Building a Healthy Immune System
We’ve all experienced the disappointment of having to put everything on hold when our bodies crash and our health deteriorates, usually just when we think we can least afford to slow down or take a break.
Deep down, most of us know that there is often an inherent wisdom in the irony of those moments. Nevertheless, most of us would rather avoid the inconvenience altogether.
Given the choice, who among us would refuse a hardy immune system? This guide offers a basic introduction to the Ayurvedic methods of supporting robust health and a strong immune system.
In this article:
- Ayurveda on Immunity
- Lifestyle Practices to Promote Immunity
- Herbal Support for a Healthy Immune System
- Back to the Basics
Getting sick from time to time is a natural part of life, and avoiding it altogether is not realistic. But when it comes down to it, we all want to feel healthy and well, and would rather avoid illness and disease. So, what can we do to support robust immunity?
If our immune systems are compromised, we have to ask ourselves why, and we must be willing to change course to correct the underlying issues—whatever they may be.
Of course, each individual is unique, and working with an Ayurvedic practitioner to specifically address the current dynamics in your system is a fantastic way to support positive change. Still, there are a number of general strategies that can help to support immunity in all of us.
At first glance, some of the recommendations you’ll find below may seem quite basic. In fact, many of them are. These strategies are built on the premise that our bodies are inherently intelligent and that, given proper support, our physiology already knows exactly how to foster and protect optimal health.
As you will see, there is an elegant beauty in the Ayurvedic approach to bolstering the immune system; it is simple, intuitive, and it reminds us just how amazing the body’s self-regulatory systems are.
As a starting point, let’s first focus on how Ayurveda views immunity and the immune system.
According to Ayurveda, strong immunity is a product of good digestion, strong agni (the metabolic fire), healthy liver function, and a balanced endocrine system.1 Immunity is also very much connected to a mysterious substance called ojas.
The Sanskrit word ojas literally means “vigor.”2
In the body, ojas is extremely subtle and elusive—somewhat difficult to define. Yet in the Ayurvedic tradition, ojas has everything to do with immunity. It is said that the strength of one’s ojas determines which factors and influences—whether internal or external—cause disease in each individual.3
Grasping the Ayurvedic approach to bolstering the immune system therefore hinges on having at least a peripheral understanding of ojas.
What Is Ojas?
Ojas is the positive subtle essence of kapha—that which gives the body strength, vigor, vitality, and immunity. It is the superfine essence of all of the bodily tissues and the end product of perfect digestion.
As such, it is a direct reflection of the quality of agni; strong agni yields healthy ojas, while impaired agni hinders the quality of ojas. Ojas is also affected by past trauma, lifestyle choices, stress levels, the quality of our relationships, and our overall state of consciousness.
On the other hand, it is diminished and dried up when we are overly effortful, stressed, or contracted. Ojas also protects prana, the vital life force that animates each of us.
Important Times to Protect Ojas
For the most part, therapeutic strategies that protect ojas support optimal health throughout our systems and are appropriate to undertake at any time. But there are times when we are especially vulnerable, and when protecting ojas is of particular importance, such as the following:
- Periods of convalescence
- Episodes of unusual stress
- Junctions between seasons
- Cold and flu season
- Periods of rejuvenation (whether following a cleanse or independent of a cleanse)
- Times of significant change to your routine (e.g., the start of the school year, for many)
- Major life transitions, like marriage, divorce, the death of a loved one, a move, a new baby, a new job, or the loss of a job
Being the ultrafine, subtle essence that it is, ojas is affected by almost every aspect of our lives. What follows are a number of especially potent recommendations for promoting quality ojas and strong immunity.
Support Immunity with Your Diet
Tending to agni is the number one way to maintain strong digestion and promote optimal health throughout the system, which in turn, protects ojas.
In very general terms, agni is supported by a diet that minimizes stimulants, refined sugars, and processed foods. Instead, emphasize healthy, whole foods, and be attentive to Ayurvedic Food Combining. There are also specific foods that are said to boost ojas, including almonds, dates, saffron, and ghee.
If you are not sure of your current state of balance, you can take our dosha quiz to determine if a specific diet would support your agni and encourage a return to balance.
It is also worth mentioning that including garlic in your diet will offer natural support to the immune system. Garlic kindles agni, destroys natural toxins, encourages a normal body temperature, supports the lungs, and clears excess kapha.6 It can also clear harmful bacteria while preserving the body’s natural, beneficial flora.7
Ayurveda often recommends avoiding or minimizing garlic because it is commonly considered a rajasic or tamasic food, with potential to overstimulate or dull the system. But like all things in Ayurveda, there is a time and a place for garlic, and it's important to consider its capacity to bolster and protect the immune system.
Prioritize Balanced Sleep
Sleep is critically important to the immune system. Studies have shown that when animals are completely deprived of sleep, they suffer a total loss of immune function—resulting in death.8 In humans also, sleep deprivation severely compromises immunity.
For example, studies have linked sleep deprivation to an increased risk of cancer as well as a reduction in the immune system’s ability to slow the growth of cancer cells.9
If sleep is a challenging area for you, you might be interested in our health guide, An Ayurvedic Guide to Balanced Sleep. Otherwise, try to go to bed and get up at about the same times each day, and aim to sleep for about eight hours each night.
Managing stress is an important health topic in its own right. That said, excess stress is extremely detrimental to our immune response because stress hormones very effectively suppress the immune system—reallocating vital resources in order to ensure our immediate survival.10
If however, you are ready to re-pattern your response to stressful situations, our Ayurvedic Guide to Stress Management offers a number of useful tools for supporting an improved relationship with challenging situations.
Adopt a Supportive Daily Routine
Our physiology is very much adapted to—and supported by—some sense of regularity. Ayurveda recommends a daily routine for everyone, but because it helps to calm the nervous system and relieve stress, a routine can be a particularly potent means of preserving immunity and protecting ojas.
Over time, this context of predictability and safety encourages the nervous system to relax, reduces stress, encourages rejuvenation, and helps to preserve immune function.
The first steps in establishing a daily routine are quite simple. Try to awaken, eat your meals, and go to bed at the same times each day. If possible, you can also maintain a consistent work or activity schedule.
Get Appropriate Exercise
When done mindfully, exercise helps to release accumulated tension, move stagnant mental and emotional energy, and improve circulation.
Appropriate exercise also kindles agni, improves digestion, bolsters the body’s detoxification mechanisms, encourages proper elimination, promotes relaxation, and supports sound sleep—all of which serve to protect ojas and support the immune system.
Ayurveda offers the unique perspective that the type, duration, and intensity of exercise that is most supportive for each of us depends largely on who we are as individuals.
Keep in mind that for most people experiencing a consistently high level of stress, a vata-balancing exercise routine that is gently paced and grounding is often most appropriate.
If you are not currently exercising regularly, remember that a supportive exercise program does not have to be complex or time-intensive. A daily twenty-minute walk can do wonders for the entire system—body, mind, and spirit.
Engage Supportive Mindfulness Practices
There are a number of subtle therapies in the Ayurvedic tradition. Each of them has a slightly different set of indications and benefits, but all of them help to cultivate presence, cleanse the nadis, digest ama (toxins), relieve stress, and support the quality of ojas—ultimately supporting immunity.
There is certainly no harm in including all of these practices in your daily routine, but if they are all new to you, we highly recommend implementing one at a time, starting with whichever practice most appeals to you.
Prana is the subtle essence of life force that animates each of us. It infuses every cell and tissue throughout our bodies and is carried on and stimulated by the breath.11 Imbibing prana restores fluidity and vitality to the subtle energy channels of the body, releases accumulated tension, and supports the nervous system as a whole—all while digesting and eliminating stagnation and ama.
One of the best ways to bathe our tissues in fresh prana is to practice pranayama. To offer specific support to the immune system, try Ujjayi for vata, Sheetali for pitta, or Kapalabhati for kapha. All three of these practices are generally tridoshic, so you are also welcome to choose a practice according to the indications and benefits of each one.
If stress is the primary factor compromising your immune system, Nadi Shodhana, or Alternate Nostril Breathing, would be the most supportive starting place.
Yoga moves prana in the body, helps to dissipate tension, clears stagnation, and encourages fluidity throughout the tissues, the subtle body, and the mental and emotional spheres. Ayurveda offers a nuanced approach to dosha-balancing yoga that specifically helps to balance whichever doshas need the most attention in your system.
If stress is clearly a factor depleting the quality of ojas in your system, vata- and pitta-balancing yoga routines are often the most supportive.
Meditation supports us in cultivating mindful awareness and therefore helps us to engage with our lives in a clearer, more detached manner. This skill, in turn, calms the nervous system, decreases stress, and encourages a healthier response to stressful situations—all of which help to protect ojas and promote immunity.
Over time, a daily meditation practice can truly re-pattern the brain. If you do not have a meditation practice, something simple like Empty Bowl Meditation is a great place to start.
There are a number of herbs in the Ayurvedic tradition that can support the immune system. These herbs often have an affinity for specific tissues and systems in the body, and, each in their own way, help to encourage proper immune function and optimal health.
Substances such as milk, ghee, or sugar work as carriers, or anupans, that assist in delivering herbs deeper into those tissues. (For more information on Ayurvedic carrier substances, see our anupan guide.)
Lung Revive liquid extract
Combining five of Ayurveda's most potent lung rejuvenating herbs, Lung Revive is a well-rounded liquid extract that offers immediate support to the lungs and respiratory system, moving stubborn excess kapha in the lungs and promoting deeper, fuller breaths.
To use, take 30 drops in water, 1–3 times daily, or as directed by your health practitioner. Lung Revive can be a valuable addition to your medicine cabinet, especially if you take it along with other supportive formulas like the following.
Immune Strong tablets
This formula is comprised of a potent blend of both Ayurvedic and western herbs that help to detoxify the blood, the lymph, and that support the immune system. Immune Strong tablets support the body’s natural defenses and simultaneously promote overall health and well-being.
For general immune system support, take one to two tablets, once or twice daily. For additional support, take three tablets up to twice daily, or as directed by your health practitioner.
Immune Health NOW
We were inspired to create Immune Health NOW in March of 2020. It is a custom blend of potent Ayurvedic ingredients specifically formulated to support a healthy, robust immune system and respiratory tract.
This delicious herbal honey is made with raw, unfiltered honey and a powerful blend of herbs, including elderberry, marshmallow root, and amalaki fruit.
Elderberry is well-known for its ability to support a healthy immune system and amalaki is an excellent source of vitamin C. Combined with the beneficial properties of honey, this blend is a wonderful way to support the health of your entire family.
Note: This product is not intended for children under the age of two.
A traditional Ayurvedic herbal jam made in a base of amalaki fruit, Chyavanprash is a balancing formula that kindles agni, helps buffer the body against stress, and supports a healthy immune system.
A daily dose of this nutritive jam can support energy, vitality, and overall well-being. Take 1–2 teaspoons daily, or use as directed by your health practitioner.
Sitopaladi and Talisadi
These two traditional Ayurvedic formulas are aimed primarily at clarifying the lungs and supporting the immune system.
Sitopaladi supports the proper functioning of the lungs and sinuses, encourages healthy expectoration, kindles the digestive fire, and helps to burn excess kapha. This formula also helps to eliminate excess vata, pitta, and kapha from the head and chest, thereby promoting clear, healthy respiration.
Talisadi contains all of the ingredients in sitopaladi, with the addition of talisa, black pepper, and ginger—making it a similar formula, though more heating. Talisadi also has a particular affinity for the lungs. Take ¼–½ teaspoon of either of these formulas with warm water (or in honey) once or twice daily, or as directed by your health practitioner.
Known to have an affinity for the immune system, turmeric helps purify the blood, strengthens digestion, and eliminates natural toxins from the digestive tract.
Turmeric tablets offer an incredibly easy way to ingest the beneficial properties of this well-known golden yellow spice. Take one to two tablets, once or twice daily, or as directed by your health practitioner. If you prefer, turmeric is also available as a powder or a liquid extract.
You can also gargle with turmeric to soothe the tissues of the throat and encourage natural wellness. Mix ½ teaspoon Turmeric powder and ½ teaspoon Natural Mineral Salt in a cup of warm water, gargle for around 30 seconds, then spit it out.
Well known for its ability to stimulate and support the immune system, ginger kindles the digestive fire, burns ama, promotes healthy expectoration, cleanses the blood and lymph, encourages healthy circulation and sweating, and removes excess kapha from the lungs.
Ginger liquid extract delivers the wide reaching health benefits of ginger root to the body with ease. Take thirty drops in water or juice one to three times daily, or as directed by your health practitioner. If you prefer, dried ginger powder or fresh ginger root can offer similar support to the immune system.
This plant is so highly revered in India that it is often kept in and around the home for its deeply purifying and beneficial properties. Tulsi removes excess kapha from the lungs and upper respiratory tract while promoting healthy circulation and strong digestion. It is useful in maintaining a normal body temperature and it naturally promotes the health of the immune system.
Tulsi is very sattvic in nature and it serves to elevate awareness, mental clarity, and the energy of love. We offer both Tulsi liquid extract and Tulsi powder, as well as a delightful and aromatic Tulsi Fields Tea.
You can also take tulsi and ginger together—a favorite combination among Banyan team members. These two herbs work synergistically to support the immune system.
Throat Soother Herbal Spray
The throat is often one of the first places to reveal that the immune system might be stressed. Throat Soother Herbal Spray helps to support the throat with herbs like slippery elm, licorice, turmeric, ginger, fennel, and clove in a base of glycerin and honey. These herbs work to gently lubricate and soothe the throat, warm the region, clear accumulated kapha, and support the voice. This formula also very effectively contributes to the health of the immune system as a whole.
Bronchial Support Herbal Syrup
Modeled after ancient Ayurvedic formulas, Bronchial Support Herbal Syrup is aimed at promoting bronchial comfort. The combination of vasaka, tulsi, pippali, and other traditional rejuvenatives for the lungs offer powerful bronchial support and a lift for the immune system overall.
If there are specific areas of your life—like stress, sleep, or frequent travel—that are taking a toll on your immune system, you might consider one of these:
Stress Ease tablets support the resiliency and tone of the neuromuscular system, helping the body to better cope with stress and providing a sustained source of natural energy. This herbal formula is naturally rejuvenating and therefore may also benefit anyone prone to fatigue, weakness, or a sense of overwhelm. Take one to two tablets once or twice daily, or as directed by your health practitioner.
I Sleep Soundly
I Sleep Soundly tablets contain natural muscle relaxants to help release accumulated tension from the neuromuscular system and encourage sound sleep. This formula contains rejuvenative herbs, including ashwagandha, that serve to restore vitality throughout the body and mind.
It also has a subtle, soothing effect on the mind as a whole, which helps to ease mental restlessness. Remember, sleep is critically important to the proper functioning of the immune system. Take one to two tablets about a half hour before going to bed, or as directed by your health practitioner.
I Travel Well
I Travel Well liquid extract was formulated to support the body through periods of travel, when our schedules are generally hectic and irregular, our sleep may be disrupted, healthy meal choices are often few and far between, and our bodies are trying to cope with rapid time zone changes.
This liquid extract bolsters the body’s natural adaptive mechanisms to support the digestive, immune, respiratory, and nervous systems while eliminating natural toxins and supporting the body in reestablishing healthy sleep patterns. Take thirty drops in water or juice one to three times daily, or as directed by your health practitioner.
Ayurveda teaches us that ojas and strong immunity are the natural outcomes of good health, which depends on robust agni, a healthy diet, a supportive lifestyle, and a balanced nervous system.
This being the case, supporting the immune system is often more about basic self-care than anything else. Our bodies flourish with proper nutrition, and adequate sleep; they do even better when we commit to managing stress, cultivating healthy relationships, embracing joy and meaning, and living in alignment with our own authentic truth.
The above suggestions will undoubtedly support the immune system, but it is equally important that you honor yourself and your own timing.
With this in mind, take your time.
Follow your inspiration. Approach change one manageable step at a time. And celebrate the milestones along the way. We hope that we can continue to support you on your path toward vibrant health, unshakable strength, and a robust immune system.