Walk through any health food store or pick up any natural health-care magazine, and you will find a plethora of supplements that “support healthy immunity.” To the uninitiated, such terms may seem ambiguous and beg the question, “What will these really do for me?” Most people do not realize that such immune boosters have incredible value and represent a very important category of supplements that have immense benefits for increasing energy levels, reducing stress, even preventing colds and flu, as well as more serious diseases.

Immune Support—A Shift Toward Health Care

Ever since the postulation of the germ theory and the development of antibiotics, the Western medical world has been on a tirade of destroying disease at the expense of promoting health. Contrary to Western medicine’s philosophy of search and destroy, natural healing modalities such as Ayurveda (the world’s oldest form of healing), Traditional Chinese medicine (the second oldest form of health care), herbal medicine and naturopathic medicine have always placed the highest priority on the prevention of disease and promotion of health. In these systems, most of which are not integrated into the fabric of our health-care system, herbal tonics—often referred to as immune boosters—are among the most highly regarded of medicines, as these are the herbs that should be used on a semi-regular basis to promote health and longevity. While many of these are also very effective in preventing and even treating some (including serious) diseases, immune tonics, or adaptogens, are predominantly integrated into everyday life for the express purpose of promoting health.

Herbal Immunomodulators

The following botanicals are among the most widely used and well-researched immune modulators. In general, they can increase immune resistance to prevent contracting infectious diseases, such as colds and flu; they can help minimize the duration and severity of colds and flu; they can help enhance immune recovery after acute sickness, thereby helping prevent recurrent sickness; and they can even increase the quality of life and chance of survival when undergoing conventional life-threatening therapies, such as chemotherapy and radiation therapy. A significant amount of scientific evidence supports the benefit of immune modulators, and clinicians worldwide use such herbs in their practices on a daily basis. Additionally, the overwhelming majority of tonic herbs are very safe and broadly applicable to a wide array of people. In fact, many of these herbs are regularly used in soups, tonic wines, teas and porridges.

Astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus):

Astragalus is one of the most important and widely used herbs in Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). In TCM terms, it is primarily classified as a tonic that enhances digestion, assimilation and energy production, while also increasing immune resistance to external pathogens. There is a tremendous amount of scientific support for its immune-enhancing properties. Astragalus has been found to protect against getting the flu. Part of this action is associated with an increased production of the body’s natural antiviral interferon and natural antibodies. These compounds help the body fight pathogens more efficiently.

Astragalus is one of the primary herbs given to children to prevent contraction of colds and flu. The sliced root is a common ingredient in soups and porridge, so it can be easily given to children—especially important when they are going back to school or are in daycare centers. Astragalus also has a marked benefit in increasing normal immune function in association with cancer. A number of studies conducted at the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas, showed that astragalus has an amazing ability to restore the health of immune cells to normal. In China, astragalus is routinely used, either alone or in combination with other botanicals, in conjunction with conventional cancer treatments. It has been shown to support a healthy immune system and increase quality of life and chances for survival. Typical dosing for general health purposes is 3 to 6 grams daily in tea, powder or extract form.

Echinacea (Echinacea spp.):

By far the primary immune-stimulating herb used in North America, echinacea is predominantly used for preventing or reducing symptoms and durations of colds. While some research results are mixed regarding its efficacy, echinacea is relied upon for its effectiveness by herbalists throughout the Western world. It has a number of immune-enhancing activities, including modulation of inflammation, increase of white blood cells and antibody response, and antiviral activity. In rare cases, symptoms in individuals with autoimmune conditions, such as lupus, can be exacerbated with echinacea use. 

Echinacea is used in a wide variety of preparations including as tea, capsules, tablets, liquid extracts, syrups and throat sprays. Herbalists usually recommend that the equivalent of 10 to 15 grams be taken at the first sign of a sniffle for the first day, and then dosing at an equivalent of 4 to 6 grams for several days thereafter.

Elderberry (Sambucus nigra):

Elderberry, usually used as a syrup or wine, has been a staple of European herbal medicine for centuries. It is one of the most effective and delicious-tasting of the herbal antivirals.

Elderberry can be used for both children and adults during the winter months. The fruits are rich in flavonoids that possess antiviral, anti-mucus and anti-inflammatory activity. The syrup is used to prevent colds and flu and for treatment of mucus congestion, cough, bronchitis and inflammation of the upper respiratory tract. Research has shown that a standardized elderberry syrup (brand name Sambucol) inhibits replication of numerous types of flu virus, as well as herpes. A typical dose is 1 to 2 tablespoons of the syrup daily.

Eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus):

Eleuthero, also known as Siberian ginseng, is one of the world’s best-researched adaptogens. From the 1950s to 1970s, a lot of adaptogenic research was conducted in Russia. A variety of workers were given eleuthero twice daily. Over time, the results were amazing. The number of work days lost because of sickness decreased, while productivity of most workers more than proportionately increased. There were fewer mistakes, lower incidences of blood pressure problems and stress-induced sickness, and workers expressed a greater level of physical and emotional contentment in life and in the workplace when using eleuthero. It’s also very specific for enhancing athletic performance and is one of the supplements regularly used by Russian cosmonauts and Olympic athletes. A typical dose of eleuthero is 1 to 3 grams in tea, powder or extract form.

Final Thoughts

Using herbs to promote immune health and longevity is a vital practice that is almost completely lacking in modern medical care. These types of tonics can be used for preservation and enhancement of overall well-being, heightened immunity, to reduce the risk of both acute conditions (colds and flu) and to increase quality of life and survival when undergoing treatment for chronic, more serious diseases, such as cancer. All of these herbs have been well-researched, have a tremendous amount of scientific documentation supporting their beneficial effects and are readily available throughout
the natural products industry.

About the Author: Roy Upton, RH, DipAyu, is executive director of the American Herbal Pharmacopoeia. 

This article was originally published in the HERBAL REMEDIES™ #90 issue. To subscribe, click here.

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