28 October 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 1 of 3, see also Part 2: Immunomodulating Herbs and Part 3: Immune Tonic Tea
Herbs for acute infections
This group of herbs is typically used to treat short-term, acute infections through the stimulation of immune activity. Immunostimulants help the body to resist infection during the beginning stages of infection, as well as throughout the duration of infectious illness. Many studies have demonstrated shorter periods of infectious illness with the use of herbal immunostimulants, as opposed to placebo. Potential exposure to a contagious pathogen is another indication for immunostimulation. Personally, whenever I fly, I take Spilanthes to help my body effectively cope with the higher concentration and variety of potential pathogens. A good number of these herbs also possess anti-microbial activity, and thus help the body to fight infection by augmenting the immune response, in addition to directly inhibiting the pathogen itself.
Also called surface immune activators, these herbs quickly stimulate immunity, and need to be re-administered frequently to maintain their effectiveness. Their mode of action can include increasing phagocytosis, white blood cell division and activity, or moderating immune communication chemicals, such as cytokines. Cytokines are produced by a wide variety of cells, especially those residing in the mucus membranes of the body, and are considered to be immunomodulating hormone-like agents. Interleukins and interferons are two classes of cytokines.
Immunostimulants, in general, have traditionally been used short-term, as they are often stimulating in nature, and can result in imbalance if used for an extended period of time. Many are heating and dispersing and can be aggravating for people with hot constitutions. These herbs have a potential to increase autoimmunity, and have caused flare-ups in people with autoimmune conditions, although this is more the exception than the rule. In addition, there is the possibility of ignoring underlying imbalances, which may have weakened the body’s resistance to illness in the first place. Treating symptoms without changing unhealthy inputs is not a holistic approach to healing. I like to imagine the basics of health (good quality sleep, food, water, and air; avoidance of harmful substances; exercise; creativity; purpose; emotional expression; love and community) as the cake, and herbal therapies as the icing on the cake. How easy it is to forget these basics, but they really are the heart of holistic treatment!
Allium sativum - Garlic bulb
Baptisia tinctoria - Wild Indigo, root
Commiphora mol-mol - Myrrh, resin
Echinacea spp. - Purple coneflower, root and seed
Eupatorium perfoliatum - Boneset, leaves and flowers
Sambucus canadensis and S. nigra - Elderberry, flowers and fruit
Spilanthes acmella - Toothache plant, leaves and flowers
Usnea spp. - Usnea lichen or old man’s beard, whole lichen body
Zanthoxylum clava-herculis and Z. americanum - Toothache tree, bark