Enhancing your immunity

by Catherine Haug, May 27, 2012

Each and every day, every moment in the day, we are exposed – at risk – for disease from infectious microbes. You can’t avoid them, and since there are far too many microbes to decimate them all, we’re better off learning how to live with them. They are, after all, everywhere. And the way to live with them without giving in to them, is by building and maintaining a strong immunity.

How does one do that? One way is to start with children. Research has shown that children who eat dirt (as I did – pulling up carrots from my Dads garden and eating them without washing) have stronger immune systems than those who are raised in a sterile environment.

How can this be? Because many microbes – even some pathological ones – are beneficial. Our own native flora prove this true:

Gut flora and other microbes

These microbes live in your small and large intestines, just as they do in that of other animals. They also live in the soil and places like your compost pile. Many of them live on the surface of your skin, and also that of fruits and veggies. Many live in mothers’ milk of all kinds, and are responsible for the souring of raw milk, while others for the spoiling (rotting) of pasteurized milk. Some are present in fermentation cultures. Some live in the air. Those that live on grains and ground flour are responsible for sourdough cultures.

In other words, they are everywhere, so you may as well make friends with them. Indeed, some of them are essential for your life and health; without them you would not be able to digest much of your food or combat disease.

  • Some of these microbes are considered ‘protective‘ or helpful – especially those like acidophilus and bifidus that produce lactic acid and provide our first line of immune-defense against pathogenic microbes.
  • Others are considered ‘putretive‘ which means they help break down (catabolize) things for which we do not have our own enzymes to break down. These are called ‘coliform’ bacteria, and include E. coli (not just the deadly mutant strain. They are probably the most important category of microbes in the compost pile, as they break down the things we throw into the pile and turn them into soil.
  • A third category can actually be ‘pathogenic‘ to someone with a weakened immune system; but for most of us, exposure to these microbes makes us stronger by training our immune systems  to react appropriately. This is especially important for children.

This last category is the theory behind vaccines: expose the person to a dead or disabled form of the pathological bug, to stimulate response from the immune system. It is also the theory behind homeopathic nosodes (extremely dilute solutions of some aspect of the disease organism, so that only the energy of that organism is present in the solution).

How does one enhance immunity

  • Allow exposure to disease while one is healthy – this is the theory behind the protective aspect of childhood diseases like measles, mumps and chicken pox. Generally healthy children who succumb to these diseases build-up immunity for life; those who are exposed but do not succumb have achieved immunity through some other means (5). For these diseases, continued exposure strengthens and prolongs the immunity.
  • Eat a good diet (with adequate protein and healthy fats), get sun exposure (to build up vitamin D), get adequate exercise, and adequate sleep daily.
  • Avoid allergens and toxins, not only in your diet but in your environment.
  • Keep your digestive system healthy; this includes adequate probiotics, but also foods that stimulate acid production in the stomach, and bile production in the liver. You should have one bowel movement for each meal, each day; if not, your digestive system needs help (see Healthy Digestion, below, for more).
  • Add herbal foods that enhance immunity to your diet, such as raw garlic. An excellent way to do this is to add crushed raw garlic to salad dressings.
  • Eat some raw foods daily, as these contain enzymes and probiotics that enhance the immune system. For example, salad greens, apples, fresh berries and raw milk.
  • Eat small portions of fermented food each day: pickles, sauerkraut, brined olives, kvass, kombucha, kefir, yogurt and raw cheese are examples.
  • Some foods provide the most benefit when they are lightly cooked; for example, dark leafy greens.
  • Cook with immune-enhancing spices, such as turmeric, cumin, coriander, fennel seeds, ginger, cinnamon and black pepper. These spices are common in Mediterranean and Indian cuisines.(2)
  • Include immune enhancing foods such as apples and other juicy fruits, leafy greens, some grains (properly prepared).(2)
  • Eat at the proper time; for example, have your main meal in the middle of the day, when you are most active (and when the sun is at its highest and your digestion is strongest). And don’t over-eat. (2)
  • Include organ foods in your diet (eyes, liver, heart, kidney, brain), at least once a week.
  • When you notice your immune system is compromised (sneezing, headaches,  gas, etc.), add immune-building herbs to your diet or supplements. (see Immune-enhancing herbs, below).

Healthy digestion

This is a very extensive and deep subject, so I will address the output aspect as a means of describing a healthy system:

You should have one bowel movement for each meal you consume (in other words, if you eat 3 meals in a day, you should have 3 bowel movements that day). Ideally, each BM should occur about 30 minutes after completion of a meal. This is because:

  • Chewing stimulates the release of amylase enzyme (to break down sugars and starches), and also certain body chemicals that alert the stomach that food is on its way.
  • This in turn stimulates the secretion of stomach acid which is needed for the breakdown of fats and protein, and to a lesser extent, carbs.
  • Once the food enters the stomach, more chemicals are released to activate enzyme production in the pancreas, and bile production in the liver (which in turn stimulates release of bile into the small intestine). Food remains in the stomach about 30 minutes before it enters the small intestine.
  • Once in the small intestine, your meal stimulates the colon to push out some of its contents (a bowel movement), to make room for more.
  • This process from chewing to elimination takes about 24 hours in a healthy system, but can take much longer if your digestion is compromised and sluggish, or much less time if your digestion is overstimulated (such as from certain bad bugs or allergenic foods).

As I said, it should take about one day for a meal to complete the transit of the bowels from ingestion to elimination, in a healthy system. You can test this by taking 3 activated charcoal tablets, then tracking the time it takes to see the black charcoal in your stool. Or eat some kernels of corn and track the time it takes to see them in your stool.

If your bowel transit time is too long or too short, see a practitioner who can help discover what is wrong and how to correct it. Perhaps you don’t produce enough stomach acid, or your liver doesn’t produce enough bile. Or your intestinal mucosa is compromised (such as from parasites or food allergies/sensitivities), so that you have poor absorption of minerals like magnesium

Lack of magnesium (Mg) in the diet, or poor absorption of this mineral, causes the body to slow down movement of the stool in the colon, so that it can maximize the amount of Mg it absorbs. This slowing causes the stool to harden and can lead to constipation. If you tend to be constipated, this could be the cause; look for ways to increase magnesium in your diet.

Also do some introspective self-discovery about your daily habits and lifestyle: watch how your body responds to certain foods and emotions. Pay attention to your moods and sleep patterns. Do you multi-task during meals?

You may need to modify your diet and habits, or work on your emotional response, in order to get your gut working properly again. Do not underestimate the importance of this: your gut is your first and major line of defense against disease and depression.

Immune enhancing herbs

Herbs are very useful for targeting both acute and chronic problems. Even if you don’t believe that herbs can affect your health, you probably use some of these without realizing it (for example, great-tasting herbal teas for an upset stomach or to help you sleep). And some of them (such as garlic, thyme, mushrooms and lemon) you use to flavor your foods. The important thing is that these herbs are foods (not just medicines).

However, they cannot solve the problem alone. Your diet, lifestyle and emotional response are also critical toward a strong immune system.

The most commonly-used herbs for enhancing and strengthening your immune system are listed below, in alphabetical order (3,4). It’s always best to use those that are native to your area, but those that can be grown in your area are also helpful; consider adding these to your herb garden. Note that not all of these listed can grow here.

  • ashwaganda (Indian ginseng)
  • astagalus root
  • bupleurum root
  • burdock
  • calendula
  • chamomile
  • cordyceps (mushroom)
  • echinacea root
  • garlic
  • lavender
  • lemon
  • licorice
  • pau d’arco bark
  • red clover
  • shiitake (mushroom)
  • shizandra and other adaptogenic herbs
  • Siberian ginseng
  • thyme
  • yellow dock
  • yucca

See also my posts:


  1. WHFoods: What foods are good for my immune system
  2. Seven Ways to Boost Your Immunity with Food
  3. Herbs for Boosting the Immune System
  4. Guide to Health: Boosting Immunity
  5. Germier than toilet seats, but you touch them every day

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