With COVID-19 spreading like wildfire, it’s become a reality for most of us that contracting the virus is not if, but when. Yes, this is incredibly unsettling and even scary, yet you’re not completely left without any preparatory action!
First and foremost, it’s more important than ever to care properly for your body. This includes getting enough sleep every night, eating healthy and antioxidant-rich foods daily, keeping yourself regularly hydrated, staying physically active, and reducing stressors as best as possible.
While all of these tasks will naturally boost your immune system, you can take an even more direct approach by integrating specific immune system supporting agents. Luckily, the plant-based world is rife with immune system boosting compounds that can lend a hand at fighting off a foreign invader!
With that said, before incorporating any new diet or any foreign agents into your body, it’s always incredibly important to speak with a healthcare professional. If you’re already experiencing concerning symptoms, contact your doctor immediately!
How the Immune System Works
We all know that the immune system is our main line of defense against foreign invaders — those harmful viruses and bacteria — yet how does it actually work? What’s happening in our body when our immune system goes into action? What’s involved?
This is actually a bigger question then can be answered in one simple article, but we can definitely hit the basics!
The term immune system actually refers to a “network of organs, cells, and proteins that protects your body from outside invaders,” like those viruses and bacteria I mentioned, as well as “fungi and toxins (chemicals produced by microbes).” Most everyone has two main components to their immune systems: the innate immune system — “which you are born with” — and the adaptive immune system — “which you develop when your body is exposed to microbes or chemicals released by microbes.”
Simply put, one you are born with and one that you work to build over years of exposure to your environment.
Within the combined innate and adaptive immune system, you’ll find the physical organs and tissues that work to keep you healthy, also referred to as the lymphatic system. When you hear a health professional refer to your lymphatic system, they’re actually speaking about a larger network within the body that comprises a majority of your immune system including “bone marrow, spleen, thymus and lymph nodes.”
Let’s dive a bit further into your body and take a broad look at the major components of this complicated network!
When you go to the doctor with a common sickness — sore throat, runny nose, a cough — and they feel around on your neck? Well, part of this examination is to check out how swollen your lymph nodes are, which is a telling sign of a hard at work immune system! Lymph nodes are “small, bean-shaped structures that produce and store cells that fight infection and disease.” Within your lymph nodes, you’ll find lymph, a “clear fluid that carries those cells to different parts of the body.”
You may not hear much about your spleen, yet this organ plays an integral part of your immune system. In fact, the spleen is the “largest lymphatic organ in the body,” and is located “on your left side, under your ribs, and above your stomach.” The spleen plays triple roles for fighting illness. First, it “contains white blood cells that fight infection or disease.” Secondly, it “helps control the amount of blood in the body.” Third, it also “disposes of old or damaged blood cells.”
This is yet another human body part that you’ve definitely heard of, may even know a smidgen about, but probably weren’t aware that it was part of your immune system! Bone marrow is spongy “yellow tissue in the center of the bones” and it actually produces those white blood cells that “help the body fight infection and other diseases.”
White Blood Cells: Lymphocytes and Leukocytes
As mentioned, white blood cells are an integral part of the immune system. In particular, there are two types of white blood cells that you’ll want to know: lymphocytes and leukocytes.
Lymphocytes include both B-cells, — “which make antibodies that attack bacteria and toxins” — and T-cells, — “which help destroy infected or cancerous cells.” Leukocytes are “disease-fighting white blood cells [that] identify and eliminate pathogens and are the second arm of the innate immune system.” These innate leukocytes include “phagocytes (macrophages, neutrophils, and dendritic cells), mast cells, eosinophils, and basophils.”
Remember those T-cells I just mentioned, white blood cells that “destroy infected or cancerous cells”? Those crucial cells are matured in a small organ called the thymus. The thymus is “situated beneath the breastbone (and is shaped like a thyme leaf, hence the name), can trigger or maintain the production of antibodies that can result in muscle weakness.”
Products: Best Herbal Immune System Boosters
The plant-based world is rife with immune system boosting agents! In fact, plant-based foods have been found to boost T-cells, an essential component of our immune systems. These “white blood cells” scan our bodies and “circulate through our [bloodstream] to detect cellular abnormalities and invading pathogens.” With that said, there are a few plant-based sources that are superior to the rest when it comes to supporting and boosting your immune system!
If you’re a total natural health nut, then you’ve definitely already been using this wonderfully powerful herb. Echinacea is “native to North American” and has been used for over “400 years by the Great Plains Indian tribes.” The echinacea plant is used in its entirety — flowers, leaves, and roots — to create a slew of medicinal remedies.
While you can find endless uses for this herb, it’s most well-known as an immune system booster. In fact, “many of Echinacea’s chemical constituents are, in fact, powerful immune system stimulators and can provide a significant therapeutic value,” including “flavonoids, inulin, polysaccharides, and vitamin C.”
Due to its popularity in the natural healing world, echinacea is quite easy to find such as these Pure Mountain Botanicals Vegan Echinacea Goldenseal Capsules for $21.45, these Gaia Herbs Echinacea Goldenseal Vegan Liquid Capsules for $49.98, or this Herb Pharm Certified Organic Vegan Super Echinacea Liquid Extract for $13.95.
Not quite as well known, but found to be just as potent!
Elderberry extract comes from the “berries and flowers of the elder plant,” which has been “used as medicine for thousands of years.” From fighting the common cold and the flu to treating inflammation and allergies, elderberry is a must-have in any natural first aid kit. Plus, it’s not all about trusting the ancient wisdom of this plant-based compound, there are actual studies that have shown its efficacy at boosting the immune system.
One such study published in the Journal of International Medical Research found that “when elderberry was used within the first 48 hours of onset of symptoms, the extract reduced the duration of the flu, with symptoms being relieved on an average of four days earlier.”
Another popular herbal remedy, elderberry supplements, liquid, and gummies are super easy to find for reasonable pricing such as these Rejuvenation Therapeutics Elderberry Capsules for $12.95, this MaryRuth’s Organic Elderberry Syrup (Extra Strength) Liquid Sambucol Extract for $19.99, or these Vita Miracle Sambucus Elderberry Gummies for $15.97.
Astragalus root — of which there “are over 2,000 species” — is most “commonly known for its use in traditional Chinese medicine.” The two specific species used in herbal supplements tend to be “Astragalus membranaceus and Astragalus mongholicus.” This herbal remedy contains “active plant compounds which are believed to be responsible for its potential benefits,” including supporting and boosting the immune system.
Fun fact? Astragalus is actually part of the bean and legumes family! Plus, this root is also known to be one of those ancient and powerful adaptogens that supports our stress system. Based on recent studies, researchers have “concluded that astragalus extract has a beneficial effect on the immune system, and it protects the body from gastrointestinal inflammation and cancers.”
As astragalus root is actually one of the least studied of the herbal immune system boosters, it’s a bit harder to find. Of course, not impossible. Try out these Gaia Herbs Astragalus Supreme Vegan Liquid Capsules for $18.49, this bulk three-pack (plus 1 for free!) Maxx Herb Astragalus Root Liquid Extract for $89.95, or this Nutricost Vegan Astragalus Root Powder for $17.95.
Last, but absolutely not least, is health-nuts favorite herb ginseng!
Another herb “used in traditional Chinese medicine for centuries,” ginseng comes in a variety of forms “depending on how long it is grown: fresh, white or red.” The fresh ginseng is used after four years of growth, the white ginseng is used after four years and before six years, while the red ginseng is allowed to grow for over six years.
Ginseng has long been used to help “boost your immune system and fight infections,” as well as maintain “immune homeostasis and enhance resistance to illness or infection.” This mighty herb has been found to regulate “each type of immune cell, including macrophages, natural killer cells, dendritic cells, T cells, and B cells,” plus ginseng possesses “antimicrobial compounds that work as a defense mechanism against bacterial and viral infections.”
A hugely popular natural remedy, ginseng comes in a variety of vegan-friendly forms including this Micro Ingredients Maximum Strength Organic Ginseng Root 200:1 Powder for $21.95, this Baumann Ginseng Tea for $21.99, or these Mortar and Pestle Herbs Panax Ginseng Vegan Capsules for $19.99.
Foods: Best Plant-Based Immune System Boosters
While herbs certainly take the cake for potency it’s important to not discount plant-based foods as an integral part of supporting a healthy immune system. Plant-based foods are a powerful ally to a healthy body. They not only support your immune system directly, but plant-based foods also infuse your body daily with antioxidants, anti-inflammatory agents, and a variety of nutrients, aiding in your overall health and wellbeing. Of course, there are a few superior immune boosters that you may want to focus on integrating into your daily diet!
Ginger is a known stomach-settler and immune system supporter! Ginger is known to “break down the accumulation of toxins in our organs due to its warming effects” as well as “cleanse the lymphatic system, our network of tissues and organs that help rid the body of toxins, waste, and other unwanted materials.”
The raw or cooked root, as well as the essential oils, have been used to “treat a wide range of diseases with its immunonutrition and anti-inflammatory responses,” plus it doesn’t hurt that this plant-based food is also antimicrobial, which is influential when “treating infectious diseases.”
Green tea is widely recognized as one of the best caffeine alternatives to coffee, yet it’s also one of the healthiest plant-based foods on this planet! Studies have found green tea to contain “antioxidant and immunomodulatory properties,” plus it’s an “antifungal and antivirus agent, and may be helpful for immunocompromised patients.”
While you may not be a fan of green tea as … well … tea, nowadays you can find matcha powder, which is a potent form of dried green tea leaves. Matcha can be used in all sorts of mixtures including smoothies, shakes, and even baking!
An obvious immune system booster! Vitamin C has long been touted as one of the primary vitamins for overall health. Also called ascorbic acid, vitamin C is known to “improve the health of your immune system by providing anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties.” In fact, studies have shown that a mixture of vitamin C and zinc “may help to reduce the symptoms of respiratory infections and shorten the duration of illnesses like the common cold and bronchitis.”
Looking for the ultimate vitamin C-rich foods to target immune health? Try integrating citrus fruits — including orange, lemon, and grapefruit — black currant, guava, green and red bell pepper, pineapple, mango, honeydew, and even parsley.
Do you know those bright orange, red, and yellow veggies that seem to liven up your plate of greens? Well, turns out that they’re not only visually appealing, but they happen to be wonderful immune system boosters. The reason they’re so bright and beautiful is due to a powerful antioxidant called beta-carotene, which is known to “reduce inflammation and fight oxidative stress” and promote overall health.
Luckily, beta-carotene is resplendent across the board in most of our plant-based foods. Yet there are a few super-powerful sources to always keep in your pantry or fridge including carrots (especially carrot juice!), pumpkin, sweet potato, red bell pepper, apricot, kale, spinach, and collard greens.
One of the least well-known immune system boosters is zinc!
Research has found that zinc “can interfere with a molecular process that causes bacteria buildup in the nasal passages” and can be used to “reduce cold-related symptoms and shorten the duration of the common cold.” While the most potent way to get zinc into your diet is via supplements — such as this Garden of Life Zinc Vitamin — you can also boost your zinc-rich foods on a daily basis to infuse your body. Some of the richest sources of zinc include pretty much all legumes, seeds, nuts, and whole grains, as well as a handful of veggies — such as potatoes, kale, and green beans.
Try a few of these zinc-inclusive recipes: Savory Walnut and Mushroom Bolognese, Creamy Pumpkin Seed Alfredo With Kale and Sweet Peas, or this Super Simple Potato Curry.
Learn How to Cook Plant-Based Meals at Home!
Reducing your meat intake and eating more plant-based foods is known to help with chronic inflammation, heart health, mental wellbeing, fitness goals, nutritional needs, allergies, gut health and more! Dairy consumption also has been linked to many health problems, including acne, hormonal imbalance, cancer, prostate cancer and has many side effects.
For those of you interested in eating more plant-based, we highly recommend downloading the Food Monster App — with over 15,000 delicious recipes it is the largest plant-based recipe resource to help reduce your environmental footprint, save animals and get healthy! And, while you are at it, we encourage you to also learn about the environmental and health benefits of a plant-based diet.
Here are some great resources to get you started:
- Weekly Vegan Meal Plans
- Plant-Based Health Resources
- Plant-Based Food & Recipes
- Plant-Based Nutrition Resources
- The Ultimate Guide to Plant-Based Nutrition
- Budget-Friendly Plant-Based Recipes
- High Protein Plant-Based Recipes
- Plant-Based Meal Prep
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