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Building Immunity: Seven Powerful Ways

As we move into cold and flu season, I always have a number of patients asking about building immunity. Here are seven of our top recommendations:

1. Get Your Sleep! I know I harp on this topic, but getting quality sleep is probably the greatest cornerstone of health--including immune health. Clinical studies show that sleep and the circadian rhythm (normal sleep - wake cycles) exert a strong regulatory effect on the immune function, include a specific role of sleep in the formation of immunological memory. This role appears to be associated in particular with the stage of slow wave sleep. Many people these days do not achieve the stage of sustained slow wave sleep for the periods of time necessary to boost immune health. This is due to stress levels that cause unnatural rises in cortisol. So get your stress levels down too, any way you can.

2. Take Adaptogenic Herbs Daily: specifically for immune support we recommend elderberry, medicinal mushrooms, and astragalus. Adaptogenic herbs strengthen the body against disease and help to modulate the stress response (physical, mental or emotional). Our in-house supplement Immunoberry, in liquid form, contains all three immune boosting powerhouses listed below, and is great for the whole family!

Elderberry: High in vitamin C & A, potassium, iron and vitamin B6, elderberries are chock full of immune-boosting nutrition. As a berry, they are high in flavonoids, or antioxidant “free radical fighting” compounds, that support the body when it is under viral attack. In fact, elderberry fruit extract was tested and found to be very effective against Human Influenza A (H1N1 virus) in vitro, possibly by blocking the ability of the virus to invade host cells. Researchers compared it with prescription medications Amantidine and Tamiflu. As if that weren’t enough, chemicals in the flowers and berries relieve nasal congestion and reduce swelling in mucous membranes.

Medicinal Mushrooms, such as reishi, shitake, maitake, and lion’s mane, are some of of the most powerful immunosupportive agents on the planet. There are mushrooms that kill viruses, mushrooms that kill bacteria, and mushrooms that kill yeast--which is surprising considering mushrooms are a fungi themselves. As a defense against bacterial invasion, fungi developed powerful antibiotic agents--which happen to be effective for humans as well. Penicillin, streptomycin, and tetracycline were all developed from fungal extracts.

It’s therapeutically best to blend a variety of mushrooms rather than taking one at a time, for two reasons: First, it is easy for pathogens in your body to adapt and become resistant to one strain. Second, mushrooms contain a variety of anti-infective and immunomodulating agents, and so the “sum” of these agents in a variety of mushrooms is better than that of a single mushroom. These agents are precursors to more complex compounds called beta glucans that powerfully stimulate immune response, including increasing the activity of killer T and natural killer (NK) lymphocytes. In fact, some mushrooms show great potential for battling cancer, and recent research has shown that certain mushroom extracts help chemotherapy drugs better locate and identify cancer cells by “uncloaking them”. If you or someone you know is battling cancer, have them get on a medicinal mushroom complex.

Astragalus, known as Huang Qi in traditional Chinese medicine, is one of the most well-known Chinese herbs for boosting immune health. Astragalus has potent antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, and antioxidant properties, contributing to its centuries-old use in recovery from colds, flus, and respiratory illness. Researchers in the United States have looked into it as a possible treatment for people whose immunity has been weakened by chemotherapy or radiation. One of my favorite Chinese herb teachers during my school years was well into his ‘80s, and sipped on a quart jar of decocted astragalus all day long. It was his favorite herb (and there are over 1000 Chinese herbs to choose from), and he believed it extended lifespan.

3. Take vitamins C, D, and A. No surprise here, except that you should know that your multivitamin often won’t have anywhere close to the dosage required. We recommend 1-2,000 mg/day of vitamin C daily, preferably in two divided doses. If you are undergoing high levels of stress, you can raise that dose to 3,000 mg/day. Serum levels of vitamin D should preferably be monitored through your physician. If you have not been supplementing on a regular basis, take 5,000 IU/day of vitamin D daily for 2 months, then get yourself tested. You should be aware that most doctors use a reference range of 20-40 ng/mL as “normal”; functional medicine ranges would have you closer to 50-80 ng/mL. Once in the functional range, you can cut back to 2,000 IU/day. Finally, you can safely take up to 10,000 IU/day of vitamin A; however if your diet is high in beta carotene (carrots, yams, etc) then you might want to cut back to 5,000 IU/day.

4. Grow your Gut Biome Garden. The state of your gut microflora is critical for proper immune function and overall health. The human gut is an ecosystem consisting of a high number of co-existing bacteria populations. Research confirms that these gut populations (called “gut flora” or “gut microbiome”) are engaged in a dynamic interaction with the intestinal wall and adaptive immune function. In fact, your gut wall houses 70% of your immune system. Gut health--much of which is attributed to the health of your gut microbiome--is therefore critical to your immune health. Many people don’t connect digestive problems with allergies, autoimmune disease, weak immune function and even cancer, but there is almost always a relationship. So take your probiotics and/or eat fermented foods on a daily basis. For those with more digestive complaints, start with dairy-free probiotics. Those with more serious digestive or autoimmune issues should work with a qualified practitioner. As the gut grows in strength and integrity, adding in kefir, kombucha, sauerkrauts and other fermented vegetables daily will grow your “garden” over time.

5. Ditch the Sugar. One teaspoon of refined white sugar lowers the immune system for five hours! This is one reason why colds and flus tend to really skyrocket after Halloween, and then over the holiday season when people’s sugar and alcohol intake tends to significantly rise. Keep the sugar (and alcohol) low or gone, and you’ll find yourself dodging those viruses more often than those around you.

6. Cook with Spices and keep the bugs away! Thyme, oregano, cumin, basil, ginger, turmeric and other common kitchen spices are high in antimicrobial activity, warm and activate your digestive function, and generally keep you protected from viruses. So be liberal with spices in your cooking this fall and winter, and you should find yourself less prone to infection. Better yet, cheer up your mornings with a spicy winter chai, high in cinnamon, ginger, coriander and black pepper.

7. Get Regular Acupuncture! Acupuncture has been found in numerous clinical studies to strengthen and improve immune function. In the absence of other health issues, we recommend coming in once or twice a month for immune support during the winter months.

For those of you tempted to get a flu shot, before you roll up your sleeve, consider research that points to flu vaccinations as literally being a shot in the dark. From all of us here at DCA, we wish you a healthy, happy, viral-free winter!

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