Heal Thyself—Spotlight on Immunity

By Julia Van Tine

If you’re reading this now, in midwinter, chances are your most immediate need is to find ways to ease the burden of the season’s colds and flus. This year’s shortage of flu vaccine, which raises everyone’s risk of getting sick, only makes the task more urgent.

But there are plenty of other reasons to pay attention to your immune system. It does much more than protect you from the occasional cold or virus—it’s the backbone of your defense against a world of invisible perils. When it’s healthy, its T cells, B cells, and natural killer cells work quickly, decisively, and in harmony to ambush rogue microorganisms, environmental toxins, and cells gone awry. You might liken its workings to expert dancers who can anticipate their partners’ every move. All of them are supported by other cells, tissues, and organs that search out and destroy marauding microbes.

And the payoff for tending to your immune system on a daily basis, giving it the same care and consideration you give, say, a beloved pet, is considerable. You can lessen the risk of all sorts of ailments: environmental allergies, asthma, autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis, and even cancer.

What’s the best way to bolster this protective armor? You already know about giving your immune system the basics it requires to function: a diet rich in vegetables, fruits, and whole grains; adequate rest and exercise; and a stress level that doesn’t get out of hand.

But these days, supplement aisles are packed with products that claim to boost your immunity even further. Some really deliver, and some don’t. Here are the ones that can keep you healthy—not just during the cold season, but all year round. All have a good track record, so you can pretty much pick the one or ones that appeal to you. (The more the merrier.)

• Fight flu with elderberry
In the 18th century, Europeans drank hot wine made from the berries of the elderberry tree to ease cold and flu symptoms. Modern herbalists still recommend elderberry for viral infections, especially the flu. “The extract inhibits replication of several strains of influenza A and B,” says Oklahoma City physician Larry Altshuler, author of Balanced Healing: Combining Modern Medicine with Safe and Effective Therapies. In a study of 60

Norwegian men and women with early-stage flu, those who got elderberry extract recovered more quickly and used less medicine than those who took a placebo extract. User’s tip: While elderberry is available in various forms, Altshuler says the best research has been done on the syrup. Follow label directions.

• Sip a soothing cuppa
Tea drinkers rejoice: Your favorite beverage may help you fight off colds and flu. Harvard University researchers found that people who drank five cups of black tea a day for two weeks had stronger T cell responses to bacteria than those who drank coffee. Green, white, and red teas can also offer immune benefits.

User’s tip: Can’t drink five cups a day? Fewer cups may still offer some protection, as can decaffeinated versions.

• Give andrographis a try 
In India during the worldwide flu pandemic of 1919, a tincture made from the leaves and flowers of andrographis, a common shrub, helped arrest the spread of the disease.

“Andrographis is highly effective in fighting cold, flu, and upper respiratory infections,” says Ray Sahelian, a physician in Marina Del Rey, California, and author of The Common Cold Cure.

The herb stimulates the immune system to neutralize foreign substances, including microorganisms. In a five-day, double-blind trial, 158 people with colds were given either a placebo or 1,200 milligrams daily of an andrographis extract. By the second day, those taking the herb were less likely than the placebo-takers to report symptoms, including sore throat, runny nose, and sleeplessness.

User’s tip: Andrographis is available in capsule form. Make sure you get the version that’s standardized to 5 or 6 percent andrographolide, the main active ingredient. Take 400 mg three times a day, says Altshuler.

• Don’t give up on echinacea
A flurry of recent studies suggests that echinacea doesn’t prevent the common cold. However, earlier research shows that when taken at the first sign of a cold, echinacea does reduce its symptoms and duration.

“Despite the recent negative publicity, echinacea can provide significant benefit,” says physician Keith DeOrio, medical director of the DeOrio Wellness Medical Center in Santa Monica, California.

User’s tip: DeOrio prefers the tincture over tablets and capsules because it’s absorbed more easily and may contain higher amounts of immune-enhancing compounds.

Choose a product standardized to 4 percent echinosides and follow label directions for use (usually 2 to 4 milliliters of tincture 2 to 3 times per day). Don’t take echinacea for longer than eight weeks. After that, the herb can overstimulate the immune system.

• Take aim with astragalus
Research indicates that this ancient Chinese herb may help activate the immune system, perhaps by increasing the production and storage of interferon. “Astragalus also boosts production of white blood cells called macrophages, whose mission is to destroy invading viruses and bacteria,” says DeOrio.

User’s tip: To stamp out a cold or flu in its earliest stages, take one 500-mg capsule or 2 to 4 ml of tincture of astragalus four times a day until symptoms disappear, he says. Once your symptoms fade, take one capsule or 2 ml twice a day for seven days to prevent relapse.

• Hit a high C
Many experts still swear by the cold-fighting power of vitamin C. “It helps get rid of cold and flu symptoms,” says DeOrio. A study conducted at the University of Texas Health Science Center, for instance, found that people who took 1,000 mg of vitamin C a day for two weeks showed a more vital immune response. Their blood contained more natural killer cells, and T cells produced more interferon, boosting the body’s ability to fight infections.

User’s tip: As little as 1,000 mg a day has been shown to shorten a cold’s duration. DeOrio, however, suggests taking 3,000 mg daily during a cold. “It usually provides fast relief,” he says. You’ll absorb it better if you take it in divided doses of no more than 1,000 mg at once. If you experience gas, bloating, or diarrhea, cut back.

• Try a Chinese herbal blend
In Chinese medicine, every herb is classified by the Four Properties—hot, warm, cold, and cool. “Cold” herbs are used for hot (yang) diseases, while “hot” herbs remedy cool (yin) ailments.

The Chinese herbal blend Yin Chao Jin clears heat and relieves toxins, and is particularly effective when fever, headache, cough, and sore throat are just coming on, says Altshuler.

“If you take it in the very early stages of a cold, it decreases the duration and severity,” he says. “I take it, and I give it to my kids.”

User’s tip: You’ll find Yin Chao Jin in Chinese grocery stores and some health-food stores. It’s sold in tablet form, and as a liquid, Yin Chao Junior for children; follow label directions.

How to have better luck next year Okay, let’s say you’ve made it through this year’s cold season relatively unscathed; all well and good, but how about next year? Here are some things you can do to strengthen your immune system for the long haul.

• Get thee to E
All sorts of antioxidants can help boost immunity, but E is emerging as one of the best. It’s been shown to stimulate production of natural killer cells, enhance production of B cells, and perhaps lessen age-related immune decline. In one recent study of 617 elderly people, researchers at Tufts University in Boston found that those given 200 IU a day of the vitamin for a year had a 20 percent lower risk of catching a cold than patients who didn’t take it. E may be helpful for younger people, too, the researchers say. All the more reason to consider taking a separate supplement of at least 200 IU a day.

User’s tip: Opt for the natural form of vitamin E. It’s more expensive but about twice as readily absorbed and retained in the body. Read ingredient lists carefully, and choose brands that contain d-alpha tocopherol (not dl-alpha tocopherol).

• Try the latest arrival
Rhodiola rosea, an herb that’s been extensively researched in Russia and is just making its way to the West, seems to help immune cells fight off infection. In Siberia, peasants have long relied on rhodiola teas to keep them healthy during bitter winters. (For more on rhodiola, see “The Herb That Came in From the Cold,” page 70.)

User’s tip: Make sure the label lists Rhodiola rosea, standardized to 3 to 4 percent rosavins and 0.8 to 1 percent salidrosides. Start with one 100-mg capsule once a day, taken half an hour before breakfast, and gradually raise the dose; herbal experts say the optimum amount is 200 mg a day.

• Go ’shrooming
Medicinal mushrooms such as the maitake, shiitake, and reishi possess a potent cocktail of immunity-boosting compounds, says DeOrio.

“Maitake D-fraction is the best form of medicinal mushroom to use,” says DeOrio. “It contains the highest amount of the active ingredient known as 1,6 beta glucan.” It’s also well absorbed when taken orally, he says.

User’s tip: You’ll find maitake D-fraction supplements at health-food stores. (Fresh maitake mushrooms, sold at some gourmet stores, are highly nutritious, but give you less immune-boosting power.) Take 150 mg three times per day year-round, six weeks on, two weeks off.

• Get garlic
The major active agent in garlic—allicin—is the same stuff that gives you garlic breath. But its antibacterial and antiviral properties are as powerful as its pungent odor. A study in England found that people who took a garlic supplement significantly reduced their risk of catching a cold.

If you’re a fan of the stinking rose, by all means eat the real thing, says Altshuler. He recommends at least 1 raw or lightly sautéed clove a day. If you’d rather take a supplement, stick to garlic capsules or tablets with an enteric coating. It protects the garlic from stomach acids, which can inactivate the allicin.

User’s tip: Before cooking garlic, chop it, peel it, and let it sit for 10 minutes. This gives the active compounds a chance to develop.

Avoid Toxins, Boost Your Immunity 
We’re used to thinking only of germs as potential immune-busters, but environmental toxins can also place a tremendous strain on the immune system. Here’s a short list of common offenders.

Phthalates Nail polish, plastic wrap, inflatable toys, and food packaging often contain these troublemakers. They can trigger hypersensitivity in the immune system, causing allergic reactions ranging from hives to life-threatening anaphylactic shock. To protect yourself: Opt for phthalate-free polishes; read toy labels carefully; store food in waxed paper.

Molds Some molds produce substances called mycotoxins, which can suppress your immune system. To protect yourself: If your home harbors mold, clean it immediately and reduce the moisture that’s feeding it. For more on how to get rid of mold, log on to epa.gov/mold/moldbasics.html.

Volatile organic compounds You’ll find these in air freshener, cosmetics, cleansers, and other solvents. To protect yourself: Swap conventional brands for more eco-friendly versions.

Mr. Sun Research in animals and humans has linked exposure to sunlight with lowered resistance to viruses, including chicken pox, herpes, and human papillomavirus. To protect yourself: You guessed it: Maks sure to use an SPF-30 sunscreen every day.