How to naturally support immunity during the year
It’s been a little bit more than two years since the first Covid-19 outbreak happened. It is still important now more than ever to share information about natural remedies that may be useful to have at your disposal. My mind keeps telling me that natural remedies may be able to support the immune system during periods and when other ways are not available.
I hope this article will offer you a few suggestions on herbal remedies and vitamins that may be of importance to use during the winter, spring, summer and autumn times.
The article will start by describing and discussing the importance of innate and adaptive immunity and why natural remedies may play a role in protecting our bodies. After, it will provide a few natural therapeutic recommendations to help you support your immune system during the four seasons of the year.
Please note that the advice given in this article is not intended to replace medical advice, but it only intends to offer therapeutic recommendations. The recommendations are not always suitable for children, for more information suitable for children please ask for advice from your therapist or doctor.
When the immune system is healthy it is effective at responding to environmental potentially toxic molecules and organisms (such as viruses, bacteria and parasites). It doesn’t matter if those toxic substances (or pathogens) have an external origin (from the food that we eat, from the air that we breathe or passing through the skin from the external environment) or internal origin (from our body’s metabolism and detoxification processes. A healthy immune system can effectively adapt to the changes in the environment.
However, when the immune system is compromised it may cause dysfunctions that can take the form of low immunity conditions (for example infections, cancer), or the body may respond with allergies, it may develop autoimmunity or chronic inflammatory diseases (for example cardiovascular diseases, obesity, etc).
In other words, immunity is a result of the balance of multiple and simultaneous processes that occur in the whole body in response to external and internal disturbances. Of course, it does not take or follow a linear path; immunity exists in a system with different layers interrelated to each other.
The first layer is composed of physical barriers (the skin) and mucosal membranes (mucosal membranes in the intestines, respiratory, reproductive, blood-brain barrier, etc) that also create defensive secretions.
The second layer is our innate immune system, which comprises our basic immune response. Composed of “non-specific” responses that may take the shape of inflammatory responses or direct phagocytosis of a pathogen by immune cells. When activated those immune cells may also respond by triggering the next layer of immunity for a more specific response.
The third layer represents our adaptive immune system that contains T or B immune cells. This response may be slower to be activated but it is more specific, another advantage is that those cells are said to retain “memory” from the first time they entered in contact with a specific antigen, therefore, having developed specialized ways to approach them in the future.
Even though we may need more scientific evidence to use herbal remedies to tackle specific conditions and even though our understanding of how the adaptive immune system works is still in its early years, herbs and natural remedies may have a big potential for helping the immune system to achieve its natural homeostasis when other approaches are not available or are not being successful.
To sum up how I selected a few natural remedies that I use during the year, and I will further explain why they may be useful.
Vitamin D: Vitamin D is not only important to support the correct function of the immune system. It supports the nervous system preventing depression and seasonal affective disorder(SAD), it may prevent auto-immune disorders, as well as the development of osteoporosis, inflammatory conditions and cancer. Thus, it functions by modulating innate immune responses (Shakoor et al, 2021).
Although so important, it was found that 50% of the population might have insufficient vitamin D levels (Nair et al, 2012). Studies have also found an association between lower levels of vitamin D and a higher risk of developing winter pneumonia and respiratory tract infections (Weir et al, 2020). Sunlight is essential for the synthesis of vitamin D in the human body, therefore, lifestyle factors such as lack of sunshine, air pollution and diet may also be important to consider while checking on how to maintain your vitamin D levels or assessing if your vitamin D levels are enough.
There is more than one type of vitamin D supplement available, the recommended one should be a vitamin D3 supplement, as vitamin D3 is the natural form of vitamin D for humans.
If you would like to confirm if you have the correct levels of vitamin D, you can check it through a vitamin D test that you can ask your GP. The levels may be important to be checked in cases of suspicion of specific disorders such as seasonal affective disorder and because there are risks associated with taking too high amounts of vitamin D.
Zinc - Zinc supplementation may be essential to support the immune system during severe winter times. It supports the functions of the white blood cells, being also essential for the proper maintenance and correct development of the immune system cells in both innate and humoral antiviral responses.
Zinc has demonstrated antiviral abilities against several viruses in studies. For example, it was found to inhibit the replication of coronaviruses in vitro (Hemert et al, 2010). And its deficiency was found in patients with HIV and hepatitis C virus (Read et al, 2019). However, it may be important during the winter even against several common colds, flu and herpes simplex viruses. In this way, it can be concluded that Zinc may be beneficial as a preventive measure against all types of viruses.
It is not recommended, however, for everyone to take zinc, as it may interact with some medications (please consult your doctor if you are taking medication while taking zinc). The dosage of zinc should be between 15 mg to 30 mg for adults. Zinc should not be taken during too long periods of time. If you would like to take zinc, try to take it during short periods during the winter and autumn times but avoid taking it during the whole year without checking your zinc levels with your doctor or therapist.
Vitamin C: Vitamin C is traditionally used to prevent and support the immune system against viral and bacterial infections. Its effectiveness may be related to the fact that vitamin C plays a role as a cofactor of many enzymatic reactions (Shakoor et al, 2021). Vitamin C participates in immune cell reactions by promoting phagocytosis and chemotaxis of white blood cells and by promoting the maturation of T white blood cells (responsible for the adaptive immune system response). Studies have found a significant decrease in the severity and duration of common cold symptoms when patients take vitamin C (Beaton et al, 1972). Vitamin C levels were also found to be lower in patients with pneumonia and tuberculosis. It was shown to decrease the severity of pneumonia in the elderly (Hunt et al 1994).
Vitamin C is also a safe immune system support vitamin that can be used during periods in the autumn, winter and spring seasons. Because vitamin C is water-soluble, its excess is easily excreted from the body. It is easier and safer to supplement it during long periods in comparison to other vitamins and minerals. You can also get safe vitamin C levels from fruits and vegetables. For example, citrus fruits, strawberries and tomatoes. The modern lifestyle with excessive stress, pollution and excessive use of stimulants such as alcohol and coffee may enhance our vitamin C dietary needs.
Elderberry (Sambucus Nigra):Elderberry is traditionally used to prevent the symptoms of colds and influenza. The plant is also used as a remedy for coughs, bronchitis and externally it is used to alleviate soreness in burns and bruises.
In addition, the elderberry syrup can be beneficial in symptoms affecting the upper respiratory tract, such as, when hay fever or sinusitis symptoms occur. It can be recommended to soothe catarrhal inflammation symptoms of people who suffer from hay fever during spring times (Hoffman, 1983).
In studies, the elderberry syrup was shown to reduce the replication of influenza viruses and it reduced the duration of influenza by 4 days in a study that included a placebo group (Thom et al, 2004).
The bark, flowers, berries and leaves of the plant are traditionally used for tinctures. For this purpose, the flowers are normally picked in the spring.
Peppermint (mentha piperita): This is my favourite herb to use during the summer, not only because it brings benefit to the immune system acting as a protection against colds and symptoms of flu (for example coughs) but because this herb has amazing digestive and external antimicrobial properties.
This plant has so many diverse benefits that it is worth having it at home for any emergency that may appear. When on summer holidays peppermint oil may also be the perfect simple remedy to take wherever you go, to whatever may happen when you are travelling or on the road. You may use it, for example, if you ate some weird food that you are not digesting well but you are on the road; if you fell somewhere and now you have a bruise on your leg that is hurting or even if you suddenly appear to have a weird cough and you need something to quickly soothe your throat.
In vitro and animal studies confirm that Mentha Piperita has antimicrobial, antiviral, antioxidant, anaesthetic and relaxant effects beneficial for the central and peripheral nervous systems (McKay et al 2006).
It is, however, extremely contraindicated to use it for children under 2 years old and there is not enough evidence for its use to be recommended during pregnancy.
Echinacea (echinacea angustifolia): Echinacea is traditionally used as a stimulant of the immune system, this plant may be beneficial when the immune system seems to be somehow “underactive”, such as during autumn or winter common colds. This plant is also known to have antimicrobial, antibacterial and antiviral activity.
Echinacea can be used in combination with other herbs (such as Yarrow) to help with cystitis and other types of inflammation of the urinary tract.
Echinacea tincture in combination with propolis extract or elderberry extract is indicated to alleviate laryngitis, tonsilitis, sinusitis, catarrhal and cough symptoms.
This herb proved to be useful in studies by decreasing the probability of someone catching a cold by at least 58% and decreasing the severity of colds (Coleman et al, 2007). As a result, this plant may also be amazing at preventing colds or decreasing their severity.
However, please be aware that echinacea should not be used during pregnancy or by people with auto-immune disorders (such as Crohn’s disease, lupus, psoriasis, among others) because this herb has immunostimulatory properties.
Ginger (Zingiber officinale) - Ginger is a root with such amazing therapeutic properties that is commonly referred to and added to Traditional Medicine herbal formulas. Its tonic, anti-inflammatory, antiviral, antibacterial, warm and antipyretic properties are well known for thousands of years (Capasso, 1989).
Ginger stimulates circulation and improves digestion whenever it is needed, it can even help to decrease symptoms of fever as it promotes perspiration. It has a spicy taste that stimulates digestion by stimulating the digestive juices being also useful to alleviate dyspepsia.
Studies are investigating ginger’s anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. They confirm it benefits symptoms of nausea, dyspepsia and it may even be used to prevent colon cancer.
This root also has immunostimulant properties and should be used with caution in cases of auto-immune disorders (please consult your doctor or therapist if you have auto-immune disorders before using it).