When the topic of building up your immune system comes up, I think back to a patient I had named Kathryn (I changed her name to protect her privacy).
Often times, she came to see me, she was suffering from a variety of illnesses. Every few months, she caught a cold, which almost invariably turned into a sinus infection, strep throat, or bronchitis.
Her most recent bout of strep throat brought her to me for antibiotics. But during the examination, I asked about her health in general. Sheepishly, Kathryn admitted that she had had a urinary tract infection (UTI) a few weeks before that she’d “treated” with some leftover antibiotics from a previous illness. Unfortunately, she still didn’t feel quite right and was hoping that whatever I gave her for the strep throat might help get rid of the UTI as well. Meanwhile, during the exam, I noticed that a fungal infection was wreaking havoc on her toenails. That was when my “Aha!” moment occurred.
On the surface, a throat ailment, urinary tract infection, and fungal infection may not seem related. But I’ve seen this pattern repeated over and over again. A seemingly isolated illness turns out to be linked to other issues, which are all tied to immunity.
And that was exactly what was happening to Kathryn. Her real problem was clearly bigger than strep throat. Kathryn’s immune system needed a boost, because it was not working properly. So while I could have given Kathryn antibiotics for her strep infection and sent her on her way, that would have been like putting a bandage on a broken leg.
Instead, Kathryn got a short course in immunity. I also gave her recommendations on how to get her own immune system to rise to the challenge of dealing with today’s toxic environment. Oh, and she also got a reminder to always take the entire antibiotic prescription as directed, even though the symptoms of illness may be gone. Otherwise, you run the risk of the same bugs returning stronger than ever, with newly mutated abilities that have turned them into “superbugs.”
Immune System 101
Most people are familiar with the term “immune system,” but what does that actually mean? Here’s a quick overview. The immune system is designed to provide a barrier between you and invaders, like infectious organisms. To do that, our bodies have specialized infection-fighters located in various organs, tissues, special cells, and proteins throughout the body, including the lymph system, spleen, bone marrow, thymus gland, and digestive tract.
Some of the immune system’s specialized cells are tasked with identifying foreign agents, while others produce protective substances known as antibodies designed to shield you against a repeat visitation by that substance. Once you have chicken pox, for example, the antibodies created by your immune system protect you from ever getting that particular illness again.
Our immune systems are wonderfully efficient when they’re working properly. But with such an extensive system spread throughout the body, things can go wrong. That’s when common colds turn into bronchitis or worse, and infections keep coming back no matter which antibiotic you try.
Repairing Broken Immunity
Healthy immune systems don’t just happen. You need to provide an environment in which the various elements can thrive. These days, in addition to swarms of ever-evolving viruses and bacteria, we’re also surrounded by toxins and pollutants that continually challenge our efforts to stay healthy. Maintaining a strong, responsive immune system isn’t that difficult, as long as you’re vigilant and keep a few basic guidelines in mind.
One excellent place to begin is by following my basic mantra for good health: eat a nutritious diet of whole foods (unprocessed and unrefined foods) instead of fast or processed fare; drink plenty of clean, filtered water; get at least eight hours of sleep each night; and exercise moderately most days of the week.
Please note that when it comes to exercise, “moderately” means just that. In other words, more is not necessarily better. A number of studies have shown that too much exercise can backfire, depleting the immune system instead of reinforcing it. That’s why I recommend a brisk, thirty-minute walk or three ten-minute walks during the day as a safe, common sense way to lay the foundation for better health.
In addition, it’s essential that you learn to manage stress, one of the immune system’s foremost foes. If you have been relying on a daily drink or two to relax, this might be a good time to consider becoming a teetotaler, at least temporarily. Researchers have found that alcohol seriously dampens the immune system’s ability to attack invading organisms.
Don’t Forget a Daily Dose of Laughter
Another easy way to recharge your immune system is with humor. There’s a substantial body of research showing that laughter is connected closely to wellness and healing. Often when I’m having a bad day, remembering something amusing or taking a minute to listen to a co-worker’s joke helps me “turn that frown upside down” — and perks up my immune system at the same time!
Supplements for Your Immune System
Meanwhile, specific supplements can make a huge difference in immune effectiveness. Here are a few of my favorites. Please keep in mind that it takes time for herbal and nutraceutical remedies to work, so be patient. Generally, patients tell me that they see results in two to three weeks, but occasionally it may take a month or more for blood levels of a specific substance to reach a tipping point where healing can begin. In other words, your patience will be rewarded, but not overnight.
Centuries of use in China and recent studies have shown astragalus can recharge the immune system. One of astragalus’ chief strengths is its effect on white blood cells that attack bacteria and viruses, making it a good choice during cold and flu season. I recommend taking two or three 500 mg capsules of astragalus daily.
Derived from mushrooms, oats, barley, and/or nutritional yeast, beta-glucan revs up white blood cells to fight off invading microbes. A number of studies have shown that beta-glucan has profound virus- and bacteria-killing abilities, while spurring the immune system’s natural defenses. In fact, one researcher felt beta-glucan could be “the most important natural immunomodulator.” A daily dose of 10 mg is what I typically recommend for adults.
Studies have shown that echinacea enhances immunity while increasing the production of infection-fighting cells.
Despite conflicting study results, I highly recommend echinacea for anyone who needs an immune system boost. Whenever one of my children feels a cold or flu coming on, I combine echinacea with astragalus to pump up his or her immunity.
Look for a product containing Echinacea purpurea, Echinacea pallida or the roots of Echinacea angustifolia. Doses in the 300 to 600 mg range three times a day are recommended for adults. Echinacea should not be taken continuously for more than two weeks, so try a two weeks on/two weeks off schedule.
Probiotics — or “friendly” bacteria — help establish a well-balanced environment in the digestive tract. These beneficial bacteria enhance digestion, support healthy immunity, and can actually prevent disease-causing bacteria from gaining a foothold in our intestines.
Supermarket yogurt will not provide enough active bacteria. Instead, look for a high-quality product containing at least 10 billion live bacteria or colony-forming units (CFU) and take as directed.
Most experts agree that although vitamin C alone can’t prevent us from getting the common cold, it can reduce the intensity of symptoms and length of time we are sick. One study found that people who were exposed to cold viruses and then given vitamin C reported a whopping 85 percent fewer symptoms than people who did not receive the vitamin.
Vitamin C is water-soluble, so it is not stored in the body and needs to be replenished frequently. I recommend eight to ten 1,000 mg (1 gram) doses taken throughout the day. Even at high levels, it is totally safe, but it may cause diarrhea or upset stomach in some individuals.
Last but not least, I recommend a hearty bowl of chicken soup to anyone looking to pump up immunity. This is not only a time-honored tradition during cold and flu season, but a scientifically proven remedy. Researchers at the University of Nebraska Medical Center put homemade chicken soup to the test. They concluded that soup does indeed reduce inflammation associated with colds and upper respiratory infections. So while you’re building up your immunity, you just may want to add chicken soup to the menu, and rally your immune system and taste buds at the same time!
Last Updated: September 2, 2020
Originally Published: September 1, 2014