A strong immune system has always been essential for good health, and it’s even more vital in these uncertain times. Not only do we need solid internal defenses to fight viruses and other illnesses, they also help keep us healthy while we manage the increasing amounts of psychological stress we’re all dealing with — from a bleak news cycle, worry about our loved ones or ourselves, disrupted routines, close quarters, and a number of other things out of our control.
While there are many ways to bolster your immune system, one approach is through controlling or balancing free radicals. You probably have a general sense of what free radicals are — as well as their “opposite,” antioxidants. At least, perhaps, you understand that free radicals are usually “bad” and antioxidants are “good.”
But the story is much more nuanced, and it’s worth understanding the details in order to take a strategic approach to improving immunity.
Free Radicals: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly
Here, five must-know facts about free radicals:
1. Your Body Needs Free Radicals to Live.
The human body uses oxygen to make a specialized type of free radical called reactive oxygen species. These act as a sort of catalyst, plucking electrons off carbohydrate and fat molecules to destabilize them, which allows your body to more easily convert those nutrients into usable fuel for energy. Without them, you’d die.
2. Free Radicals Indiscriminately Break Down Molecules.
The problem is that mitochondria — the power plants of cells — and every other part of the body are made of similarly high-energy organic molecules like fats and carbohydrates. And so they’re equally susceptible to being destabilized by free radicals.
In other words, the free radicals the body produces to help it more easily generate energy can destabilize whatever other molecules are in the vicinity. That means they also end up breaking down mitochondria and affecting DNA — it’s the price of generating energy.
3. The Immune System Employs Free Radicals for Its “Cleanup Crew.”
Free radicals are deployed by your immune system to break down old cells and other cellular “debris.” That makes it easier for your body to clear them from your system.
Similarly, the immune system uses free radicals to help attack, destabilize, and dispose of harmful microbes in your system. In short, we have to put up with a certain amount of free radical damage in order to both produce energy and keep our bodies from becoming a sludge pile of cellular waste and harmful microbes.
That residual damage is essentially what ages us over time or contributes to illness. It’s why older adults are often more vulnerable when they get sick: More of their mitochondria and DNA have burned out from free radical damage, and more cells have died.
As for the cells that remain, they don’t produce as much energy, and DNA doesn’t reproduce as healthy of cells — including cells of our immune system. So, in older folks, immune systems don’t hum along at quite the same pace as they do in younger people.
4. Antioxidants Help Maintain Balance.
Antioxidants that the body produces and that you get from plants like fruit, vegetables, and herbs help control free radicals by neutralizing their activity; they donate an electron so that the free radical can’t pluck it off a cell. They essentially help police the free radicals so that there’s enough activity to do their job of breaking down fuel and debris while minimizing the damage to healthy tissue, mitochondria, and DNA.
5. Damaging Free Radicals Are All Around Us.
Along with the free radicals your body naturally produces, there are a number of other sources and types we’re exposed to. For example, the refined fats in many processed foods are very brittle and break apart easily, and those pieces then turn into damaging free radicals.
Other aspects of processed foods, as well as pollutants and toxins in the air and pesticides in food, likewise act as free radicals in our system. Psychological stress can also set off a chain of events that trigger excess free radicals and damage.
The Free Radical-Inflammation Cycle
When cells are under stress from free radicals, they must work harder and produce more energy to try to keep up. But the harder cells have to work and the more energy they produce, the more free radicals they produce. That then also leads to more waste byproducts.
What’s more, because it’s the job of the immune system to clear up that waste — which it uses free radicals to do — more free radicals flood your system, creating a vicious cycle. All together, it puts an enormous amount of strain and pressure on your body’s systems, and particularly your immune system.
What starts happening: The immune system can’t keep up with the buildup of cellular debris and other waste. And, it’s so preoccupied, it can’t manage the waste and byproducts generated by your body’s microbes, either. All of that waste builds up around cells, creating what we think of as harmful inflammation — it’s as if your body’s sewer system gets clogged and starts backing up.
Conversely, under more normal circumstances, the healthy action of free radicals leads to some inflammation. When it’s kept in check, it’s a controlled burn. Think of how forest rangers might set small fires under safe conditions to help maintain the health of a forest and reduce the risk of larger fires down the road. The same is true in your body: A normal inflammatory response is not only good, it’s necessary for life.
But just as with forest fires, problems occur when the flames rage uncontrolled. When free radicals overwhelm your antioxidant defenses and waste builds up, it triggers chronic or uncontrolled inflammation.
And that can ravage your system over time, contributing to a whole host of problems. For example, it can increase your risk of heart disease, stroke, chronic illness, and more, as well as accelerating the breakdown of cells — including immune cells.
Maintaining Balance is Key.
The goal, then, is to limit external sources of free radicals and maintain a careful balance of internal sources of free radicals. You can’t stop those produced from cells as they generate energy, and you need those produced by the immune system to clean up our body’s waste byproducts.
But you can reduce the influx of free radicals from external sources, and you can take other actions to protect your cells from becoming stressed and keep your microbiome in balance, which curbs runaway inflammation. Here’s how:
Freshen Up Your Diet
Minimize your intake of processed and high-carb foods, which increase free radical activity and inflammation. Instead, load up on more fresh, antioxidant-rich fruits, vegetables, and other plant foods.
Brightly colored fruits and veggies, especially, like berries and leafy greens, as well as certain spices and herbs are loaded with antioxidants shown to fight free radical stress and inflammation. One review in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition specifically found that higher intakes of fruits and veggies both reduce harmful inflammation and enhance immune cells.
Try to spend as little time as possible in highly polluted areas, which are known to trigger inflammation and cell death. In addition, use gentle, naturally sourced cleaning products, and eat organic foods whenever possible to minimize toxin intake.
Moderate exercise helps reduce inflammation, as well as helps control inflammation-stoking stress. One study, for example, found that even just 20 minutes of activity could reduce inflammation and strengthen your immune system.
Mind Your Microbes.
An impressive 70% of your immune system is housed in your gut. The more you can feed your good gut bacteria foods that are fresh, fiber-rich, and plant-based, the better. The microbes will be less stressed, and better able to help send and receive messages, enabling your immune system to more effectively respond to threats and control unnecessary inflammation.
Taking herbs known to balance the good microbes in your gut and support your immune system is also a great strategy. Three of my favorite herbs for balancing the microbiome are andrographis, cat’s claw, and berberine.
The Power of Herbs
In addition to consuming antioxidant-rich produce, nuts, and other plant foods, herbs offer an excellent line of defense against free radicals and extra support for your immune system. Here’s why.
Over the centuries, all plants developed antioxidant defenses to protect themselves from various environmental stressors. And that’s especially true of herbs, many of which are still cultivated in the wild, where they’ve been able to retain naturally high levels of antioxidants and other beneficial compounds. Or, they’ve been specifically cultivated for potency, not for taste.
So, which herbs are best for fighting free radicals? All of them do, to some extent, but there are two smart strategies you can use when picking herbs to optimize your benefits.
First, combine synergistic herbs that come from different environments. If the environment in which an herb evolved and the stress factors it deals with informs its defenses system, it makes sense to consume herbs that come from both high and low altitudes, warm and cool climates, for example. That will give you the broadest action and support possible.
Second, consider herbs’ other properties beyond being effective antioxidants. For example, look for herbs that also help balance hormones or your microbes, or that shore up communication between parts of the immune system. That way, you not only address the damage done by free radicals, but you get the additional supportive benefits as well.
5 Antioxidant, Immune-Supporting Herbs
While many different herbs could be on this list, these five provide potent and broad benefits, not only in terms of their antioxidant power, but in their overall ability to support your immune system, health, and longevity.
An adaptogen that grows primarily in harsh, Northern climates including Siberia, rhodiola helps the body manage and become more resistant to stress — both physical and emotional. It also supports and protects immune function and cells, helps balance hormones, and may enhance energy and stamina. One review, for example, noted that the herbal extract has been found to have both anti-inflammatory and immune-stimulating properties.
2. Reishi Mushroom
Although a fungi, reishi is often referred to as an herb because of its range of benefits. As a fungi, though, it naturally confronts excess stress from microbes, which gives it specialized powers to help rev up our own immune system against pathogenic microbes. That helps keep our microbiome — and, by extension, our immune system — balanced and healthy.
Research also suggests reishi may help increase the activity of immune cells and boost production of cytokines, cells in the immune system that act as messengers or effectors of other cells. Other studies have found reishi extract bolsters the activity of two of our body’s natural antioxidant enzymes — superoxide dismutase and catalase — which help fight damaging reactive oxygen species.
This spice, which gives curry its bright yellow color, is loaded with antioxidants called polyphenols. While these antioxidants are effective at controlling free radicals, researchshows what traditional medicine practitioners have known for centuries: That turmeric is also a potent anti-inflammatory. That means, while it controls inflammation through its effect on free radicals, it’s also helping to regulate the messaging systems of the immune system and your body’s inflammatory response.
Over-the-counter anti-inflammatories like ibuprofen, for example, do this by blocking an enzyme called COX-2, which “turns on” inflammation. But these drugs don’t do anything to stop the source of the inflammation, and they also block COX-1, a beneficial enzyme that helps protect our stomach.
Turmeric, on the other hand, decreases the formation of COX-2 in the long term, while its antioxidants help address the cause of inflammation. It also doesn’t impact COX-1. So, in the long run, turmeric helps better regulate and normalize the body’s inflammatory response.
Another example of an “herb-adjacent” compound — meaning not technically a herb but often discussed with other herbs or referred to as one — shilajit is actually a herbomineral substance. Found in the Himalayan, Ural, and Caucasus Mountains, it seeps out from between rocks as a gummy substance (before it’s processed and purified into a useable form), the result of plant materials being compressed into the earth and decomposing.
Because of that, shilajit is concentrated with antioxidants from a variety of different plant sources. Much of its antioxidant properties comes from fulvic acid, which is produced from organisms in the soil.
In addition to its antioxidant powers, the acid may help regulate immune function and improve gastrointestinal function, according to research. It’s also known to help improve resistance to stress and guard against inflammatory conditions.
5. Gotu Kola
Unlike many of the other herbs and substances mentioned here, gotu kola grows primarily in tropical and subtropical locations, including the South Pacific, Southeast Asia, and India. The herb itself is a member of the carrot family, although it’s closely related to and resembles parsley. In India, it’s even eaten as a leafy green, and it’s known for its content of antioxidant nutrients, including vitamin C and carotenoids.
However gotu kola contains other powerful antioxidant phytochemicals, too, including triterpenes. It’s also a natural mood stabilizer that may help balance and manage the stress response by revitalizing the central nervous system and promoting production of GABA, a neurotransmitter linked to calm and relaxation, suggests a paper the journal Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine. For those and other reasons, it’s traditionally been used as a general longevity and brain tonic.
While there are a lot about these times we can’t control, one thing you can do is take care of your immune system. Support it, so that it can better support you and keep you healthy now and for the long-term.
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