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Natural Awakenings Lehigh Valley

Herbs and the Immune System

Nov 01, 2012 07:30PM ● By David Winston


The immune system is incredibly complex and herbs do not work on any single aspect of the body’s defense system. The immune system can be divided into two basic categories, the innate immune system (IIS) and the adaptive immune system (AIS). The IIS includes physical barriers (skin, mucous membranes), inflammatory processes and leukocytes, or white blood cells. The AIS enhances systemic immune response and has an immunological memory, allowing the immune system to recognize previously encountered pathogens.

Herbs can and do affect all of the complex networks of tissues, organs, cells and bacterial flora that we depend on to maintain health. Herbs that affect the immune system fall into several categories.

The immune amphoteric herbs strengthen the IIS, the AIS, the bone marrow, spleen and gut-associated lymphoid tissue. By enhancing the function of these tissues it promotes immune competence and allows the immune system to regain its normal regulatory processes. Some of the important immune amphoterics are listed below.

Astragalus is used to strengthen the wei qi and guard against colds, pneumonia, bronchitis and more. It has been found to enhance the immune system’s ability to fight cancer.

Schisandra is anti-inflammatory, an antioxidant and a calming adaptogen. It enhances immune function while also helping to treat allergic asthma and allergic rhinitis.

Asian Ginseng is used for autoimmune conditions such as Sjogren’s Syndrome, with symptoms of dryness and fatigue and complaints of feeling cold.

Reishi can be used for a wide range of conditions with either immune depletion, immune excess or for autoimmune diseases.

Maitake helps to alleviate immune deficiency and can be used for autoimmune conditions and allergies. Extracts have been found to enhance immune function in cancer patients and inhibit chemotherapy-induced immune suppression.

Licorice is an anti-inflammatory, antiviral, antitussive, gastroprotective and hepatoprotective used to treat allergic asthma, animal dander allergies and autoimmune conditions and others.

Immunopotentiators, or immunostimulants, enhance immune function, but do not help to re-regulate a disordered immune system. These herbs stimulate macrophage activity as well as lymphocytes, which help to ward off infectious diseases and shorten the duration of acute bacterial or viral infections.

Echinacea is antibacterial and used for treating colds, influenza and sinusitis.

Goldenseal is antibacterial, antifungal and antiviral. It can be used for sinusitis, strep throat, gastritis, gastric ulcers and gum disease.

Andrographis is a powerful antibacterial and immunostimulant shown to shorten the duration of upper respiratory tract infections.

Japanese Honeysuckle is a Chinese remedy with antibacterial and antiviral activity used to clear blood heat and treat respiratory, urinary and systemic infections.

Isatis, or woad, is a powerful antibacterial, anti-leukemic and antiviral agent. It is used to resolve infections in the lungs, kidneys, bladder, gastrointestinal tract, sinuses and prostate.

Osha is primarily used for treating upper respiratory tract infections with a profuse clear or white discharge. It is antibacterial and antiviral as well as having antihistamine and anti-inflammatory activity.

Thyme is rich in antibacterial and antiviral essential oil compounds. It has a long history of treating respiratory tract infections.

The third category of immune herbs is immunoregulators, anti-inflammatory herbs that down-regulate excess immune response without being immunosuppressive. These herbs inhibit inflammatory cytokines, histamine release and the deposition of immune complexes. They are used for autoimmune disease and allergies.

Turmeric is a powerful anti-inflammatory and hepatoprotective agent. In clinical trials it has been found to be useful for treating autoimmune disease, osteoarthritis, liver disease, cancer and gastric ulcers.

Gotu Kola is used as an anti-inflammatory and vulnerary. It is indicated for skin or connective tissue disorders that are red, hot and inflamed.

Baikal Scullcap is used for clearing damp heat infections. It is used to help relieve allergies as well as autoimmune diseases.

Sarsaparilla binds endotoxins in the gut, enhancing their excretion and reducing the metabolic load in the body. It is especially useful for rheumatoid arthritis, gouty arthritis and psoriatic arthritis.

An alterative is an herb that strengthens an organism’s terrain by gently enhancing normal eliminatory function via the major eliminatory organs. These herbs, by promoting improved peristalsis, urination, Phase I and II liver detoxification, bile secretion and excretion and lymphatic flow, reduce metabolic wastes and inhibit inflammation. They also improve the quality of the blood, and promote circulation and HPA axis and immune function.

Red Clover is a mild alterative traditionally used for treating breast and lymphatic cancers. It also enhances lymphatic circulation and soothes dry, irritating coughs.

Burdock Root is a mild alterative primarily used to enhance lymphatic circulation as well as liver and kidney function. 

Oregon Grape Root is a moderate acting alterative, primarily stimulating liver and gall bladder function, which in turn promote normal bowel function.

Figwort is a moderate acting alterative that stimulates lymphatic and kidney function. It is indicated for enlarged lymph nodes or hemorrhoids, as well as mastitis, lymphedema and swollen tonsils.

Red Root primarily works by enhancing lymphatic flow and thinning the blood. It is used for hyperviscosity disorders such as cancer, metabolic syndrome and obesity. It can also be used for bacterial or viral diarrhea and autoimmune diseases of the large intestine.

A internationally known clinical herbalist, teacher and author, David Winston has more than 40 years of training in Cherokee, Chinese and Western herbal traditions. David Winston’s Center for Herbal Studies in Washington New Jersey has been educating herbalists, physicians, nurses, naturopathic physicians, veterinarians, and nutritionists in the art and science of clinical herbal medicine since 1980. He was a founding member of the American Herbalists Guild (AHG), and also founded Herbalist & Alchemist, Inc. 30 years ago to provide herbal products that meet clinical standards. For more information, visit or