nutritional and herbal allies for immune support

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We’ve hit that point in the year where everyone I know is sick, just getting over being sick, or living or working with someone who is sick. Since I work within public elementary schools, which are among the germiest places on earth, I’m often asked if I’ve gotten my flu shot. I never tend to go into a long diatribe but I long ago stopped getting one as it rarely helps ward off the actual virus I end up coming down with, and does nothing to support the natural strength of the immune system. Instead I’ve slowly built up a natural medicine cabinet of traditional foods and herbs to support the system throughout cold and flu season.

While this is a long list that I’ve been using this year, it is by no means comprehensive. Nature is incredibly competent at providing ample foods and herbs that support health and prevent viruses and infections, and truly, the herbs and products one might reach for should depend on the nature of the condition since even with the same virus, individual symptoms may vary and are best supported by addressing the nature of their presentation, such as assisting a dry cough with different herbs than a “wet/mucousy” cough, etc. And fortunately enough, this is also where herbs shine in their support of immune health.

 

Vitamin C // citrus // rose hips powder
Vitamin C helps stimulate white blood cell production, the blood cells that act as an army to take care of infection, pathogens, and inflammation in the body. Rather than relying on a supplement, I prefer to eat vitamin C rich foods including citrus fruits, berries, and dark leafy greens. I also sometimes add in a few shakes of powdered rose hips into smoothies, as rose hips are among nature’s richest and most-potent sources of Vitamin C (1).

Vitamin D
Vitamin D has a variety of positive effects on the immune system including enhancing innate immunity which means those white blood cells do their jobs when a cold or flu virus is on the scene. Vitamin D also protects against autoimmune conditions. All individuals should have their vitamin D levels tested when getting normal bloodwork done, and suboptimal levels should be supplemented with vitamin D3, especially in the fall and winter months or when one primarily works inside and doesn’t get adequate sunlight.

Dark Leafy Greens
I don’t think I will ever be able to emphasize enough the importance of an ample variety of dark leafy greens on one’s health. Greens are rich in vitamins A, E, K, and C, as well as a myriad of beneficial phytonutrients. Choose a couple varieties to eat each week and rotate throughout the season including spinach, kale, mustard and collard greens, turnip and beet greens, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, bok choy, broccoli, swiss chard, arugula, parsley and cilantro.

Probiotics // Miso
A daily dose of beneficial bacteria is good for more than just gut and mental health. Growing research is showing us that certain strains of bacteria modulate the immune system as well as bind to viruses and toxins to prevent infections (4). While I tend to rotate probiotic supplements for general health, consuming beneficial bacteria from traditionally fermented foods is best. My favorite during the winter is miso, as sipping on a little spoonful whisked into warm water, or making a miso broth-based soup when sick is really delicious and helpful.

Elderberry Syrup
There’s a reason this folk remedy has been around so long. Many scientific studies have supported the long tradition of consuming elderberry syrup to ward off or shorten the duration of viral infections. I take 1 teaspoon elderberry syrup every day throughout cold and flu season. Bonus is that when made with gently heated (not cooked) raw honey, it also includes a small daily dose of beneficial probiotics from the honey.

Adaptogenic herbs // reishi // Eleuthero  
Medicinal mushrooms have been getting a lot of trendy press time lately for a good reason. Reishi is my favorite as it strengthens both the immune and adrenal systems. Reishi, like several other mushrooms contains polysaccharides called beta glucans which stimulate the immune system. (2,3)
Eleuthero or Siberian ginseng is another favorite adaptogen. Like reishi, it can be used as an immune tonic with regular use reducing the incidence of colds and infections. It has also been shown to reverse low white blood cell counts in cancer patients. (3)

Herbal Throat Spray and Herbal Throat Lozenges // Zinc
Rather than reach for the common drugstore throat sprays, I’ve taken to using an herbal version called TheraZinc. It contains some of those soothing and supportive herbs such as elderberry, cloves, echinacea, and slippery elm, as well as zinc, an important mineral used as a co-enzyme in many cellular reactions, as it is essential for the normal development and function of cells and for regulating immune cells (4). I tend to rotate throat lozenges but some of my favorite ones also contain the same herbs and zinc.

Turmeric 
One of the current superfoods, turmeric has been used for centuries in Ayurvedic medicine. It is highly beneficial and nearly a catch-all in terms of what it can assist with, including the ability to enhance immunity. Like dark leafy greens, turmeric also contains important antioxidants to support the immune system, including vitamins C and E (1). However, the thing about turmeric is that its beneficial compounds are exceptionally difficult to become bioavailable in the body. Taking it with a small amount of ground black pepper and with another ingredient that contains fat helps turmeric work its magic in our systems.

Ginger 
Common fresh or dried ginger is exceptionally beneficial in controlling inflammation and muscular pain, increases circulation, and also aids in digestion. Ginger is a warming and pungent spice, and I particularly enjoy it in hefty doses during the cold season. What’s more, many herbs act as synergists with each other meaning when you take them together the effects of both herbs are more than a sum of their parts. Happily, turmeric and ginger seem to work together to great effect in our bodies when it comes to combating inflammation.

Demulcent Herbs // Marshmallow Root // Licorice Root //Mullein
Marshmallow Root // Putting a few pinches in a jar of cold water and letting infuse overnight is the best way to see how marshmallow root works. In the morning, you will have a jar of slippery, soothing, slightly sweet liquid that is best for dry and sore throats and coughs. The root will provide a similar soothing action on the tissues of the GI so beyond cold and flu season, this is a great herb for digestive support.

Licorice Root // Despite the connotation with licorice candy, licorice root does not taste anything like the red or black ropes I loved to eat as a child. Licorice is an excellent herb for balancing the adrenals, balancing blood sugar, and helping decrease stress and inflammation. It is also soothing to the mucous membranes and GI tract, and makes for a good addition to a tea blend to help out a sore throat. Note: licorice should not be taken by those with high blood pressure. 

Mullein // Known for its ability to support the lungs and respiratory system, this common weed grows freely along roadsides and pathways in the summer months. Mullein brings moisture to the respiratory tract providing soothing relief to dry, inflamed tissues and tickly coughs (2). I’ve taken to adding a couple teaspoons of dried mullein to loose leaf tea blends when I need some moistening lung and throat support.

Bee Pollen
Look to adding bee pollen when one is especially depleted. Bee pollen, the food of the young bee, contains nearly all the nutrients we require, and contains protein in the form that is readily useable by the body. It is eaten throughout the world for a variety of indications including aiding recovery from chronic illness, building new blood, preventing colds and flu, improving endurance and vitality, and extending longevity (5). When using bee pollen, it’s wise to remember that it is precious food, with a daily dose taking one bee over an entire month to gather. Use consciously.

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA. This information does not intend to treat, diagnose, cure, or prevent any disease. 

References:
1) McBride, K. (2010). The Herbal Kitchen
2) Pursell, JJ. (2015). The Herbal Apothecary
3) Winston, D. and Maimes, S. (2007). Adaptogens: Herbs for Strength, Stamina, and Stress Relief.
4) Braun, L. and Cohen, M. (2015). Herbs & Natural Supplements: An evidence-based guide (4th ed.).
5) Pitchford, P. (2002). Healing with Whole Foods: Asian Traditions and Modern Nutrition (3rd ed.). 

 

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Sweet Beet + Elderberry Oatmeal

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Happy Easter Friends!

Today I have a recipe I’ve been making on repeat for the last couple months, and one I’ve been meaning to share for weeks. But in truth, I’ve been busy. And stressed.

In what I knew would be a packed late-winter season, my class schedule was on overload for what ended up being six weeks. When I signed up for them, I thought it would be three to four, and knew I could get through for one jam-packed month. But then a job opportunity landed that I decided to take, my running coach decided I could handle more miles (and thus time), and one of those classes was taught by a professor that was amazing, but intense. Even for grad school.

So in light of all the action happening at once, I took a class extension. I dropped creative projects and unproductive activities like social media, I spent all my waking hours working or running save a precious few in the early mornings and evenings, and I just got through.

I’m still recovering, trying to prioritize down time, read some good books, bake (currently experimenting with gluten-free/vegan hot cross buns!!), and run with joy and gratitude. And also, feed myself well.

And while it’s spring break for many, I’ve a couple more weeks before I get there.

 

So today, let’s talk a little more about stress, overwork, and the nutrients that are necessary always, but even more so when we’re trying to bulldoze forward at full speed. The first are the entire friendly group of B Vitamins. 

The essential B vitamins are necessary in every step along the pathway of converting food into energy. When the body undergoes any kind of stress, whether it is physical or emotional, and feels depleted, the B vitamins are likely needed to restore balance and energy. In addition to converting food into energy and helping to cope with stress, many of the B vitamins can also help alleviate symptoms of insomnia, nervousness, PMS, and mood swings.

Each of the B vitamins (B1, B2, B3, B5, B6, B7, B9, B12, and their friend Choline) have their own specific roles, but they function quite well as a group. They are found abundantly in whole foods, particularly in whole grains, legumes, seeds and nuts, fruits, and vegetables–except for B12 and Choline, which each deserve their own discussion another day. In order to incorporate the spectrum of all of these essential nutrients into your diet, it is important to eat a wide variety of fresh, colorful, whole foods.

Most of us are actually getting sub-optimal levels of these nutrients, especially when we are overworked and very active.

 

Next up in importance in times of stress is Magnesium

Magnesium is a key player in over 300 biochemical reactions and is essential for creating and maintaining healthy bones, energy production, nervous system balance, and blood sugar control. And it is anti-inflammatory. Magnesium is required for DNA and RNA synthesis as well as the synthesis of glutathione, which is a powerhouse antioxidant that combats free radicals and cellular damage.

Like the B-vitamins, Magnesium is often lacking in the modern diet, our needs are more when we are stressed either physically or mentally, and it’s abundant in whole foods like leafy greens, beans, nuts, and seeds, and whole grains.

 

Finally, when we are overworked, our immune system takes a hit, and it’s during these times that we often fall victim to colds and flus. While winter flu season theoretically should be winding down, the mega virus(s) that’s been hitting hard these past few months is still going strong. Enter my favorite immune booster, elderberries.

Elderberries have strong antiviral properties and have been shown to shorten the duration of cold and flu outbreaks in research. They also have a very long history of use in traditional medicine. Made into a delicious syrup and combined with anti-inflammatory ginger (which I’m now making and selling in my shop), a daily small dose during times of increased stress gives a good immune boost*. I’ve been taking it all winter and especially these last few weeks, and even with exposure to a whole lot of sick kids, have been staying healthy.

 

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Sweet Beet + Elderberry Oatmeal, serves 1-2
Due to all the aforementioned whole foods I’ve packed into this delicious breakfast bowl including oats, beets, flax seeds, sunflower seed butter, as well as a little drizzle of elderberry syrup, this makes for a really nice start to the day. It’s one of my favorite breakfasts lately, and definitely feels like a meal that brings to life the meaning of self-care and stress reduction. For busy mornings, I like to prep all the ingredients, save the oatmeal and toppings in a saucepan the night before, and then store it in the fridge. In the morning, bring the pan to a boil, add the oats, cook until done, and then add toppings and serve. 

1 1/2 cups water
1 medium-ish beet, finely grated
3/4 cup old-fashioned oatmeal
1/8 tsp. sea salt
1-2 Tbs. raisins
1/2 Tbs. sunflower butter
1 tsp. elderberry syrup
a dash of cinnamon, optional
1 tsp. ground flax seed, optional
additional sunflower seeds to top

  • Bring the water to a boil in a small saucepan. Add the finely grated beet, salt, raisins, and oatmeal. Turn down to medium-low and cook until soft and to desired consistency, about 8-10 minutes. You might need to add more water, as needed.
  • Then stir through the sunflower butter, remove from heat, and add the syrup and any additional desired toppings. Enjoy, ideally in a non-distracted setting for the ultimate self-care.

 

*These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA. This product does not intend to treat, diagnose, cure, or prevent any disease.

summer calm herbal latte

summer calm herbal latte

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Did I tell you my summer term was a real whopper? I probably did because I complained and/or used it as a (valid) reason to opt out of a whole host of summer social activities that I wanted to partake in on many an occasion these past weeks. If I’m remembering correctly, I was singing the same tune last summer too so clearly I need to learn how to say no more to heavy lifting during the long seasons when I want to relax, socialize, and travel more. I somehow ended up taking three of the best but most time-intensive classes and most of my weekends for May/June/July were spent polishing off weekly deadlines and term checkpoints.

Realistically though, it wasn’t all bad. My herbal class textbook went along well with both my pathophysiology and personal life learnings, and I found myself scribbling this recipe for a summer calm herbal tea blend and latte in my notebook while reading the nervous system chapter on herbs on a day that I was also laying on the grass under the tree in our backyard, listening to the buzz of insects and children playing nearby, and feeling generally rather chill. So yeah, it wasn’t all tough going. I had a lot of relaxing afternoons where I could read or study from anywhere as long as I got it done. Many days, I chose outside in the backyard or the local forest.

And then it got hot and term project deadlines brought me indoors and reliant on the internet. And I forgot all about my recipe that includes a few nice herbs to infuse calm.

 

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Since we’re now closing in on just a few last weeks of summer and the back to school or work frenzy has got some of us a little higher strung, it’s definitely time to bring out this recipe. I might just be sipping on it a ways into the next season as well as it will be perfect for those cool, dark afternoons and evenings that are sadly coming our way. It’s got a few perhaps new-to-you herbs that are really good ones too.

 

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Skullcap, Scutellaria lateriflora // One of the best anxiolytic/nervine herbs for calming a racing mind, or at least I think so! Skullcap is one of the original herbs used in herbal medicine in the United States, and has a rich history of use here since at least the early 1800’s. In addition to being useful for anxious, nervous, and stressed mindsets, it is also a great anti-spasmodic for tight, painful muscles–both of these reasons are why I love it so much! Personally, however, I think its flavor is one that “grows on you.” When I first began working with skullcap, I found its stronger flavor slightly off-putting, but now I use it so much I tend to really favor it.

Holy Basil/Tulsi, Ocimum sanctum // With a very long history of use as a revered herb in India, and used there as a rasayana or rejuvenative, Holy Basil brings about health and long life. It is known as an adaptogen, meaning it will restore stress levels back to a balanced state, and also has antioxidant and neuroprotective qualities.

Lemon Balm, Melissa officinalis // In the springtime on my trail runs, I often stop along the way and rub my hands in the lemon balm, especially if I’m in need of a mood lift. The fresh herb smells and tastes very lemony, but in the dried form, it is much more subtle, and acts like a gentle mood elevator. Some studies also show it enhances cognitive function, and may even relieve some symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease like forgetfulness and irritability. It’s also great for stress headaches and improving focus.

Lavender, Lavendula angustifolia // Lavender is a mild nootropic herb, which means it “acts on the mind,” helping cognitive function. Additionally, it is good for nervous headaches, exhaustion, or anxiety. The essential oils in the flowers have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties as well, and I find their aroma just lovely.

 

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Summer Calm Herbal Latte, makes 1 large drink (18-ounces)
In the last step, I like to combine the steeped tea and warm milk in a liquid measuring cup and then have about a mug and a half of latte, as it tends to be the perfect amount for me. 

1 Tbs. summer calm herb blend (below, or herbal tea of choice)
3/4 cup nut milk
1 tsp. coconut butter
1/2 tsp. pure vanilla extract

  • Add herb blend to a tea ball or basket and then pour 12 ounces freshly boiled water over the herbs, cover or cap the mug or pot to capture all the beneficial essential oils, and allow to infuse for at least 10-20 minutes.
  • While the herbs are steeping, gently warm the nut milk, coconut butter, and vanilla extract on the stovetop or in a microwave safe dish.
  • Remove the tea ball or basket and carefully combine the tea and nut milk blend.


Summer Calm Herbal Blend

Dried herbs are best purchased in small quantities in bulk from a natural foods store, if you have access. Alternatively, an excellent place to source them online is from Mountain Rose Herbs.

2 parts skullcap
2 parts holy basil
2 parts lemon balm
1 part lavender flowers

  • In a jar, or other glass container, combine the dried herbs in parts, either by volume using tablespoons or measuring cups, or by weight. Then gently shake or stir the herbs, cap, and label with ingredients and amounts for future reference.