Building & Protecting the Immune System With Herbal Immunomodulants, Immune Stimulants, & Antivirals

Incorporating immunomodulant, immune stimulant, and antiviral herbs can help to build, protect, and support your immune system in the long-run.

Immunomodulant Herbs

Immunomodulants support immune function and can be used to keep your immune system humming. These are a great idea throughout the cold and flu season. Choose from among herbs that are generally considered safe, such as tonic herbs with this action. Keep in mind immunomodulant and tonic herbs are valued for gentle, general, and slow, long-term benefits, and are not considered an emergency response or any kind of cure.

One really great category to look to for ongoing support is the immunomodulant mushrooms. There are several mushrooms that are generally safe and may improve the immune system’s function (e.g., reishi (Ganoderma spp.), turkey tail (Trametes versicolor), and maitake (Grifola frondosa)). The presence of special complex polysaccharides within these mushrooms seems to encourage a healthy immune response. These may be used every day when one is well—think of these tonics as a potential part of a seasonal daily routine (Stamets, 2002).

Astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus) root is an herb that is used much in the same way as the immunomodulant mushrooms. Astragalus root also contains complex polysaccharides that have been shown to improve immune activity, specifically by increasing the activity of white blood cells, stimulating adrenal-cortical activity, and encouraging red blood cell formation in the bone marrow. However, note that there is a traditional practice of not using astragalus during acute illness (Hoffmann, 1993).

Immune Stimulant Herbs

Let’s say that you have no choice but to engage in air travel, or you or someone in your household works in an environment that either travelers or sick people pass through. In addition to conventional wisdom, is there anything more one can do?!  Some herbs are called immune stimulants because they are believed to temporarily increase a non-specific response called surface immune activation. This refers to the detection of unfamiliar proteins and can help alert the rest of the immune system that something unfamiliar is present.

Echinacea (Echinacea spp.) root is a great example of an immune booster that walks the line between “immunomodulant” and “immune stimulant.” It’s a particularly useful herb to add to your daily routine if you’re concerned that you’re at risk for viral infection—for example, if you’re about to travel by plane, train, or bus! Some herbal wisdom suggests reserving it for these occasions, differentiating the use of echinacea from the use of the immunomodulant mushrooms, for example (Katz, 2013).

Garlic (Allium sativum) bulb is another familiar immune stimulant herb (Bergner, 1996). No matter where you are you can almost always find garlic, including if you are traveling abroad or stuck at home. To learn more about the use and benefits of garlic, echinacea, and other herbs for seasonal care, see our free Cold and Flu ebook.

Antiviral Herbs

Elder (Sambucus nigra, S. canadensis, or S. cerulea) berry is a gentle antiviral herb that has been called upon as a longstanding folk remedy during outbreaks of the flu. Some consider it a preventive to be taken throughout flu season (Buhner, 2013; Zakay-Rones et al., 2007).

Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra) root teas, lozenges, or tinctures may also be a good idea in winter months for some of the same reasons. Licorice is an immunomodulant and antiviral, and it is moistening, supporting the mucosa of the mouth and throat. Additionally, licorice may have some anti-inflammatory activity. Those with high blood pressure should avoid this herb and choose from among the others (Buhner, 2013).

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