9 kitchen herbs and spices to boost your immune system

Your immune system is your body’s department of defense. It prevents and deals with foreign invasion (read disease-causing microbes or pathogens) and quashes guerrilla forces (read free radicals) inside.

For the first, it utilizes an army of specialized immune cells and for the second, it relies on a special unit of chemicals known as antioxidants.

So to strengthen your immunity, you need to make sure you keep the number of the immune cells consistently high, and add to your antioxidant stores.

Here are a few herbs and spices that can offer excellent support to your immune system, and might already be in your kitchen cabinet. Try using them more generously, going forward.


Turmeric strengthens your immunity by attacking bacteria and increasing the production of an immune molecule called CAMP. But at the same time, it also controls the resulting inflammation by inhibiting the function of certain enzymes and signaling molecules.


  • Curcuminoids destabilize bacterial membranes: Curcuminoids don’t mix well with water. Neither do the external membranes of certain bacteria. Being similar in nature, curcuminoids form connections with the bacterial membrane. These are strong enough to undo original connections in the bacterial membranes. It’s like destroying the enemy’s boundary wall, exposing the enemy to be killed.
  • Curcuminoids inactivate bacterial enzymes: Curcuminoids also inactivate key enzymes that bacteria use to spread their infection – practically destroying the enemy’s weapons.

Turmeric can also help your immune cells work better:

  • Curcumin increases the production of CAMP: Cathelicidin antimicrobial peptide (CAMP) is a host defense molecule shot at microbes by your skin and your innate immune cells. This “bullet” destabilizes the membranes of microbes, while also calling other immune cells to fight at the site of infection.

Besides curcuminoids, other compounds in turmeric like polysaccharides are also capable of helping charge up your immunity. They make sure that front-line troopers called macrophages are alert and chemical alarms are raised when something doesn’t feel right.


Cloves enhance immunity against threats circulating in the blood but also check the immune response before it triggers uncontrolled inflammation.


Whole cloves

Your immune system basically has two attack strategies:

  • one that involves antibodies, cellular bullets directly shot at the threat circulating in the blood (humoral immunity),
  • and one that attacks the threat with protein ammo while it is trapped inside your body’s cell (cell-mediated immunity). It so happens that this protein ammo (cytokines) also serves as SOS signals to alert and call in more immune system troops from other parts of the body.

Cloves enhance humoral immunity, so you have the threat being tackled. But they also inhibit cytokine production (IL-1 and IL-6) so that the entire attack doesn’t escalate out of control too quickly.

Clove’s eugenol and eugenyl acetate are the workhorses here.


True to its fame as an anti-inflammatory, ginger blocks certain genes from producing enzymes that play a major part in the inflammatory pathway and inhibits other enzymes that help produce free radicals.


  • Ginger offers antioxidants that are useful in rounding up different types of free radicals (like reactive oxygen species or ROS and peroxides).
  • 6 Dehydroshogaol, 6-shogaol and 1-dehydro-6-gingerdione in ginger stop the synthesis of nitric oxide, another free radical.
  • Ginger inhibits an enzyme called xanthine oxidase, involved in the generation of reactive oxygen species – a highly reactive free radical.

Inflammation happens in a series of steps, involving a number of mediators. These mediator molecules pass on the instruction for inflammation to other molecules, and the chain continues. Two such mediator molecules are prostaglandin and leukotriene, produced by two enzymes called cyclooxygenase (COX) and 5-lipoxygenase (LOX), respectively.

  • Gingerol and shogaol help prevent genes from producing COX1 ( 8-gingerol, 8-shogaol, and 8-paradol are the most effective) and COX2 (10-gingerol) enzymes. They also directly inhibit the action of COX enzymes so that prostaglandins are not produced.
  • They inhibit LOX from producing leukotriene.
  • They prevent the synthesis of pro-inflammatory cytokines (a special group of proteins) like IL-1, TNF-α, and IL-8.


Phytochemicals in cinnamon reduce or inhibit pro-inflammatory chemicals, proteins and enzymes produced by the body.


Chemicals in cinnamon can step in at several stages of the chain of events involved in an inflammation and stop it in its tracks.

  • When your body is already facing inflammation, a chemical called nitric oxide can make it linger. Slowing down or inhibiting the production of nitric oxide is therefore one of the ways to curb inflammation. That’s what a cinnamaldehyde called 2`-hydroxycinnamaldehyde (HCA) does. It inhibits the production of nitric oxide by inhibiting a protein complex called NF-κB.
  • Several other polyphenols like procyanidins, catechin, epicatechin, and ellagic acid can also inhibit another protein called TNF-α, which gives the green signal for inflammation.
  • Eugenol in cinnamon inhibits an enzyme called 5-lipoxygenase, which helps produce another inflammatory chemical called leukotriene. Other pro-inflammatory enzymes inhibited by cinnamon include iNOS and COX-2.


Phytochemicals in nutmeg help restrict immune system crosstalk, suppress inflammatory pathways, and control pain perception.


Nutmeg can help your body achieve the essential balance between the benefits of immune function and the negative effects of inflammation, thanks to its compounds myristicin, myrislignan, and quercetin.

  • Restricts immune system crosstalk by inhibiting chemical messengers called cytokines.
  • Suppresses inflammatory pathways by inhibiting the production of COX-2, a key enzyme involved in the early stages of inflammation.
  • Controls pain perception by inhibiting substance P, a key nerve signaling chemical that modulates whether you feel pain and how much if you do.


Phytochemicals in cardamom helps restrict immune system crosstalk, suppress inflammatory pathways and capture free radicals.


Cardamom can give you an extra supply of antioxidants to stop the free radicals on their tracks. The antioxidants mostly belong to the polyphenol, flavonoid, and terpenoid groups of compounds present in the volatile oils.

Cardamom can minimize the chemical crosstalk of the immune system and, hence, reducing inflammation. In scientific parlance, we can say it

  • Suppresses cytokine release by T helper cells
  • Down-regulates cytokines such as COX-2, IL-6, and TNF-α
  • Reduces nitric oxide production by macrophages, possibly by inhibiting the enzyme i-NOS

Holy Basil

Stress dampens immunity, but holy basil flavonoids counter by increasing the number of immune agents like natural killer cells, neutrophils, and T helper cells.


The immune system can always use a hand to fight off invaders (bacteria, viruses, parasites, and the like). The helping hand could be extended by flavonoid-rich foods – usually, the colorful fruits and veggies – and herbs. Holy basil is one such. It’s especially good for fighting viral infections.

  • Levels up fighter cells: The flavonoids fortify the immune system’s first line of defense by increasing the number of fighter cells called natural killer cells and neutrophils. They also increase the T helper cell population, evoking a more specialized attack.
  • Increases immune system conversation: Once the T helper cells are triggered by the flavonoids, they send SOS signals via the chemicals IFN-γ and IL-4 to call in other immune cells.


Phytochemicals in licorice suppress or inhibit pro-inflammatory chemicals, de-sensitize pain receptors, and capture free radicals.


Licorice suppresses or inhibits the production of the following key players of inflammation:

  • TNF-α: TNF-α is a chemical involved in systemic inflammation, which is inflammation all over the body like a fever.
  • MMPs: MMPs are molecules involved in tissue destruction, leading to swelling.
  • PGE2: PGE2 helps sensitize pain receptors and induces a fever.
  • Free radicals: Free radicals are “shot” at disease-causing agents to get rid of them but may begin to cause harm to the body’s own cells if not controlled.

Eleuthero (Siberian Ginseng)

Eleuthero’s phytochemicals increase the production of antibodies and power down pro-inflammatory enzymes.


Eleuthero masterfully modulates the immune system, fueling it when required and pushing back when necessary. Here’s how:

  • Increases antibody production: Immune cells shoot antibodies at anything they recognize as a threat, like bacteria and viruses. Your immune system has an advanced system in place to release them when required. Eleuthero could provide backup.
  • Limits inflammation: The herb targets COX-2 enzymes and makes them power down. In case you’re wondering, these enzymes are the reason why you have pain, fever, and inflammation. While this is absolutely necessary for the immune system to keep you well and healthy, they must be kept in check so that your own cells are not harmed in the bargain.