It’s been a rough cold and flu season! We seem to be through the worst of it, but what can you do to protect yourself and your family? Of all the myriad of products proclaiming immune support benefits, how do you know which one to choose?
It’s first of all important to start with a firm foundation: make sure you’re eating immune boosting foods, getting plenty of sleep, and managing your stress. But beyond that, there are a number of products to choose from. Here’s a breakdown.
Immune Support Vitamins and Minerals
Nearly all vitamins and minerals play a role in supporting the immune system, but if you’re looking to supplement with some of the heavy hitters, these are the ones I’d pick.
- Vitamin C. This is the one everyone thinks of, and this study shows that it increases production of lymphocytes, or white blood cells. Plus, in times of high stress, the adrenals burn through Vitamin C—and being sick is stressful. Dose: 1000-2000 mg daily.
- Vitamin A: This is one of my secret weapons for acute illness, but to be effective, it needs to be given in high doses, around 100,000-150,000 IU daily for a short period of time (a few days, even up to a few months.) Longer term dosing at this level can cause Vitamin A toxicity, elevating liver enzymes. Acute vitamin A toxicity causes a headache. High dose Vitamin A is contraindicated in pregnancy.
- Zinc. This mineral is incredibly ubiquitous, necessary for development of the immune system’s T-cells as well as decreasing inflammation. Vitamin A and zinc are synergistic, as well, as zinc helps to mobilize Vitamin A from the liver. Doses over 30 mg daily can set you up for a copper deficiency, so I don’t recommend exceeding that amount unless you’re also taking copper (at 2 mg daily). Make sure you take it with food, too—it can otherwise make you nauseous.
Immune Support Herbs
Quite a few common Western herbs have properties that support immune function, but here are some of those that are best known.
- Echinacea. This is probably the best known immune support herb. This study testifies to its efficacy in preventing colds and flus, and this study implies that the reason is macrophage and NK cell activation. This should be a short-term treatment either during active illness or during a few weeks of higher susceptibility. Dose: 500-800 mg daily for a few weeks, or 500-700 mg every 2-4 hours for a few days during acute illness.
- Elderberry. This study shows that elderberry is effective specifically against the influenza virus by stimulating antiviral properties and immune responses. This study shows that elderberry shortens flu-like symptoms by up to four days. Dose: 150-200 mg.
- Oregano. This essential oil is antimicrobial and also stimulates the immune system at the same time. This should be a short-term treatment either during active illness or during a few weeks of higher susceptibility. This one is contraindicated in pregnancy. Dose: 200-250 mg of extract.
- Mushroom extracts. Particularly shiitake and maitake are high in beta glucans, which stimulate a wide variety of immune responses.
Other Immune Support Supplements
Last but not least, these immune boosters don’t fit neatly into either of the above categories.
- Colostrum. Colostrum is the milk produced by mammals in late pregnancy and in the first several days after giving birth, and it has a high concentration of antibodies, antioxidants, and other immune system components. It is an extract of milk, though most patients with a milk allergy tolerate it fine, since it doesn’t contain lactose, and contains less than 1% casein. Dose: 500-2000 mg daily.
- Probiotics. The good bacteria in our guts provide our body’s first line of defense against foreign invaders. As such, they provide a wide variety of immune responses including activation of macrophages, natural killer (NK) cells, T-cells, and release of cytokines (chemical messengers of the immune system). Dose: 20 billion organisms daily, and a 50/50 ratio of bifidobacillus to lactobacillus.
- Colloidal silver. This study shows that colloidal silver has broad spectrum antimicrobial properties. It’s a natural antibiotic! Adult dose: 1 tsp (20 ppm); 1/4 to 1/2 that dose for children.
- Bee Propolis. This study shows that propolis is effective especially against gram positive bacteria. Dose: the safe dose is 1.4 mg/kg body weight per day, 70 mg/day
There are many immune support options; it just depends upon the patient and the indication. Most often I go with Vitamin A and zinc in non-pregnant adult patients, plus probiotics (everyone should be on those anyway). In children or pregnant women, I’ll choose an herbal combination or colostrum (plus probiotics). If I’m looking for a broad spectrum natural antibiotic (especially a local one, such as in a nasal spray), I’ll often go with colloidal silver. For tenacious viral infections, I prefer mushroom extracts. But all of the products listed are effective!
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