Sunday, July 20, 2008

Herbal Immune Boosters: echinacea, thyme, Reishi mushrooms, and nettles build immune-system attacks from cancers and bacteria.

With frequent media reports on AIDS, the rising cancer rate, and other immune-related diseases, more and more people are becoming increasingly concerned about the health and functioning of their immune systems. Modern medicine has been struggling to keep up with these immune-related diseases and some scientists have recently turned to medicinal plants and herbs for answers. Looking into the traditional cultural uses of herbs have given today's researchers some clues to unlocking the truly immune-enhancing properties of certain plants. But how are scientists and physicians using these herbs in research and in the treatment of immune-related illness?

The Immune System

To begin, it's important to gain a basic understanding of how the immune system works. The immune system is a complex network of specialized tissues, organs, cells, and chemicals. The lymph nodes and vessels, spleen, bone marrow, thymus gland, and tonsils are some of the main organs involved in the functioning of the immune system. The cells and secretions of the immune system include specialized white blood cells called T lymphocytes (T-cells) which produce a specialized protein compound called interferon (important in protecting the body from viral infections) and B lymphocytes (B-cells) which produce antibodies that are able to recognize and destroy invading substances (such as bacteria, viruses, fungi, parasites, and other unwanted microorganisms). Antibodies help us to develop immunity to invading substances by "remembering" the invader and attacking it the next time it enters the body before it has time to spread.

Scavenger cells (a group of cells that includes macrophages) are also important. They engulf and destroy invading substances as they come across them and neutralize their toxins. Our first line of defense, however, are the skin and mucous membranes that line all external and internal surfaces of the body, forming a natural barrier against foreign substances. The skin, for example, acts as a shield protecting the underlying tissues from the invasion of bacteria.

The cells of the immune system also are capable of cleaning up dead, abnormal, or cancerous cells, preventing the development of disease. This activity is constantly taking place in our body and is especially important in preventing the spread of cancer.

How Herbs Can Help

Many herbs have significant antibiotic properties that fight bacteria, fungi, viruses and other microorganisms. However, there is a lot more to herbs than just being natural antibiotics. Many herbs can work with the body's immune system to prevent as well as treat infections and disease.

For over four thousand years, the Chinese have used certain plants to promote good health and prolong life. Among these plants, the Chinese have traditionally valued the "tonic root" astragalus, which is commonly used in Chinese cuisine to strengthen the chi (vital force) of the body.

Native Americans also have traditionally used herbs as medicine. The herb echinacea was used medicinally for a variety of conditions ranging from wounds and infections, to colds and sore throats. Recently, modern science has confirmed in the laboratory and in clinical (human) studies that these herbs do indeed have immune boosting effects.

Since most of the important modern herbal research has been conducted in China, Japan, and Europe, western medicine has adopted the opinion that herbs have little or no effect in assisting the battle against disease. The lack of western research is due to a lack of funding for botanical (and non-patentable) medicines, not because the herbs lack effectiveness. As a result, American scientists and physicians have fallen behind their counterparts in Asia and Europe where the study of natural medicines is more common.


We live in constant contact with vast numbers of bacteria, viruses and fungi. Our immune system helps protect us and prevents these interactions from becoming a serious health problem. We depend on a healthy relationship between a wide range of organisms that live within our bodies and on our external surfaces. The friendly bacteria in our intestines and the microorganisms living on our skin are examples of this beneficial relationship. However, when our immune system is weakened an infection can set in.

To fight infection, scientists and herbalists have identified certain herbs that stimulate the immune system and help the body rid itself of the invading organisms using its own natural immune response. Also effective are herbs containing strong antiseptic properties that can kill the infection through direct external application (see chart, next page).

Colds and Flu

The common cold is a virus infection involving the upper respiratory tract and characterized by congestion of the mucus membranes and runny noses. Influenza (the flu) is an acute virus infection, characterized by any number of symptoms such as fever, nasal congestion, and headaches.

One of the immune system's weapons against the invasion of a virus are interferons. Interferons are proteins generated by cells when they are infected by viruses. They appear to be part of the body's "broad-spectrum" anti-viral response. They can also stimulate natural "killer" T-cell and antitumor activity. Medical applications of interferon are limited by the toxicity associated with their use as drugs. Another approach is to promote the body's production of interferon with the use of herbs.

Because of the extensive research echinacea has received in recent years, herbalists can safely and confidently recommend taking echinacea at the early stages of a cold or flu virus. Dosages can very depending on the potency of the preparation.

A decoction of echinacea can be prepared by adding one to two teaspoons of the dried root to one cup of water and bring it slowly to a boil. Let it simmer for 10 to 15 minutes. This decoction should be taken three times a day. Tinctures of echinacea, one gram tablets, or herbal combination formulas containing echinacea along with other traditional herbs (hyssop, peppermint, and thyme) can also be effective cold remedies. Look for these preparations at a local health food store.


Cancer is recognized as the second leading cause of death in the U.S. Cancer is characterized by the uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells which may form a tumor, or spread throughout the body. These abnormal cells enter and damage healthy surrounding tissue effecting the healthy tissue's ability to function. Cancer cells can also break loose and travel through the blood and lymph system, eventually lodging in tissues in other parts of the body where they continue to grow.

The majority of cancers in adults is thought to be caused by a combination of factors associated with lifestyle and environment. Lifestyle habits including tobacco use, diet, and alcohol consumption account for the majority of preventable cancer deaths in the U.S. Population studies suggest that there is a protective association between fruit and vegetable intake and the risk of developing certain common cancers. High-fat diets have been implicated with an increased risk of breast, colon, prostate, and lung cancer. Scientists believe that the strength of the immune system plays an important role in the prevention or development of cancer as well.

Because of the life-threatening nature of cancer, it is not a disease that should undergo any self-treatment without the careful consultation of a competent medical professional specializing in the treatment of cancer. Popular herbal literature is filled with treatments and "cures" that have no scientific basis. However, some medicinal plants have demonstrated their relevance and efficiency by boosting the immune system's response to the presence of cancer cells rather than trying to use herbs to kill the cells directly.

Important studies in cancer treatment have shown the Chinese herb, Codonopsis, to counteract the reduction in white blood cells induced by chemotherapy or radiotherapy. American Ginseng appears to facilitate the development of antibodies and restore blood cell development function of bone marrow following chemotherapy. Studies with Siberian Ginseng indicate it can help counteract x-ray radiation damage and inhibit the spread of cancer to other tissues. Reshi mushrooms have been shown to inhibit the growth of tumor cells, too.

The future of cancer treatment may bring immunotherapy and the importance of immune-stimulating herbs to the forefront of cancer research. These current studies, among others, are revealing a sound basis for the potential role of immune-stimulating herbs assisting our recovery from diseases as serious as cancer to those suffering from the common, but annoying cold.

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