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Cultivating Immunity

The cold north wind is blowin’, leaves are brown, and the sky is a hazy shade of winter. Er...shade of fall, that is. Anyhow. Time to get those macrophages and T-cells into shape. That means get lots of rest, eat hearty, wholesome food, and start taking your immune system-building herbs and supplements. Here in the Health and Wellness department we have lots of options to help you get your immune system tuned up for winter. Of course, I am just a guy who loves herbs, not an expert. Always be sure to talk with your health care professional before taking any herb.

Astragalus is one of the best herbs to take on a regular basis to enhance immunity. In traditional Chinese medicine, astragalus is thought to improve a person’s wei qi (way chee), an energy force that underlies the skin and is thought to protect the body from negative external influences such as cold. Renowned herbalist Stephen Harrod Buhner lists the following actions for this herb in his book Herbal Antibiotics: “immune enhancer, stimulant, and restorative; antiviral; adaptogen [helps the body adapt to various forms of stress]; tonic; diuretic; enhances function in lungs, spleen, and digestion.” Furthermore he writes, “Researchers at the University of Texas Medical Center found that astragalus was able to completely restore the function of cancer patients’ compromised immune cells.” Steven Foster and Rebecca L. Johnson state in the National Geographic Desk Reference to Nature’s Medicine that astragalus is “considered on par with, or even superior to, ginseng as a tonic.” An alcohol-based tincture is one easy and effective way to take this herb, and the Co-op even offers this tincture in our Simplers bulk dispensers to make it more economical.

Medicinal mushrooms
Medicinal mushrooms are another superb supplement/food to enhance immunity. Many of them, such as Reishi and shiitake, have antiviral effects, but generally all medicinal mushrooms support the immune system in one way or another. You can add mushrooms like shiitake and maitake to your diet, and you can take them in capsule or liquid extract form. One of my favorite ways to reap the benefits of mushrooms is to take a supplement called Host Defense made by New Chapter. This supplement combines 17 different varieties of organically grown mushrooms, which act synergistically to “increase natural killer cell activity by up to 300%.”

Elderberries have been used for centuries by humans as a cold and flu prevention and treatment, and they’re as revered today as they were in the days of old. According to the Therapeutic Herb Manual by Ed Smith, elderberries have antiviral properties and are used “to shorten the severity and duration of colds and flu...[also] in the treatment of coughs, bronchitis, laryngitis, hay fever, and sinus congestion and inflammation.” In addition, “Elderberry extract’s pleasant flavor makes it ideal for the treatment of children.” According to Prescription for Herbal Healing by Phyllis A. Balch, CNC, “Elderberry contains substances called agglutinins that can ‘lock’ receptor sites on certain strains of flu viruses. This keeps the viruses from infecting human cells.”

Foster and Johnson state that in clinical trials, “Patients receiving elderberry extract recovered from the flu several days earlier than control groups; their symptoms were also less severe... Because of elderberry’s strong immune-stimulating properties, some researchers have suggested that elderberry may also be beneficial in treating patients with weak immune systems, such as those with cancer.” The Co-op offers many forms of elderberry, including a new lozenge made by New Chapter called Blockade. Each lozenge contains a uniform amount of extract to ensure efficacy.

Oil of oregano
A supplement known as oil of oregano has become a popular remedy for colds and flu, and the Co-op offers a wide variety of oregano products. Yes, that essential pizza seasoning possesses some amazing healing properties as well. While many will swear by the benefits of oregano oil (strictly the oil of the plant), some herbalists feel that an extract containing the full spectrum of plant constituents, not just the oil, can be even more effective, and have less potential to cause heartburn than the isolated oil. Both the New Chapter Oreganoforce capsules and the Herb Pharm Oregano Spirits tincture are excellent comprehensive forms of oregano. Smith describes oregano as being a circulatory stimulant as well as being useful for “treatment of colds, flu, and coughs.”

Be aware that this is a very strong herb; always take the liquid forms of this herb diluted in water, do not take on an empty stomach, and, of course, check with your health care practitioner before use.

New products
Two new combination formulas that you might want to try are the Willy Street Co-op Wellness Defense and the Willy Street Co-op Wellness Booster. The Wellness Defense includes immune-enhancing nutrients as well as some great immune herbs that can be taken on a longer-term basis, such as eleuthero root, astragalus, and bee propolis. The Wellness Booster includes a wide variety of herbs, including echinacea, goldenseal, and shiitake and Reishi mushrooms. This formula describes itself as providing “short-term support to assist the body’s defenses.”

Another newcomer to our shelves is Phytocillin by Herbs Etc., which identifies itself as a “lingering conditions formula.” This herbal blend includes usnea lichen, otherwise known as “Old Man’s Beard,” which Buhner states as being useful for upper respiratory and lung infections as it possesses “antibacterial, antifungal, and immune stimulant” properties. It also includes six other herbs with similar effects on the body.

A remedy for the winter blues
For many of us, winter can be a rough time. Bitter cold, very little sun, and the limited exercise that often accompanies these two climactic conditions can make even the most cheerful person feel a little depressed. Aside from taking up a winter sport, there is another option for maintaining a positive mind-state throughout the winter months. An herb known as albizzia is called He Huan Pi in Chinese, which literally translates as “collective happiness bark.” A Bag of Pearls by Subhuti Dharmananda, Ph.D. states that, “Albizzia...is a specific remedy for depression: the term huan in the name of the herb is translated as ‘jolly, cheerful, merry, pleased,’ referring to the condition that this herb is thought to bring about. Chinese Medical Herbology and Pharmacology by John K. Chen and Tina T. Chen states that albizzia “calms the Shen (spirit)...treats short temper, depression, insomnia, irritability, pre-menstrual syndrome and forgetfulness.”

The Co-op offers albizzia in a liquid extract by Planetary Formulas. The extract should be taken in a little water, and has a slightly scratchy sensation on one’s throat when swallowed. This effect is normal and is generally very temporary. I tried taking albizzia this past spring—five doses a day as recommended on the bottle and felt a general sense of upliftment and cheerfulness. I can’t guarantee you will experience the same effects, but if you find yourself with a mild case of winter blahs, it might be a good herb to try!

Treat yourself
Whether it is a hot bath or a big mug of tea that gives you a sense of well-being in the winter, be sure to treat yourself. Winter is a great time to rest, relax, and enjoy the simple pleasures in life. And, as we all know, it is usually when we deprive ourselves of this rest and work too hard that we catch a cold. But, a little herbal insurance never hurts. As the colder seasons approach, consider picking up some astragalus or medicinal mushrooms and begin taking them on a regular basis. You might be surprised by the sense of strong immunity that you experience!

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