How do we boost our immune system? The answer depends upon who you ask. A friendly waiter at a ski lodge may recommend a comforting hot toddy to sweat out your chills. A laboratory scientist might test the response of the microcosm, of cells, hormones and body functions, elicited by chemical reactions.
An Ayurvedic practitioner might recommend a series of herbs, warming foods, movement, and skin exfoliation practices. Ayurveda is a 5,000+ year old health science originating out of India which is currently practiced by millions of people throughout the world today. Popularized by yoga and meditation, Ayurveda encompasses a worldview that is designed to support human and planetary health through the balancing of energies or doshas.
A Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) practitioner, might recommend acupuncture, an herbal formula, healing foods and QiGong. TCM practiced for at least 5,000 years by people throughout the world has been popularized by acupuncture, Chinese herbal tonics, martial arts and QiGong, TCM encompasses a holistic approach to healing the mind, body and consciousness through foods, herbs, energetic practices and lifestyle.
How Ancient Science Teaches Us to Stay Well
- Know your constitution (your health strengths and weaknesses)
- Stay in Balance despite stress, seasonal change, and aging
- Avoid Sick People and Situations
- Practice Wise Hygiene, Diet and Lifestyle
At Academy of Healing Nutrition, we consider all of these approaches––both ancient and modern––valid and potentially helpful, depending upon the condition. Through foods, herbs and lifestyle practices, we help people to prevent chronic disease and the ill effects of aging.
When it comes to immunity, we understand that it is more than avoiding disease: it encompasses vitality, creativity, sexuality the essence of life well-lived. The additional aspects of wellness that this approach provides are balance and renewal. Through food, herbs, and lifestyle adjustments, we fortify individual health and honor the effects of seasonal change.
Below, we’ll outline two ancient, helpful perspectives on boosting the immune system through the lens of Ayurveda, and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). A doctor of traditional Asian medicine uses a rigorous examination of the patient’s vital signs, including tongue and pulse diagnosis, analysis of digestion and elimination, as well as other physical and emotional symptoms. Years of training and practice are required to use Asian diagnosis and healing methods. However, for our purposes, we can adapt some practical ways to avoid illness and slow the aging process with some commonly used remedies.
An Ayurvedic Perspective on Boosting the Immune System
Ask an Ayurvedic doctor/herbalist how to stay strong and the answer will include: “Build digestive fire (also known as agni).” This digestive fire cooks our foods to sustain vital processes at the cellular level throughout the body. Popular Indian digestives include cumin, turmeric, cardamom, clove, ginger and asafoetida. Agni is harmed by cold foods, ice, and junk foods but also by poisons in the environment, polluted air and water, the season, poverty and suffering, emotional upset and chronic stress. Ayurvedic doctors will go so far as to say, “In the West, heart disease is caused by grasping for money and fame.” Ayurveda, stemming from ancient philosophical texts, teaches lifestyle methods such as meditation that bring awareness to our Karma, the repercussions of our actions.
Ayurvedic Constitution, the Doshas
The first step to overall wellness is to know our constitution: the physiological, emotional, spiritual, and genetic conditions we are born with. We observe our constitution through the prism of Doshas: Vata, Pitta and Kapha––3 energies which inform our shape, metabolism as well as our moods, habits, and activities.
In Ayurveda, every person is known to be born with a certain amount of energy in each of the 3 doshas. Some people are very Kapha, for instance, and can be balanced by leveraging more Pitta or Vata foods, herbs and energies, and vice-versa. Each dosha is understood to be a makeup of natural elements such as fire, water, earth, wind and ether. So, some people, for instance, might have “too much fire” and need to balance out with cooling activities, foods and herbs. The idea in Ayurveda is that we may use foods and herbs that provide support for the weaker elements and reduce what harms us.
Vata: Nervous, hyper, bloated, allergic and always moving.
Vata is known to be like wind: cool, light, quick and changeable. Vata is our brain and nervous system, creativity, imagination. The Vata person tends to be slim and hyperactive. They may rush around, chatter and do not chew their food. Their tendency to develop digestive bloating, gas, and aches are aggravated by cold raw under-nourishing foods, excess travel, talking, lack of sleep and poor mental focus.
Vata exhausts vitality with hyperactivity. They are prone to chronic joint pain, bone loss, allergies, anxiety, depression, fear, hysteria that need grounding.
Warm cooked soups with meat, iron-rich greens, root vegetables, sweet juicy fruits and digestive spices and healthy oils ground the excess wind energy of Vata. Body massage with a warming oil, meditation, herbs that improve memory, enhance sleep and heal brain stress such as shankhpushpi as well as positive work to help others are all useful for Vata. Earth colors—red, yellow, orange, gold—are warming for Vata. Warm rich fragrance, musk, vetivert, geranium are soothing for sleep.
Pitta: Overworked, judgmental, ambitious, driven, and hungry.
Pitta is known to be hot, oily, and greasy. Pitta is Fire: our digestion, drive and will power to accomplish goals. Pitta’s loud voice, harsh attitudes, strong movements and unpredictable actions can be overwhelming. Pitta increases digestive acid, drive and activity.
The Pitta person can tend to overwork, play hard and become sick. When judgmental, Pitta measures actions, drives himself and others to speed and activity. Pitta may exhaust vitality with ambition, frustration, or anger. Their tendency to ulcers, chronic hunger, stomach aches, food allergies, skin rashes, thinning hair, brittle nails, blood shot eyes and cloudy vision, tense insomnia, hypertension and inflammatory illness is made worse from red meat, cheese, hot spices, alcohol, cigarettes, jet lag, drugs, lacking adequate recovery from illness, and from exhausting work or sex which leaves them feeling empty and bitter.
Cooling Pitta improves chronic fevers, hypertension, hot flashes, painful periods that are accompanied by acne, panic attacks and pounding hot headaches. Steamed bitter greens, green tea, coconut, cumin, coriander, fennel, turmeric, mint, dill, tarragon, lime, antibiotic neem, brain-soothing Brahmi (which decreases the levels of cortisol and improves memory), are useful so are cool showers and vacations. Cooling light blue and violet and sweet light fragrance of ylang ylang, fennel oil and jasmine are soothing.
Kapha: Meditative, sluggish, congested, caring, and paranoid.
Kapha is understood to be our flesh, body fluids, and is made of Earth and Water elements. The Kapha person often has edema that looks puffy on the face, hands, legs and feet. They often have smooth, oily skin and thick hair and long eyelashes. They may be caring, meditative, service-minded people or can be self-involved and guard a pessimistic or paranoid attitude. Kapha’s tendency for asthma, COPD, depression, obesity and sinus headaches are made worse from dairy foods and overly sweet, gooey and refined junk foods, sleep during the day and sedatives such as antidepressant drugs. Obesity is also possible following serious illness, childbirth and hormone imbalance.
The Kapha person can become ill because their metabolism is slow and that leads to congestion – phlegm—which can increase a tendency to upper respiratory tract infections, sticky discharge, nausea and phlegmy cough.
Digestive herbs and spices spark metabolism for Kapha. They include turmeric, garlic, onion, holy basil, pepper, pippli, ginger, cinnamon, clove, curry and chutneys. Exercise works well to help prevent stiffness, blood sugar problems and chronic pain. Earth colors and gold, spicy fragrance such as lavender and cajuput are healing.
Balancing the Doshas
In Ayurveda, it is understood that we need a balance of all three Doshas for optimal health and happiness. Desire, imagination, drive, and careful completion of our work and pleasures. We need daily protection from the effects of stress. There are Ayurvedic remedies such as Trifala and Chvawanprash that balance the three Doshas and especially support digestion and immunity.
Balancing with the Seasons
The season impacts the Doshas and, therefore, our health. Since Spring and Summer are humid, warm and hot seasons, they usually require more cooling foods. Since Autumn and Winter are cool and dry, they can require warming, balancing and fortifying foods and herbs.
A Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) Perspective on Boosting the Immune System
Ask a traditional Chinese doctor how to build immunity to illness and they will describe a battle plan. They might say, “To stay well, we protect Yin and Yang. Yin nourishes Yang and Yang protects Yin.” They may choose herbs that “drive out evil winds or quell fire poisons.” This approach is part of a cosmology in which our body and mind are part of a larger universe.
The digestive organs are at the center of our internal universe. In TCM, digestion/elimination, circulation, blood production and mood must remain healthy for us to stay strong and well.
Yin and Yang
Traditional Chinese Medicine adapted the Taoist concept of movement and change by describing the balance and harmony of opposites: yin and yang. Yin represents sleep, nighttime, earth, “inwardness,” reflection, processing, and the inside of the body. Yang represents the sun and daytime, outward expansion, the sky, exertion, and the outside of the body.
The inside of the body, especially the blood, fluids and deep organs the heart, spleen, lung, liver, and kidney are considered Yin. In TCM, “Yin tonic herbs” are known to increase fluids in the lungs and stomach and blood in the heart, liver, and kidney, which is known to reduce stress and damage for those organs. Increase moistening, fluid-enhancing, blood-enhancing foods/herbs according to where yin is needed for: chronic thirst, dry cough, dry skin, thinning hair, irregular scanty menstrual periods, night sweats with hot hands and feet.
Blood and fluids (known as our “internal ocean”), are nourished by foods and oxygen. Seaweeds are a natural choice to build up immunity with minerals that come from the sea. Minerals in kelp, alaria, dulse and others contain iron, iodine, calcium etc to support circulation, bones and purify our blood.
Yin Tonics prevent burnout
Yin tonics often enhance blood, fluids and enzyme production by supporting the stomach and spleen. Chinese cooks and herbal doctors often recommend herbal soups that contain dried fruits, rhizomes and roots that are semi-sweet and enter the meridians associated with stomach and spleen and lungs or liver and kidney.
Goji (gou ji zi)
Goji berries, also known as wolfberries or snowberries, are prized for their health benefits as well as their unique, satisfying flavor. The berries have been used in traditional Chinese medicine and cuisine for centuries. The best quality, pesticide free goji berries are Tibetan Goji. They can be infused with hot water to make a nutrient-rich drink. Recently named as one of the top ten super-fruits, Goji berries are high in antioxidants and known to promote healthy vision and immune system.
Sweet herbal soups are popular all over south east Asian and the Chinese diaspora. Although the contents can vary depending on the method of preparation, the mixture generally consists of seven standard herbs: Dioscorea, lily bulb, dried polygonatum, fox nut, pearl barley, dried lotus seed, and dried longan. There are variations of this recipe, made with pork or chicken. It can be served hot adding pungent toppings like scallions, pickled pepper, or radish. More often it is served cold as a sweet dessert either plain or by adding fruit such as apple or pear or lo han quo monk fruit during cooking. A stock can be added and simmered over low heat for two to three hours.
Sweet soups are popular year round to detoxify the body, nourish the kidneys and lungs, and build up the blood. Individually, the ingredients have a wide array of indications. For example, lily bulb is used for mild cardiac insufficiency, arrhythmia, urinary tract infections, and kidney stones; pearl barley (coicis seed) is used for bronchitis. Round lotus seeds and lily bulbs are a very popular and common in South China and are classified in TCM as astringents, sweet and neutral, and good for the spleen, kidney, and heart.
Yin and the Seasons
In TCM, it is understood that humans need more moisture to bathe internal organs and support fluids during the dry season of Autumn. American ginseng aka Panax quinquefolium, Siberian ginseng, raw tienchi ginseng, bird’s nest soup, sweet dried fruits and rejuvenating rhizomes such as rehmannia, he shou wu, jujube red dates, tremella white fungus and goji berries make healing dishes that ease dry skin, cough, thirst and blood deficiency.
In TCM, Yang is understood to be the outside of the body––serving as protection from our skin, the outer meridians and organs that are considered more superficial including the intestines, stomach, bladder, and gallbladder. Yang-enhancing herbs regulate the processes of metabolism, digestion and elimination, circulation, growth, sexuality, endurance and resistance to illness and stress. Often the foods and herbs that support the kidneys, Yang also impacts adrenal energy. Signs of “kidney yang weakness” may include withdrawal into oneself, fear of cold weather, cold hands and feet, sore, weak lower back and knees, watery diarrhea, impotence, polyuria (excess urination), and wheezing.
Yang and the Seasons
We may require more stimulating Yang-tonic herbs during cold weather, however, exhaustion, age, low hormone production, post-surgery, weakness and blood loss following childbirth, because of certain prescribed medicines and illness such as diabetes threaten Yang and vitality.
Herbs used to tonify both Yin and Yang include reishi mushroom and sweet neutral tasting cordyceps sinensis fungus which is steamed or cooked in soup with duck, chicken pork or fish, to ease dizziness, cough, night sweats, impotence and weakness due to recovery from illness. A less expensive form of cordyceps used in soups is “cordyceps flower” the fruiting body of cordyceps which acts the same as cordyceps stamen.
Warming kidney Yang tonic herbs are used to support testosterone, male and female sexuality and correct lower back muscle weakness. They include cistanches (sweet, salty, sour, warming) used for impotence and urinary incontinence and cold pains in the low back and knees.
An easy to make, inexpensive Yin/Yang tonic tea is made with equal portions of goji berries and epimedium leaves (aka yin yang huo, lusty goatweed.) Together they support bone marrow and bone health. Also see herbal combinations for strengthening muscles and bones such as “Strong Bones and Muscles /Feng Shi Gu Tong Tea”
The Movement of Qi
Qi, which is known as “vital energy” or circulation, is an essential aspect of wellness and a crucial part of Chinese medicine and dietetics. Qi in a sense corresponds to the Ayurvedic concept of prana or Vata. a wind that moves through meridians carrying nerve impulses. Qi––our life force, our pulse––drives the action of organs, moves health through meridians and rises to the surface of our skin. An aspect of Qi, known as Wei Qi, acts like a protective barrier outside of our skin against inclement weather and allergies.
Qi and Immunity
Our Qi is known to protect us by being attentive to the needs of our organs, and by the “ideal movement,” or “easy flow,” of Qi through our body. To prevent colds and flu for example, we can stay away from sick people, wear masks, and protect vitality with nourishing foods and sleep. If we are exposed to germs, cold weather etc, our Wei Qi, a superficial energy located in superficial meridians, keeps illness from penetrating deep into the body. Protect Wei Qi with nourishing foods, keeping warm during sleep, doing Qigong and meditation.
The truth is, many cooks know this principle by instinct. For hypothermia, we come inside from the cold weather, drink warm cinnamon tea to sweat out a chill. Or in TCM, we engage our Wei Qi to push out the evil wind.
If germs go beyond our level of defense to give us a sore throat, body aches and cough we can use antibiotic herbs to make a pleasant tea and engage our natural immunity. Honeysuckle flower, chrysanthemum flower respectively can help kill germs and reduce fever discomforts. Japanese honeysuckle reduces a sore throat by moving Qi downward from throat, lungs to large intestine with laxative action while killing strep and pneumonia germs. Chinese chrysanthemum, a sweet delicious flower, moves our inflammation and Qi upward out the top of the head. It is useful for migraines and cloudy vision as well as fever.
Also see Cool Breeze / Honeysuckle Forsythia Fruit Tea / Yin Qiao Qing Re Tang Herbal Tea. This herbal blend combines cooling, detoxifying herbs that reduce fever, and may help prevent infection such as honeysuckle and Chinese chrysanthemum flower, forsythia fruit, schizonepeta, and coptis root which contains berberine. Digestive herbs peppermint and tangerine peel are added to help settle the stomach. It is useful for fever, headache, and to detox from smoking, pollution.
Each natural healing tradition has its gems. At Academy of Healing Nutrition, it is our pleasure to make the ancient principles of Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine more readily-available for new learners. We apply this ancient knowledge by cooking delicious foods, herbs and tonics that boost immunity and promote longevity. Registration for online classes is always open. For more detailed information on traditional Asian diagnosis and herbal treatments see the book Karma Herbs, written by Academy Healing Nutrition faculty member, Letha Hadady.