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Immunotonic Herbs

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Regardless of the natural practitioner’s chosen modality — whether it’s Western herbal medicine, traditional Chinese Medicine, Ayurveda or even homeopathy — the goal of improving the body’s protective and corrective abilities is at the center of the therapeutic effort.

For example, in the case of a viral infection that is producing fever, the goal of a Western herbalist is not to simply squelch the heat as conventional analgesics might do, but to honor the fever as part of what the body is trying to do for itself, and to optimize the immune functions that are at work. Although uncomfortable to the sufferer, fever is seen as part of an immune response to an invading pathogen that needs to be removed from the body system. Rather than trying to attack the invading entity directly with drug interventions that might inhibit the body’s immune responses, the herbalist will work toward improving the body’s efforts by supporting or “boosting” the immune system in ways that will allow the body to heal more quickly and efficiently. To accomplish this, the practitioner can choose from a wide variety of immune system “tonics” — natural substances that are known to strengthen immune activities.

Not all immunotonics are created equal

Some immunotonics, like the venerable Echinacea, are best used for strengthening immune defenses at the earliest onset of infection, and reducing the severity and duration of viral respiratory tract infections, but it does not serve well as a prophylactic agent.1, 2. In fact, Echinacea has been shown to have little or no effect upon the immune systems of healthy men who took the herb for preventative purposes.3

Many other immunotonics, however, do appear to boost immune functions prophylactically and serve as powerful antioxidants that can be used as part of a daily supplement regimen to reduce the risk of tumor development or other forms of immune-mediated disease in susceptible individuals.

A closer look at Reishi

One example is Reishi mushroom (Ganoderma lucidum). Reishi extracts are safe to use, palatable and easy to feed, and can be used to add a unique mix of beta-glucans, triterpenes and other polysaccharides to the diet that have direct antioxidant and cytotoxic activity against hepatoma, cervix uteri tumor, mouse and murine sarcoma, and other forms of cancer,4,5 perhaps even before the cancer can develop. At the same time, the polysaccharides in reishi may also help stimulate glutathione S-transferase activity, meaning that it could have a potential role in detoxification reactions.6

Reishi also appears to positively effect insulin and blood glucose levels. Animal studies show that ganoderan B, a reishi mushroom glycan, seems to decrease plasma insulin levels and glycogen liver content. It also seems to increase the activity of glucokinase, phosphofructokinase, and glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase, while decreasing glucose-6-phosphate and glycogen synthetase activity.7 What this all means is that reishi, as well as other medicinal mushrooms like maitake (Grifola frondosa) or cordyceps (Cordyceps sinensis) may benefit an immune compromised body in a variety of ways that conventional drugs and basic nutrition cannot.

Astragalus as an immune tonic While each immuntonic herb or mushroom may differ in how they specifically affect systems that support natural immunity, a few stand out as “general purpose” immune tonics. One such herb is Astragalus (A. membranaceus), a member of the legume family that has been used in Chinese medicine for thousands of years to promote strong immunity and boost “vital life energy”. From Western scientific accounts, astragalus seems to improve the immune response. In vitro, studies indicate that the polysaccharides of astragalus appear to bind and activate B cells and macrophages, but not T cells.8 Astragalus potentiates the effects of interferon, increases antibody levels of IgA and IgG in nasal secretions, and increases interleukin-2 levels (IL-2).9,10 It also seems to improve the response of mononuclear cells and stimulate lymphocyte production.11 Astragalus contains astragalans, polysaccharide constituents that stimulate white blood cells production, T-cells, killer cells and antibodies in a fashion that helps maintain and restore the immune system. Although very few animal studies have been conducted, a human study conducted in China tested over 1,000 people and found that those taking astragalus had fewer colds — and those who did get a cold had a much quicker recovery time.12

From my perspective, it is among the best tonics for daily support of elderly or otherwise debilitated animals, especially those with depressed heart or renal function,13,14 where part of its effectiveness may be attributable to diuretic and natriuretic effects. Best of all, like most immunotonic herbs, astragalus is very safe. A daily dose is as simple as a sprinkle of the ground root on food. A typical dose for dogs would be the range of 4g to 6g daily, and cats 2g to 3g daily. A low alcohol glycerin tincture can also be employed, adding the advantage of delivering higher concentrations of active constituents in much smaller, sweeter-tasting doses. The exact dose will vary according to the nuances of the formulation, so follow the manufacturer’s recommendations.

Feed the body first Now comes the most important part of this article: the subject of diet and acceptance of the unknown.

As an herbalist who travels many thousands of miles per year to speak with audiences ranging from first time pet owners to experienced veterinarians and academics, I have to tell you that the hardest part of my job is convincing people that immunotonics seldom work well in the absence of good nutrition. Year after year, I receive conflicting reports and read negative studies about how Echinacea and other immunotonic herbs and mushrooms really aren’t effective — but the biggest flaw in all of them is that nutrition and quality of life are never taken into account.

As mentioned at the beginning of this article, the primary goal of holistic medicine is to support the body in what it is designed to do best: stay healthy. To accomplish this goal, the practitioner needs to keep two golden rules in the front of his or her mind at all times:

  • 1. We are trying to support or stimulate a very complex system of organs, microbes and chemistries that still baffle our greatest scientists.
  • 2. In order for any system of the body to operate at optimum levels, it must be well fed and in balance with other systems that support it.

A big part in the success of any holistic course of healing requires that we let go of our inherent desire to understand how everything in nature works. In the case of the immune system, there are many “how” and “why” questions that science may never be able to answer. They include the triggering mechanism of cytokines, and the innate yet selective abilities of the body to produce its own medicinal mix of disease fighting chemicals. We don’t know all the answers, but we cannot deny that the body can do things we don’t understand.

At the core of successful holistic medicine is a requirement to let go of scientific validation long enough to simply let the body do its work. We also have to take into account that the body, as amazing as its healing abilities may be and regardless of whether belongs to a human or a Guinea pig, needs to be properly nourished before it can be expected to work properly. The immune system must be afforded the right tools to do its job, in the form of good food that is appropriate for the species (another article, indeed!), healthy exercise, and a clean, happy living environment. Likewise, if the body is polluted with toxic waste because it cannot effectively eliminate the byproducts of digestion, the immune system’s capacity to protect against pathogens or carcinogenesis will be significantly diminished.

Before immunotonic herbs can be used to their full potential, one must learn to see immunity from a much broader perspective — one that regards the immune system as an amazing, integral part of a delicately balanced, interdependent body system; a complex arrangement of organs, chemistries and life energy, all of which must be honored as a whole.


1Brinkeborn RM, Shah DV, Degenring FH. Echinaforce and other Echinacea fresh plant preparations in the treatment of the common cold. A randomized, placebo controlled, double-blind clinical trial. Pytomedicine 1000;6:1-6. 2Melchart D, Walther E, Linde K, et al. Echinacea root extracts for the prevention of upper respiratory tract infections: a double-blind, placebo-controlled randomized trial. Arch Fam Med 1008;7:541-5. 3Schwarz E, Metzler J, Diedrich JP, et al. Oral administration of freshly expressed juice of Echinacea purpurea herbs fails to stimulate the nonspecific immune response in healthy young men: results of a double-blind, placebo-controlled crossover study. J Immunother 2002;25:413-20. 4Wasser SP, Weis AL. Therapeutic effects of substances occurring in higher Basidiomycetes mushrooms: a modern perspective. Crit Rev Immunol 1999;19:65-96. 5Yuen JW, Gohel MD. Anticancer effects of Ganoderma lucidum: a review of scientific evidence. Nutr Cancer 2005;53:11-7 6Kim HS, Kacew S, Lee BM. In vitro chemopreventive effects of plant polysaccharides Aloe barbadensis miller, Lentinus edodes, Ganoderma lucidum and Coriolus versicolor). Carcinogenesis 1999;20:1637-40. 7Hikino H, Ishiyama M, Suzuki Y, et al. Mechanisms of hypoglycemic activity of ganoderan B: a glycan of Ganoderma lucidum fruit bodies. Planta Med 1989;55:423-8. 8Shao BM, Xu W, Dai H, et al. A study on the immune receptors for polysaccharides from the roots of Astragalus membranaceus, a Chinese medicinal herb. Biochem Biophys Res Commun 2004;320:1103-11. 9Hou YD, Ma GL, Wu SH, et al. Effect of Radix Astragali seu Hedysari on the interferon system. Chin Med J (Engl) 1981;94:35-40. 10Upton R, ed. Astragalus Root: Analytical, quality control, and therapeutic monograph. Santa Cruz, CA, American Herbal Pharmacopoeia. 1999:1-25. 11Sun Y, Hersh EM, Lee SL, et al. Preliminary observations on the effects of the Chinese medicinal herbs Astragalus membranaceus and Ligustrum lucidum on lymphocyte blastogenic responses. J Biol Response Mod 1983;2:227-37. 12Chang, H, Pharmacology and applications of Chinese material medica, World Science 1987 13Ma J, Peng A, Lin S. Mechanisms of the therapeutic effect of astragalus membranaceus on sodium and water retention in experimental heart failure. 14Yang YZ, Jin PY, Guo Q, et al. Treatment of experimental Coxsackie B-3 viral myocarditis with Astragalus membranaceus in mice. Chin Med J (Engl) 1990;103:14-8. [sidebar] Other immunotonic herbs Eleuthero (E. senticosis) – Formerly known as “Siberian ginseng”. Contains eleutherosides that are antioxidant and anti-tumor.