Top 7 Herbs To Boost Your Immune System

Dr Jess Garden, Immunology

Dr Jess says: After treating thousands of patients over many years in our natural health practice, I have definitely found my top 7 immune boosting and immune system healing herbs that help prevent infections and strengthen your natural immunity.

This list is not of the most common herbs found in a search on Google, or in medical papers or research. It is compiled from my extensive clinical experience, backed up by traditional herbal use and watching them help thousands of real-life patients over a number of years.

1. Astragalus

The Traditional Chinese Herb Huang Qi or Astragalus membranaceous is one of the most commonly used herbs. Good for patients who are weak after illness or medical treatments, burnt out or low in energy. It is traditionally used as an immune tonic to heal the immune system.

Evidence shows it can stimulate the immune system (1) and improve its function after illness (2). It can also significantly improve gut health after the gut is damaged (3) (superior to L-glutamine) and 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 has also been shown to be beneficial in auto-immune diseases like lupus (4) and myasthenia gravis (5).

The root of the Astragalus plant (in 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). 3-4 slices can also be added to a slow cooked bone broth or chicken soup for a delicious infusion into a meal.

Dr Jess: Astragalus is probably in my top 5 favourite of all herbs. I love this herb and 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 (helps you cope with stress) that really lifts energy as well as being a fantastic immune tonic. 

2. Elderberry

Sambucus nigra or elderberry is a beautiful herb traditionally used to prevent and treat colds, flu and sinus infections that tastes fantastic (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 woodland. Once cooked (they upset stomachs when 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, every 2 hours to reduce their severity.

Evidence shows elderberries can reduce the duration and severity of the common cold (6). They may also prevent and reduce the severity of flu (7) 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 Mrs Grieve’s traditional herbal recipe) and we usually freeze several batches to get us through winter (and give to friends as presents!).

Dr Jess: In my experience the syrup you make yourself is better than shop bought, but for ease I recommend preparations like Lamberts Immunostrength (which is excellent) to patients. In my experience I have also found this preparation good for preventing urinary infections.

3. Echinacea

Probably the most well known herb to boost the immune system, Echinacea is widely promoted and used but in my experience 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: Although I don’t find it really helps to treat infections like coughs and colds, I have seen it prevent infections when the immune system is weakened, which is supported in several studies (10,11). I think it is much more effective for auto-immune conditions and may even help support immune cell cancers like leukaemia (12) when used in combination with goldenseal.

4. Dong Ling Cao

Another traditional Chinese herb, Dong Ling Can or Rabdosia Rubescens can be used alone or in combination with other herbs. This herb is being researched for its ability to suppress cancer growth (13, 14, 15) (including prostate cancer 16). 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 mouth (17) and throat infections (18) and it likely has good anti-inflammatory (calms the immune system) activity (19).

The above ground parts of the plant are dried and used, and can be ground into a powder and taken in a supplement or made into a tea.

Dr Jess: I find this herb fantastic and have seen it successfully prevent infections. It is a family and friend favourite, as well as in high demand by my large patient base in winter. After a world shortage of supply it is now available again but during this period I discovered it would grow easily in my garden – which was a great discovery! 

5. Fire Cyder (non-alcoholic!)

Dr Jess: This is not one herb but a traditional herbal recipe that can be made with easily available cooking ingredients, so has to be in my top 6. I was first introduced to this wonderful concoction when studying for my degree in herbal medicine and it has been a firm favourite in the family and among patients who have made it at home.

Called fire cyder because the ingredients give it a real kick (which I actually really enjoy drinking!) it is a brilliant home tonic. Taking 2 dessert spoons daily to ward off winter coughs and colds, I have found it brilliant for those prone to chest infections or with weakened immune systems.

Garlic (20) and horseradish (21) are known to help benefit the immune system but the whole set of ingredients together I find far more effective.

Find the recipe here and have a go at making it yourself. You won’t regret it! 

6. Reishi Mushroom

Used in Traditional Chinese Medicine as a nourishing and strengthening herb to strengthen our immune system (22). It may be helpful in autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis (23), may help the immune system fight lung cancer (24) and suppress cancerous lesions in the bowel (25), breast (26) and prostate (27). Chemicals in reishi significantly improved the cancer-fighting ability of the immune system even in advanced cancer patients (28).

It can also be useful in genital herpes infections (29) and against HPV virus (wart virus that increases risk of cervical cancer) (30).

Dr Jess: 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 and beautiful herb for all the family.

7. Goldenseal Root

Goldenseal or Hydrastis canadensis root of goldenseal is a vivid golden yellow when chopped, hence this herbs name. One of its main constituents is berberine, which has been shown to be antibacterial, anti-fungal, anti-diarrhoeal and anti-parastitic, as well as having a huge range of other benefits (31). Traditionally it is used for infections with discharges, like infected ulcers, sinusitis, urinary infections and diarrhoea from stomach bugs.

Dr Jess: This is my last herb – not because it is least effective, it is actually an exceptional traditional Native American herb – but unfortunately it is becoming endangered in the wild through over use. So we should use it sparingly or source it carefully from responsible companies and organic growers or lose this valuable herb altogether. In my experience it is a great immune system herb, especially in combination with echinacea for many immune system problems like preventing and treating infections like coughs and colds, urinary infections, stomach bugs and allergies and helping inflammation in chronic disease.

Extra Tips To Strengthen Your Immune System
  • Strengthen your gut: 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 understanding of the role of the bacteria and microbes that live in our intestine, and natural factors like secretory IgA which can strongly affect the health of our immune system mean we need to support our digestion in an immune system problem. So make sure you eat 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 raw sauerkraut.
  • Vitamin D: is a critical gut and immune system nutrient and it is worth getting your levels tested in order to correct a deficiency.
  • Vitamin C and Zinc: High dose Vitamin C and Zinc supplements have both been shown to help prevent and shorten an infection if you are feeling run down or others around you are ill.