Small Steps and Big Changes
We’re having a strange Fall so far here in the North East. The weather is absolutely gorgeous and it’s—almost (optimistically?)—easy to forget what season it is. But, without question, it’s Fall and people are getting sick.
The most positive and powerful steps we can take towards improved immune health all begin with small personal lifestyle changes. And, as with so many areas in life, when we reenforce our foundation through improved lifestyle modifications, we do 90% of the work and we set the stage for herbal medicine to really shine. This is true with immune health and is it true with all health.
Here, we very briefly cover what I consider to be the top three lifestyle modifications to bolster immune health: Sleep, Nutrition, and Stress . This is the Holy Trinity of health. With lifestyle modifications, it is difficult to not include physical activity and exercise—but the true is that the importance and benefits of physical activity is woven throughout every single aspect of life, including sleep, nutrition, and stress. So while I'm not separating it out, I'm noting that it is an integral part of the equation.
After lifestyle modifications, we’ll take a quick look at a few select herbs that can be used strengthen immune health. If you are interested in learning how these herbs can be combined and made into immune tonics, see our blog post DIY Immune Fortifying Tonics.
Sleep and Immune Health
Regardless of the time of year, sleep is huge. Sleep is free and sleep is one of the most powerful medicines. As we become concerned with immune health, sleep is the basis that all other actions will rely and rest upon. Research into the relationship between sleep and immune health is decisive: Poor sleep makes us more susceptible to viruses, including the common cold. This is partly due to reduced cytokine and antibody production, as well as increased inflammation and cortisol.
Sleep. We need to begin valuing it—both personally and societally.
While everyone is different and everyone needs different amount of sleep, a good rule of thumb is that if you wake feeling refreshed and well-rested, you slept well. Wake feeling tired and groggy, and you (most likely) slept too little. This is most likely because too much sleep can leave you with a "sleep hangover." Neither too little or too much is not ideal. Children and teenagers need much more sleep than adults.
Edit: The same day I wrote this post I (afterwards) same across fantastic article on sleep published by National Public Radio (NPR), covering everything from how humans are the only animal that deprives itself of sleep, to how alcohol and caffeine negatively affect sleep, and the need for teenagers to get more sleep.
I've been saying for several years now that sleep is going to be "the next big thing," and I've correctly forecasted the rise of group sleeping classes (nap time for adults) as well as sleep coaches. Sleep is huge, and it undercuts so many well intentioned changes we make for health and happiness. Not to be redundant, but without a solid foundation of sleep, most all efforts are in vain.
Nutrition and Immune Health
To ease stress on the immune system, curtailing inflammation is key (many consider inflammation the root of 99% of disease). The easiest and most effective way for most to reduce the load of inflammation on the body is by reducing and eliminating inflammatory foods from the diet.
What we eat drives or inhibits disease. But, while modifying what we eat seems easy enough, it can be incredibly difficult for some to change—food is deeply ingrained in the visions we hold of self and as part of our own personal narratives. Change can be difficult. And perhaps this is a signifier of what a powerful effect food has on health: Benefits from improved nutrition come in orders of magnitude.
Possibly the greatest strength in mindfully choosing what we eat is the decision to either promote inflammation or to inhibit inflammation through diet. While inflammation is synonymous with healing, inflammation is a double-edged sword. As some inflammation is required to heal, too much amplifies disease and inhibits immune function. As a culture, the standard American diet is grossly inflammatory, and it is no surprise that the root of many diseases affecting the US are inflammatory diseases.
As inflammatory foods are removed from the diet and replaced with anti-inflammatory foods, the amount of beneficial phytonutrients and phytochemicals present in fresh fruits and vegetables are increased, including (there are over 2,500 known phytonutrients):
- Ellagic acid;
Phytonutrients are in themselves healing compounds with their own host of benefits. Skip fresh fruits and vegetables and skip the opportunity to heal through nutrition.
Top inflammatory foods (from Organic Authority):
- Hydrogenated (trans) fats and highly refined cooking oil;
- Fried foods;
- Refined sugar;
- Artificial sweeteners;
- Processed/packaged foods;
- Refined salt.
Top anti-inflammatory foods (from Dr. Axe):
- Green leafy vegetables
- Bok choy;
- Bone broth;
- Coconut oil;
- Chia seeds;
Stress and Immune Health
Stress is insidious and stress is nasty. Stress is an invasive plant that—once established—grows exponentially in our bodies and throughout our psyches. But that exponential energy can go both ways: Actions taken to thwart stress seem to ripple and amplify through all aspects of life, just as unchecked stress bleeds throughout other areas of life. Stress seems to follow Newton’s first law of physics: An object at rest stays at rest and an object in motion stays in motion. The less stress we have, the less stress we have (stress is at rest). But...the most stress we have, the more stress we have (stress is in motion).
Like sleep, the science tying stress and immune health is solid and undebatable. Here is a great write up from the American Psychological Association on stress and immune health. If you're interested in stress and health, please read it.
In short, stress affects immune health in the following way:
Ongoing stress makes us susceptible to illness and disease because the brain sends defense signals to the endocrine system, which then releases an array of hormones that not only gets us ready for emergency situations but severely depresses our immunity at the same time. Some experts claim that stress is responsible for as much as 90% of all illnesses and diseases, including cancer and heart disease. The way it does this is by triggering chemical reactions and flooding the body with cortisol that, among other things, decreases inflammation, decreases white blood cells and NK cells (special cells that kill cancer), increases tumor development and growth, and increases the rate of infection and tissue damage ( Psychology Today ).
Reducing Stress (from Psychology Today):
- Relaxation exercises, such as meditation and guided imagery;
- Positive thinking;
- Behavioral modifications;
- Social support.
Herbal Support for Immune Health
Astragalus ( Astragalus membranaceus ) works on two levels to improve immune health. Firstly, it has a strong immune regulatory property, supporting the immune system when it needs to be active, and calming the immune system when it should be at rest (thus benefiting anti-autoimmune disorders). Astragalus does this by inducing and regulating T-cell activation and enhancing CD45 phosphatase activity. This fortifies the immune system.
Next, Astragalus is able to promote immune health because it is actively anti-inflammatory, reducing inflammation in the body. This allows the body to heal and reducing the load on the immune system, so that resources can be better spent fighting infection (should infection occur).
Aside from immune health, Astragalus is a top adaptogen/tonic herb . Meaning that it’s benefits go far outside the realm immune system, and can help support overall health (thus compounding benefits to immune health).
At RAW Forest Foods, we love Astragalus so much that we created our Seven Springs Trail Astragalus Extract Blend. This is made with certified organic Astragalus membranaceus, and is prepared at a 2:1 ratio of a broad spectrum standardized extract (70% polysaccharides) and an isolated Astragaloside IV extract (the compound present in Astragalus studied for its longevity benefits).
We know what an important herbal medicine Astragalus is, which is why we created this truly unique product for our community of customers. Additionally, Astragalus can also be found in our Eternal Well Cordyceps Formula, which while focusing on the adaptogenic, tonic properties of the included herbs, is also a powerful immune tonic.
Medical Mushrooms and Fungi
Medicinal mushrooms (including all medicinal fungi) have a broad array of positive actions on the immune system. Similar to Astragalus, the beneficial polysaccharides present in them help regulate the immune system. For an increasing amount of people, the issue with immune health is not an under-active immune system, it is an over-active immune system, leading to autoimmune disorders and diseases. Here, the immune system attacks the body—identifying our own cells as invasive. Medicinal mushrooms can help reprogram the immune system.
My top medicinal mushrooms for immune health:
- Chaga (Inonotus obliquus);
- Cordyceps (Cordyceps sinensis);
- Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum);
- Turkey Tail (Trametes versicolor).
There are important and powerful medicinals, It is no surprise that we offer these at RAW Forest Foods, in the form of our:
- Arctic Bear Wild Siberian Chaga;
- Cloud Mushroom Turkey Tail;
- Eternal Well Cordyceps Formula (includes Astragalus);
- Reishi Buddha Blend (includes RAW Reishi Spores).
For those seeking the broad array of benefits offered by medicinal mushrooms, we created our Twelve Rivers MycoMedic formula. The name Twelve Rivers references the twelve energy (Qi) meridians, and this formula is designed to benefit the entire body—all Twelve Rivers—and to fortify the immune system (hence the name MycoMedic).
Longevity and immune health are inexorably linked—although the relationship is often glossed over or ignored completely. Shilajit is one of our top longevity and healthy aging (anti-aging) compounds , and is it of no surprise that this Ayurveda rasayana (adaptogen) has shown powerful positive effects on immune health.
Shilajit is not an herb, at least not in the singular sense. Instead, Shilajit is formed on geologic time as plate tectonics take once fertile valleys can compress them into a dense pitch: Shilajit . Technically, Shilajit is composed of humus and other organic matter, but we have to wonder, “What else is in there?”
Chemical analysis of Shilajit shows it to contain:
- Dibenzo-alphapyrones and related metabolites;
- Small peptides (proteins);
- Humic acid;
- Uronic acids;
- Phenolic glucosides;
- Amino acids (building blocks of protein);
- Fulvic acid.
Nutritionally, Shilajit contains more than 84 minerals in their ionic forms, including:
As an herbal medicine, Shilajit is used for healing and for tonic enhancement, and has specifically been used to support diabetes, urinary disorders, immune disorders, digestive issues, cardiac health, and the health of the nervous system ( read the study). Here, we clearly see why Shilajit is considered a panacea—capable of healing every and anything.
As an herbal (herbomineral) medicine, Shilajit is used for healing and for tonic enhancement, and has specifically been used to support diabetes, urinary disorders, immune disorders, digestive issues, cardiac health, and the health of the nervous system ( source). Here, we clearly see why Shilajit is considered a panacea—capable of healing every and anything.
For immune health, we can only describe the actions and effects of Shilajit as broad and far-reaching. Shilajit is unparalleled. In the above cited reference, we learn that Shilajit supports immune health by activating macrophages and splenocytes. That seems simple enough (and is similar to Astragalus and many medicinal mushrooms); but, the same linked paper goes onto cite numerous research studies showing that Shilajit has the following immune supporting and related actions:
- Anti-allergic and anti-histamine activity;
- Induce degranulation of mast cells (supporting treatment of allergies);
- Lithotriptic (dissolving calculus such as kidney stones);
- Reduces tumor growth.
Chronic Fatigue Syndrom
Many in our community exhibit signs and symptoms of chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), although in our over-stimulated world, it can be difficult to differentiate between burn-out and overwork and true Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Perhaps there is no clear delineation between the two. When is clear is that a very real relationship ties CFS and immune health together, and Shilajit has been shown—rather incredibly—to affect chronic fatigue syndrome in profound ways (as shown in animal models). In the research, Shilajit reversed the induced CFS and eased anxiety, and it appears to do this by "modulation of HPA axis" and also by "preservation of mitochondrial function and integrity." This means that Shilajit is improving/healing endocrine function and increasing energy production within the cells (mitochondria). Read the full study here.
It's easy to think that Shilajit is over-promising, but we have to remember that Shilait is not a singular herb and it does not act on the body as most herbs do. I think of Shilajit not as a medicine at all, but rather an addendum to the diet, restoring everything that is missing (and then some). As a dense, black pitch, Shilajit is clearly a Jing tonic and strengthener.
There is one downside to Shilajit: Over-harvesting. It doesn't grow, and the reserves of Shilajit are finite. Responsible wild-harvesting is of the upmost importance.
To ensure quality and potency, we offer our community of customers our Mountain Manna Rare-Earth Shilajit. A potent extract, this Shilajit is harvest by hand in the Himalayas and only under specific conditions.
At RAW Forest Foods, we have the luxury of creating products we love, products we think are important to share, not necessarily products we think will sell well. That's what a shill does, and that's just not the game we are in.
I highlight this here because the purpose of mentioning these products is meant as self-promotion, but instead it is meant to remind everyone that small changes in lifestyle will have profoundly positive impacts in our personal health, and that a few select herbs can be used to magnify the solid foundation we build for health through those positive lifestyle changes.