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12 Immune Boosting Foods and Herbs That Add Powerful Healing Properties to Your Meals
BY ELSON HAAS MD AND SONDRA BARRETT PhD
Adding herbs and spices is an easy way to create variety and expand the flavors of your meals—and load up the immune-boosting properties of your food, too. Herbs are typically leaves, roots, and stems used in cooking or for medicinal purposes. Spices usually come from bark or seeds, are intensely aromatic, and are generally added to dishes in much smaller amounts. Most of our common herbs and spices originated in Asia or the Mediterranean region, where many were known healing foods and immune boosting folk remedies generations before manufactured drugs or supplements were derived from them. Scientific research and analyses of these immune boosting foods and herbs have provided measurable evidence of how, or if, these herbs and spices work in any healing capacity. However, large clinical studies of these plants are still relatively rare, so we offer the following dietary ideas with a word of caution. As tasty additions to your meals, there is likely no risk. These immune boosting foods, herbs and spices can simply season your meal, or they can be taken as nutritional supplements when necessary. In general, they provide antioxidant and/or anti-inflammatory functions—both essential for good immune health. But if you consume them as supplements, exercise caution. Many substances with anti-inflammatory and antioxidant activity can alter blood clotting, and some herbs can interact with prescription medications. Immune boosting foods and herbs can help the body and alleviate symptoms of various medical conditions, but since this isn’t an article on herbal medicine, we’ve provided a simple basic review of those herbs and spices that may improve your immune functions and your meals. Here, we offer suggestions for spicing up your dinner—and your immune health.
1. Cayenne Pepper
Hot and spicy cayenne pepper is a member of the nightshade family, which includes potatoes, tomatoes, other peppers, and eggplant. The heat-producing component in the cayenne fruits is capsaicin, and patches or gels containing capsaicin can be used to soothe localized pain. It turns out that capsaicin is a potent inhibitor of pain-producing substance P made during inflammation. Substance P when released by neurons worsens pain sensations. Cayenne peppers are also powerful antioxidants, as you would expect from the bright red color. Remember, most highly pigmented foods contain antioxidants. Cayenne, used sparingly, stimulates blood circulation and stimulates secretions to clear a stuffy nose making it an excellent immune boosting food. Some people sprinkle a little ground cayenne in their socks to warm their feet in cold weather or take it in capsule form for its warming effects. Also, be cautious with amounts used of spicy peppers, cayenne, and even black pepper until you know your level of sensitivity. Some people are very sensitive and reactive or don’t like the warm or hot feeling that peppers generate.
Cinnamon comes from the dried bark of a tropical species of evergreen tree grown in Asia. The cinnamon more commonly sold in North America comes from the related cassia tree. It helps prevent infection and may stimulate immune activity, making it a welcome and tasty addition to your collection of immune boosting herbs and spices. There’s considerable research indicating that cinnamon can prevent clumping of blood platelets by blocking the release of inflammatory fatty acids from cell membranes. It also inhibits the formation of other inflammatory substances. Some research suggests it helps regulate blo sugar (a factor in inflammation), has antioxidant activity, and may reduce pain. Try it on your morning oatmeal.
Eugenol (clove oil) is widely used in dentistry as a local analgesic agent, so you may already be familiar with the smell and taste of cloves. Both an anti-inflammatory and antioxidant, the sweet, fragrant immune boosting cloves have been used to prevent gum pain—in addition to giving gingerbread and the Indian drink chai their signature aromas and flavors.
This potent and pungent cooking staple provides antiseptic and antioxidant activities. In one study, garlic was shown to prevent colds or at least shorten the duration of the symptoms making it an important immune boosting food. Allicin, a potent sulfur compound found in garlic and onions, provides both their powerful pungent aromas and supports antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activity.
Make Your Own Garlic Oil – Chop 5 to 10 cloves of garlic and place them in a small bottle of olive oil, or pour 4 to 8 ounces of olive oil over the garlic in a bowl or container. Let it sit for a couple of days to allow the garlic to infuse in the oil, and then put it in the fridge for several days. You can add other herbs, like rosemary, to the oil as well. Use this in cooking or rub it on your chest to soothe cough and congestion. Note: Don’t store garlic in oil at room temperature for more than a day or two, as garlic-in-oil mixtures could cause some bacterial overgrowth, with the growth of botulism being the biggest concern.
The pungent root of the ginger plant decreases inflammation in ways similar to aspirin, and it’s an antimicrobial against bacteria and fungus, making it a key immune boosting food. Some sailors, pregnant women, and people undergoing chemotherapy have found that ginger helps prevent or soothe nausea and motion sickness. Nausea and vomiting are complex processes controlled by the central nervous system and influenced by psychological issues. Studies show mixed results especially with chemotherapy-induced nausea, although ginger has reduced its severity. It’s been shown to be helpful in preventing pregnancy morning sickness. It also aids circulation and heat generation in the body. Ginger is readily available in ginger ale, as capsules, and in candied form. Fresh ginger livens up the flavor of whatever you’re cooking or drinking, so try it in your morning oatmeal or evening stir-fry. Or use freshly grated ginger to make tea as a wonderful cold remedy. Avoid ginger if you’re taking blood thinners or aspirin.
Most people think of licorice as a chewy candy, but its health benefits date from ancient times. Licorice, another root, has been shown to have powerful cortisone-like activity, which means it can help diminish immune responses and inflammation, which is why it has been revered as an immune boosting herb for millennia. It works well in the gut to lessen the symptoms of an inflamed stomach. Research indicates that at medicinal doses, it is antimicrobial and an antioxidant.
7. Shiitake Mushrooms
This fungus has been used in Chinese medicine for more than 6,000 years and offers another tasty and health-promoting food to your anti-inflammatory repertoire. This mushroom lessens the likelihood for heart disease by preventing immune cells from sticking to the thin walls of your blood vessels (the stickiness is a consequence of inflammation), making it a unique but important immune boosting food. Rich in vitamins B and D, shiitake mushrooms should be gently sautéed for a few minutes to enhance their flavor. Soak dried shiitakes for a few minutes and then rinse; they cook better when hydrated. Add a few to chicken soup or a veggie sauté for more flavor and immune support. Taken at a medicinal level, shiitake extracts can both suppress and activate immune functions, so consult with your health practitioner before supplementing with high amounts.
This flavorful, versatile addition to meals contains several immune-boosting chemical components. One is quercetin, a bioflavonoid also found in red wine, green tea, apples, berries, and buckwheat. Quercetin is not only anti-inflammatory and an antioxidant, it also acts as an antihistamine. Eat onions daily.
A powerful antimicrobial herb, oregano is effective in treating some fungal, bacterial, and parasitic infections, making it a great immune boosting herb to keep on hand or growing in the garden. Oregano has more antioxidant activity than apples, oranges, or blueberries! The popular seasoning is commonly used in Italian dishes like pizza, spaghetti, and minestrone soup.
The highly aromatic needlelike leaves of rosemary contain substances that increase circulation, improve digestion, and are anti-inflammatory. Some studies suggest it may reduce the severity of asthma attacks. In animal studies, an extract made from rosemary leaves was shown to have powerful and measurable antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects. In a study at the University of Florida, white blood cells isolated from 10 people were incubated with hydrogen peroxide, which causes oxidative damage to DNA. Blood cells from people who consumed capsules of rosemary (or ginger or turmeric) for a week were protected from this oxidative damage. The rosemary also lowered the inflammatory markers in the cells. Rosemary grows wildly in many parts of the world and is an easy immune boosting herb to have on hand dried or freshly growing in a pot.
Thanksgiving stuffing, fragrant with thyme and onions, may actually protect us from infections during the holidays. Thyme contains some of the same components as oregano and is especially high in thymol, which gives thyme its antimicrobial properties against bacteria and fungi, which is why it’s a first rate immune boosting food. Also an antioxidant, thyme has been shown to prevent oxidative damage to DNA in human lymphocytes. In other words, it protects genes. It also contains quercetin, found in onions, which inhibits histamine.
12. Turmeric (Curcumin)
The slightly bitter, bright yellow-orange turmeric root contains curcumin, a main ingredient in curries. Used for its intense yellow color (think mustard), curcumin is a powerful anti-inflammatory that may protect the liver from toxins. Preliminary research suggests it may delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease, lessen the pain and inflammation of rheumatoid arthritis, and even prevent some cancers, which is why it is revered as a powerful immune boosting food worldwide.
This article was originally published in Conscious Lifestyle Magazine Online
Integrative Family Medicine Physician, Author and Educator