The first cold of the season has been working its way through my patients, so this is the perfect time to talk about boosting the immune system. A strong immune system can help us avoid colds and flu during the winter months to come. The first step is to avoid the things that suppress the immune system like improper nutrition, lack of sleep, and stress. Okay, I admit we can’t avoid all stress, but we can do things to reduce the impact stress has on the body. As I have mentioned in many of my blogs, stress suppresses the immune system. The purpose of this mechanism is to prioritize our body’s use of energy: for instance, when it is time to run from the bear, our bodies divert energy away from our immune system, because who cares about that virus that might kill us in a week if we don’t survive the bear in the next hour! But now in our society, we often have continual low-grade stress that can still suppress our immune system even if we are not facing a bear.
To reduce the impact of stress, we can use medicinal herbs known as adaptogens to balance out our response to stress and strengthen our adrenal glands. Examples of adaptogens include holy basil, astragalus, ashwagandha, and cordyceps. If I could only take one supplement, it would be one of these herbs or a blend of them. I find them to be extremely useful for supporting my energy and stamina as well as keeping my immune system healthy.
Many mushrooms like reishi are well known for helping enhancing the immune system as well as acting as adaptogens. Their immune enhancing capacity is due to the special polysaccharides found in their cell walls, such as beta glucan. Most mushrooms have these polysaccharides, but the type and amount varies between the different varieties. Reishi has been shown to activate several types of human immune cells such as macrophages and natural killer cells.
Another medicinal mushroom to use during cold and flu season is agarikon. One study showed it to have exceptionally strong antiviral activity against a range of viruses including the bird flu H5N1. It even out performed an antiviral drug for fighting the flu virus. For more information on agarikon, check out what mushroom expert Paul Stamets had to say about it on the Huffington Post.