BY EVA NORLYK-HERRIOTT
In retrospect, it was entirely predictable. I had too much of the usual holiday cocktail: too many late nights, too much to do, too many sweets, too much sitting around, too little exercise. So sure enough: Wham, bang! The pesky little bug I’d been battling since November finally got the upper hand, and down I went, breaking a record-long cold-free stretch.
Misery loves company, and to be sure, there’s lots to be had this time of year. If you seem to be playing host to every germ passing through the neighborhood, take heart, there are ways to protect yourself. We are exposed to viruses and bacteria all the time, and it’s only when the immune system is compromised that we succumb to infection. Foods that tax the system, such as alcohol, sugar, and too much fat, suppress immune activity. So do activities that challenge the body’s natural homeostasis: traveling, sleep deprivation, inactivity, and stress. If you pay attention every time you come down with a cold or flu, you can learn a lot about your body and what breaks down its resistance.
Infections are more common in the winter, because it is a time when the body is under extra stress. Extremes in weather, lack of sunlight and fresh air, and reduced physical activity all strain the body, challenging its ability to maintain its natural balance. To help your body cope with the increased demands of the season, it’s a good precaution to take a tonic herb to bolster your vitality and stamina.
Particularly useful are a special class of herbs known as adaptogens. As the name implies, these are herbs that help the body adapt to its environment and cope better with stress and changes. While most herbs have specific therapeutic actions, adaptogens have a non-specific, broad action. They increase vitality and resistance, and have a strengthening and normalizing effect on the system. Although they aren’t directly immune-boosting herbs, like echinacea or garlic, they counteract the immune-suppressing effects of stress.
If you do start to fight a cold, you can often avoid a full-blown attack if you catch it early. The first warning signs are present long before you develop symptoms. Unusual tiredness, lack of zest, or a non-specific irritability can be some of the early indications that your immune system is challenged.
Once this happens, there are a number of natural remedies that can help fortify immune function. Among the most popular is echinacea, an herb with important immune-boosting properties. Others are garlic, ginger, goldenseal, and licorice. Vitamin C and zinc can also be useful, but herbs are biochemically and functionally more versatile. And in contrast to allopathic cold remedies, herbs improve immune function, instead of simply covering up symptoms. Try out a range of immune-restoring herbs over time to find out what works best for you.
Herbs can be costly, so do some research to make sure you buy a high-quality brand. Some herbs, like echinacea, are very popular, and the market has been flooded with poor quality (read: ineffective) products. The best companies use only organic or wildcrafted herbs, and they carefully prepare them in ways that preserve their potency. Check with your local health food store for companies known to produce quality products, or visit the websites of the manufacturers to see what steps they take to ensure the freshness and potency of their products.
Taking herbs early on can often ward off the cold or flu altogether, and at the very least they can shorten the duration and severity of the cold. But ultimately, it’s sticking to a healthy routine and diet and getting enough rest and exercise that will really help you win the battle against germs. In short, the things researchers tell us we need to do to keep our immune system strong are the same as those that keep the body healthy and extend longevity over the long term. Fancy that.
Herbs can interact adversely with allopathic drugs. If you have a pre-existing health condition, consult with your doctor before taking any herb. Similarly, always see your doctor if you experience persistent symptoms of any kind.
Common Adaptogenic Herbs
Herbs that help the body adapt to its environment and cope with stress
• Ashwaganda. Sometimes referred to as Indian ginseng, this Ayurvedic herb normalizes immune functions and boosts the number of immune cells. It has anti-inflammatory effects and is used as a strengthening medicine for people recovering from illness.
• Astragalus. Not only a powerful adaptogen, this herb also stimulates natural killer cell activity and has been documented to protect people with lowered immunity. It has normalizing effects on both the nervous, hormonal, and immune systems.
• Eleuthero. Formerly known as Siberian ginseng, eleuthero prevents “adrenal burnout” caused by ongoing physical or mental challenges, boosts immunity, increases concentration and focus, and enhances endurance and stamina.
• Holy Basil. An important Ayurvedic herb used to normalize the stress response, this herb supports the body’s natural homeostasis, nourishes the mind, and promotes longevity.
• Rhodiola. Helps the body cope with stress, prevents adrenal exhaustion, and restores normal functioning of the immune system.
• Schisandra. A common ingredient in traditional Chinese tonics, schisandra protects and strengthens the liver, a vital adaptogenic organ that regulates blood sugar and hormone levels and undertakes critical detoxifying functions.