Herbs to Enhance Immunity
Like animals, plants face challengers from their environment. Bacteria, viruses, and fungi seek the energy and nutrition that plants capture, just as animals do, and plants have evolved sophisticated defense mechanisms to protect themselves from hostile creatures. We may gain some immunologic advantage by eating certain herbs, perhaps because the same chemicals that protect the plants from microorganisms may support our immune system. Many Native American, Ayurvedic, and Chinese herbal medicines have been used traditionally to strengthen immunity. Laboratory and animal studies have confirmed that many plants have an influence on the immune system. Research documenting the value of these botanical medicines in humans is relatively scarce, but suggestive of measurable benefit.
The most popular immune-enhancing herb in the West is echinacea. Although it is not directly toxic to germs, echinacea does enhance several aspects of the immune system. Native to North America, both the flowers and roots of the purple coneflower have therapeutic value ranging from treating the common cold to healing wounds. Echinacea is often combined with another Native American herbs, goldenseal. Although there has not been any convincing support of goldenseal as having immune enhancing effect, it contains a chemical called berberine that has antibacterial activity.
The Chinese herb astragalus has been used for thousands of years to enhance resistance to infection. Studies over the past several years have confirmed its ability to enliven components of the immune system. The most effective way to the both Echinacea and astragalus is uncertain. Although some herbalists recommend taking Echinacea throughout the cold and flu season, there is some evidence to suggest that its potency wanes after a couple of weeks. Therefore it should probably be taken at the first sign of a viral illness and continued for a week to ten days.
Ayurveda has its own offering of herbs that enliven immunity. Ashwagandha is among the most popular Ayurvedic herbs that have been shown to influence the immune system. In several studies, it seems to reduce the toxic effect of cancer chemotherapy drugs on the bone marrow. At least part of its effect is probably due to its antioxidant activity.<.p>
Another little-known Ayurvedic herb that has shown promising immune-enhancing properties is guduchi, also known as amrit. This herb has demonstrated the ability to stimulate both antibody production and cellular immunity in animals. Amalaki and shatavari are other Indian herbs traditionally used to nourish the subtle substance of immunity known as ojas. According to Ayurveda, when ojas is abundant and circulating, cells and tissues function optimally and in support of the whole physiology. Depletion of ojas makes us vulnerable to internal and external challenges. As with most Ayurvedic herbs, there has been little formal scientific research to date on these revered plants, but interest is growing to explore their possible clinical benefits.