments, including a number of blind randomized trials, researchers indicate that echinacea has several benefits, including immunostimulation, especially in the treatment of acute upper respiratory infection. (10)
The berries and flowers of the elder plant have been used as medicine for thousands of years. Even Hippocrates, the “father of medicine,” understood that this plant was key for how to boost your immune system. He used elderberry because of its wide array of health benefits, including its ability to fight colds, the flu, allergies and inflammation. Several studies indicate that elderberry has the power to boost the immune system, especially because it has proven to help treat the symptoms of the common cold and flu.
A study published in the Journal of International Medical Research found that when elderberry was used within the first 48 hours of onset of symptoms, the extract reduced the duration of the flu, with symptoms being relieved on an average of four days earlier. Plus, the use of rescue medication was significantly less in those receiving elderberry extract compared with placebo. (11)
3. Colloidal Silver
Dating back to ancient times, silver was a popular remedy to stop the spread of diseases. Silver has historically and extensively been used as a broad-spectrum antimicrobial agent. Research published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine suggests that colloidal silver was able to significantly inhibit the growth the bacteria grown under aerobic and anaerobic conditions. (12)
To experience colloidal silver benefits, it can be used in several ways. How to boost your immune system with this supplement? Simply take one drop of true colloidal silver with internally. It can also be applied to the skin to help heal wounds, sores and infections. Always keep in mind that it should not be used for more than 14 days in a row.
You may come across many warnings about colloidal silver causing an irreversible condition called argyria (when people turn blue); however, this is caused by the misuse of products that are not true colloidal silver, like ionic or silver protein. (13)
Because leaky gut is a major cause of food sensitivities, autoimmune disease and immune imbalance or a weakened immune system, it’s important to consume probiotic foods and supplements. Probiotics are good bacteria that help you digest nutrients that boost the detoxification of your colon and support your immune system.
Research published in Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition suggests that probiotic organisms may induce different cytokine responses. Supplementation of probiotics in infancy could help prevent immune-mediated diseases in childhood by improving the gut mucosal immune system and increasing the number of immunoglobulin cells and cytokine-producing cells in the intestines. (14)
5. Astragalus Root
Astragalus is a plant within the bean and legumes family that has a very long history as an immune system booster and disease fighter. Its root has been used as an adaptogen in Traditional Chinese Medicine for thousands of years. Although astragalus is one of the least studied immune-boosting herbs, there are some preclinical trials that show intriguing immune activity. (15)
A recent review published in the American Journal of Chinese Medicine found that astragalus-based treatments have demonstrated significant improvement of the toxicity induced by drugs such as immunosuppressants and cancer chemotherapeutics. Researchers concluded that astragalus extract has a beneficial effect on the immune system, and it protects the body from gastrointestinal inflammation and cancers. (16)
Ayurvedic medicine has relied on ginger’s ability for how to boost your immune system before recorded history. It’s believed that ginger helps to break down the accumulation of toxins in our organs due to its warming effects. It’s also known to cleanse the lymphatic system, our network of tissues and organs that help rid the body of toxins, waste and other unwanted materials.
Ginger root and ginger essential oil can treat a wide range of diseases with its immunonutrition and anti-inflammatory responses. Research shows that ginger has antimicrobial potential, which helps in treating infectious diseases. It’s also known for its ability to treat inflammatory disorders that are caused by infectious agents such as viruses, bacteria and parasites, as well as physical and chemical agents like heat, acid and cigarette smoke. (17)
The ginseng plant, belonging to the Panax genus, can help you to boost your immune system and fight infections. The roots, stems and leaves of ginseng have been used for maintaining immune homeostasis and enhancing resistance to illness or infection. Ginseng improves the performance of your immune system by regulating each type of immune cell, including macrophages, natural killer cells, dendritic cells, T cells and B cells. It also has antimicrobial compounds that work as a defense mechanism against bacterial and viral infections. (18)
A study published in the American Journal of Chinese Medicine found that ginseng extract successfully induced antigenspecific antibody responses when it was administered orally. Antibodies bind to antigens, such as toxins or viruses, and keep them from contacting and harming normal cells of the body. Because of ginseng’s ability to play a role in antibody production, it helps the body to fight invading microorganisms or pathogenic antigens. (19)
8. Vitamin D
Vitamin D can modulate the innate and adaptive immune responses and a vitamin D deficiency is associated with increased autoimmunity as well as an increased susceptibility to infection. Research shows that vitamin D works to maintain tolerance and promote protective immunity. There have been multiple cross-sectional studies that associate lower levels of vitamin D with increased infection. (20)
One study conducted at Massachusetts General Hospital included 19,000 participants, and it showed that individuals with lower vitamin D levels were more likely to report a recent upper respiratory tract infection than those with sufficient levels, even after adjusting for variables such as season, age, gender, body mass and race. (21) Sometimes addressing a nutritional deficiency is how to boost your immune system.
Myrrh is a resin, or sap-like substance, that is one of the most widely used essential oils in the world. Historically, myrrh was used to treat hay fever, clean and heal wounds and stop bleeding. Myrrh strengthens the immune system with its antiseptic, antibacterial and antifungal properties. (22)
A 2012 study validated myrrh’s enhanced antimicrobial efficacy when used in combination with frankincense oil against a selection of pathogens. Researchers concluded that myrrh oil has anti-infective properties and can help to boost your immune system. (23)
Oregano essential oil is known for its healing and immune-boosting properties. It fights infections naturally due to its antifungal, antibacterial, antiviral and anti-parasite compounds. A 2016 study published in Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition found that the main compounds in oregano that are responsible for its antimicrobial activity include carvacrol and thymol. (24)
In the quest for how to boost your immune system, proceed with some caution. If you are using these immune-boosting herbs and essential oils, remember that the products are extremely potent and should not be taken for more than two weeks at a time. Giving yourself a break in between long doses is important.
Also, if you are pregnant, be cautious when using essential oils and reach out to your health care provider before doing so. Any time you are using natural remedies like plant supplements, it’s a good idea to do it under the care of your doctor or nutritionist.
- The immune system is an interactive network of organs, cells and proteins that protect the body from viruses and bacteria or any foreign substances.
- When our immune system is working properly, we don’t even notice it. It’s when the performance of our immune system is compromised that we face illness.
- Plants, herbs and minerals can be used to prevent and fight infections due to their antimicrobial and immune-boosting properties.
- The top 10 immune system boosters include echinacea, elderberry, colloidal silver, probiotics, astragalus root, ginger, ginseng, vitamin D, myrrh and oregano.
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