3 Herbs that Bolster Your Immune System: Reishi, Echinacea & Ginger. Staying healthy as winter sets in requires staying warm, dry – and a hot cup of tea can’t hurt. After that, use these three herbal immunity boosters to keep the sniffles away until spring arrives!
Reishi, Echinacea, & Ginger
Our changing environment and increased demands on our bodies over time do not have to make us more vulnerable to illness. Support for robust immune health is abundant. Become naturally resistant with medicinal mushrooms and roots.
Reishi (“RAY-shee”) are valued for their immune-modulating and antiviral properties. Reishi is often used on a regular basis by healthy people to improve non-specific pathways of immune self-regulation. This means fewer colds and episodes of winter illness.
Reishi can also lower excess blood lipids (fats), help lower high blood pressure, and even reduce excess blood sugar. In several Asian countries where medicinal mushrooms are researched extensively, scientists have identified starches (polysaccharides) that show promise. This basically means that:
- Reishi mushrooms do not cause harm and do not add stress on the body
- They help the body to adapt to various environmental and biological stresses
- They have a desirable nonspecific action on the body, supporting some or all of the major systems, including nervous, hormonal, and immune systems.
Other effective compounds in Reishi mushrooms are pharmaceutically important triterpenoids.
Traditional medicine in Asia has used medicinal mushrooms for generations, with richly metaphorical folklore to point to their potency. Associated with deities and miracles, Reishi is also called Ling Zhi, or “Shaman’s fungus.” They are even incorporated in art, often as the cloud forms in sacred Chinese paintings.
Revered by the Imperial family and the Taoist secret societies, Reishi mushrooms were often scarce. Cultivation during the past twenty years has made this remedy more available for research and for health-aware consumers.
Reishi mushrooms are in the genus Ganoderma (family Polyporaceae), of which at least six different species are considered medicinally effective (Chilton JS. International Mushroom Conference. HerbalGram. 1994; 22:37 American Botanical Council).
This herb’s name is almost a household word, yet many people simply don’t know what to think. Some research says it works; other research says it doesn’t. It can’t be used for long. It should be used every day. It worsens autoimmune conditions. Doctors successfully give it to treat people with autoimmune conditions.
Even summarizing the volumes of studies would make anyone’s eyes glaze over, but some solid answers exist: First, let’s identify the right plant. Echinacea, also called coneflower because of the high central “head” surrounded by purplish petals, is in the Daisy family (Asteraceae). Twelve species exist; three are commonly used.
Not only are species a little different from each other, different parts of the plants have different levels of active compounds (216 at last count). Current trends consider that the whole “orchestra” of active platn compounds in Echinacea is behind the plant’s safety and efficacy.
Imagine a healthy cell protected in its happy skin (cell membrane), surrounded by a gel-like substance (made of hyaluronic acid). Bad bacteria squirt their enzyme (hyaluronidase) onto the gel, breaking it down just like drilling a hole through protective barriers. Snake venom has hyaluronidase, too, allowing venom to get to cells.
In the case of bacterial infections, bacteria can then latch onto cell membranes and infect cells. What does Echinacea do? The herb blocks the enzyme, preserving the protective gel matrix. Then, other chemicals in Echinacea combine to keep pathogens (disease-causing germs) from attaching to the walls lining organs and tissue compartments.
This is the opposite of how antibiotic (“anti-life”) drugs kill, or try to kill germs. Echinacea strengthens healthy boundaries, leaving germs banging around outside until immune cells engulf them, paralyze them, or otherwise neutralize their proteins before recycling the harmless pieces. If all that Echinacea did was to block this germ’s supply of break-and-enter enzymes that would be a big immune boost.
But as we’ve already learned, Echinacea has a range of benefits. Echinacea can reduce redness, swelling, and pain. Echinacea helps conventional drugs in tough cases: added to the antifungal topical econazole nitrate in one study, repeat fungal reoccurrence rates dropped from 60% to about 16% (Coeugniet E, Kuhnast R. [Recurrent candidiasis: Adjuvant immunotherapy with different formulations of Echinacea]. Therapiwoche 1986;36:3352-3358).
Echinacea root from E. purpura, E. angustifolia, or E. pallida is used in the hundreds of products on the market. It has been called Kansas snakeroot, Prairie Doctor, and many names indicating its traditional use for snakebite, swelling, poorly healing wounds, and respiratory infections. Herbalists, ND’s, and European MD’s routinely use Echinacea to shorten or prevent colds and flu. US-based physicians who have clinical experience using Echinacea report similar success for treating immune conditions when they occur.
Just to keep us from thinking we have finally analyzed Nature and understood it, newer studies show Echinacea may have other benefits beyond immune self-regulation. It can be mildly relaxing for anxious people, strengthen athletic performance, reduce risks of diabetes (improves insulin sensitivity), and treats long-standing allergies. Now, that is a blessed herb.
While Echinacea is used on an as-needed basis, not for everyday consumption “just in case,” ginger root in food throughout the winter is a simple and safe way to boost immunity through the ups and downs of stormy weather. Botanically speaking, we use the underground stem, or rhizome, not roots, of ginger (Zingiber officinale).
Countless generations of people, especially those across the continent of Asia and sub-continental Southeast Asia, have used ginger for food and medicine. 2,500 years ago in China and India ginger was recommended to treat headaches, nausea, rheumatism, and colds. When the warming, aromatic and pungent root pieces increase blood flow to the digestive tract, there are several knock-on benefits through the body, such as decreasing inflammation, improving digestive function, and boosting immune function.
An important item on the Spice Road of ancient times, ginger was used in the medical practices of Greece, Rome, China, Indonesia, and India. Sanskrit texts also document the use of ginger, still an important part of Ayurvedic medicine today.
More than 400 compounds have been identified by modern science in ginger, yet so far, just three have been shown to explain part of ginger’s beneficial properties. These chemicals in the essential oils of roots are what makes ginger spicy and fragrant: gingerols, shogaols, and paradols.
Fresh roots are considered more moistening, while dried ginger has more of a warming and drying effect. This helps us choose food over capsules when we want to moisten dry winter coughs or dry up excess mucus in lung or gut infections.
The essential oils of the whole rhizome (not isolated essential oil!) are also good for reducing unwanted bacteria and opportunistic pathogens in the body. Ginger has other immune benefits. In vitro studies showed decreased tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNF-alpha, a pro-inflammatory factor) in chondrocytes (connect tissue cells lining joints).
Ginger is usually considered a safe remedy during pregnancy for morning sickness, as a food ingredient or whole plant product in recommended dosages.
Battling Winter’s Will with Herbal Remedies
If you and your loved ones are feeling the bite of winter and immune stress, consider adding Reishi supplements for three to six months. In my family, we make a vegan vegetable stir-fry with ginger root about twice a week, using a thumb-sized piece of fresh root coarsely chopped and tossed in for the last five minutes before serving.
I leave it large enough for people to avoid on the plate if they wish. But the kids often love the visceral blast of chewing their small portion and feeling delicious warmth grow as they swallow their “medicine.” Of course, easy-to-stomach products containing ginger can also help during a few weeks or even months to ward off aches and pains associated with inclement weather.
Finally, the Echinacea waits until it is really needed, should immune defenses need that extra boost from nature when infection, allergies, and inflammation take hold. With just three herbs we can leave winter blues behind to embrace the season of winds, rain, and snow.
Amanda McQuade Crawford, M.A. is an herbalist and clinical psychologist practicing integrative health care in Ojai, serving Santa Barbara, Ventura and Los Angeles counties. An Adjunct Professor at the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy, Boston, she sees patients and consults for the natural products industry on quality issues.
- Spelman K, Iiams-Hauser K, Cech NB, Taylor EW, Smirnoff N, Wenner CA. Role for PPARγ in IL-2 inhibition in T cells by Echinacea-derived undeca-2E-ene-8,10-diynoic acid isobutylamide. Int Immunopharmacol. 2009;9:1260-1264.
- Christensen KB, Petersen RK, Petersen S, Kristiansen K, Christensen LP. Activation of PPARgamma by Metabolites from the Flowers of Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea). J Nat Prod. Apr 17 2009;72(5):933–937.
- Sharma M, Anderson SA, Schoop R, Hudson JB. Induction of multiple pro-inflammatory cytokines by respiratory viruses and reversal by standardized Echinacea, a potent antiviral herbal extract. Antiviral research. Apr 29 2009.
- Sharma SM, Anderson M, Schoop SR, Hudson JB. Bactericidal and anti-inflammatory properties of a standardized Echinacea extract (Echinaforce((R))): Dual actions against respiratory bacteria. Phytomedicine. Dec 24 2009.
- Sharma M, Schoop R, Hudson J. The efficacy of Echinacea in a 3-D tissue model of human airway epithelium. Phytother Res. Dec 8 2009.
- Spelman K, Aldag R, Hamman A, et al. Traditional herbal remedies that influence cell adhesion molecule activity. Phytother Res. Apr 2011;25(4):473-483.
- Spelman K, Burns JJ, Nichols D, Winters N, Ottersberg S, Tenborg M. Modulation of Cytokine Expression by Traditional Medicines: A Review of Herbal Immunomodulators. Alt Med Rev. Jun 2006;11(2):128-150.
- Burns JJ, Zhao L, Taylor EW, Spelman K. The influence of traditional herbal formulas on cytokine activity. Toxicology. Oct 7 2010;278(1):140-159.