Immune System Health as a Daily Practice

Supporting our bodies’ baseline health with nourishing foods and herbs is an important part of being our healthiest selves, recognizing that that means something different for everyone.

Make small changes to invite more nourishment into your daily life in a way that feels manageable for you.

These are some of the ways my family works it in.

Herbs

These common herbs are gentle enough for regular use for most people and offer support to immune and lung health, as well as being some combo of antiviral, anti-inflammatory, nervine, adaptogen, and lymphagogue.

Tincture

  • Reishi
  • Thyme
  • Lemon balm
  • Angelica
  • Astragalus
  • Tulsi

Instructions to make your own tinctures.  This is absolutely fine to do with fresh or dried herbs; see the end of the resource list for good places to buy herbs.

Tea

  • Mineral-rich herbs: nettles, raspberry
  • Calming immune-modulating adaptogens: tulsi, astragalus
  • Lymphatics & hepatics: burdock, red clover, calendula, dandelion
  • Hugs for the nervous system: oatstraw, lemon balm, multiflora rose.  Lemon balm and Baicalensis are also antiviral and seem uniquely suited to this moment.
  • Warming lung and digestive herbs: calamus, angelica, cinnamon
Bee Balm makes a great tea

There is a small pot on my stove with the thicker roots double-doubling away as needed, then I add some to a big teapot full of everything else to infuse.

Honey

I sweeten that tea with turmeric-, ginger-, marshmallow- or schisandra-infused honey, depending on my mood.

Instructions to make tea like an herbalist

Instructions to make oxymels

Instructions to make syrups

Feel free to improvise the proportions based on what you have: twice as much ginger as cinnamon is going to be great, and so is substituting lavender for rose because it’s what you have…let your creative side roll, oxymels and syrups tend to turn out great.

It’s also totally fine to make any of these recipes with fresh or dried herbs.  See the end of the resource list for good places to buy herbs.

Nourishment

We try to be relaxed and non-dogmatic about food. We make an effort to mostly eat a whole-food diet rich in vitamins, minerals, healthy fats, soluble fiber/prebiotics, and probiotic bacteria–things like brightly colored fruits and vegetables, clean meats and eggs, beans, lentils, a variety of grains like quinoa, brown rice, and barley, oatmeal, plain yogurt, kimchi, dosas…there are lots of ways to make eating healthy fun and delicious.  We’re getting excited for early greens and herbs, nibbing the first creasy greens, nettles, and chives. Again, though, sometimes this doesn’t happen, and that’s also okay: eating generally healthfully doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing proposition.

My Sous Chef!

We work medicinal herbs into each meal, like garlic, ginger, thyme, rosemary, sage, turmeric, cayenne, fennel, and cinnamon.  Spices are ancestral medicines that support digestion, circulation, immune function, blood sugar regulation, and the happiness of enjoying delicious food with people we love. This is good daily medicine.

The kids eat oatmeal with cinnamon, ginger-infused honey, fruit, and plain yogurt for breakfast.  They’re happy because they’re eating honey and fruit–little do they know my nefarious plan to sneak medicine into the every meal (bwa ha ha ha ha). That particular meal has a lot going on: probiotic yogurt; prebiotic, soluble fiber-rich oatmeal; medicinal cinnamon, ginger and honey (medicinal aspects of honey), plus all those good fats, proteins, vitamins and minerals…it takes a lot of pressure off of me as a parent, knowing they started off the day eating that kind of food, so if they eat nothing but cheddar bunnies for the rest of the day at least I got something in.

The other night, I roasted one of our own chickens with my oldest daughter, who is 3 (and a half!) and loves to help cook, standing on a chair wearing her little apron.  The leftovers went into chicken noodle soup, heavy on the schmaltz in the proud healing tradition of my grandmothers–and all the plagues that soup recipe has survived, oy, we should be so lucky.

The chicken carcass came out of the soup and went into the slow cooker to become bone broth, together with medicinal mushrooms–reishi, turkey tail, shiitake–and medicinal herbs including sage, rosemary, garlic, ginger, and thyme.  The broth was frozen for the future, either a busy weeknight or a sick day–and either way, it will feel like a gift from the past.

And speaking of gifts from the past: cooking our family’s traditional foods with my children is another kind of medicine, helping us connect forward and back through the generations and stand in gratitude for the epigenetic strength, power, and love that we have inherited from those who made us possible. Not that we don’t also enjoy cooking delicious healing foods from other peoples’ ancestors, of course we do, but there is a special connection in working family and cultural traditions into our health practices. Finding daily ways to connect with the love and strength of your ancestors can provide an important source of nourishment–and for many people, the foods of our ancestors feel healthier and less reactive in our bodies than the (delicious! convenient! also totally appropriate sometimes!) modern diet. Adding spices and herbs to traditional dishes to maximize the health of your body in the current time is a great adaptation that reflects that modern-traditional connection.

Here’s a recipe for Immunity Herbal Bone Broth

Burning Bundles

Aromatic herbs make wonderful burning bundles or smudge sticks.  These are super easy to make yourself.  Late summer I’ll usually spend an afternoon wrapping herb bundles together with jute twine or yarn, then dry them in a basket and give them as gifts. 

I bundle Lavender, Mugwort, Goldenrod, New England Aster, Garden Sage, Thyme…basically anything fragrant or resinous.  Put together bundles about half as thick as your wrist and wrap them firmly with untreated jute twine (or something else that burns nicely), then hang them to dry or dry them in a loose basket with good airflow. Once they’re dry, they burn beautifully and smell great! And using local, plentiful herbs doesn’t contribute to environmental degradation or to the loss of a beautiful plant that has the right to exist for its own sake and is essential for someone else’s religion. 

Burning bundles are great lovely way to cleanse the air by releasing bioactive resins, and they’re calming and centering in a way that is helpful in high stress times.

Note: There is no reason to covet the sacred White Sage of the West, which is both at-risk and one of the most sacred plants to many Native people–and is therefore completely inappropriate for non-Native people to use, as has been asked clearly and repeatedly by hundreds of Native herbalists, as well as the at-risk plant protection and botany communities. Better alternatives are basically everything else (except potentially toxic stuff like poison ivy), including Garden Sage, Pineapple Sage, and any other Sage you can grow. If you’re not familiar with why non-Native people really need to listen to the people asking them to stop using White Sage, please check out United Plant Savers, or do a brief google or instagram search on this topic, which turns up hundreds of well-reasoned pieces.

Steam

There’s another little pot on the back burner of the stove bubbling away with aromatic leftovers, releasing all those lovely volatile oils into the air to moisten our mucous membranes. The contents change daily based on what scraps we have, but things like orange peels, the trimmings from garlic and ginger, calamus leaves, eucalyptus, rosemary and thyme: any of your aromatics are worth a try. My husband is calling it “compost soup”–but also, he ATE HIS WORDS about the annoyingly oversized bundles of eucalyptus, sage, rosemary, calamus, and mint hanging from the kitchen rafters–this battle, I have officially won. Ha. Anyway, it smells quite festive in here, and the humidity is nice.

What do you do to maintain immune health as part of your daily life? What herbs and foods provide deep nourishment for you?

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