When we talk about improving and preserving our health, one frequent suggestion is to use herbs to boost the immune system function. Indeed; humans have been using plant-based supplements to boost the immune system since long before we fully understood what the immune system even was.
Yet our modern understanding of immune activity helps us to better understand how — and how much — natural herbal therapies really work. As a result, there is a growing body of evidence to suggest that using some herbs to boost immune system function can be beneficial as both preventive and adjuvant medicine.
Using Herbs To Boost Immune System Activity: What We Know
Finding an effective, natural, plant-based supplement to boost immune system activity can be challenging — both because there are many options, and because information is scarce about the ideal contexts for use.
Generally speaking, most people get the most benefit from using “immunostimulating” or “immunoadjuvant” supplements to boost immune system function. These enhance and support the immune system’s natural activities by:
- Enhancing innate immune cell production/function – boosting the production of white blood cells, thereby strengthening the innate immune response (the body’s “first line of defense” against disease).
- Encouraging/strengthening phagocytosis – activating and/or enhancing the body’s existing innate immune cells.
- Improving adaptive immune cell production/function – boosting the number of lymphocytes in the body, which improves the body’s targeted responses to specific pathogens if/when they make it past the innate cells.
Recent findings on natural immune supplements show that there are at least twenty-five herbs empirically proven to change immune activity in at least one of these ways. That said, there is little conclusive research about who benefits most from which type of immune support; there are just too few studies and too much variation between testing conditions.
6 Herbs To Boost Immune System Activity
1. Echinacea (Echinacea purpurea; Echinacea pallida, Echinacea angustifolia)
What It Is: The roots and rhizomes of echinacea plants contain potent compounds that are known to comprehensively boost immune function. It is no surprise, then, that echinacea derivatives and distillates (capsules and powders, teas, and essential oils) are among the most widely-used natural supplements to boost immune system function. Almost anyone can benefit from using this herb to boost immune system activity.
What It Does: Increases the number of both innate and adaptive immune cells; encourages phagocytosis.
2. Ginseng (Panax ginseng)
What It Is: Even compared to other natural, plant-based supplements, ginseng derivatives yield remarkable effects; using these herbs to boost immune system function creates a stronger first-response to pathogens/infection as well as more rigorous targeted responses to diseases. Consequently, people experiencing high levels of stress or pathogen exposure benefit the most from its use.
What It Does: Improves the function of innate immune cells and increases the production of adaptive immune cells.
3. Kratom (Mitragyna speciosa)*
What It Is: Kratom is a tropical tree belonging to the coffee plant family, and is found all throughout Southeast Asia. It contains a number of compounds that reportedly have various health benefits including energy-boosting, tension-relieving, and mind-calming effects.
What It Does: The therapeutic powers of kratom are said to be directly related to the alkaloids present in the leaves. It is these alkaloids that sources say are responsible for boosting your immune system.
What It Is: Though the plant is best known as a dye, some people use henna leaf supplements to boost immune system activity. Henna has a lesser impact on immune activity than some natural therapies, yet it is unique because it may also reduce illness-related pain. This makes henna a particularly practical natural supplement for people experiencing chronically painful disease conditions.
What It Does: Stimulates the production of some adaptive immune cells and encourages phagocytosis (improving responsiveness) in innate immune cells.
5. Indian/Asiatic Pennywort (Centella asiatica)
What It Is: Asiatic pennywort is not the most well-known herb to boost immune system activity, yet it proves to be particularly effective in helping users recover from a wide variety of disease conditions. This has earned it some renown as a natural “cure-all,” though it is less useful as a preventive therapy than some other plant-based supplements.
What It Does: Significantly enhances the natural function of adaptive immune cells.
6. Chinese Star Anise** (Illicium verum)
What It Is: In multiple recent studies, star anise has proven to be a powerful adjuvant therapy for common antiviral treatment plans, making it attractive as a supplement to boost immune system activity. Moreover, anise seeds themselves contain a vast array of vitamins and minerals that are known to further support natural immune function. This makes star anise derivatives and distillates (extracts and teas, especially) ideal for use during cold and flu season.
What It Does: Stimulates selective innate immune cell modulation.
*The information in this post has not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration and is not intended to diagnose — or promise to treat, cure, or prevent — any disease. Always consult your physician before taking any new supplements, especially if you have pre-existing conditions, are taking prescription medications, or are pregnant.
** Chinese star anise should not be confused with Japanese star anise, which is toxic.