Can herbal ammunition battle the bugs that bug us?

When winter approaches or travel is nigh, many of us reach for a favorite immune booster such as vitamin C, oregano oil, elderberry, garlic, ginger, or chicken noodle soup. There are many natural pathways possible that ward off pathogens, or at least reduce symptoms, and studies have shown that these herbal remedies aren’t just placebos steeped in folklore. According to the latest research, here are the best herbs for strengthening the immune system:

Oregano: Frequent hand-washing, is, of course, the first line of defense, but researchers at the University of Arizona have also found that a key ingredient in oil of oregano, carvacrol, is an effective sanitizer for killing off norovirus on surfaces. 

Thyme: Ingesting carvacrol in thyme oil packs an extra anti-inflammatory punch, delivering similar health benefits to the resveratrol in red wine. Thyme, along with chamomile and mullein, is also a powerful expectorant (due to anti-inflammatory properties found in the chemical luteolin), which help to loosen chest phlegm and ease bronchial-type coughing. 

Ginger: This root is often used to quiet stomach upsets, but those who suffer from asthma and other bronchial constrictive ailments should note a 2013 study that indicates chemicals found in ginger are beneficial for treating asthmatic symptoms.

Garlic: Long-loved by herbalists and naturopaths for its anti-bacterial properties, garlic recently received the scientific stamp of approval. Tim Holm Jakobsen, a PhD student at the University of Copenhagen, proved that the potent plant contains a chemical called ajoene that protects white blood cells from falling prey to bacterial infections. “White blood cells are indispensable because they play a crucial role in the immune defense system, not only warding off infection, but also killing bacteria," he explained in his thesis.

Prevention, of course, is key. Ventura-based acupuncturist Stace Nelson-Hicks, LAC, who treats patients from Santa Barbara to Los Angeles, first suggests a blood test to determine that your vitamin D levels are at optimal range. Vitamin D deficiency, in particular, has been shown to increase susceptibility to infection. Taking all the herbs in the world won’t help your immune system much if your body’s natural reserves of vitamins and minerals are low. 

Meanwhile, taking vitamin C preventatively (think cilantro, thyme, parsley and dill) has shown promise in a 2013 study out of the University of Helsinki, while mushrooms have shown efficacy in fighting off colds and flu.

How you decide to dose is up to you. While Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) tends toward synergistic herbal formulas that pack a punch, western herbalists typically treat with single-use herbs.

“My personal philosophy is to hit the pathogen hard in an otherwise healthy person,” says Nelson-Hicks, “and that may take several remedies at the same time. So, take some garlic, drink some cinnamon or ginger tea, and increase your daily dose of vitamin C and echinacea. You can also make a delicious chicken soup with thyme, rosemary, oregano, pepper, garlic, and onion and dig into an antibacterial stew!”

Sources: 

  1. Oil of oregano study
  2. Ginger study 
  3. Probiotics study
  4. Vitamin D study
  5. Vitamin C study
  6. Mushroom study
  7. Echinacea study