Dr Jess says: These are my tried and tested top seven immune-boosting and healing herbs that help prevent infections and strengthen natural immunity.
This list is not of the most common herbs found in an online search, or even in medical papers or research. It’s compiled from my own extensive clinical experience of treating thousands of patients and is backed up by traditional herbal uses and real-life results that I have seen for myself.
The traditional Chinese herb, Huang Qi, or Astragalus membranaceous, is one of the most commonly used herbs. It is traditionally used as an immune tonic to heal the immune system and is good for patients who are weak after illness or medical treatments, burnt out or low in energy.
Evidence shows that astragalus can stimulate the immune system1 and improve its function after illness.2 It can also significantly improve gut health after the gut is damaged3 (its results are superior to L-glutamine). This may be one of the ways it strengthens immunity, as evidence supports that the immune system is heavily linked to our gut health. It’s also been shown to be beneficial in auto-immune diseases like lupus4 and myasthenia gravis.5
The root of the astragalus plant (which is part of the pea family) is dried and sliced to make the herb. It can be taken as a supplement, bought as a powder and added to smoothies or hot drinks, or taken as it is (it has a relatively pleasant flavour). Three or four slices can also be added to a slow-cooked bone broth or chicken soup for a delicious infusion into a meal.
Dr Jess says: Astragalus is definitely one of my favourite herbs of all. I use it in a huge number of my herb prescriptions for patients. Its main superpower is its ability to strengthen both the patient and their immune system. It’s safe, gentle and effective, and is a beautiful adaptogen (it helps you cope with stress) that really lifts energy, as well as being a fantastic immune tonic.
Sambucus nigra or, as it’s commonly known; elderberry, is traditionally used to prevent and treat colds, flu and sinus infections that tastes fantastic (which can be pretty unusual in the herbal world)! Even better, it grows abundantly and you can forage for your own elderberries in autumn, finding them in hedgerows, the edges of fields and in woodland. Once cooked, (they upset stomachs if eaten raw) they can be made into a delicious syrup in 45 minutes.
Elderberry syrup can be taken daily through the cold and cough season as a preventative, and if any symptoms show up, taken every two hours, to reduce their severity.
Evidence shows that elderberries can reduce the duration and severity of the common cold.6 They may also prevent and reduce the severity of flu7 as they have antiviral action against several flu and chest viruses.8
Making elderberry syrup is a yearly project with my family (from an old traditional herbal recipe) and we usually freeze several batches to get us through winter (and give to friends as presents)!
Dr Jess says: In my experience, homemade elderberry syrup is better than shop-bought alternatives, but for ease, I recommend preparations such as Lamberts Immunostrength (which is excellent) to patients. I have also found this preparation useful for preventing urinary infections.
Probably the most well-known herb to boost the immune system, echinacea is widely promoted and used but works best when combined with goldenseal or elderberry. It may also benefit in helping to calm the immune system in auto-immune diseases like uveitis.9
Dr Jess says: Although I don’t find it really helps to treat infections like coughs and colds, I have seen echinacea prevent infections when the immune system is weakened, which is supported in several studies10, 11 think it’s much more effective for auto-immune conditions and may even help support immune cell cancers like leukaemia12, when used in combination with goldenseal.
dong ling cao
Another traditional Chinese herb, dong ling cao (Rabdosia Rubescens) can be used alone or in combination with other herbs. This herb is being researched for its ability to suppress cancer growth113,14,15 (including prostate cancer16). In Chinese medicine, it is traditionally used to treat cancer and to prevent and treat a wide range of infections.
Clinical trials find this herb very safe and effective for long term mouth17 and throat infections18 and it likely has good anti-inflammatory activity (it calms the immune system)19.
The parts of the plant that appear above ground are dried and used to make dong ling cao and are ground into a powder and taken in a supplement, or made into a tea.
Dr Jess: This herb is fantastic! I have seen it successfully prevent infections in patients. It is a family and friend favourite, and in high demand by my large patient base in the winter months. After a world shortage of supply, it is now available again, but during this period I discovered that it grows easily in my garden too!
Andrographis paniculata is in common use in many traditional herbal medicines including Ayurvedic medicine, where it is called Kalmegh, and in Chinese medicine where it is called Chuan Xin Lian. It is traditionally used as a bitter herb for fevers, respiratory infections, sore throats, colds and flu. It is also used for diarrhoea-causing stomach bugs and as a liver tonic.
Evidence shows that Andrographis can improve symptoms and recovery time from the common cold and from sinusitis and has a significant antibacterial, antiparasitic and antiviral effect. It seems to modulate the immune system and improve its function so may have benefit for autoimmune diseases. Early studies show it may have anti-cancer effects20. It is generally thought to be safe, but thanks to its bitterness, it can cause nausea and digestive upset and is not recommended in pregnancy.
Pukka do an excellent Andrographis supplement. It is very bitter, so it may not be your favourite herb to eat or take as a tincture (Kalmegh translates as ‘King of Bitters’). However, bitter herbs are good for the liver, help digestion and reduce fevers.
Dr Jess says: Andrographis is an excellent anti-infective herb. I use it in many of my infection prescriptions and it is a key herb in a combination we use traditionally to prevent infections for vulnerable patients during the winter months. I believe this herb is really remarkable and should be in everyone’s cupboard to take at the first sign of infection. It goes really well with astragalus as an immune tonic, to prevent infection.
fire cyder – it’s a non-alcoholic treat!
Dr Jess says: This is not one herb but a traditional herbal recipe that can be made with easily available cooking ingredients, which is why it’s one of my absolute favourites. I was first introduced to this wonderful concoction when studying for my degree in herbal medicine, and it’s been a firm favourite in my family and amongst my patients who have made it for themselves at home.
It’s called fire cyder because the ingredients give it a real kick (which I actually really enjoy drinking)! It’s a brilliant home tonic. Two dessert spoons daily can help to ward off winter coughs and colds. I’ve found it to be brilliant for patients who are prone to chest infections or with weakened immune systems.
It’s widely known that both garlic21 and horseradish22 can benefit the immune system, but the combination of ingredients in fire cyders I find to be far more effective.
Find the recipe here – why not have a go at making it yourself?
Used in traditional Chinese medicine (where it is called ‘ling zhi’) as a nourishing and strengthening herb for our immune system.23 Reishi mushroom may be helpful in treating autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis,24 may help the immune system fight lung cancer25 and suppress cancerous lesions in the bowel,26 breast27 and prostate.28 Chemicals in reishi significantly improved the cancer-fighting ability of the immune system even in advanced cancer patients29 in a clinical trial.
It may also be useful in genital herpes infections30 and against HPV virus (a type of wart virus that increases the risk of cervical cancer in women).31 It can also be considered for pets who have cancer or show physical signs of weakness. Reishi mushroom is naturally high in polysaccharides and triterpenoids, beta-glucans and antioxidants.
Dr Jess says: Reishi mushroom is a great addition to coffee or hot drinks or taken as a supplement for overall strengthening of our system after illness or stress (especially when combined with cordyceps). In my experience, it can take some time to work, but like many of the mushrooms, it is a very safe natural medicine
Goldenseal, or Hydrastis Canadensis root, is a vivid golden yellow when chopped, hence its name. One of its main constituents is berberine, which has been shown to be antibacterial, anti-fungal, anti-diarrhoeal and anti-parasitic, as well as having a wide range of other benefits.32 It is traditionally used for infections with discharges, like infected ulcers, sinusitis, urinary infections and diarrhoea from stomach bugs.
Dr Jess says: This is an exceptional traditional Native American herb, but unfortunately it is becoming endangered in the wild through overuse. This means that we should always use it sparingly or source it carefully from responsible companies and organic growers, or we risk losing this valuable herb altogether. In my experience, it’s great for the immune system, especially in combination with echinacea for preventing and treating infections such as coughs and colds, urinary infections, stomach bugs and allergies and helping to reduce inflammation in chronic disease.
extra tips to help strengthen your immune system
- With any immune system problem, always look at the health of your gut. It stands to reason, as 80% of the immune cells in the body are in our gut. Evolving medicinal understanding of the role of the bacteria and microbes that live in our intestine and microbiome, and natural factors like secretory IgA (part of our first line of defence against infection in the mucus lining of the gut) can strongly affect the health of our immune system. Supporting our digestion is the perfect route to treat an immune system problem. Be sure to eat plenty of gut-nourishing foods and use supports like kefir – an excellent probiotic which improves gut (and therefore immune system) health. For vegetarians, or those who can’t tolerate cow’s milk, consider eating raw sauerkraut. Visit our gut toolkit for more information.
- Vitamin D is a critical gut and immune system nutrient. It is worth getting your levels tested in order to correct any deficiency.
- Vitamin C and zinc: High-dose vitamin C and zinc supplements have both been shown to help prevent and shorten infection, if you are feeling run down or as a protective measure if others around you are ill.
- Brush J, Mendenhall E, Guggenheim A, Chan T, Connelly E, Soumyanath A, Buresh R, Barrett R, Zwickey H.The effect of Echinacea purpurea, Astragalus membranaceus and Glycyrrhiza glabra on CD69 expression and immune cell activation in humans Phytother Res. 2006 Aug;20(8):687-95. doi: 10.1002/ptr.1938. PMID: 16807880.
- Wu J, Wang YX, Su WL, Zhu WX, Lu JW, Li ZK. Effect of astragalus injection on serious abdominal traumatic patients’ cellular immunity Chin J Integr Med. 2006 Mar;12(1):29-31. doi: 10.1007/BF02857426. PMID: 16571280.
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- Cai XY, Xu YL, Lin XJ. [Effects of radix Astragali injection on apoptosis of lymphocytes and immune function in patients with systemic lupus erythematosus] Zhongguo Zhong Xi Yi Jie He Za Zhi. 2006 May;26(5):443-5. Chinese. PMID: 16883914.
- Niu GH, Sun X, Zhang CM. [Effect of compound astragalus recipe on lymphocyte subset, immunoglobulin and complements in patients with myasthenia gravia] Zhongguo Zhong Xi Yi Jie He Za Zhi. 2009 Apr;29(4):305-8. Chinese. PMID: 19526753.
- Tiralongo E, Wee SS, Lea RA. Elderberry Supplementation Reduces Cold Duration and Symptoms in Air-Travellers: A Randomized, Double-Blind Placebo-Controlled Clinical Trial Nutrients. 2016 Mar 24;8(4):182. doi: 10.3390/nu8040182. PMID: 27023596; PMCID: PMC4848651.
- Zakay-Rones Z, Thom E, Wollan T, Wadstein J. Randomized study of the efficacy and safety of oral elderberry extract in the treatment of influenza A and B virus infections J Int Med Res. 2004 Mar-Apr;32(2):132-40. doi: 10.1177/147323000403200205. PMID: 15080016.
- Zakay-Rones Z, Varsano N, Zlotnik M, Manor O, Regev L, Schlesinger M, Mumcuoglu M. Inhibition of several strains of influenza virus in vitro and reduction of symptoms by an elderberry extract (Sambucus nigra L.) during an outbreak of influenza B Panama J Altern Complement Med. 1995 Winter;1(4):361-9. doi: 10.1089/acm.1995.1.361. PMID: 9395631.
- Neri PG, Stagni E, Filippello M, Camillieri G, Giovannini A, Leggio GM, Drago F. Oral Echinacea purpurea extract in low-grade, steroid-dependent, autoimmune idiopathic uveitis: a pilot study J Ocul Pharmacol Ther. 2006 Dec;22(6):431-6. doi: 10.1089/jop.2006.22.431. PMID: 17238809.
- Hall H, Fahlman MM, Engels HJ.Echinacea purpurea and mucosal immunity . Int J Sports Med. 2007 Sep;28(9):792-7. doi: 10.1055/s-2007-964895. Epub 2007 Apr 13. PMID: 17436202.
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