03 November 2015
As the cold weather sets in, getting a refresher in immune enhancing and supporting herbs can help us all prepare for winter colds and flus. Here are some resources from Juliet Blankespoor's immunity class from the 2014 Herbal Conference. This is part 2 of 3, see also Part 1: Immunostimulating Herbs and Part 3: Immune Tonic Tea
These herbs have been used traditionally as tonic support for the immune system, and are slower acting with a more prolonged effect, as compared to immunostimulants. Also called deep immune tonics, they are used for longer periods of time when necessary and have a more balancing, rather than stimulating effect on the body. As tonics, they are not typically overtly heating or stimulating and match a wide variety of constitutions. We can examine each herb for its traditional usage and constitutional picture to find the remedy with the greatest affinity for each situation.
Therapeutically, these herbs are used when there is poor immunity, as seen in individuals who experience frequent infections due to low immune resilience. Herbal immunomodulators are also used when the immune system is over-active, as in allergies and auto-immunity. This seemingly dualistic nature can seem miraculous, especially to those familiar with the unidirectional action of pharmaceuticals. Considering that most plants contain thousands of bioactive compounds, there is an immense synergy involved with each herb’s complex biochemistry. When we add the unique physiology of each human’s body into the equation, the possibilities of effects are almost infinite.
Most immunomodulators also possess adaptogenic qualities. Adaptogens are tonic herbs that help to balance the body in adapting to emotional, physical and mental stress. I like to visualize adaptogens as imparting the grace and wisdom of an old willow tree, knowing the strength of yielding to wind, yet remaining deeply rooted in the Earth.
Herbal immunomodulators can equilibrate the endocrine and nervous control of the immune system. By balancing the hypothalamus/ pituitary/ adrenal interplay, these tonic herbs help to harmonize the control centers of the body by affecting hormonal regulation of the immune system. Another possible mode of action is the regulation of Th1 and Th2 balance, which involves the equilibrium of cell-mediated and antibody-mediated immunity. The term “immunomodulation” is also applied to pharmaceutical drugs in a somewhat different context.
Pharmaceutical immunomodulators are predictably immunostimulating or immunosuppressive at their target site, but have differing effects depending on the target site. They are used to stimulate immune activity in cancer and suppress immune activity in autoimmunity and grafts/organ transplants.
Note that many of the herbs listed below come from Asia, which simply reflects the cultural and governmental interest in herbal medicines in Asian nations, with the attendant funding of botanical medicine research. Cultivation of most of these medicinals in the home garden is possible, and large-scale domestic farming of many of these botanicals is already underway. Many of our tonic western herbs used for immune support are likely to be immunomodulators as well.
Astragalus membranaceous - Astragalus, root
Eleutherococcus senticosus - Eleuthero, Siberian ginseng, root
Cordyceps sinensis - Cordyceps, fungus growing on catepillars (only use cultivated, over-harvested)
Ganoderma lucidum and G. tsugae - Reishi, varnished artists conk, fruiting mushroom body
Lentinula edodes - Shitake mushroom
Ligustrum lucidum - Privet, fruit
Ocimum tenuiflorum syn. Ocimum sanctum - Holy basil, herb
Panax ginseng - Asian ginseng, root (only use cultivated sources, over-harvested)
Panax quinquefolius - American ginseng, root (only use cultivated sources, over-harvested)
Rhodiola rosea - Roseroot, root
Sambucus canadensis and S. nigra - Elder, flower and fruit
Schisandra chinensis - Wu wei zi, berries
Withania somnifera - Ashwagandha, root