“Collectively, these diseases where the immune system attacks itself affect more than 24 million people in the United States. An additional eight million people have auto-antibodies, blood molecules that indicate a person’s chance of developing autoimmune disease. Autoimmune diseases are affecting more people for reasons unknown. Likewise, the causes of these diseases remain a mystery”.
National Institutes of Health
National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences Website 8.08.2019
Well I must be getting older for I see that I’ve been writing herbal articles for over 30 years. Today I want to tell you about using herbs and other allies to build immunity. The population of the United States is (as of 2018) 327.5 Million people. The above quote from the National Institutes of Health gives the startling statistic that 32 million people are affected by some stage of Immune disease. That would be almost exactly one in ten citizens of the USA. Possibly more than any other category of herbal use Immunity has a greater gap in perception as to efficacy. Immune building herbs may have more support from professional Herbalists and less support from the scientific community than any other category of Herbal Medicine.
Last month the founder of the American Botanical Council, Mark Blumenthal came over to my house for a visit. Mark was on his way back to Austin, Texas where his work in compiling scientific studies on Medicinal Herb use is based. Mark shared with me that he now has 9 databases representing over 6,600 studies worldwide on the medicinal use of herbs. One of these data bases, the German Commission E Monographs, Mark and I co-published in 1998. As we discussed which of these data bases would be used on Smile Herb Shop’s new website, Mark asked me if I was interested in scientific or folklore-based data. My response was without hesitation “both/and please” . As you will see in the next few paragraphs there is still quite a lot of work to do in establishing the responsible use of herbal medicine in Immune function. This will involve deep research (and deep listening) for there is quite a consensus among herbalist that plant-based medicine helps immunity that is not yet shared by the dominant paradigm.
First of all what is the definition of immunity?
Immunity: “a condition of being able to resist a particular disease especially through preventing development of a pathogenic microorganism or by counteracting the effects of its products” Merriam Webster
Immunity: “the ability of an organism to resist a particular infection or toxin by the action of specific antibodies or sensitized white blood cells” Oxford English Dictionary
To determine what research is accepted by our scientific community let us look at Harvard’s website. Here are the 9 strategies the Harvard Medical School Website reports work to build immunity.
Eat a diet high in fruits and vegetables.
Maintain a healthy weight.
If you drink alcohol, drink only in moderation.
Get adequate sleep.
Take steps to avoid infection, such as washing your hands frequently and cooking meats thoroughly.
Try to minimize stress.
You will notice as I did the curious reporting where Harvard says there is enough evidence to support the use of fruits and vegetables in building Immunity, but not herbs. This gap in reporting the available data about herbs and Immune function reminds me seriously of 1997 when that I was the principal investigator of a great team of herbalists and scientists on the use of Hawthorne and Garlic in Stage One High Blood Pressure. As we were preparing to present the data we had found to the Society of Teachers of Family Medicine, we discovered that the 5th Joint National Commission on Hypertension in 1997 said there was “no evidence on the use of herbs helping in High Blood Pressure”
We had just found over 500 valid scientific studies just on Hawthorne and Garlic alone, and our conclusions were well received at the Society of Teachers of Family Medicine’s annual conference. Put as politely as possible under the circumstances it made us wonder how so much herbal research was being unreported on such an important condition as High Blood Pressure.
Having worked with Mark on the over 6,000 studies on herbs represented in the German Government’s Commission E Monographs, many of which had to do with Immunity, the idea that there is more evidence about fruits and vegetables than herbs is weak science at best. When it comes to herbs Harvard Medical says on their website that there is “not enough evidence yet to support using herbs to help immunity”. Really, fruits and vegetables are approved but not herbs? These many thought provoking (and God willing research provoking) studies are available at www.Herbalgram.org. Here is what Harvard Medical Schools website has to say about the use of herbal prevention of Immune disorders.
Improve immunity with herbs and supplements?
Walk into a store, and you will find bottles of pills and herbal preparations that claim to “support immunity” or otherwise boost the health of your immune system. Although some preparations have been found to alter some components of immune function, thus far there is no evidence that they actually bolster immunity to the point where you are better protected against infection and disease. Demonstrating whether an herb — or any substance, for that matter — can enhance immunity is, as yet, a highly complicated matter. Scientists don’t know, for example, whether an herb that seems to raise the levels of antibodies in the blood is actually doing anything beneficial for overall immunity.
Harvard Medical School Website 8.07.2019
So, having acknowledged that the scientific community does not at present give much credence to the consensus within the herbal community on the valid use of herbs in Immune function, let us look at some of the top herbs for Immunity.
Today we are going to look at Astragalus, Amla, Elderberry, and Eleuthero.
Astragalus, Astragalus membranaceus
- Mild adaptogen
- Immune tonic
- Heart tonic
- Liver protectant
Astragalus is primarily used in the West to defend the body against pathogens (viruses and bacteria) and support a healthy immune system. It can be taken long-term as a tonic herb and is both gentle and effective for helping prevent colds, flu, bronchitis, mono, and pneumonia. Astragalus can also be used to protect the liver and kidneys, especially from harsh medications, and is a heart tonic used in formulas for angina (heart pain) and mild congestive heart failure. It can be helpful for excessive sweating, like menopausal night sweats, and for skin conditions. To protect against flu season and the frequent colds of winter, it’s best to start taking it early. It mixes well with Reishi for all-around protection for the immune system.
Amla, Emblica officinalis
- Rejuvenative tonic
- Mild adaptogen
- Digestive tonic
- Liver protectant
- Cellular protectant
- Rich in Vitamin C
Amla is one of three ingredients in what is probably Ayurvedic medicine’s most famous formula: Triphala. Triphala is a stellar digestive tonic and is often recommended for daily use to tone and support the digestive system. Amla is mildly laxative, restores the appetite, and is anti-inflammatory, making it very useful medicine for chronic digestive issues. It also strengthens veins and capillaries, and reduces cholesterol, so it is a cardiac tonic as well. It is considered a restorative tonic that prevents infection and speeds healing. A good all-around tonic and promoter of well-being, Amla is a wonderful addition to one’s Autumn routine.
Elderberry, Sambucus nigra
- Respiratory tonic
Elder is a lovely tree producing lovely white flowers and rich dark red berries. Popular in folk medicine, and widely used as a food plant, Elder trees grace many farmsteads across the U.S. There are multiple species, the Sambucus nigra or black elder (named for its rich dark purple berries) is generally considered the medicinal variety. You’ve probably heard of using Elderberry for colds and flus. The berries, leaves and flowers are all useful for respiratory conditions of all kinds. The berries have the benefit of being very tasty, and of being appropriate both as a preventative during cold and flu season, and as a treatment should you get ill. The most popular form for this readily available herb is the syrup, which is tasty enough it’s not usually difficult to get kids to take it too.
Eleuthero/Siberian Ginseng, Eleutherococcus senticosus
- Immune tonic
Eleuthero is best known as an adaptogen generally considered safe and non-stimulating for long-term use. It helps to reduce stress, fatigue and listlessness, so is useful for chronic conditions. And can help reduce some of the side-effects of chemotherapy and radiation treatments, specifically improving white blood cell counts. It can be used to increase mental focus under stress, especially for those needing to work long hours (flex shift workers, students, and emergency responders). It is helpful for athletes to improve endurance and stamina. And, of course, it is a useful immune tonic, helping to prevent colds and flu.
You may notice that all of the above herbs except Elder are listed as Adaptogens. The research called for in evaluating herbal medicine in the treatment of Immune disorders would logically begin with these herbs we herbalists call Adaptogens. Two books worthy of beginning this study (and God willing more scientific studies) are Doanld Yance’s book “Adaptogens in Medical Herbalism: Elite herbs and Natural Compounds for Mastering Stress, Aging, and Chronic Illness” and David Winston’s book with Steven Maimes “Adaptogens for Strength, Stamina, and Stress Relief”. Both of these herbal books, by American Herbalist Guild Herbalists, are particularly relevant due to the fact that they extensively cite the relevant scientific research to support any claims made for herbs as support in chronic illness.
So, in summary we are faced with the disturbing dilemma of the Herbal Community’s research and observationally based consensus on the use of herbs in Immunity not being supported by the scientists of our land. Each of us involved with the treatment of chronic illness thus faces a choice of whether to proceed with protocols that are not yet supported by the physicians and research community. I will end with a final story that illustrates the patience required as an herbalist trying to work with this conservatism on the part of researchers. In 1998 when we presented our team presented the 500 studies we had found on Hawthorne and Garlic in High Blood Pressure to NIH as a grant request we were told that the standards and methods of our research needed much improvement. When the NIH consultant assigned to our grant called he gave us one and a half pages of single-spaced critic of our paper. He especially strongly stressed that the population controls were not adequate as to gender and number of participants. These controls of course would raise the costs of the proposed study immensely, but he was absolutely correct that our study had flaws by the standards of the NIH review Board, and we agreed that they needed attention. Then after almost an hour of pointing out what was wrong and needed improvement in our study he askes “Hey listen, my mother has High Blood Pressure… how much Hawthorne would you recommend as an herbalist that she take daily?”
So as did the 1998 NIH High Blood Pressure grant investigator we all face the same dilemma of whether we heed the unified voices of American Herbalists on Immunity now or wait until the scientific community catches up with the available herbal research.