Most humans are much more likely to succumb to an infection or a flare of an auto-immune condition or fibromyalgia if they have recently experienced emotional distress. Combine all three of the above (stress, poor sleep, emotional upset), and the immune system becomes significantly impaired and doesn’t do a good job defending itself or maintaining balance.
One reason this happens is because stress causes the body to release the hormone cortisol, which impairs immune function. Specifically, cortisol alters the behavior of inflammatory and Natural Killer (NK) immune cells. The purpose of this alteration is to make more energy available for the presumably more immediate issue (fleeing, fighting, etc.).
Cortisol shots, creams, etc. are used specifically for their inhibitory effect. Because cortisol is so potent, high cortisol states (from chronic stress or longer-term pharmaceutical use) can cause side-effects, including weight gain, persistent immune system dysfunction, bone weakness, metabolic impairment, and joint damage.
A second reason why stress, including emotional stress, and lack of sleep impair immune function involves glutathione, one of the body’s key natural antioxidants. Glutathione is depleted approximately 37% by stress, according to animal neuropsychopharmacology studies. Glutathione increases the production and activation of NK cells, which play a role in cancer prevention, as well as infectious disease defense.
Glutathione also has a direct inhibitory impact on virus replication. This is one reason scientists have stated, including during the world’s recent challenges, that people with chronic disease (prolonged stress and inflammation=reduced glutathione) are more susceptible to infections.
Strategies for Immune Support
Two strategies that are efficacious for enhancing the immune system are to increase glutathione and reduce cortisol. There are also herbs, foods, and supplements that have direct antiviral or antibacterial (or antifungal) impact. These can, of course, also be useful. Just because something is holistic or natural does not mean it is completely harmless, however.
I advocate taking only what you need, when you need it (but in sufficient quantity, if you do need it). As with any health advice, discuss these supplements and suggestions with your providing physician to make sure there are no drug-herb interactions, bleeding disorders, or other contraindications.
Ways to Reduce Cortisol
- Breathing Techniques (including 4-4-4 breath (breathe in for 4 seconds, hold for 4, breathe out 4))
- Time in Nature
- Holy Basil – my all-time favorite evidence-based Ayurvedic herb for stress!
- Ashwagandha – another classic Ayurvedic choice for stress.
- Astragalus – frequently used in Chinese medicine for stress and immune support.
- Rhodiola – an herb with a long history of use in China, Tibet, and Russia. It grows at altitude and is excellent for adapting to stress (and adjusting to high altitudes).
- Schisandra – another gift from Chinese medicine. Schisandra is a potent performance-enhancer with a solid reputation as an adaptogen.
- Panax Ginseng – has benefits for multiple conditions, including stress, depression, auto-immune disease, erectile dysfunction, and more.
Ways to Increase Glutathione
- Asparagus – contains high levels of natural glutathione, as well as chromium, which helps blood sugar balance.
- Broccoli/cauliflower/kale– cruciferous veggies enhance glutathione production.
- Avocado – contains high levels of glutathione and is an excellent antioxidant food.
- Garlic, onions – Sulfur-containing veggies have been shown to restore glutathione levels.
- Turmeric - induces production of glutathione in the liver.
- Okra –has interesting anti-fatigue properties and increases glutathione.
- Brazil nuts – selenium is a co-factor in glutathione production.
- Fruit – Vitamin C defends against free radicals, sparing glutathione for other functions.
- Ginger – an interesting animal study showed that ginger + honey increased glutathione with potentially positive effects on immunity and fertility.
- Herbs and Supplements
- Dandelion – supports the liver, stimulates glutathione production.
- Milk Thistle – aids the liver in detox, encourages glutathione production.
- NAC – a potent precursor to Glutathione.
- Glutathione – You can take glutathione itself, though the data is mixed on how bioavailable (and thus usable) it is.
- Alpha Lipoic Acid – can help the body spare or recycle glutathione.
- B Vitamins – play a supportive role in synthesis of glutathione.
- Vitamin C – preserves glutathione levels.
- Ginger –stimulates glutathione production.
- CoQ10 – encourages glutathione production and helps with headaches, mood, heart health, and more!
- Amla berry/Chyawanprash – a classic Ayurvedic immune support jam that makes you feel amazing!
As mentioned above, there are many herbs and some foods that have direct anti-bacterial or anti-viral impact. I emphasize prevention, rather than treatment, whenever possible. Thus, increasing glutathione, reducing cortisol, sleeping well, and diminishing stress are my key holistic approaches to immune health.
Prevention is not always possible, however. So, a few favorite evidence-based herbs and foods to consider if you feel acutely “compromised” (sick) are listed below (note: this is not a comprehensive list). Choose a reputable brand, follow the label’s instructions, and check with your doctor to verify if these options are right for you.
- Garlic - fresh is best - 1-2 cloves raw garlic pressed and eaten with 1/2 a mashed avocado and juice of ½ a lime (Note: garlic can thin the blood, so take care if on blood thinners.)
- Ginger –2-inch piece sliced in hot water several times per day
- Turmeric – steam a 2-inch piece per day with veggies or take capsules
- Umckaloabo/pelargonium sidoides
- Licorice (Note: heavy use can raise blood pressure.)
I wanted to end this article with a few positive perspectives to keep in mind if you find yourself feeling under the weather this winter or anytime.
- Getting sick is an opportunity to examine how your life might have been out of balance. Look for evidence of emotional distress, general stress, doing too much, and sleeping too little.
- Being sick is an opportunity to provide nurturance to yourself. Be as kind, loving, and supportive as possible. If you require assistance from others, allow yourself to be receptive and grateful.
- Embrace illness as an opportunity to learn more about holistic medicine. Research tips and techniques from this article and apply those that appeal to you. See what works well in your unique body and observe also what doesn’t work.
- Helpful reminder: dosage for acute illness (compared to prevention) is often different. People, for example, may try 2 cloves of garlic when they are ill and think it doesn’t work. Realistically, someone might need to consume 2 cloves of garlic a few times a day for multiple days once an illness has already manifested. Listen to your own body and consult with your doctor for personalized recommendations.
- Being sick provides beautiful contrast that allows you to appreciate health even more.
- Get fresh air and sun on your face as soon as you feel well enough. Put your feet on the ground. Nature is the ultimate nurturer.
- Rather than being mad at your body or frustrated when sick, extend compassion. Repeat to yourself: “I love you dear body. You can do this.”
*Editor’s Note: The information in this article is intended for your educational use only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition and before undertaking any diet, supplement, fitness, or other health programs.
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