by Jessica Baron: Ayurveda is about balance and treating the whole body for optimal mental and physical health. Give yourself a boost with these four Ayurvedic herbs for immunity…
While biomedical interventions are necessary in many cases when bacterial and viral infections hit, that doesn’t mean we can’t use alternative or complementary medical systems as well. The ancient Indian medical system known as Ayurveda is a great way to understand how your body’s immune response works, and it can be used in tandem with modern Western medicine. For over 3,000 years, adherents have been using Ayurvedic herbs for immunity—to help bolster their immune systems as part of a healthy lifestyle.
A Body in Balance
The concept that air, fire, earth, water, and ether energies influence the makeup of our bodies and that there’s a specific dosha, or energy, that influences mental and physical health seems pseudoscientific to many Westerners. However, Ayurveda existed long before clinical trials. In fact, this “science of life” has since been subjected to modern tests, although we haven’t invested enough time or money to produce definitive results. Nevertheless, about a quarter of a million Americans use Ayurvedic medicine.
At the heart of Ayurveda is the concept of balance and of treating the whole body for optimal mental and physical health. Our immune systems don’t function in a vacuum. Even by Western medical standards, they are connected to diet and nutrition, physical activity, heredity, behavior, and various internal and external stressors.
The job of our immune system is to recognize and fight off harmful things that enter our bodies. We also rely on this system to remember information about germs it has encountered and how to fight them so we don’t suffer from the same affliction over and over again. But our immunity can be overwhelmed by other illnesses, poor nutrition, alcohol, smoking, lack of sleep, and stress.
Ayurveda, and specifically Ayurvedic herbs, may help bolster our immunity as well as encourage a healthy lifestyle that helps us ward off illness.
Inside & Out: Ancient Ideas About Immunity
In the Ayurvedic system, there are two types of diseases: nija and aganthu. Nija diseases originate inside one’s body and are caused by energy imbalance, while aganthu diseases are caused by outside factors such as an injury or poor sanitation.
Ancient Ayurvedic texts refer to various forms of disease that spread in a way that roughly resembles germ theory. Concepts such as vyadhi kshamathwa and bala describe ways in which the body fights off or repairs itself when afflicted with an illness. Even the concept of ojas—or abundant energy—maps on to our ideas about how to build immunity. But underlying everything is still the overall theory of creating balance (specifically between the doshas) to achieve wellness. This can be achieved in part through the use of Ayurvedic herbs, both to prevent and fight off illness.
Ayurvedic Herbs for Immunity
The Sanskrit term Rasayana refers in part to the use of Ayurvedic herbs to maintain health.
While these herbs can’t be expected to simply cure an illness if you don’t have your house in order, so to speak, their thoughtful use can help us keep in mind just how interconnected the different parts of our body really are.
- Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) has many uses in Ayurveda and helps balance excess vata energy. It is thought to reduce stress and anxiety, both of which weaken the immune system, as well as boost natural killer (NK) cell and antibody production to help fight off invading organisms. It contains flavonoids, which are antioxidant agents that protect your body from toxins and other stressors. Ashwagandha is normally ingested in the form of a capsule or as part of a multi-herbal tea.
[Read: “How to Use Ashwagandha Root.”]
- Amla (Emblica officinalis) has 20 times more vitamin C than an orange and can help protect cell linings, including immune cells. It also helps boost the phagocytic cells that our bodies use to ingest and destroy foreign particles. This Ayurvedic herb also contains tannins, which stimulate the immune system and have antibacterial properties. It can be purchased as a loose powder, a capsule, or in the form of an extract that can be mixed with water or juice.
- Tulsi’s (Ocimum sanctum) therapeutic effects have been tested in many small studies and it was found to increase immune response by boosting NK as well as T-helper cells. It is also thought to be an immunomodulator, helping to stimulate antibody formation. It comes in capsules and in tea form and, as a bonus, has been found to be a stress-reducer.
- Turmeric (Curcuma longa) is one of the most popular Ayurvedic herbs, most commonly used as a spice. Its active compound, curcumin, has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. It is believed to help boost immunity even in people with immune disorders by modulating the activation of critical system cells such T cells, B cells, macrophages, neutrophils, NK cells, and dendritic cells. It can be used to make a tisane, either by mixing it with water or coconut milk.
There are hundreds of other Ayurvedic herbs that are easily available that you may already have incorporated into your diet, such as cumin, fennel, coriander, ginger, and black pepper.
Dosage and contraindications should be determined by a specialist, and you should always tell your doctor or pharmacist about herbal remedies you’re using as they may interact with other medications you’re taking.
Ayurvedic herbs can be effective (and delicious) immune boosters, but they shouldn’t be thought of as cures, especially for contagious infections that warrant proven antibiotic or antiviral medicines.
Think of ayurvedic herbs for immunity as promoting a whole-body reaction—one that you have some control over if you take good care of your body and mind.
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