Immune System Dysfunction: The Modern Plague

Immune System Dysfunction: The Modern Plague

One thing is certain, the human immune system is having a difficult time in the modern age.

Practitioners of phytotherapy around the world are struggling to keep up with the growing number of patients with diseases caused by immune system dysfunction.

On one side of the equation, we see conditions caused by the immune system over reacting. Autoimmune diseases like allergies, asthma, psoriasis, eczema, rheumatoid arthritis, Crohne's disease, and ulcerative colitis seem increasingly common. A recent general news release suggested that one-third of all children in Britain suffer from asthma to some degree. Lupus (Systemic Lupus Erythematose) is moving from a rare disorder to one that frequently appears in the treatment room.

On the other side of the equation, we see more and more people who suffer from a lack of immune function. The Human immuno-deficiency virus (HIV) and Acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) have made poor immune function the topic of everyday conversation. World-wide, every five seconds another person is infected with this virus which, ultimately, strips an individual of immunity. Last week, after many years of public education about the virus and its modes of transmission, I saw an 18-year-old patient who was recently diagnosed as HIV positive. The number of HIV infected individuals is not decreasing. In fact, just the opposite is true.

HIV is the most severe form of poor immune function the practitioner is likely to see. However, there is an even larger population of patients who suffer from less profound poor immune function. We often see patients who contract a viral disease and then find that their immune system is unable to keep the virus suppressed. With increasing frequency, we see cases of influenza turning into a case of Post Viral Syndrome.

What is causing all of this immune dysregulation? Environmental pollution, bacterial pollution, stress, lack of exercise, poor diet, and erratic sleep habits are no doubt all partly to blame. Antibiotic abuse over several generations has surely not helped matters. Some point to immunisation as the source of the problem. The truth is, no one knows why we are seeing so many cases of immune system related disease.

For the practitioner, the most relevant issue is that these factors are not going away. Indeed, they are getting worse. In future, we are very likely to see an increasing number of patients suffering from a dysfunctional immune system. We must brace and prepare ourselves for what is likely to be an avalanche of cases in the years to come. We need to focus on the plants that can be used to treat the immune system. We need to learn more about them and how we can use them effectively.

Herbal Medicines: Ideal Medicines for Immune System Dysfunction

The exciting news, if there can be such a thing in an epidemic, is that herbal medicine offers a huge number of options that make a difference in these conditions. This edition of the journal focuses on the immune system and some of the medicinal plants that can be used to treat immune system dysfunction. It is my hope that this edition will make phytotherapists think about what role botanical drugs can play in the treatment of these diseases.

Those of you familiar with our old herbals and medical texts know that these sources are packed with medicinal plants used to treat conditions like asthma and rheumatoid arthritis. However, drug options are not only to be found in texts from yesteryear. Up to the minute research continues to reveal medicinal plants that affect the immune system. No matter how the immune system dysfunction manifests itself, there are a host of medicinal plants that will be of use in undermining the basic problem: immune system dysfunction.

In many ways, herbal medicine is ideally suited to the treatment of these immune related diseases. One of the hallmarks of these conditions is chronicity. That is, they tend to be chronic conditions. Whether HIV or Lupus, the condition is not going away. This means the patient may need to take medication for the better portion of their life.

Herbal medicines, unlike many allopathic drugs, are ideally suited to long term use. When a person uses cortical steroids long term for the treatment of asthma, they end up with weakened bones. The phenomena of 21-year-olds breaking bones after a lifetime of steroid use is increasingly common. The long-term usage of herbal medicines found to be so effective in the treatment of asthma does not have the same dire consequences. Inula helenium, Glycyrrhica glabra, Thymus vulgaris all used for centuries to treat asthma, have not been noted to compromise general health. If anything, they appear to enhance general health in patients. Chronic disease requires chronic treatment. If a medicine must be used regularly, the mild natured herbal drug might be preferable.

Combination Therapy

In recent years, doctors and researchers working with HIV developed what is known as `combination therapy'. These researchers discovered that when one antiviral drug was used, HIV quickly mutated itself so as to remain unscathed by the drug. They then realised that when a combination of anti-viral drugs were used, the virus did not develop the same tolerance. Hence, the term `combination therapy' was employed.

I would like to suggest that true combination therapy is when allopathic and herbal medicines are used together. There is a basic truism about problems that is relevant here. If you attack a problem from all sides, you are more likely to solve it. This is particularly true with diseases stemming from immune system dysfunction.

Let me give you a few examples. Currently, I am conducting a limited clinical trial with Grifola frondosa in HIV and AIDS patients. For the most part, these patients are taking allopathic combination therapy. I have observed that when Grifola frondosa is added to the mix, which is commonly known as a `cocktail', many patients improve to a greater extent than when the allopathic cocktail is used alone.

Another example is that of asthma. I treat several children who have been able to put away their inhalers except in exceptional circumstances. Previously, these children required daily doses of steroids. Today, they only require them when they come down with a particularly nasty chest cold or when they experience severe weather conditions. Allopathic drugs are reserved for acute circumstances and the daily medication is herbal.

Sheryl Reynolds, noted for her treatment of rheumatoid arthritis and other auto-immune diseases, recently stated: "When it comes to disease stemming from an immune system that has gotten out of control, you use anything and everything you can get your hands on to get it back in line." I think no truer words have been spoken.

We need to work with allopathic practitioners to forge a new solution for the increasing number of patients suffering from a problematic immune system. Herbal medicine is excellent when it comes to keeping asthma attacks at bay. However, when a life threatening asthma attack occurs, the nebuliser is the best solution. These are complex conditions that require complex medicine. Working in partnership with all disciplines of medicine is the best plan if we want to assist the patient in achieving the best quality of life.

Something Old, Something New

There are many herbal medicines that have been used since antiquity to treat dysfunctional immune systems. Luckily, many are as appropriate today as they were long ago. Arctium lappa has long been used as a treatment for chronic skin disease. This ailment, we now know, is caused by the immune system attacking the skin. The ancient Greeks and Romans used Berberis vulgaris to treat eye diseases, especially those involving the mucous membrane. It was used to treat the type of ocular diseases that we now know are rooted in auto-immune disease. It is time to dust off the old herbals and rediscover the many plants that were once used to improve diseases like eczema, asthma, and psoriasis.

In addition, there are herbal medicines that can play a role in the treatment of the `new diseases' -- HIV, Post Viral Syndrome, and ME included. Many plants traditionally used to treat chronic infections, Echinacea purpureum and Grifola frondosa for example, have been found to be quite helpful in HIV and AIDS. By knowing the materia medica formerly used to treat the immune system, you have at your fingertips potential treatments for future, as yet unidentified immune related diseases.

Contrary to popular myth, Echinacea purpureum was not the Native American cure all. It had a very specific use and a fairly limited one at that. For the most part, it was used to treat rattlesnake bites. The Native Americans made it quite clear to the Colonists that if they wanted to survive a rattlesnake bite, they had better be able to identify this prairie plant. The Eclectic physicians felt that bacterial disease damaged the body as bacteria produced venom. They knew about the Native American use of Echinacea in rattlesnake bites and gave it a try in bacterial infection. Their creative thinking and subsequent clinical use resulted in a plant few phytotherapists could live without.

Herbal medicine has become increasingly sophisticated with each passing generation. This always has been true. In the past, when humanity was faced with a health crisis, whether the bubonic plague in the medieval period or tuberculosis in the last century, people experimented with medicinal plants until they found drugs that made a difference. Today, we need to do the same. If there were ever a time for the creative use of medicinal plants, the time would be now.


When the immune system goes wrong, complicated problems arise. Hopefully, this edition of the journal will not only help you confront the problems but also inspire you to delve into the subject of botanical drugs that affect the immune system. Unlike allopathy, phytotherapy is blessed with a large number of options when it comes to treating immune system related disease. Phytotherapists would be well advised to learn more about the options available.

Article copyright The British Journal of Phytotherapy.


By Douglas Schar

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