Immune System Boosters
Answered by: Conrad Richter
Question from: Dr. Larry Hall
Posted on: January 25, 2002

Thank you again for the info on ‘juliet of the herbs’. My niece’s kitten is much improved !

I am a physician, family practitioner, and am always asked by my patients how to boost their immune systems. What can humans do, beside take echinacea, to help their bodies resist infection.

I have forwarded your message to Ms. Poot. Human herbal medicine is not her area of speciality, so I am answering your question about herbal immune boosters.

The best known herbal immunostimulant is echinacea, but there are dozens of herbs that are thought to have an effect on the immune system, and quite possibly many more will come to light. Of course, it wasn’t until the past century or so that we have come to understand the immune function, so early herbalists and the traditional knowledge they have passed down to us does not speak of herbs acting on the immune system quite the way we think of it now. For example, it is possible that the archaic term "blood purifier" might have referred to a herb that nowadays would be called an immune system booster.

Some other herbs with immune system effects are astragalus (also known as "Chinese milkvetch"), ginseng (including Siberian ginseng), licorice, goldenseal, dong quai, wild indigo and reishi mushroom. According to "Bartram’s Encyclopedia of Herbal Medicine" (available from Richters), some of these are known to "increase ability of white blood cells to attack bacteria and invading cells" but how it does this is not explained.

In the case of echinacea, the best studied immune boosting herb, the mechanism of immunostimulation is still not understood. Several diverse classes of compounds in echinacea – alkylamides, caffeoylics, ketoalkenes and ketoalkynes, polysaccharides and glycoproteins – have been implicated but there is no consensus which or any of these is responsible for the immune system effect. For a review of echinacea and ginseng immunostimulatory activity see Dennis Awang’s paper at http://www.hort.purdue.edu/newcrop/proceedings1999/v4-450.html.

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