Echinacea. Just the word sounds like sneezing. It's a trusted choice during cold season, but if your customers think a good defense starts and ends with this popular pink-flowering plant, they're just scratching immunity's surface. This fall, turn them on to some of the lesser-known botanicals for immunity.
David Winston, a Washington, N.J.-based herbalist, likens the immune system to a brain floating through the bloodstream. It is amazingly complex, and no single herb, not even echinacea, can adequately address it, he says. Instead, each piece of the immune system, whether it be white blood cells or antibodies, requires special attention. Consequently, herbs with immune effects fall into quite specific categories. In general, immunopotentiating herbs strengthen immune response, immunomodulators reset an off-kilter defense and immunostimulating herbs kindle certain aspects of the immune system such as white blood cell production. Many herbs that influence immunity are also considered adaptogens—a term coined to describe a substance that helps the body adapt to stress by affecting the endocrine system.
Five Ways To Immunity
Winston recommends five lesser-known, yet effective herbs that strengthen, repair and stimulate different parts of the immune system. Since most of these medicinal plants have so far ducked Western medical radar, they are generally not as well studied as more popular herbs. Each, however, has a convincing history of traditional use and, in some cases, a scientific track record outside the United States.
Chaga (Inonotus obliquus) is a woody fungus that grows on birch trees in northern Scandinavia, Russia and Canada. Like its medicinal mushroom cousins maitake and shiitake, chaga contains immune-enhancing polysaccharides, but its penchant for birch trees gives it an advantage no other fungus has: betulinic acid. This acid, absorbed from the host tree, has strong antitumor activity, with virtually no toxicity, Winston says. The combination makes for a powerful herb.
"Many mushrooms are known for their immunopotentiating effect, but it's my belief that chaga is probably one of the strongest, if not the strongest we know about," Winston says.
By today's standards, the Soviet-era research conducted on chaga is considered subpar, but the mushroom's traditional use is compelling. In every single place it grows it's used by indigenous peoples for the same thing—treating cancer. Clinical practitioners today use chaga as part of protocols for treating cancer or other immunodeficiency diseases such as chronic fatigue syndrome and HIV.
"Between what we know about it chemically, what we know about it ethnobotanically and what we know about it to some degree from actually using it—it definitely suggests a very profound immunostimulating and immunopotentiating mushroom," Winston says.
Part used: Whole, ground mushroom
Sourcing: Bulk herb, tea or tincture
Rose root (Rhodiola rosea), an adaptogenic herb native to the mountain ledges and sea cliffs of the northern hemisphere, has been extensively studied in Scandinavia, where athletes use it to improve performance and bolster immunity. Rose root helps normalize, or reset, endocrine and immune function, and it also appears to improve heart function and circulation.
Unlike most adaptogens with warming, stimulating properties, rose root is considered cooling, Winston says, and may be used safely to treat conditions, such as inflammation, insomnia or hypertension, that other adaptogenic herbs might exacerbate. "It's calming, but at the same time it helps to strengthen the endocrine and immune system as well as cardiovascular function," he says. "You can use it without the problems you might find with more stimulating adaptogens."
Part used: Root
Sourcing: Bulk herb, capsule, standardized extract or tincture
Dan shen (Salvia miltiorrhiza) and Huang qin (Scutellaria baicalensis) are what Winston considers the "immune-system whisperers" of the plant world. The two traditional Chinese herbs help quiet the disproportionate immune response typical of severe allergies or autoimmune disease.
"Both herbs are anti-inflammatory and help reduce excessive autoimmune response without being suppressive, which is real important," Winston says. Their dual qualities make them extremely useful herbs for people who have allergies or who suffer from autoimmune problems such as scleroderma, a thickening of the skin, or lupus. (However, the herbs do not affect rheumatoid arthritis, another common autoimmune disease.)
Part used: Roots
Sourcing: Bulk herb, spray-dried extract or tincture
Saw palmetto (Serenoa repens), although most commonly recommended for prostate problems, was first used to treat weak, thin adults and babies who couldn't gain weight, says Winston, who wrote a book on the herb's historical use. "It's definitely an immunopotentiator," he says. German research from the 1970s and '80s suggests as much, but the herb itself, not the familiar standardized extract, did the trick.
Saw palmetto is especially useful for people with deficient immune systems who are prone to lung infections, or who are weakened from long illness and unable to gain weight. In fact, says Winston, the small palm, native to the southeastern United States, was traditionally used to treat cachexia, an inability to gain and maintain weight that affects many people with cancer and other chronic diseases.
Part used: Fresh, ripe ground berries
Sourcing: Bulk ripe berries, capsule or tincture. A tea of the berries is effective, but bitter tasting. Standardized saw palmetto products commonly used to treat prostate conditions may lack some of the constituents that give the herb its immunopotentiating activity; look for whole berry extracts instead.
The immune system is highly sensitive and reacts quickly to changes in emotions, diet, environment and stress. Sometimes, a good night's sleep is all that's needed to set things right. But when herbal remedies are called for, do your customers a service and get specific. "Many, many herbs affect the immune system," Winston says, "and it's really important that people figure out what is going on with their immune systems so they can use the appropriate herb instead of a shotgun approach."
Catherine Monahan writes about health and natural products from Lafayette, Colo.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIII/number 9/p. 30, 34