Let’s start by stating the obvious: Viral pandemics are scary. We’re going through a worldwide crisis unlike anything we’ve been through before—and it’s natural to want to try to protect yourself, to seize control of a piece of your health.
If you have an autoimmune disease or are immunocompromised, you might feel even more anxiety. Being exposed to any substance or event that affects your immune system can potentially trigger a flare you’ve been working so hard to ward off. That’s why it’s important to understand the different ways your immune systems can be supported. Doctor’s note: We still don’t know much about how the coronavirus operates, how it replicates, or what exactly can prevent and treat it naturally, so we can’t give you outright tips to protect you from COVID-19. What we can give you is key information that will help you make decisions for yourself as you’re taking care of your body. If you feel like you have more questions that are specific to your health, schedule an appointment with us to talk through your options.
How Your Immune System Is Supported
There are a few different ways that your immune system can be supported with herbs and nutrients. If you have an autoimmune disease, it’s important to know the following differences because your immune system is already hypersensitive. Autoimmune patients will want to stay in the modulating category of immune supportive herbs as overstimulating (or boosting) the immune system can push you into a disease flare up. Herbs and nutrients can be:
- Immune system activating or boosting. These have been shown to increase the activity of the immune system and all its key component players.
- Immune system modulating. These don’t drastically upregulate the immune system, but they support immune system cells without “calling the calvary” (aka, making your system freak out).
Herbs + Nutrients: What We Know About How They Support Your Body
In an autoimmune patient, we scientifically know details about how some herbs, vitamins, and nutrients can support your body. Some you may have heard of; some may be less familiar. But, let’s break down how they can each impact your body.
Herbs + Vitamins We Know Support Immunity Without Overstimulating
- Vitamin D3: We know that vitamin D3 can be helpful in modulating the immune system by providing the immune system cells the nutrients that they need to be created. Vitamin D3 also increases a peptide (or protein chain) called defensins, which is known to be antiviral, and can help disrupt the viral replication process. Vitamin D3 is safely tolerated in individuals with autoimmune diseases, and there is a lot of research on how to use vitamin D3 to treat and prevent autoimmune flares.
- Astragalus membranaceus root: Known mostly for its adaptogenic properties (it’s adrenal supportive), astragalus root is also known for its antiviral actions and effects on the immune system cells. There are also some very new studies that show constituents of astragalus may protect the lungs from inflammation due to active infection. What is particularly important for us to know about astragalus is that it can support our immune system without over stimulating it—making it a great resource for autoimmune patients.
- Ligustrum lucidum: Considered a very safe and gentle herb, Ligustrum can help to modulate the immune system without sending it into hyperdrive.
- Cordyceps sinensis: This mushroom has the ability to stimulate the immune response without triggering an over-production of inflammatory molecules (cytokines) that are often too stimulating for a person with an already-compromised immune system.
- Vitamin C: Not only can vitamin C be used to increase protective mechanisms that can prevent you from getting sick, it can also help boost immune system cells that fight off active infection from viruses and bacteria. You hear vitamin C touted as “immune boosting,” but the intricacies for how it does this without worsening autoimmunity are not well known. What we are learning is that high-dose vitamin C IVs can actually be used to treat autoimmune disease.
Herbs + Vitamins That *Might* Boost Immunity—But Might Be Too Powerful For Autoimmune Patients
- Ganoderma (Reishi Mushroom): This mushroom may be immune stimulatory.
- Elderberry: This one has gotten a lot of media attention recently about its potential to upregulate immune system cytokines (chemical messengers) and worsen the outcomes in patients with respiratory viruses. While all of the speculation about it doing more harm is strictly theoretical and based on studies that never took place in a human or animal, I always advise caution. Elderberry is best for prevention in just about every patient. We know that it can help stop bacterial and viral replication (as multiple studies have shown), as well as be supportive of the respiratory tract. But autoimmune patients might be at a higher risk for overstimulating the immune system, causing side effects or other complications.
Herbs + Vitamins That We Advise Autoimmune Patients Use Caution With
When using herbs for immune system support or treating active infection, it’s best to talk to your doctor before starting anything—and a doctor who knows how to use herbal medicine would be best suited for that question!
Because we don’t have a lot of good data on how immune-stimulating herbs directly affect patients with autoimmune disease, we want to err on the side of caution. We’re also always learning about the development of autoimmune disease and which key parts of our immune system malfunction for our own body to attack itself. So while the following herbs may be wonderful immune system supports, they may be too supportive if you have an autoimmune disease.
- Echinacea spp: Generally a very safe herb that is useful in pregnancy and lactation, echinacea may be just too good at boosting the immune system. We know that it can help decrease the risk of recurrent respiratory infections, and even prevent attachment of certain viruses to the respiratory tract, but the amount of immune system cytokines that are releases at the beginning of taking it might be overstimulating if you have a hyperactive immune system.
- Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis), Oregon Grape Root (Mahonia aquifolium), Barberry (Berberis vulgaris): The common denominator for these herbs is that they contain high amounts of berberine. Berberine is a phenomenal constituent that has been shown to be antimicrobial, antiviral, blood sugar balancing (and a whole lot more). These particular herbs can help push the Th1 piece of our immune system, the one that mounts a militia-like attack of our immune system cells, which may cause a worsening or flare up if you have an autoimmune disease.
If you have concerns about your immunity, make sure to talk to your doctor about how you can stay healthy during COVID-19, and beyond. As always, the best immune system support is to take daily action to keep yourself healthy. So wash your hands, #StayAtHomeMN, cough into your elbow, and don’t touch your face, But, if you do need a little extra immune system support, mother nature has your back (and so do we).
Dr. Cassie Wilder is a registered Naturopathic Medical Doctor (NMD) and founder of MIMC. Her passion is empowering her patients through education, understanding, and support through their healing journey. After graduating from Iowa State University with a Bachelors of Science in Kinesiology and Health, Dr. Wilder earned her Doctorate of Naturopathic Medicine from Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine & Health Sciences, a fully accredited and nationally recognized institution in Phoenix, AZ. During her clinical training, she received extensive hands-on training with many leading experts in the field of functional medicine and developed a passion for treating hormonal imbalances, thyroid disorders, cardiovascular concerns, and adrenal fatigue.