In folk medicine, peppermint, turmeric, and ginger have long been thought to have medicinal properties.
For many of us, immunity has become more important than ever. Luckily, the path to a strong immune system is neither expensive nor complicated. “The best way to boost your immune system is right there on your plate, in the foods you choose,” says Wendy Bazilian, DrPH, RDN, the San Diego–based author of The SuperfoodsRx Diet.
Herbs and spices, in particular, have been used for centuries for medicinal purposes and may be one of your most potent dietary tools for boosting immunity, according to research published in 2020 in Integrative Medicine.
“While more studies are needed to determine the specific benefits of certain herbs and spices on the immune system, we know that the therapeutic properties, along with a healthful, diverse diet, strengthen overall immune function,” says Mascha Davis, MPH, RDN,?the author of Eat Your Vitamins?who is based in Rye, New York.
Here are seven immune-supporting herbs and spices worth adding to your diet.
Turmeric (Curcuma longa) is a vibrant yellow spice with a long history of use in ayurvedic medicine (the ancient Indian medical system) as a treatment for inflammatory conditions, according to a review. “While the research is unclear, consuming anti-inflammatory foods may help reduce the tissue inflammation associated with cold and flu,” Dr. Bazilian says.
Curcumin, the primary active compound in turmeric, is especially potent. It offers powerful anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, and has been shown to improve oxidative stress markers, per a?review and meta-analysis published in the Journal of Functional Foods.
Oxidative stress is a phenomenon caused by an imbalance between free radicals (unstable molecules often created by environmental pollutants) and antioxidants (molecules that neutralize free radicals), according to an?article in Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity. When this happens, free radicals are able to damage various cells in your body. In response, the immune system triggers inflammation. While research is ongoing, there may be a connection between this immune system response to oxidative stress and autoimmune disorders, according to a description published in March 2022 in Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity.
How to Enjoy It Turmeric can be better absorbed in the presence of some fats, as well as piperine, a compound in black pepper, according to research. Therefore, Bazilian suggests mixing up a mug of golden milk — a hot drink made of turmeric, milk with fat, and other warm spices like black pepper — to score more of this anti-inflammatory spice. Turmeric is also great when added to curries, soups, and roasted meats.
Echinacea, a flowering plant that grows in North America, was traditionally used by Native Americans for medicinal purposes, according to the?National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH). Today, this herb is promoted as a dietary supplement for the common cold and other infections, per the NCCIH. It’s believed that echinacea contains active compounds that stimulate the immune system, helping shorten cold and flu duration and easing symptoms such as sore throat, cough, and fever, notes?Mount Sinai.
However, research on echinacea’s effectiveness is mixed, says Frances Largeman-Roth, RDN, the New York City–based author of Smoothies & Juices: Prevention Healing Kitchen.
A meta-analysis of 14 studies found that echinacea lowered the odds of developing the common cold by 58 percent and cut the length of illness by one to four days. Meanwhile, in another?study, more than 700 people with a new onset common cold were given either echinacea supplements, a placebo, or no pills for five days. Those who received echinacea didn’t see significant improvements in symptoms compared with the other groups. The echinacea group did see an average half-day reduction in the duration of their cold or a 10 percent reduction in severity, however. While not significant, the authors note that these improvements may make echinacea supplementation worthwhile for some people.
How to Enjoy It Echinacea is typically available as a supplement (as an extract, tincture, tablet, or capsule). According to the NCCIH, most adults can safely take echinacea by mouth in the short term. For example, Mount Sinai suggests taking echinacea three times a day while you’re sick; stop once you feel better and make sure not to take it for more than 10 days. However, echinacea can interact with certain medications, so consult your doctor before taking echinacea supplements, Largeman-Roth says. It’s also noteworthy that people who are allergic to daisies should not use echinacea, and people with asthma and allergies may be at a higher risk for complications from the herb, according to Mount Sinai.
Like many herbs and spices, ginger (Zingiber officinale) is a staple in traditional medicine. For centuries, people have turned to this warm spice for the treatment of headaches, colds, nausea, and vomiting, according to a?paper in Complementary Therapies in Medicine.
Modern research shows that there may be something to this. In a study published in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology, fresh ginger prevented plaque formation from human respiratory syncytial virus, a common respiratory virus that causes mild, coldlike symptoms.
According to a?review in the International Journal of Preventive Medicine, the compounds in ginger — primarily gingerol and shogaol — have also exhibited antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and analgesic (pain-relieving) properties. These properties help strengthen the body’s defenses, which may protect against many chronic diseases, the authors note.
“Also, some of the anti-inflammatory and pain-reducing properties of ginger may help support the immune system when we are well,” Bazilian notes, adding that this is achieved mainly by preventing or reducing the severity and duration of symptoms.
How to Enjoy It Brew a mug of fragrant ginger tea. You can use commercial ginger tea bags or prepare fresh ginger root tea. To make your own tea, buy a piece of fresh ginger, trim off the tough knots and peel it. Then cut the root into thin, crosswise slices. Place a few slices in a cup, pour in boiling water, and cover and steep for 10 minutes, suggests?Johns Hopkins Medicine.
Another warming spice, cinnamon is renowned for its antioxidant properties, Largeman-Roth says. In fact, cinnamon has higher antioxidant properties than mint, ginger, and licorice, according to a study.
Cinnamon (Cinnamomum) also offers anti-fungal, anti-bacterial, and anti-inflammatory benefits, Largeman-Roth says. According to?research published in Food & Function, E-cinnamaldehyde is one of the primary active compounds in cinnamon, offering potent anti-inflammatory effects.
E-cinnamaldehyde is also an antimicrobial compound. A study published in Foods suggests that E-cinnamaldehyde may inhibit the growth of listeria bacteria. A separate?study published in Foods found that cinnamon essential oil had similar effects on salmonella bacteria.
How to Enjoy It Give your toast a dusting of cinnamon or sprinkle it into your coffee or tea for added flavor. Cinnamon also pairs well with fruits like apples and pears.
Peppermint is an herb (a natural cross between water mint and spearmint) that contains a range of flavonoids. These are plant compounds that have beneficial effects on immune health. “I think of flavonoids as housekeepers that help tidy and put things away, enhance in some cases, repair when possible, and eliminate debris in the body,” Bazilian says. They help the body react to, process, protect, and repair on a daily basis, she adds.
Peppermint also contains menthol, a compound with anesthetic (numbing) and analgesic effects, according to the?National Center for Biotechnology Information. As such, menthol is commonly added to over-the-counter cold and flu treatments. “Menthol seems to open or relax the airways some,” Bazilian says.
Research on menthol has been mixed, however. Some research found that inhaling menthol had no effect on nasal airflow in kids. That said, it did make nasal breathing seem easier, per research. More studies are needed for conclusive evidence.
How to Enjoy It The next time your nose gets stuffed up, breathe in steam from hot water mixed with a few drops of peppermint oil, suggests?UCHealth. Or brew a mug of hot peppermint tea.
This native Chinese herb has traditionally been used as an adaptogen (a substance that protects the body from stress and disease), Largeman-Roth says. Astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus) is also used as part of an herbal combination to prevent or treat colds, according to?Mount Sinai. It’s thought that astragalus strengthens and regulates the immune system, notes the?NCCIH.
While research is limited, some studies suggest that astragalus may help fight viral infections. For example, a?meta-analysis of Chinese herbal medicines including astragalus found that it may be effective against the hepatitis B virus. Not all the studies included astragalus, however, and the authors note that the studies were of poor quality and more research is warranted.
Another?study?suggests?that astragalus may help white blood cells respond to infections.
How to Enjoy It Astragalus is often taken as a supplement (available in tinctures, tablets, and capsules), per Mount Sinai. No adverse effects have been found when taken in doses up to 60 grams daily for up to four months, according to the NCCIH. However, it’s best to talk to your doctor before taking it. In addition, astragalus may interact with medications that suppress the immune system, the NCCIH warns.
You may not associate paprika (red pepper) with immune health, but this fiery spice is packed with helpful compounds like vitamins C and A, per the?U.S. Department of Agriculture. “Though there isn’t research about paprika directly related to the immune system, there are a few known associations,” Bazilian says.
For example, vitamin C (ascorbic acid) is an antioxidant that helps protect your body against free radicals,?per the?Mayo Clinic. It also helps keep your immune cells healthy, according to a?research article published in Nutrients. Many people believe that vitamin C can reduce the duration of the common cold, but this claim hasn’t been fully proven, notes?MedlinePlus.
How to Enjoy It Bazilian recommends sprinkling paprika on eggs, beans, stews, cottage cheese, and popcorn. “It’s also great in marinades and salad dressings,” she says.