Immunity is the body’s natural response to maintain homeostasis in human. Usually, the immune system recognizes a variety of threats including viruses, bacteria, and parasites; and distinguishes them from the body’s healthy tissues. The overall immune mechanism is essential for our survival. It is a holistic system, which is interconnected with the psychological endocrine neurological systems. The immune system is associated with the proper functioning of different type of cells, organs, and constantly cooperates with the chemical signals to protect us against any infectious disease. Immune mechanisms are coordinated by different cellular components such as T-cells, B-cells, macrophages, and dendritic cells. Each has a specific role in recognizing, attacking, recruiting, and killing foreign invaders like harmful bacteria, viruses, worms, and others.
Cellular components of the immune system
T-cells are associated with specific immune response and can kill the antigen, help other immune cells, and suppress the disease progression. They develop from bone marrow stem cells that travel to the thymus.
B-cells are produced by the bone marrow. They create antibodies when they are introduced to a foreign invader. A memory of this invader is formed and recognized when the invaders reappear in future. Thus, they help to fight seasonal infections. Similarly, we do not suffer from pox again if once infected in childhood.
Macrophages are assigned to kill and degrade the pathogens
Dendritic cells are present in the skin, lymph nodes, and tissues throughout the body. They present the antigen to T-cells and thereby, activate the immune response.
Ayurvedic perspective of immunity
Ayurveda defines immunity as vyadhikshamatva. Vyadhi means illness or diseased condition, and
Kshamatva means to resist or fight back. Thus, vyadhikshamatva is the resistance mechanism of the body to fight disease.
To understand the mechanism of vyadhikshamatva, Charak Samhita, the ancient text of Ayurveda has used two terminologies: vyadhi balavirodhtivam and vyadhi utpadakbandhakatvam. Vyadhi balavirodhtivam is defined as the ability to fight disease, while vyadhi utpadakbandhakatvam is the ability to suppress the progression of the disease.
Important components of Vyadhikshamatva.
This mechanism involves the health of Ojas. As per Ayurveda, Ojas is a nutritious fluid circulating inside the body. it is very subtle. It constitutes the essence of all the tissue elements (sapta dhatus). Thus, Ojas is essential for life. The heart is the seat of Ojas. A person with good Ojas has strong immunity and endurance. If we can maintain health in our system, then we can keep balance in all of these areas, keeping the energies flowing freely, avoiding stagnation in the channels, and resisting decay and disease. Ojas has attributes such as sweet(madhura), heavy(guru), cool(sheeta), unctuous(Snigdha).
Causes of low Ojas
A substance with opposite properties such as astringent (Kashaya), light (laghu), hot (ati ushna), dry(ruksha) leads to depletion of Ojas. Thus, it can be depleted by consuming excessive alcohol, fasting, experiencing depression, anger, hatred, sadness, stress and ageing.
How to increase Ojas?
Equivalently, Ojas is improved by substances or experiences with similar attributes, such as ghee, milk, egg, non-violence, calmness, attaining celibacy. Dates, Almonds, Cashews, Pumpkin seeds, Sesame seeds, Avocado, Healthy oils such as coconut, olive, sesame, and almond, Coconut meat, coconut water, coconut milk, Whole grains (brown rice, buckwheat groats, oats, whole wheat…), Figs, Raisins, juicy fruits such as peaches and mangoes, High anti-oxidant foods such as blueberries, cacao, and beets, Sweet potatoes, Rice pudding and others with same attributes.
Digestive Fire (Agni)
Agni involves digestion, absorption and assimilation of foods into energy and maintains the tissue elements (sapta dhatus) as well as their destruction and creation. Balanced agni throughout the system prevents the accumulation of tridoshas (Vata, pitta and Kapha) and ama. So, the root of all imbalances in the body is due to agni. Hence, agni is an essential part of the immune system(vyadhikshamatva) as per Ayurveda.
When food is consumed in utter presence, balanced agni nourishes the entire body. Eating only when hungry, eating with a negative mindset such as anger, hatred, sadness, stress does not kindle agni leading to indigestion with toxins (ama). Substances with attributes like hot (ushna), sharp (teekshna), light (laghu) and activities with the same attributes enhance agni. Walking for 10-15 mins after meal boosts agni is also supportive of good digestion.
Triphala, renown ayurvedic formula, made up of 3 fruits namely, Amalaki, Haritaki, Bibhitaki. It polishes and cleanses the digestive tract. ½ tsp of powder with lukewarm water before going to bed is advised for normal functioning of agni.
A balanced diet is key to maintain and improve immunity. As per Ayurveda, balanced diet is defined as a diet which includes all 6 taste: sweet (Madhur), sour (amla), salty (lavana), pungent (katu), bitter (tikta), astringent (Kashaya), fresh, hot and cooked at home. For a well-balanced diet, Ayurveda has described 8 principles on making of food (Ashta Ahara Vidhi Vishesh Ayatna). They include:
- Nature (Prakriti)- Natural quality of food should be taken into consideration. Properties like light (laghu) or heavy (guru). Green gram (mudga) is light while the meat is heavy, thus, it is heavy to digest. Such attributes should be observed before consumption
- Method of processing(Karana)- Some substances need transformation or processing before consumption such as application of heat, washing, proper time, the proper place, container used.
- Samyoga (combination)- Food with opposite qualities should not be combined for instance, milk and fruits should not be consumed together. Ayurveda suggests, having them separately as milk is a type of animal protein which may cause digestive issues, acidity and fermentation in the gastrointestinal tract when teamed with certain fruits. Hence, the properties of individual food article must be examined before combining it.
- Rashi (quantity)- One should have thorough knowledge about the quantity of food. The person with balanced and well-nourished agni should consume in considerable quantity whereas the one with diminished (manda) agni should consume less quantity. This entirely depends on an individual’s capacity.
- Place (Desha)- Place (Desha) are categorized into 3 types. They are Deserted land (Jangala desha), marshy land (Anupa desha), and moderate land (Sadharana desha). The food is grown in deserted land (jangala desha), are light (laghu), dry(ruksha) whereas those grown in marshy land (anupa desha) have more of water content and are predominant of Kapha, those in moderate land (sadharan desha) have an excess of dosha in normal condition and has the moderate type of vegetation
- Kala (time)- One should consider time while consuming food. One should consume a meal two times a day and carry out intermittent fasting with an interval of 2-3 hours. Kala also indicates the age of a person, infant up to six months of age should strictly be given breastmilk. Adults should consume food articles abundant in fibre, and vitamin C.
- Upayoga samstha (dietary rules)- Signs such as clear belchings (shuddha udgar), evacuation of waste products (vega utsarga), enthusiasm (utsaha), lightness (laghu), hunger sensation (kshut), a manifestation of thirst (trushna) all together defines proper digestion. The next meal should be consumed after the signs of proper digestion have confirmed. Other dietary rules include eating hot and unctuous food, should not hurry or eat slowly, eating with the utmost concentration.
- Upabhokta (Person who consumes food)- The person who eats food should be accustomed to the diet, regular habits, in proper quantity and quality and at right time.
Studies have shown that when animals are deprived of sleep, they suffer a loss in their immune system. Thus, before starting your day, enough 8 hours of good sleep is necessary. Acharya Sushruta, an ancient Indian physician known as the main author of the treatise “The Compendium of Suśruta” says “ The pleasure and sorrow, or nourishment and mal-nourishment, strength and loss of strength, libido, and poor sexual virility, good intellect and poor memory, pleasure and sorrow are depended upon proper and improper sleep.
Immunity promoting factors (Bala vruddhikara bhavas)
Bala is closely related to Ojas. Bala means strength, it also possesses the quality to resist disease. Immunity is weak at the start, but some factors contribute to improving immunity which is defined as Bala vruddhikara bhava. They are:
- Birth in a country where people are naturally strong
- Birth at a time when people naturally gain strength
- Favourable disposition of time (pleasant and moderate climate)
- The excellence of the qualities of the sperm (Shukra) and the ovum (artava)
- The excellence of the ingested food
- The excellence of the physique
- Excellence of mind
Compound preparations to boost immunity
Chawanprash is a traditional ayurvedic herbal jelly (avaleha), which has a base of Amalaki fruit (amla). A daily dose of 1-2 tsp of chawanprash before consuming milk is known to boost up the immunity and also act as rejuvenator (rasyan).
Another composition described in Ayurveda is Talisadi Churna. It is made up of Talisa (Abies webbiana), black pepper, and ginger, which helps in building immunity by eliminating excess Vata, Pitta, and Kapha from the head.
Moreover, Rasayana such as Agastya Haritaki Rasayan and Amlaka rasayan is also attributed to boosting immune mechanisms. Agastya haritaki rasayan works as a curative and rejuvenating treatment (vyadhihara and rasayan karma). On the other hand, Amalaka Rasayana includes amalaka, haritaki, and bibhitaki or a combination of these. Also, it constitutes Palash (Butea monosperma), ghee, honey, sesame (tila) oil. Rasayana is abundant with vitamin C and act as an antioxidant and anti-ageing agent.
Herbs to boost immunity
Single herbs or in combination as suggested in ancient scriptures have been known to be the best medium to improve Ojas. They are consumed in powder or decocted or tablet form. Usually, the decoction procedure involves boiling 1 tsp of herb mixture to 200 mL of water till it is reduced to 1/4th (quarter). The decocted mixture is then filtered, and liquid is advised to be consumed fresh. Some of the common herbs that have been known to improve immunity are:
Ginger (Zingiber officinale): Ginger kindles the digestive fire (agni), cleanses the blood, and nourishes heart (hridaya).
Tulsi (Ocimum sanctum): Tulsi promotes blood circulation and is also useful in maintaining normal body temperature. It naturally boosts the immune system and acts as an antiviral (krumihara) agent.
Guduchi (Tinospora cordifloria): Guduchi has rejuvenating (rasayan) and strengthening (balya) effect. It is known to promote digestive fire (agnideepana) and also has anti-ageing (vayasthapana) properties.
Yashtimadhu (Glycyrrhiza glabra): It is advised that regular intake of 2 gm of Yasthimadhu powder in ½ cup of milk serves as rejuvenator (rasayan) (Charak Samhita, Chikitsasthana 1/3).
Purav Jayesh Trivedi