Immune System Supplement Herbs - Beyond Symptom Relief To True Healing

Immune system supplement herbs work on the principle described by Simon Mills, that:

"In gardening terms, the soil is at least as important as the seed. A healthy body can coexist quite comfortably with a host of pathogenic organisms, on the skin, or in the mouth or gut". (Mills)

This means that promoting a healthy body, through a healthy diet, exercise, and even watching our thought processes and our emotional system, is vitally important to the overall health of our immune system.

But many immune system supplements support our general immunity, as well as having specific functions. Some help in fever management, others increase phagocyte activity, and others help with inflammation. Many will affect a combination of the above, which are all part of the body's immune system.

Mills makes the point that most acute infections are self-limiting - this includes the common cold. How quickly we get over them is directly related to the health of our body as a whole. Others are of such a serious nature, such as meningococcal, that they need urgent medical attention, and herbs, including immune system supplements, should not be relied on to treat them.

But many chronic infections are difficult to deal with for modern medicine. And whilst you should not abandon any medical treatment in favor of herbs or supplements, they can provide useful support to improve the health of the immune system. Mills writes:

"For chronic infections, the potential benefit of conservative and supportive measures is even more clear...Every emphasis is on encouraging a more robust defense of the body..." (Mills)

Our Immune System

Immune system supplements address different levels of our immune system, so it's helpful to have an overview of how it works. Our immune system is an interrelated thing with different levels or layers, and they get more specific and specialized as they go 'in'.

The most outer level of the immune system is the skin, and the mucous membranes, such as in the nose and throat. These are physical barriers, and they have a protective effect from that point of view, as well as containing different elements like lactic acid (stomach), enzymes, lysozymes (a type of cell), and bacteria that help prevent infections and problems with foreign molecules. This is our 'first line of defense'.

Our blood supply also contains immune system elements - it carries the lysozymes, interferons, and lactic acid, as well as being part of the properdin-complement pathway.

Our cells also contain what are called non-specific immune system elements, meaning they are not specialized to deal with a particular pathogen but are just a general protective mechanism. These are collectively called phagocytes and are classified in two ways. The first is the macrophages, such as the Kupfer cells in the liver, and the osteoclasts in bone. And the second is known as polymorphonuclear leukocytes, such as neutrophils.

Then we have the specific agents of the immune system, which come into play to deal with particular invading organisms. The first of these is part of the cellular response - they include T lymphocytes, which secrete more agents called lymphokines, and macrophages. Macrophages 'eat' invading organisms, and come into play when the T lymphocytes discover that there is either a foreign protein or another type of foreign cell. The T lymphocytes secrete their lymphokines, which are like the army commanders, and the macrophages are the foot soldiers that then destroy the invading elements.

And of course, there are the B lymphocytes, the antibodies they secrete, complement, and neutrophils. These immune system elements work when the B lymphocyte, often controlled by certain T lymphocytes, find a foreign body, and secrete very specific antibodies in response to it, that match it on a structural level, like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. These jigsaw pieces - the secreted antibodies, and the invading organism or protein, lock in together to create what is called a complex, which lets the neutrophils destroy the whole lot.

You may be familiar with the other name these secreted antibodies are called - immunoglobulins. They are quite specialized and form different types, including IgG, IgA, and IgE.

Autoimmune Diseases

Mills makes an interesting observation with regards to autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis, ulcerative colitis, MS, and others:

"It is clear that in health the immune system lays off attacking the body's tissues, but that in certain circumstances, it does not". (Mills)

He writes that a healthy body effectively develops a 'tolerance' to itself. He describes ways in which the body can do this:

  • by being exposed to very low levels of an antigen (foreign body), over a long period - a kind of natural 'vaccination'

  • exposure to very high levels of an antigen, which enables the body to successfully eliminate that which causes an autoimmune response

  • enough healthy 'suppressor' T cells which keep an excessive autoimmune response in check. He makes the point that a healthy liver is important in the functioning of suppressor T cells

  • when proteins are broken down by enzymes, the particles they are broken down into should produce a certain level of tolerance to the original protein, at least up to a point. And this assumes that "they would effectively be accompanied by their breakdown products (through digestive and lysosomal enzymes respectively)." (Mills)

    This particularly relates to antigens (immune-stimulating substances) in food and those which occur naturally within cells.

Mills suggests that immune system supplements and herbs can help with autoimmune problems and allergies, as supported by the successful historical use of herbs and the clinical experience of herbalists.

Immune System Supplement Herbs and the Strategies of Herbalists

The strategy of herbalists is a little different to conventional medicine, however, and hinges on the view quoted above about considering the health of the garden, as well as considering that breaches in the more superficial levels of immunity can occur if the digestive system, the teeth, and gums, the skin, are not in good order. So, if these areas are a problem, as well as considering an immune system supplement, other herbs for those aspects should be considered.

And given that bowel function is important for keeping our bodies healthy, and immune system supplement combined with bowel herbs is another option.

Immune System Supplement Herbs - Echinacea

Echinacea stimulates different aspects of the immune system including the macrophages, interferon, and lymphokines. It also helps prevent the breakdown of the connective tissue that invading organisms encourage, which lets them spread. It increases blood flow to the body's tissues, as well as increasing circulation. Echinacea has anti-bacterial, anti-viral, anti-fungal, and anti-microbial effects.

Immune System Supplement Herbs - Garlic

Fresh garlic has excellent immune-stimulating properties for infections and is great for the common cold. Eat it, in a drink with hot water, and honey, within 15 minutes of cutting up the garlic.

Garlic has anti-microbial, antihelmintic (good for worms), anti-inflammatory, anti-viral, anti-fungal, and expectorant properties. The latter makes it great for respiratory infections, influenza, bronchitis, whooping cough, and clearing excess mucous.

Garlic supports the immune system by increasing natural killer cells and was used in the trenches in the First World War to treat gangrene.

Immune System Supplement Herbs - Astragalus

Astragalus supports all aspects of the immune system. It increases phagocyte activity, the function of the natural killer cells, as well as increasing the levels of antibodies.

Astragalus has anti-viral, anti-bacterial, and anti-microbial properties. It's great in a travelers mix to prevent infections and can be used for chronic fatigue, as well as regular colds and flu. It is used by herbalists for chronic diseases, and autoimmune diseases, as well as viral infections and hepatitis.

Immune System Supplement Herbs - Wild Indigo

Whilst wild indigo hasn't been studied as much as it's immune cousins, garlic and echinacea, it supports the immune system by increasing phagocytosis and stimulating antibody production.

Wild indigo has anti-viral, anti-microbial, and antiseptic properties. It can be used to fight all sorts of infections.

Immune System Supplement Herbs - Picrorrhiza

Picrorrhiza is an immune stimulant that is great for those with allergies and autoimmune diseases. It has anti-malarial, anti-allergic, and anti-inflammatory properties. It's great in a travel mix too, to guard against infections.

Picrorrhiza helps all aspects of the immune system, including the B and T cells, and phagocytes. It also helps protect the liver.


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