Herbs for Immunity
by Alakananda Devi (Alakananda Ma), M.B., B.S. (Lond.)
During the winter months of cold and flu season, herbal allies can be a great help in supporting our immune systems. Out of the array of Ayurvedic immune boosters, here are three of the most important.
Tulasi, known as ocimum sanctum or Holy Basil, is an adaptogenic herb that helps the body overcome stress and maintain a healthy immune system. This is extremely valuable since, aside from the job, relationship or financial stresses that many of us encounter, modern life is a stress to our immune system. Air pollution and noise affect our adrenal glands and overall resistance, leaving us more vulnerable to disease. Regular use of Tulsi can help us overcome these impacts of modern life and enjoy optimum health. A cup of Tulsi tea in the morning is a delightful and soothing way to support immunity on a daily basis, made even tastier with the addition of ginger, another herb that helps fight infections, and some raw honey, an immune booster in its own right.
In colds and flu’s, Tulsi chai with cardamom, milk and honey will bring down fever. In respiratory infections, Tulsi tea can be prepared with the addition of cloves, a spice which helps respiratory immunity, and in sore throat, Tulsi tea can be gargled as well as drunk. Use of Tulsi tea helps create a positive, peaceful and sattvic state of mind. This is an extremely important effect in terms of immunity, since our own mind can be either our best friend or our worst enemy. A negative, hopeless, depressive mind sends negative messages to our immune system, leading to serious disease, whereas a positive, cheerful mind is the greatest immune booster known.
Another important adaptogen is Ashwagandha (withania somnifera) also known as Winter Cherry. In Ayurveda, immunity is seen in terms of ojas, the refined essence of our body’s seven tissues or dhatus. A strong ojas makes us impervious to disease even when we are exposed to infectious agents, while one with low ojas is constantly sick and may develop more severe conditions such as cancer and chronic fatigue. Ashwagandha is one of the best rasayanas, or rejuvenative herbs, helping build strong ojas to fight infection and maintain longevity. A warming herb, Ashwagandha is a good choice in the winter months, especially for those with excess vata. To strengthen immunity and build ojas, a teaspoon of Ashwagandha can be taken at bedtime, stirred into a cup of hot milk. A pinch of nutmeg can be added to support absorption and enhance the effects of the Ashwagandha. It is important to use cow’s milk in this recipe, since this is an ojas builder in its own right. Most foods and herbs nourish the seven dhatus sequentially, taking five days to traverse each dhatu. Thus the food you eat today will take thirty five days to nourish ojas, at the end of the dhatu nutrition line. In the case of both Ashwagandha and cow’s milk, all the dhatus are nourished at the same time, giving an immediate impact upon ojas. Goat’s milk does not have the same properties in terms of ojas. For those who cannot tolerate cow’s milk, almond milk is the perfect substitute, since it too has the effect of immediate rejuvenative action upon ojas.
On the other hand, to use Ashwagandha for a chronic dry cough, emphysema or even tuberculosis, a teaspoon of Ashwagandha can be taken twice daily with goats milk. For this recipe, take one cup goat’s milk and one cup water and add a teaspoon of Ashwagandha and a pinch of Pippali (piper longum or Long Pepper). Pippali is perhaps the best herbal ally for supporting respiratory immunity, and is of great value in all chronic respiratory conditions. Cook this mixture until it is reduced back to one cup and take each morning and evening. In asthma take a teaspoon of Ashwagandha and a quarter teaspoon of Pippali in honey.
When ojas is severely impaired, resulting in CFIDS (Chronic Fatigue Immune Dysfunction), take a teaspoon of Ashwagandha with two teaspoons of ghee and a teaspoon of honey twice daily. For those who may be sensitive to ghee or honey, since CFIDS often leads to multiple food allergies, stir the Ashwagandha into some warm, unsweetened almond milk. As its name withania somnifera attests, Ashwagandha helps promote sound sleep. This is especially the case when it is taken at bedtime with warm milk and nutmeg. This action will indirectly support immunity, since there is no immune booster better than a good night’s sleep. Ashwagandha also calms worry, thus eliminating a significant cause of weakened immunity.
One of the stellar immune supporters of Ayurveda is Chyavanprash. This ancient formula was used by sage Chyavan in his extreme old age, causing him to regain youthfulness. “It alleviates cough and breathlessness, is useful for those who are wasted, injured or old, and promotes development of children…even the old attain intellect, memory, lustre, freedom from disease and longevity.” (Charak Samhita). While the formula for Chyavanprash utilizes the immune boosting qualities of both Ashwagandha and Pippali, it relies for its success upon Amlaki (emblica officinalis), the Herb of Eternal Life. Amlaki is one of the richest sources of Vitamin C, contaning a form of Vitamin C which is conjugated to gallic acid and is heat stable. In addition to its innate anti-bacterial properties, Amlaki is a potent antoxidant, preventing free radical damage to cells. Amlaki also raises white blood count, notably enhancing immunity. A teaspoon of Chyavanprash can be taken twice daily, in the morning and mid afternoon throughout flu season to support the immune system. It should be taken on an empty stomach.
Although all of the herbs mentioned in this article can be used judiciously by people of all doshic constitutions, at least during the winter, Ashwagandha will be especially useful for vata, Chyavanprash and Amlaki for pitta and Tulsi for kapha. By taking the help of these herbal allies, you can increase your chance of a healthy winter season and even improve your overall health.
All products mentioned in this article are available from www.banyanbotanicals.com.
Alakananda Devi (Alakananda Ma) is director of Alandi Ayurvedic Clinic in Boulder, Colorado, and principal teacher of Alandi School of Ayurveda, a traditional ayurvedic school and apprenticeship program. She can be reached at 303-786-7437 or by email at: firstname.lastname@example.org.