Washing hands and keeping our distance is certainly helping us to reduce the incidence of infectious disease, but there is a lot more we can do to strengthen our body’s response to an infectious agent once we are in contact with it.
Our immune system has two branches – the innate and the adaptive.
Innate immunity is the front line, responding to pathogens such as bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasites by initiating a cascade of responses. These include activating neutrophils and monocytes that kill and ingest bacteria, mobilising natural killer cells that kill cells infected with viruses, and dendritic cells that ingest pathogens and alert the lymphatic system to the current threat.
The adaptive immune response follows the innate response, with the production of antibodies designed to identify and destroy the current pathogen, with copies of these antigens being stored long term in case the same pathogen is encountered at another time. This remembered response gives us a degree of immunity to the pathogen.
By strengthening our innate immunity, our first response to a bacterial or viral infection can be effective and relatively brief. If our innate immune response such as the Natural Killer cells are all primed when an ‘attack’ comes, our bodies are well placed to quash the invasion before any major harm is done. Unfortunately, our innate immunity can decline with age, with stress and with poor health, but please don’t be discouraged, for there are many things we can do to strengthen our innate immunity.
Echinacea, Holy Basil and Pelargonium are herbs that increase our innate immunity, by increasing Natural Killer cell activity. Echinacea can be taken long term. A study using mice found that those who were taking Echinacea daily had an increased life span to the placebo group! Andrographis increases immune strength, and should be used short term, while infections are in their acute stage.
There are many herbal medicines available to the herbalist to treat acute and chronic infections, and a herbalist’s training is important to discern which herbal combination is best for a client.
Reducing stress is enormously important in strengthening our immune system.
When we are chronically stressed, our body spends too much time in sympathetic mode, which suppresses our immune system and makes us vulnerable to bacterial or viral infection.. We are more likely to get sick and stay sick.
Though we live in modern times, our body has evolved over millennia, and while our conscious mind understands that the cause of our stress is not, for example, the fear of an animal coming to eat us, our bodies don’t make that distinction. When we are stressed, our sympathetic nervous system is predominant, our ‘Fight or Flight’ response is humming and ready to act. Cortisol is released. Heart rate and blood pressure increase. Blood is directed away from the internal organs to make it available to the limbs so we can run or fight, and the priority is survival from a external physical threat.
Our parasympathetic nervous system is what dominates when we are calm and feeling safe. Now we can ‘rest and digest,’ sleep well, properly digest our food, and our immune and our reproductive systems are given more resources and energy. This is the state of being that is required for us to heal body and mind.
So, what to do?
Herbal medicine – can increase and tone our immune responses.
Exercise – burns off extra cortisol, improves general fitness and health, helps us sleep better, gets us out of our heads and more aware of our bodies.
Eat well – fresh food cooked simply, with a high percentage of a
variety of colourful vegetables and fruits, will increase our
well-being by nourishing us, helping our bodies to detoxify and
feeding our friendly bacteria, who in turn encourage the production
of our feel-good neurotransmitters such as GABA and Serotonin.
Down time/Nature time – it’s so important that you get time to relax each day and allow gentle contemplation, reflection, appreciation of the living world around us and simple pleasure in the senses. If you’re finding you don’t have time for this, I strongly recommend that you schedule it into your diary on a daily basis of at least 20 minutes as a matter of great importance. Find a quiet place, a park bench, your garden, walk around your neighbourhood, or lie on the grass looking up at a tree. It’s not hard to do and it’s so good for you. In the end, your health is your greatest asset, so look after it!
There are a number of marvelous herbs that can help us relax, switch on GABA (our calm, well-being messenger), improve our Serotonin (important for balanced moods and good sleep), reduce feelings of anxiety, and increase our general resilience to stress. Contact me if you would like to try these gifts from nature.
If you do fall sick, give your self over entirely to the process of
getting better. Take a complete break from work – sleep, laze around, drink lots of hot soups and herbal teas, especially with ginger. Herbal tea with peppermint, elder and yarrow tea is a traditional brew for a fever. Increase your vitamin C (3 – 5g daily) and zinc (50 – 70mg daily) through the illness. Eat lightly or skip a meal or two. Listen to your body. Let people know you’re not well and take the time and space to get yourself better. It is the first week of an infection that your body has the best chance of getting on top of it, so don’t keep working. The world will go on without you. When you return, you will be better, stronger and with more to give.
Herbal medicine is enormously helpful through this time and can play a major supportive role to strengthening your innate and adaptive immune response. The recommendations change according to the individual’s disease journey, their major symptoms and the underlying health. Please contact me to get the best herbal blend to suit your situation.
Treasure your health, support your body, enjoy your life!
Brousseau M, Miller
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