Andrew Weil, MD
We can protect and strengthen our immunity by eating right, getting enough activity and rest, practising stress reduction, and cultivating healthy emotional states.
Your immune system is your interface with the environment. If it is healthy and doing its job right, you can interact with germs and not get infections, with allergens and not have allergic reactions, and with carcinogens and not get cancer. A healthy immune system is the cornerstone of good general health.
Living in crowded cities, travelling frequently in airplanes, and spending time in daycare centres and schools all expose us to many more germs than people had to deal with in the past. We can protect and strengthen our immunity by eating right, getting enough activity and rest, practising stress reduction, and cultivating healthy emotional states. It is also worth knowing about and experimenting with natural products that enhance immune function.
Mushrooms to the Rescue
Some of the most prized remedies in the Chinese herbal repertory are mushrooms that act as tonics; they are believed to increase resistance to all kinds of stress and to extend longevity. Some tonic mushrooms are good as foods: shitake (Lentinula edodes), oyster mushrooms (Pleurotus ostreatus), maitake (Grifola frondosa), and enoki (Flammulina velutipes), for example. Others, like reishi (Ganoderma lucidum), are too woody or too bitter to use as foods but can be used as medicinal teas or extracts. In general, the species that enhance immunity are completely nontoxic.
Research suggests that combining different mushrooms may be more effective at enhancing immunity than using a single species. Research in Japan, and more recently in the US, indicates that maitake has significant anticancer, antiviral, and immune-enhancing properties. It may also reduce blood pressure and blood sugar. Taken on a daily basis, maitake can be useful as a general tonic.
Valued by the Chinese and Japanese for extending longevity, reishi mushrooms can improve immune function and inhibit the growth of some malignant tumours. Reishi also has anti-inflammatory effects, and I suggest that people with rheumatoid arthritis or osteoarthritis give it a try.
A Chinese herbal remedy with similar properties as the mushrooms mentioned above comes from the root of a plant in the pea family, Astragalus membranaceus. Recent studies in the West confirm its antiviral and immune-boosting effects, and astragalus preparations are now available in most health food stores; I recommend them often.
It is good to know that safe natural products exist and are readily available to help us during periods of low resistance. You shouldn't need to use them if you are in good health, but if you have frequent colds or other infections, seem to "get everything that's going around," and your healing responses seem sluggish, you might consider taking one or more of these immune enhancers for a time.