Herbal Allies for the Immune System

By Juliet Blankespoor

Juiets1-web ~ Most folks who use natural medicine have favorite remedies they turn to when warding off a cold. That first sneeze or throat tickle might have them reaching for elderberry syrup, echinacea tincture, garlic honey, or a zinc lozenge. But what about tonic herbs that can help support the immune system every day? Plenty of herbs and mushrooms fit into this category. They are often referred to as immunomodulators or immune tonics. You can visualize them as slow and steady, dependable, but without quick reflexes. Immunomodulating herbs have traditionally been used for long periods and have a balancing effect on the body. These herbs are not to be confused with immunostimulating herbs such as Echinacea or Spilanthes, which are used to treat short-term, acute infections by stimulating immune activity.

Immunomodulating herbs are used when there is poor immunity, as seen in individuals who experience frequent infections that are due to low immune resilience. Conversely, these herbs are also used when the immune system is overactive, as in allergies and autoimmunity. This seemingly dualistic nature of immunomodulating herbs can seem miraculous, especially to those familiar with the unidirectional action of pharmaceuticals. Considering that most plants contain thousands of bioactive compounds, there is an immense synergy involved with each herb’s complex biochemistry. When we add the unique physiology of each human’s body into the equation, the possibilities of effects are almost infinite. This is one of the most magical qualities of herbs!

Most immunomodulators are adaptogens—tonic herbs that help to balance the body in adapting to emotional, physical, and mental stress. I like to visualize adaptogens as imparting the grace and wisdom of an old willow tree, knowing the strength of yielding to wind, yet remaining deeply rooted in the Earth. Some examples of immunomodulating herbs include holy basil, astragalus, roseroot, and ashwagandha. Medicinal mushrooms are also good immune tonics. Shitake, lion’s mane, and maitake can be eaten in wintertime soups or prepared into nourishing teas. I like to make a large batch of herbal broth in the fall and freeze it in smaller portions, which I then add to stews, marinara, chili, and soup throughout the winter. Astragalus, calendula, maitake and shitake, nettles, and seaweed are all delectable additions to my winter immune broths.LGAD_HAALo_1-8

If you are interested in learning more about how to use herbs and mushrooms to support health and wellness, join me and The HAALo Herb Shoppe in Nevada City on September 26. I will be sharing some of my favorite immune herbs and recipes for the upcoming cold and flu season and more (read more at www.haalo.org).

But remember, no matter how effective these natural remedies are in supporting the immune system, nothing can replace the central tenets of self-care. I like to imagine the basics of health (good-quality sleep, food, water, and air; avoidance of harmful substances; exercise; creativity; purpose; emotional expression; love and community) as the cake, and herbal therapies as the icing on the cake. How easy it is to forget these basics, but they really are the heart of holistic treatment!

Immune Tonic Tea Recipe:

Ingredient list:


  • 8 cups water
  • 3 dried shitake mushrooms cut into smaller pieces
  • 1 tablespoon licorice root (cut and sifted)
  • 1 tablespoon chaga mushroom powder
  • 2 tablespoons eleuthero (Siberian ginseng) root (cut and sifted)
  • 1 tablespoon astragalus root (cut and sifted)
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon powder
  • ½ teaspoon cardamom powder


Place the herbs and water in a pot and bring to a boil, and then simmer with a lid on for one hour. Take off the heat and strain through a stainless-steel or bamboo tea strainer. You will end up with 6 to 7 cups of tea; let the tea cool and refrigerate the portion that will not be consumed that day. Refrigerated tea will generally keep for three days. The dosage is 2 cups a day. Another way to enjoy this earthy tea is as a soup broth, by adding a little miso or tamari. This tonic tea can be consumed daily throughout the winter to keep the immune system in tip-top form.