How To Boost Your Immunity (and Move Across the World)

February 02, 2015


Dear friends,

I have news! In January 2013, my fiancé Ryan and I moved to Korea to teach English. A year later, we returned to Chicago, rented an apartment, bought a car, and got jobs. For reasons I may discuss in a later post, we've decided to move back to Korea! Two weeks ago, Ryan and I accepted teaching positions with a major Korean steel company that runs private schools for its employee’s children. It’s a great opportunity and I can’t wait to tell you all about it. We leave in just over six weeks!

When we first moved to Korea two years ago, I got sick. From the morning after we landed until three months later, I had an upper respiratory cold that significantly affected my ability to adapt and settle into life abroad. I appeared ill and tired, I lacked energy, I always felt cold. Every day, I heard those dreaded words: "You look tired." Considering my lifestyle at the time, it’s no surprise that my body responded in this way. I was smoking cigarettes, I rarely exercised, and I had a poor diet. I weighed 40 pounds more than I do now. I had been working as a case manager in child welfare, putting in 50-60 hours a week on a low salary, and making no effort to care for my physical or emotional health. I recall Ryan keeping track of my quarterly illnesses, urging me to “take a multivitamin,” to do something to boost my immunity and stop the vicious cycle. My immune system was weak, leaving me vulnerable to bacteria and viruses. 

Two years later, I can’t recall the last time I had a major cold or virus. I am healthier, physically and emotionally, than ever. I am grateful for my good health. Living in Southeast Asia, where Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) remains integral to daily life and health, I began to explore plants and their amazing ability to heal, incorporating medicinal and tonic herbs into my diet. I started to exercise, running and dabbling in yoga. In Korea, a nation that is 70% mountain and hills, we took up hiking. Without a car, we were forced to walk or take public transportation. Transitioning from desk jobs to teaching meant that suddenly, we were on our feet all day, every day. I am not the only one whose health improved. Moving to Korea was unquestionably the catalyst for reclaiming my health. And yet, as I plan to make this move again, I am forced to recall the toll it took on me, how sick and tired I felt, how miserable those first three months were. And so I've decided that over the next six weeks, on top of packing the things we want to keep and donating the things we don't, saving our money and buying our plane tickets, I have one extra task to add to the list: trying my damnedest not to get sick again.

Of course, there is no "quick fix" for our immune system. Our internal organs and systems are connected, just as our physical selves are connected to our emotional and spiritual selves. I like the way that Sarah Holmes describes immunity, as our body’s way of determining “What is self? What isn’t self? What is supposed to be in our body and what isn’t?" Our bodies require homeostasis in order to protect against infectious organisms (bacteria, viruses, fungi, and parasites) and cancer, and much of the activity of the immune system occurs in the blood stream and the lymphatic system. Our white blood cells circulate in our blood looking for antigens and then create antibodies that destroy said antigens. If our immune system is functioning and we are giving our bodies what they need - good food, sleep, love, enjoyment - we are generally able to fight off illness. If, however, our immune system is overused due to excess stress, inflammation, etc., it becomes weakened and we are more likely to become sick when exposed to pathogens. Cleansing the blood and keeping it alkaline, supporting the lymphatic system and the liver, and supporting digestive health are crucial to a properly functioning immune system. Herbal infusions of stinging nettles, red clover, burdock root, dandelion root, cleavers, red root, and mullein can all contribute to healthy immune functioning by supporting other systems and organs within the body. TCM supports the interconnectedness of these various systems within the body.

Many herbalists agree that medicinal mushrooms and astragalus are essential to immune health, in addition to providing a wealth of other benefits. Medicinal mushrooms such as fresh or dried shitake, oyster, and maitake mushrooms should be cooked for at least 30 minutes to draw out their medicinal properties. Reishi mushrooms can be added to stocks and broths or brewed into tea. Reishi is considered a powerful tonic herb by proponents of Western Herbalism and TCM alike. Reishi works in two directions, stimulating one person’s under-active immune system and suppressing another’s overactive system, to bring the system into a normal range of functioning. Astragalus root is shown to increase white blood cells, pull puss from the body, increase vitality, support lung and digestive health, and promote regeneration of tissues. Like medicinal mushrooms, astragalus possesses anti-tumor properties. Since astragalus has a nourishing affect, it can be used for long periods of time. Astragalus can be made into an infusion or added to soup or beans and infused overnight to impart its medicinal qualities. Astragalus and medical mushrooms are considered immunomodulators, which facilitate greater immune system flexibility in the body's response to diseaseThey can be used for long periods of time, they support deep immunity, and most possess adaptogenic qualities that help the body adapt to emotional, physical, and mental stress. Many of them come from Asia. In addition to astragalus and medicinal mushrooms, this class of herbs includes Siberian ginseng, holy basil, American ginseng, schisandra berries, ashwagandha root, and elder flowers and berries. 

Susun Weed reminds us that since our immune systems require proper nutrients to function effectively, highly nutritious foods support deep immunity. She suggests beets, carrots, sweet potatoes (especially the skins), broccoli, prunes, lentils, seaweeds, and dark leafy greens (including nettle infusion). Leafy greens and seaweeds, like mushrooms, should be cooked for at least 30 minutes to release their nutrients. Coffee, tobacco, alcohol, and capsule supplements should be avoided, since they tend to suppress or detract from immune health. Eating on the Wild Side by Jo Robinson is a great resource for identifying the most nutritious produce at the grocery store or market and how to store and prepare these ingredients for optimal nutritional value. Sarah Holmes advises increasing intake of antioxidants, green tea, colorful whole foods, cilantro, miso, and celtic and himalayan salt. Sweating - exercise, saunas - and bath soaks in epsom salt or baking soda draws toxins out of the body. So does drinking a lot of water. Liver health is supported by burdock root, dandelion root, and milk thistle seed (tincture or ground over food). Lung health is supported by mullein leaf, licorice root, marshmallow root, elecampane, and passionflower.  May I also recommend making your own stocks and broths? We regularly make medicinal mushroom broths, bone broths, and vegetable broths from vegetable scraps and discarded onion and garlic skins. Bone broth has been the target of much hype recently, and for good reason.

Immune health and stress are closely linked. Constant release of stress hormones can result in a weakened immune response, over-stressed mind, and harmful inflammation. Additionally, when our body responds to stress, it reallocates energy away from our immune, digestive, and respiratory systems, impairing our ability to fight off harmful microorganisms and cancer and leaving us vulnerable to disease.  Since stress and emotional health affect our immune functioning, thinking positively and engaging in self-care and self-loving activities relieves stress and builds immunity. Yoga, meditation, journaling, and creative expression have been effective strategies for supporting my emotional and spiritual wellness.

I also believe that moving across the world in the middle of winter affected my body's ability to adapt. We moved in January, during the season in which it is best to draw inward, slow down, hibernate. And here we are again, preparing for a major life change during wintertime. Again I turn to one of my favorite herbalists, Sarah Holmes, for guidance on keeping in tune with the season. Eating seasonally in February means consuming root vegetables, warmer foods, and foods cooked longer, like stews, congees, and beans. It means drinking warm beverages like herbal teas and chai. According to Ms. Holmes, we tend to challenge our bodies during winter by eating richer foods, which can throw off our internal systems. Winter food should be nourishing, but not necessarily rich. I regularly take bitters before and after eating to aid in digestion. Nettle and oat straw infusions make up my regular herbal routine; they offer a variety of benefits, including easing my anxiety. As always, self care is high on Ms. Holmes’ list of priorities: “Being in harmony with the season is about being in harmony with nature, being in harmony with self. Find your time to replenish, relax, and dream.”

With these things in mind, let us plan.

How to Build Boost Your Immunity (and Move Across the World)

1. Drink daily infusions of nettle, oat straw, red clover, burdock root, and dandelion root.  Support the lungs with mullein leaf, licorice root, marshmallow root, elecampane, and passionflower. Nurture the liver and lymphatic system, keep the blood clean, and support strong digestion. Buy your herbs in bulk to save on cost.

2. Take tinctures of milk thistle seed, burdock root, and Siberian ginseng. Incorporate immunomodulators like astragalus, elder, schisandra, ashwagandha, and holy basil.

3. Use digestive bitters. For bonus points, make them yourself! Also, eat more fermented foods.

4. Eat medicinal mushrooms (shitake, maitake, reishi). Add them to soups, stews, and porridges. Make reishi tea.

5. Eat according to the season. Make warm, slow-cooked meals consisting of organic leafy greens, lentils, mushrooms, sweet potatoes, seaweeds, carrots, garlic, and onions. Make your own stocks and bone broths; they are so nutritious and taste much better than store-bought. Sprinkle milk thistle seeds onto oatmeal, salads, and soups.

Some favorite collected recipes to inspire you:
Matsutake Mushroom Soup // Flourishing Foodie
Healing Miso Noodle Soup // Goodness Green
Braised White Beans and Leeks // The Taste Space
Immunity Soup // 101 Cookbooks
Lentil Pierogi // Vegalicious
Miso-Ginger Immune Soup Balls // The Great Kosmic Kitchen

6. Drink more water.

7. Consider using flower essences that promote adaptability, like prickly pear cactuswalnut flower, or cow parsnip. Flower essences are new to me - let's try them together!

8. Reduce use of alcohol, nicotine, and caffeine. Substitute green tea, chai, earl grey, or yerba mate for coffee. If you are also moving to Korea, keep in mind that you will struggle to find quality, affordable coffee there anyway.

9. Create a nightly routine to aid in getting good sleep. My routine consists of going to bed an hour early, reading fiction, and drinking hot mullein infusion with cream or almond milk, which soothes my nervous system and calms me into sleep.

10. Exercise and move daily. Try a yoga practice. Go running. Spend time in nature.

11. Make time for journaling and meditation to support emotional health. Read books and blogs that inspire and motivate you. Draw mandalas. Create art.

12. Use the dark, slow winter time to dream and to plan. Smile often and think positive thoughts. Remember that wherever you are is where you're supposed to be.

13. Be grateful for the courage to enter the unknown and to try something new. Be mindful. Be yourself.

Much of the information included in this post is based on research and study. As I continue to expand my holistic practices, I hope to share more of my lived experiences with you.

How do you stay healthy during times of transition and change?

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