Top 5 Herbs to Fight Free Radicals and Boost Your Immunity

Top 5 Herbs to Fight Free Radicals and Boost Your Immunity

A strong immune system has always been essential for good health. We need strong defenses for both our body and mind to fight illnesses and psychological stress.

While there are many ways to bolster your immune system, one approach is through controlling or balancing free radicals.

What Are Free Radicals?

By now, you probably have a general sense of what free radicals are and their “opposite” antioxidants. At least, perhaps, you understand that free radicals are usually “bad” and antioxidants are “good.”

By definition, free radicals are atoms or molecules with an odd (unpaired) number of electrons… what does that mean for your body?

Let’s dive into the details worth understanding to take a strategic approach to improve your immunity.

Free Radicals: The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly

Here are five must-know facts about free radicals:

1. Your Body Needs Free Radicals to Live.

The human body uses oxygen to make a specialized free radical called reactive oxygen species, which helps break down carbohydrates and fats, making it easier for your body to turn them into energy. Without them, you’d die.

2. Free Radicals Break Down Molecules.

The problem is that mitochondria 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 break down mitochondria and affect DNA — 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.” This 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 from free radicals is essentially what ages us over time or contributes to illness. It’s why older adults are often more vulnerable when they’re sick: More of their mitochondria and DNA have burned out from free radical damage, and more cells have died.

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. Antioxidants 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.

city view hidden my smog

Along with the free radicals your body naturally produces, there are a number of other free radical sources we’re exposed to, like refined fats in processed foods, air pollutants and toxins, and food pesticides.

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 keep up. But the harder cells have to work, the more free radicals they produce, which leads to more waste creating a vicious cycle that puts your immune system under pressure.

fire growing in dark image

What starts happening: The immune system can’t keep up with the buildup of cellular debris and other waste. All that waste triggers harmful inflammation, which can ravage your system over time, contributing to a whole host of problems. It can increase your risk of heart disease, stroke, chronic illness, and more, as well as accelerate the breakdown of cells — including immune cells.

How to Protect Yourself from Cell Inflammation? 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 by 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. You can take action to protect your cells from becoming stressed and keep your microbiome in balance, which curbs inflammation

Here’s how to protect your cells and balance your microbiome:

Freshen Up! Adopt a Healthy Diet

Iridescent food. Creative composition made of fruits and vegetables in rainbow colors on white background, flat lay

Minimize your intake of processed and high-carb foods, and Instead, load up on more fresh, antioxidant-rich fruits, vegetables, and other plant foods. Foods like berries and leafy greens are loaded with antioxidants shown to fight free radical stress and inflammation and enhance immune cells.

Avoid Toxins.

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.

Stay Active.

Moderate exercise helps reduce inflammation, as well as helps control inflammation-stoking stress. One study found that just 20 minutes of activity a day can 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 a great strategy. Three of my favorite herbs for balancing the microbiome are andrographis, cat’s claw, and berberine.

If you want to calm and soothe the lining of your gut and balance your gut microbiome, try Vital Plan’s Gut Revival Kit, which will help activate your digestive system, purify your GI tract, and nourish your body.

The Power of Herbs

In addition to consuming antioxidant-rich foods, herbs offer an excellent line of defense against free radicals and extra support for your immune system.

Herbs with alternative medicine herbal supplements and pills

 

Which herbs are best for fighting free radicals?

All herbs fight free radicals to some extent, but there are two smart strategies you can use when picking specific herbs to optimize your benefits.

First, combine synergistic herbs that come from different environments. The environment in which an herb evolved and the stress factors it deals with informs its defense system.  

Second, consider herbs’ other properties beyond being effective antioxidants. That way, you not only address the damage done by free radicals, but you get the additional supportive benefits as well.

The Top 5 Antioxidant, Immune-Supporting Herbs To Add To Your Diet

1. Rhodiola

Rhodiola rosea blossom by springtime at solar day.Beautiful green background

An adaptogen that grows primarily in harsh, Northern climates, 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. 

2. Reishi Mushroom

reishi mushrooms growing on wood

Although a fungi, reishi is often referred to as an herb because of its benefits. As a fungi, it naturally confronts excess stress from microbes, which gives it specialized powers to help rev up our immune systems against pathogenic microbes. This helps keep our microbiome — and, by extension, our immune system — balanced and healthy.

3. Turmeric

Turmeric powder in white cup.

This spice, which gives curry its bright yellow color, is loaded with antioxidants called polyphenols. While these antioxidants are effective at controlling free radicals, Turmeric is also a potent anti-inflammatory. While it controls inflammation through its effect on free radicals, it also helps regulate the communication of the immune system and your body’s inflammatory response.

Over-the-counter anti-inflammatories like ibuprofen 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.

Turmeric, on the other hand, decreases the formation of COX-2 in the long term. So, in the long run, turmeric helps better regulate and normalize the body’s inflammatory response.

4. Shilajit

black shilajit powder pile in front of mountain view

Another example of an “herb-adjacent” compound — not technically an herb but often discussed with other herbs — is shilajit, an herbomineral substance that is highly concentrated with antioxidants from a variety of different plant sources. Much of its antioxidant properties come from fulvic acid, which is produced from organisms in the soil.

In addition to its antioxidant powers, shilajit’s fulvic acid helps regulate immune function and improves gastrointestinal function. It also helps improve resistance to stress and guard against inflammatory conditions.

5. Gotu Kola

green Got Kola leaves

Gotu kola is a member of the carrot family, although it’s closely related to and resembles parsley. In India, it’s eaten as a leafy green and is known for its content of antioxidant nutrients, including vitamin C and carotenoids.

It’s also a natural mood stabilizer that may help balance and manage the stress response by revitalizing the central nervous system and promoting the production of GABA, a neurotransmitter linked to calm and relaxation. For those and other reasons, it’s traditionally been used for general longevity and as a brain tonic.

The Bottom Line: You Can Take Control of Your Health

While there is a lot about life we can’t control, one thing you can do is take control and care of your immune system. Support your immune system with antioxidant-rich foods and herbs to better support you - mind and body -  keeping you healthy now and long term.

Ready to strengthen your immune system but feel like you don't have the time to search for all the herbs listed above? We have you covered at Vital Plan!

Our Daily Herbal is a physician-formulated blend of herb adaptogens and natural phytochemicals that promotes immune resilience and cellular health for an active lifestyle.



 

References
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8. Li, Yonghong et al. “Rhodiola rosea L.: an herb with anti-stress, anti-aging, and immunostimulating properties for cancer chemoprevention.” Curr Pharmacol Rep. 2017 Dec; 3(6): 384–395.
9. Guggenheim, Alena G. et al. “Immune Modulation From Five Major Mushrooms: Application to Integrative Oncology.” Integr Med (Encinitas). 2014 Feb; 13(1): 32–44.
10. Cor, Darija et al. “Antitumour, Antimicrobial, Antioxidant and Antiacetylcholinesterase Effect of Ganoderma Lucidum Terpenoids and Polysaccharides: A Review.” Molecules. 2018 Mar; 23(3): 649.
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