Herbs for Strong & Healthy Immunity

Live long and stay strong, with a healthy, well functioning immune system.

Your immune system is an incredibly complex interaction between organs, glands, body systems, surfaces, cells and chemicals in the body. All of which require nourishment in order to function optimally. And in today's world, we want the best possible immunity from the multitude of diseases we are facing, many of which have been, until now, unknown.

Many herbs and other substances are used by cultures around the world to nourish and strengthen immunity. I know a few of these on an intimate level, and would like to introduce you to some of them here:
Chinese Milk Vetch (Astragalus membranaceus)

Astragalus has been growing in our gardens for over ten years now. It is quite hardy, and withstands even the coldest Maine winter. It grows into a large bush, quite feathery, bright green and very pretty looking, with dainty, fan-like yellow flowers in mid to late summer.

Oftentimes in nature you will fred that the gifts of a plant make themselves known to you in the manner in which the plant grows, the conditions it requires, and its degree of hardiness. When a plant thrives no matter what, take a deeper look, and you may fred that it will help you to do the same. Astragalus strikes me as such a plant. Rugged, resilient, strong, powerful, long-lived, graceful, and elegant.

Astragalus is a tonic and restorative food and a potent medicine plant. The Chinese have been using this plant to strengthen immunity for centuries. They say it "strengthens the exterior", or protects against illness. Known as Huang-qi, astragalus is written about in the 2,000 year old Shen Nong Ben Cao Jing, and is still considered to be one of the superior tonic roots in traditional Chinese medicine. Its name literally means yellow, referring to the inside of the root, and leader, referring to its medicinal potency. Mildly sweet, and slightly warm, astragalus invigorates vital energy, is restorative, strengthens resistance, restores damaged immunity, promotes tissue regeneration, is cancer inhibiting, antiviral, adaptogenic, protects and strengthens the heart and the liver, is a tonic to the lungs and enhances digestion.

Many scientific studies have verified its immune enhancing action. Astragalus is a powerful "non-specific" immune system stimulant. Instead of activating our defense system against a specific disease organism, astragalus nourishes immunity by increasing the numbers and activity of roving white blood cells, the macrophages. As an immunostimulant, astragalus engages and activates every phase of our immune system into heightened activity. In one study the activity of macrophages was significantly enhanced within six hours of treatment with astragalus, and remained so for the next 72 hours.

In Chinese medicine astragalus roots are said to tonify the Spleen, Blood, and Chi. They are used as a tonic for the lungs, for those with pulmonary disease, frequent colds, shortness of breath, and palpitations. Astragalus is also prescribed for those who suffer from fatigue, from any source, chronic nephritis, night sweats, uterine prolapse, or prolapse of the rectum. Its tissue regenerating and anti-inflammatory abilities make it an excellent ally to heal chronic ulcerations and persistent external infections, as well as to heal hard-to-heal sores and wounds, and to drain boils and draw out pus. Astragalus processed in honey is a specific against fatigue, used to boost vital energy, to nourish the blood, and also against incontinence, bloody urine or diarrhea.

In a study conducted by the University of Texas Medical Center, researchers compared damaged immune cells from cancer patients to healthy cells. Astragalus extracts were found to completely restore the function of the cancer patients' damaged immune cells, in some cases surpassing the health and activity of the cells from healthy individuals. The extract of astragalus was also shown to significantly inhibit the growth of tumour cells in mice, especially in healthy individuals.

The extract of astragalus was also shown to significantly inhibit the growth of tumor cells in mice, especially when combined with lovage Ligustrum lucidum. According to a study reported in Phytotherapy Research, astragalus appears to restore immunocompetence and is potentially beneficial for cancer patients as well as those suffering with AIDS. It increases the number of stem cells present in the bone marrow and lymph tissue and stimulates their differentiation into immune competent cells, which are then released into the tissues, according to one study reported in the Journal of Traditional Chinese Medicine.

Astragalus also stimulates the production of Interferon, increases its effectiveness in treating disease, and was also found to increase the life span of human cells in culture. Astragalus protects adrenal cortical function while undergoing chemotherapy or radiation, and helps modify the gastrointestinal toxicity in patients receiving these therapies.

When used as an adjunct to conventional cancer treatments, astragalus appears to increase survival rates, to increase endurance, and to be strongly liver protective. Chinese doctors use astragalus against chronic hepatitis, and many studies have demonstrated that astragalus protected the liver against liver-toxic drugs and anti-cancer compounds commonly used in chemotherapy such as stilbenemide.

Astragalus helps lower blood pressure, due to its ability to dilate blood vessels, and protects the heart. Scientists in the Soviet Union have shown that astragalus protects the heart muscle from damage caused by oxygen deprivation and heart attack. According to reports in the Chinese Medical Journal, doctors at the Shanghai Institute of Cardiovascular Diseases found that astragalus showed significant activity against Coxsackie B virus, which can cause an infection of the heart called Coxsackie B viral myocarditis, and for which there is no effective treatment. In a follow-up study, researchers found that astragalus helped maintain regular heart rhythms, and beating frequency, and that Coxsackie B patients showed far less damage from the viral infection (as much as 85 percent).

Japanese physicians use astragalus in combination with other herbs in the treatment of cerebral vascular disease. According to a research paper published by Zhang in 1990, adolescent brain dysfunction improved more with a Traditional Chinese Medicine formula containing astragalus in combination with codonopsis, bupleurum chinense, Scutellaria baicalensis, Ligustrum lucidum, Lophantherum and ivory thread, than with Ritalin.

Integrating astragalus roots into your winter diet, as the Asians have been doing for years, turns out to be a very good idea. Scientists have demonstrated that astragalus will not only help prevent colds, but cut their duration in half. Astragalus possesses strong antiviral properties, and in one study regenerated the bronchial cells of virus-infected mice.

Astragalus has been safely used throughout Asia for thousands of years. The Chinese slice astragalus roots and add them to chicken broth to create a nourishing and tonic soup. No toxicity from the use of astragalus has ever been shown in the millennia of its use there.

The genus Astragalus is the largest group of flowering plants, with over 2,000 different species, most of which are found in the northern temperate regions. Plants in this genus are smazingly diverse, some are nourishing and medicinal, some useful as raw materials, and others, such as the locoweeds, are toxic. Astragalus membranaceus grows in the wild along the edges of woodlands, in thickets, open woods and grasslands. It is native to the Northeastern regions of China, and appreciates deep, well drained, somewhat alkaline soil. Seeds are easily gathered and when planted in the fall require no prior soaking. They will germinate the following spring as soon as conditions are right. The seeds have a hard seed coat, and some people nick the covering with a file, or soak the seeds overnight to hasten germination. Give each plant plenty of room, as much as a foot all around, and harvest after the fourth or fifth year of growth. Use whole or sliced, fresh or dried root for tinctures, honey, infusions, syrup, or in soups.
Sage (Salvia officinalis)

The ancients used aromatic sage to bring the virtues of wisdom, strength and clear thinking. Modem day researchers in Great Britain found that sage inhibits the breakdown of acetylcholine, and so helps to preserve the compound used to prevent and treat Alzheimer's. Sage is loaded with antioxidants, so is anti-aging, and also offers lots of calcium, magnesium, the essential oil, thujone, flavonoids and phytosterols. It is sedating and soothing, and has a tonic effect on the nerves.

Sage is a potent broad spectrum antibiotic, and immune stimulant. It possesses antibacterial, and antiseptic properties and is active against Streptococcus pneumoniae, Staphylococcus aureus, Haemophilus influenzae, Pseudomonas aeruginosa. E. coli, Candida albicans, Klebsiella pneumoniae, and Salmonella spp. Some native tribes like the Mohican, commonly chewed the leaves of sage as a strengthening tonic, and people all over the world use sage to build strength and enhance vitality.

Expectorant and diaphoretic, sage is especially effective against sore throat and upper respiratory illness, and infections where there is an excess of mucous. Sage is also effective against dysentery. Its astringent tannins make it an ally for healing mouth sores, canker sores, bleeding gums, and gingivitis, when used as a mouth rinse.

Honey is, as an ancient Islamic saying goes, the food of foods, the drink of drinks, and the remedy of remedies. The ancient Greeks, Romans and Egyptians all kept honeybees, and extolled the virtues of honey. Some call honey a sweet medicine of heaven, others, elixir of long life. I use honey everyday and you probably should too. Here's why:

Honey is a rejuvenating, revitalizing, invigorating, natural antibiotic substance created by those magical insects, bees. Bees have been called messengers of the gods, and were associated with Great Goddess since the most ancient times. Many legends hint that bees, and their special creation, honey, played a very important role in our human development. It is said that the gifts of honey are long life, good health, and reverence for spirit. Honey has an ancient reputation as a life force increasing, immune strengthening, potency promoting, aphrodisiac elixir.

Honey consists of invert sugar (fructose, dextroglucose) and other sugars (irreduced raw sugar, maltose). It also contains a complex assortment of enzymes, antibiotic and antimicrobial compounds, organic acids, minerals such as iron, copper, phosphorus, sulfur, potassium, manganese, magnesium, sodium, silicon, calcium, iodine, chlorine, zinc, formic acid, and high concentrations of hydrogen peroxide. Honey also contains varying degrees (it depends on what flowers and herbs the bees are taking their nectar from) of vitamin C, the entire B complex, vitamins D, E, and K, pantothenic acid, niacin, and folic acid, amino acids, hormones, alcohols, and essential oils.

Honey can, and should be, thought of as a super food. It is a live food, stores its vitamins and minerals indefinitely, and is very easily digested by the body. Honey is an all around health and vitality enhancing substance. Wildflower honey, the concentrated nectar of wildflowers, the essence of all the combined medicinal qualities of all the diverse and abundant wild herbs, is thought to be the most medicinal. All natural, unheated honey is antibiotic, antiviral, antifungal, anti-inflammatory, anticarcinogenic, expectorant, antiallergenic, laxative, antianemic, tonic, immune stimulating, and cell regenerating.

Bees gather the nectar from flowers and store it in their stomach while transporting it back to the hive. During their transport, the dew-laden nectars become concentrated by evaporation. The nectars also combine, in some as yet unexplained way, with the bees' digestive enzymes, producing entirely unique compounds. Scientists have measured over 75 different compounds in honey, some of them so complex they have yet to be identified. One thing we can identify however, is the fact that when used as a consistent additive to food and drink, honey increases vitality, energy, immunity, libido, and life force.

Honey is proven more effective than any pharmaceutical antibiotic in the treatment of stomach ulceration, gangrene, surgical wound infections, and speedy healing of surgical incisions. Honey is unsurpassed for the protection of skin grafts, corneas, blood vessels, and bones during storage and transport. In fact, honey is such an excellent preservative of living tissue that it was commonly used to keep dead bodies from decomposing while being transported back to their homeland for burial. After his death in a foreign land, Napoleon was sent home in a huge vat of honey.

The fact that fist-sized ulcers and third degree burns heal beautifully with frequent applications of pure raw honey is clinically proven, and something I can personally attest to. A few years ago, I got a large third degree bum on my heel during a misstep on a motorcycle tailpipe. It was a deep wound and definitely hampered my ability to get around all that summer. I soaked my burned foot morning and night in lavender and rose salts and after each soaking applied a bandage liberally smeared with pure honey directly over the burn. I kept a thick layer of honey over that burn for a couple of months, and tried as much as possible not to walk on it. Today there is barely a trace of that huge burn hole on the heel of my foot.

Since that time, honey is my first treatment of choice for any burn -first, second or third degree -- any wounds -- no matter how deep -- skin ulcers, impetigo and infections. I just keep whatever type of wound covered with a thick layer of pure honey. And keep eating it by the spoonful, or drinking it in water, or as mead, depending on what you are trying to nourish and heal.

Honey is active against staph Staphylococcus aureus, strep Streptococcus spp., and Helicobacter pylori, responsible for stomach ulcers, and enteroeoccus. Honey is also one of my top choices for treating any respiratory condition, whether a cold, flu, or respiratory infection. Honey will be your ally against bronchitis, chronic bronchial and asthmatic problems, rhinitis and sinusitis. Those dealing with chronic fatigue, any wasting disease or a depressed immune system, will all feel the benefits of integrating this sweet medicine of the bees into their daily diets.
Usnea (usnea spp.)

Usnea, or old man s beard as it is commonly called, is a common lichen found hanging from trees around the world. It possesses strong antibacterial and antifungal agents and is a potent immune stimulant. Usnea has been shown to be more effective than penicillin against some bacterial strains. It completely inhibits the growth of staphylococcus aureus, streptococcus spp., and pneumonococcus organisms. Usnea is also effective against tuberculosis, triconomas, candida spp., enterococcus, and various fungal strains, and has also been reported active against Salmonella typhimurium and E.coli.

Usnea is actually two plants in one. The inner plant looks lille a thin white stretchy thread or rubber band, especially when wet. The outer plant gives usnea its color and grows around the inner plant. The inner part is a potent immune stimulant, the outer part strongly antibacterial.

Among the known constituents of usnea are usnic acid, protolichesterinic acid, and oreinol derivatives. Usnea is traditionally used around the world against skin infections, upper respiratory and lung infections, and vaginal infections. It can be dusted as a powder, drank as tea or infusion, used as a wash, bath, soak, douche or spray.

Usnea is also effective in tincture form, 30-60 drops, 4 times daily to boost immunity, 6 times daily to treat an active infection. Drink 2-4 cups of infusion for acute illness. Use 10 drops in an ounce of water and use as a nasal spray to treat sinus infections. Usnea can sometimes be irritating to delicate mucous membranes of the mouth, nose, and throat, so the tincture should always be diluted in water before using.

PHOTO (COLOR): Live long and stay strong, with a healthy, well functioning immune system.

PHOTO (COLOR): Researchers in Great Britain have found that sage inhibits the breakdown of acetylcholine, and so helps to preserve the compound used to prevent and treat Alzheimer's.

PHOTO (COLOR): Honey is the food of foods, the drink of drinks, and the remedy of remedies. (2)


By Gail Faith Edwards

Author Gail Edwards is a practicing community herbalist with 30 years experience, the mother of four children, founder of Blessed Maine Herb Farm, and author of Opening Our Wild Hearts to the Healing Herbs. Gall teaches and lectures across the US and is working on a new book. entitled Traversing the Wild Terrain of Menopause -- Herbal Allies for Women and Men in Mid-life. You can reach Gail through her website at www.blessedmaineherbs.com.

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