No one likes being sick. Illness brings not only physical and emotional stress into Americans' lives, but can be a huge financial burden as well. Consider the common cold: A study published in the February 2003 issue of Archives of Internal Medicine reports that colds, otherwise known as viral respiratory tract infections, are the most common illnesses in humans and affect 72 percent of Americans each year. "Approximately 500 million noninfluenza-related VRTI episodes occur per year. The total economic impact of noninfluenza-related VRTI approaches $40 billion annually (direct costs: $17 billion per year; and indirect costs: $22.5 billion per year). Largely because of the high attack rate, noninfluenza-related VRTI imposes a greater economic burden than many other clinical conditions. The pending availability of effective antiviral therapies warrants increased attention to this common and expensive illness," according to the study.
Catering to consumers' desires to stay healthy, manufacturers are producing more immunity-boosting supplements. The number of different types of immune-enhancers in natural foods stores borders on excessive, to say the least. "The main problem is that people get confused from hearing so many different perspectives on how to boost immunity," says Eric Yarnell, N.D., president of the Botanical Medicine Academy in Seattle. With myriad options available, consumers tend to operate under the "more is better" philosophy without understanding how different elements of what they're ingesting can work together—or not—to heighten immunity. And while some combination therapies can be extremely effective for protecting health, taking the wrong mixture of supplements at the wrong time can also compromise the immune system. As a retailer, being familiar with the ins and outs of what to take when will help guide your customers down the sometimes overwhelming road of immunity boosters.
"There are many different philosophies out there about immune supplements," says Yarnell. "And while they're all valid, they're not all necessarily synergistic." For instance, while most herbalists would agree that it doesn't hurt to combine different herbs from different medicinal viewpoints, most agree that it's important to understand categories of herbs and which type of herb to take depending on the stage of your illness. "Just because an Ayurvedic herb comes from India doesn't mean it can't be used with Chinese herbs. For instance, ashwaganda is Ayurvedic ginseng. It can be used synergistically with astragalus, cordyceps and holy basil, which are Chinese herbs. What matters instead is what category the herbs are in," says Scott Bias, president of Fountain Valley, Calif.-based Paradise Herbs. According to Bias, three categories of herbs work to enhance immunity: tonic herbs, antioxidant herbs and immune-stimulating, or antibiotic, herbs.
Tonic herbs are also known as dispersing herbs or immune modulators, and are used to build the immune system. They should be taken on a regular basis to build resistance to disease and pathogenic invasion. "You take tonic herbs when you're well to stay well," says Bias. Once you are actually sick, however, you should stop ingesting tonic herbs. "If you do have a pathogenic invasion, a cold or flu for instance, the last thing you want to do is take a tonic herb. They are thought to hold pathogenic invasions in the body longer, by blocking the body's ability to flush out toxins," says Bias. Tonic herbs include most adaptogenic herbs, like astragalus; medicinal mushrooms, including reishi, mitaki, agaricus blazei muril and cordyceps; Siberian ginseng; eluthero; schisandra; amla; holy basil; devil's club and rhodiola. Some evidence contradicts the theory that adaptogens are not useful to take once illness has set in, however. A study published in the October 2005 issue of Canadian Medical Association Journal found that participants who continued taking American ginseng, an adaptogenic herb, after they became ill got better faster than participants who stopped taking the ginseng once they became sick.
This category of herbs includes plants that are extremely high in antioxidants, which work to ward off free radicals, compounds that can compromise the immune system. These herbs can be used to maintain immunity, like tonic herbs, but can also be ingested once illness has set in, to help the body fight off the bug. "An example of an herb in this class would be turmeric," says Bias. "It helps with inflammation and lowers histamine levels. It can be used whether you're sick or not." Other antioxidant herbs include ginger and grape seed extract.
Though not in the herb family, minerals, such as zinc, and vitamins, such as C and E, are also powerful antioxidants, and work together synergistically to support the immune system. "Zinc, an essential trace mineral, is critical for proper immune function and required for numerous vital cell functions, including muscle growth and development. It is unique in that it also serves as a potent antioxidant similar to vitamins E, C and beta-carotene," says Massood Moshrefi, Ph.D., vice president of operations and technical services at Benicia, Calif.-based InterHealth Nutraceuticals. "During exercise, the body produces massive amounts of harmful free radicals, which can damage muscle cells and other vital tissues in the body. Zinc helps neutralize free radicals and prevent cell damage."
Also called immune-stimulating herbs, these plants invigorate the immune system and are therefore generally not considered useful to take when healthy. Echinacea, golden seal and black walnut fall into this category. Some believe that, if taken on a regular basis, these herbs overstimulate the immune system and cause further illness. Others, like Yarnell, assert that they are only useful if taken when sick, but don't necessarily cause harm if taken when healthy. "The echinacea question is a tricky issue. The old theory was that you should not take echinacea ongoing because it would stop working and cause you to get sick. That's not necessarily true. What is true is that echinacea won't prevent illness, but it will help you to get better quicker if you start taking it once you do get sick," Yarnell says.
Mixing it up
To confuse matters further, there are categories within categories. For example, Bias identifies olive leaf and oregano as antibiotic, immune-stimulating herbs, but also asserts that they are safe to take on a regular basis, the way he recommends tonic herbs be taken. "Olive leaf and oregano are antiviral herbs, but you can get away with taking them consistently in small amounts because they will help combat a dormant virus lingering in the body," he says. The source and preparation of the supplement will also determine how often and how much of it should be taken. "Vitamin C is 100 times better absorbed by the body if it's taken through the herb amla instead of through a multivitamin," Bias says. "You have to take these things into account when formulating your immune supplement regimen."
When it comes to immune health, there's a lot to digest, literally and figuratively. Yarnell recommends keeping it simple by starting with one herb or supplement at a time. "Try one herb for a couple of weeks and don't add anything else until you've noticed that herb's effect on you. Don't go crazy with 10 different things at once." Furthermore, familiarize yourself with immunity formulas and make sure you know the difference between those that should be taken to prevent illness and those that are intended to help the body heal once illness has set in. Steer clear of formulas that combine tonic herbs with antibiotic herbs, but remember that antioxidants can be taken at any stage of illness or for prevention. Finally, consult an herbalist or other expert if you're uncertain about what to take when, or how to advise your customers. "Having an herbalist on hand can be helpful because a lot of these remedies should be designed individually, with each person's unique concerns in mind," Bias says.
Christine Spehar is a Boulder, Colo.-based freelance writer.
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