By Michelle Fletcher
For centuries, herbs and spices have been used in food and as medicine. Ranging from mint tea to common ingredients in pharmaceutical drugs, herbs play an important part of our everyday life.
The increased use of medicinal herbs among the general public has encouraged further examination of herbs’ effects upon humans. Recently, much research has focused upon certain herbs that possess hypolipidemic, antiplatelet, antitumor, or immune-stimulating properties, which may be useful in preventing colds, avoiding infection, and even reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer. A wide variety of phytochemicals in these herbs has been identified which contain these immune system-stimulating properties.
Astragalus, Echinacea, Ginseng, licorice, and green tea are among those herbs which play a role in providing antioxidants, stimulating the activity of protective enzymes in the body, or inhibiting nitrosation (a class of chemical compounds considered carcinogenic, or “cancer-causing”). “Many of these herbs contain potent antioxidant compounds that provide significant protection against chronic diseases,” said Winston Craig from the Department of Nutrition at Andrews University. “The volatile essential oils of commonly used culinary herbs, spices, and herbal teas inhibit mevalonate synthesis and thereby suppress cholesterol synthesis and tumor growth.”
The most popular herbal remedy for promoting immunity, Echinacea, was first used by the North American Plains Indians to ward off infections. Echinacea increases the activity of the immune system in a non-specific manner, stimulating the overall activity of the cells responsible for fighting all kinds of infection. In contrast to antibiotics, Echinacea make our cells more efficient at attacking viruses, bacteria and abnormal cells – including cancer cells.
Several clinical studies have supported Echinacea’s medicinal fame. Scientists at the National College of Naturopathic Medicine assessed the ability of Echinacea and two other herbs in activating immune cells in human subjects. “The effect of these herbs when ingested for seven days was measured… The results demonstrate that Echinacea, Astragalus and Glycytthiza herbal tinctures stimulated immune cells.”
Echinacea has long been used to promote mucosal immunity in treating upper respiratory tract infection (URTI) in children and adults. Researchers at Elmhurst College examined the effects of Echinacea on mucosal immunity and the incidence of duration of URTI. This 2007 study yielded positive results: “Echinacea may attenuate the mucosal immune suppression known to occur with intense exercise and reduce the duration of URTI that subjects incur.”
While Echinacea shortens the duration and severity of colds and other upper respiratory infections, other herbs such as Astragalus and Ginseng aid in inhibiting tumor growth and boosting resistance to infections. “[Antioxidant] compounds [in these herbs] may protect LDL cholesterol from oxidation, inhibit cyclooxygenase and lipoxygenase enzymes [(which cause inflammation and pain in the body)]… or have antiviral or antitumor activity.”
In 2007, researchers at Emory University in Atlanta researched the use of alternative medicine on HIV-positive women. “The use of complimentary and alternative medicine (CAM) to treat chronic illness, especially HIV, is becoming increasingly widespread.” Their findings showed that many people suffering from HIV are incorporating complimentary and alternative medicine – including the use of herbs – as an alternative to prescribed antiretroviral regimens (HAART). “The Prunella vulgaris species is just one of many Chinese herbs that is showing promise in laboratory screening for anti-HIV properties,” said James Conley, M.D. Herbs have been utilized extensively in the clinic and in homes to treat AIDS symptoms and increase immune function.
“Aloe Vera, St. John’s Wort, Echinacea, Licorice, and Ginseng are just a few of the herbs used to treat HIV/AIDS,” according to LifePositive Magazine based in New Delhi, India. “Taking immunity-boosting herbs (such as Astragalus, Echinacea, and Ginkgo) may help revive an ailing immune system, and certain herbs (such as garlic) may help battle bacteria and viruses. Deglycyrrhizinated Licorice can soothe the mouth and throat ulcers that often accompany full-blown AIDS.”
Over 80% of the world’s population depends upon plants for health and healing. While much of the world relies heavily on pharmaceuticals (most notably in the United States and Europe), the root of health and healing may rely upon these ancient remedies.
For more information on herbs and health, visit an acupuncturist, practitioner of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) or nutritionist for a thorough consultation of your herbal needs.
Brush, J., et al. “The effect of Echinacea purpurea, Astragalus membranaceus and Glycytthiza glabra on CD69 expression and immune cell activation in humans. Phytother. Res. 2006 Aug;20(8):687-95.
Hall, H., et al. “Echinacea Purpurea and Mucosal Immunity”. Int J Sports Med. 2007 Apr 13.
Owen-Smith, A., et al. “Complimentary and alternative medicine use decreases adherence to HAART in HIV-positive women”. AIDS Care. 2007 May;19(5):589-93.