As we are in the midst of cold and flu season, I figured we'd do a quick little overview of what antiviral and antimicrobial herbs are, what they can do for you and your body and how it's really nice to be able to use plants as medicine instead of relying consistently on harsh pharmaceuticals and such that can later be put into our water streams, our soils and all of those things. I truly believe that using plants as medicine is one of those great ways that we can make our earth a better place.
So, what is an Immune Stimulant?
Immune stimulants help your body resist infection during the beginning stages of an illness, or potential infection, and they’re also helpful throughout the duration of an illness. They help to stimulate white blood cell activity, and are typically taken for a short time to address acute illness and infection. They’re also helpful during times that you know people around you are getting sick, or if you’re about to travel, back to school time, etc… I like to take Echinacea or Elderberry syrup when I know people around me are starting to get ill, or if I’m about to hop on a plane. Remember those things? Ya, I want to hop on another one again!
Immune stimulants are quick to act, increasing white blood cell proliferation and activation, but their effect is also short lived. Which just means that you’ll need to take them more frequently during the acute illness phase to keep them working well. The main actions you’re going to get from immune stimulating herbs are an increase in white blood cell count and productivity, increase in phagocytosis, which is when your immune cells like (macrophages) that eat the pathogens and bad guys? Ya, that’s phagocytosis and what is happening when you’re using more immune stimulating herbs. They also increase cellular communication (not from Verizon) but from the Cytokines, which are little chemical messengers released from your cells to shout to your immune army that there’s a foreign invader. Interferons and interleukins are examples of cytokines.
Immunostimulants can potentially increase autoimmunity, as they stimulate the immune system, which can inspire those immune cells to attack each other even more. This is not to say it’s guaranteed to happen, but if you have an autoimmune disorder, you may want to be more conscious and aware when taking immune stimulating herbs. It is more the exception that this happens, than a general rule. But since so many people suffer from autoimmune disorders, I felt it would be very important to address this here.
It’s important to remember that immunostimulants are typically taken in the short term to rev up your immune system during acute infections. They can also be overtly stimulating and can create imbalance in your body, if you use them for too long of a duration. Some immune stimulating herbs can be Antiviral herbs.
So...What is an Antiviral?
An antiviral herb works to fight off viruses in your body, as the name implies, but they can work in several different ways, depending on the plant or herb you choose. They can kill viruses extracellularly, they can interfere with the viral replication process, or they can create strong antiviral mechanisms. Sometimes an antiviral compound can be specific to one particular virus, and others have more broad, or general antiviral properties. They are a complex bunch, and are still being studied on a very regular basis to find out exactly what is happening behind their antiviral properties.
The super cool part about antiviral herbs is that they’re ecologically sound, they’re biodegradable and renewable, they’re safer for your body, and they don’t have a problem of resistance being built, like many pharmaceuticals do. They are easy to use, easy to grow, and easy to make into medicine! And best of all, they’re very effective for emerging and resistant viral infections. The plants learned long ago how to protect themselves from viruses, and they can protect us too! I believe that right now is the prime time to begin to learn to use these medicines, and truly address the healing needs of our people, and our precious planet!
Some examples of antiviral herbs you could use are:
Shown to fight off 10 different cold and flu viruses and shorten duration of cold and flu from 6-8 days down to 2-3. It's also been shown to shorten the duration of cold and flu from six to eight days down to just two to three. So there's a reason why elderberry is so incredibly popular and I love this stuff also.
I love ginger during this time of year because it's just so warming and it's also great for gut health. So many of us tend to overeat during the holidays that it could just be a really, really good friend to have on hand. Its antiviral properties are most prevalent when you're using the fresh rhizome and juice.
You can add slices to your broth or soup during this season. It is an amazing herb for immune stimulation it's been used in ancient Chinese medicine for thousands of years and is now super popular throughout Western medicine.
Some herbs can also have antibacterial properties, or better said, “They can fight bacteria!” let’s keep this positive and use less ‘anti’ if possible.
What is an Antimicrobial Herb?
It’s no secret that bacterial germs and bacteria can learn to become resistant to the chemicals and drugs that have been created to destroy them. Did you know that germs can go through a generation in 20 minutes, where we humans take 20 years to go through a generation? It’s no wonder that they are so quick to respond to our trickery, and are able to evolve resistance to our chemical creations and weapons as quickly as our chemical weapons are developed.
The cool thing about medicinal plants is that they can contain many different compounds that are antibacterial or antimicrobial. Even herbs as simple as garlic and onion. It’s easy for bacterial bugs to outwit a single compound but not so easy for them to outwit the complex compound found in herbs. Herbs can work in beautiful synergistic ways that most drugs can’not. And, it baffles the scientists developing the drugs, plus, takes away from their ability to profit. They certainly do not want us to know that we can grow our own medicine, for the medicine you grow and make surely will not line their pockets with gold.
A good local raw honey is not only delicious, it has some wonderful antimicrobial properties; it can make a great addition to your herbal medicine chest. I like to use it as a secret weapon to get more herbs into my child’s body when needed.
A super cool fungi that grows in the woods around me. Around this time of year, I find it readily knocked down from the branches of the trees that surround my home. It’s like a free ground score on my daily walks through the woods!
Echinacea has some strong antimicrobial properties too, and it’s oh so beautiful to grow in your garden.
One of my absolute favorite plants friends to use not only for food, but also for medicine! It’s got some amazing ability to fight off bacteria and viruses, and does an excellent job of stimulating your immune responses.
These are short term or for acute illnesses. So keep that in mind! Although here we are, I just mentioned garlic, one of my absolute favorite plants to use, and I love to use it for food. I use a lot of garlic on a regular basis. I also love to use it for medicine, and I'm not going to stop eating garlic every day, just because, it's an immune stimulant and I'm not supposed to take immune stimulants on the, on the regular. Garlic has so many other incredible health benefits, it's outrageous, but particular to this post, it is just phenomenal for fighting off bacteria and various viruses.
Now you are armed with some knowledge about what exactly an immune stimulant is and how you can use these herbs in your life on a regular basis…and we think that is pretty rad! Stay well, my friends!
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*Always remember to contact your healthcare provider when considering the use of botanical medicine as a possible treatment option and the medical considerations. While the information in this article is absolutely relevant, herbs work differently for each person and each condition.
**I am a trained herbalist and not a licensed or registered healthcare practitioner. I cannot diagnose health conditions, nor prescribe medicines legally; I am not a medical doctor. However, I will recommend or suggest medicinal herbs for various health complaints, as I do believe in the safety and efficacy of botanical medicine.
***The information I’ve provided is not intended to be a substitute for medical treatment. Please consult your medical care provider before using herbal medicine, particularly if you have a known medical condition or if you are pregnant or nursing.
About the Author: Melissa Mutterspaugh
Melissa lives in Oregon, in the foothills of Mount Hood. She's a clinical herbalist, environmental educator, mother, wilderness therapist, lover, nemophilist, music loving maniac, and the founder of Mountain Mel's Essential Goods. She is passionate about inspiring others to take better care of our planet, through taking better care of themselves, naturally!