Tonic herbs are powerful, slow acting medicines that act to improve or tone various systems of the body (Winston, 2007). These medicines are given special importance in both Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine. Each tonic herb has its own unique qualities and some have a greater affinity for the immune system. These herbs are immunomodulators which means they have both immune stimulating and anti-inflammatory properties. These tonic herbs may prove useful in tackling chronic infections, cancer, and autoimmune diseases. I will now discuss 4 examples of tonic herbs that have an affinity for the immune system.
Cordyceps is a medicinal mushroom and a ‘superior tonic’ herb in TCM. It grows at high altitude on the Tibetan plateau (Zhu et al., 1998). Naturally it grows on the back of a certain caterpillar, however, modern cultivation uses a different substrate (Powell, 2015). It has been traditionally been applied against many different immune related diseases, including; chronic coughs, tuberculosis, allergic asthma and hay fever (Winston, 2007). Cordyceps mycelium and fruiting body ethanolic extracts have been found to have anti-inflammatory properties in experimental models (Won et al., 2005). In other experiments cordyceps has been found to activate both the innate and adaptive immune system (Koh et al., 2002; Cheung et al., 2009; Yoon et al., 2008). These studies were all conducted in experimental models, however, an interesting human clinical trial found Cordyceps and artemisinin could prevent the recurrence of lupus nephritis, which is inflammation of the kidney (Lu et al., 2002). These studies demonstrate the flexibility of cordyceps in modulating the immune system. Cordyceps is a semi stimulating adaptogen and should not be taken at night, however, it also has a calming quality to it similar to other adaptogens.
Reishi is also a medicinal mushroom and a ‘superior tonic’ in TCM. It is known as the mushroom of immortality and the ancient Chinese viewed it as an herb for increasing life-span (Babu, 2008). It has been traditionally used across a diverse range of diseases including joint pains and allergic asthma (Winston, 2007). Triterpene acids from the fruiting body of reishi have been found to have anti-inflammatory properties (Akihisa et al., 2007). Another study found polysaccharides from reishi could stimulate cytokine release in an experimental cellular model (Chen et al., 2004). Reishi has been found to stimulate host immunity in humans with advanced stage cancer (Gao et al., 2003), suggesting its traditional use to treat cancer may be justified. A large double blinded human study found reishi was effective against chronic hepatitis B (Gao et al., 2002). This is interesting as polysaccharide s and triterpenes from reishi have shown protection effects on the liver in animals. Although there is much work human studies that needs to be done, modern herbalists find reishi effective in treating a range of disorders from allergies to cancer (Powell, 2015). It also has a important role in reducing anxiety. Reishi is a more calming adaptogen compared with cordyceps (Groves, 2016).
Ashwagandha is considered a rasayana herb in Ayurvedic medicine which means rejuvenator, they are said to guide the body towards health. It has been traditionally applied across a range of diseases including, arthritis and polymyositis (Winston, 2007). Ashwagandha root extracts have been found to have anti-inflammatory properties and act as an inhibitor of the complement system (Rasool et al., 2006). It has been shown to have anti-inflammatory properties in animal models of arthritis (Gupta et al., 2014) in agreement with its traditional role. Ashwagandha, turmeric, and boswellia have been found in formula to reduce the pain of osteoarthritis in humans in a double-blind placebo controlled study (Kulkarni et al., 1991). Similar to other adaptogens, ashwagandha also has been found to upregulate the immune response under certain conditions (Khan et al., 2009). Clinical herbalists find ashwagandha useful for treating chronic inflammation (Groves, 2016). It also is a calm energy adaptogen and has a role in treating sleep disorders, anxiety, and CFS.
4. Holy Basil
Holy basil or tulsi is another rasayana herb in Ayurvedic medicine with a special affinity for the immune system. It is commonly used in Ayureveda to treat asthma and wide range of other conditons (Jeba et al., 2011). Holy basil has been found to have anti-inflammatory activity in an animal model and more specifically it inhibits arachidonate metabolism (Singh et al., 1996). It also has been found to have immunostimulating properties in experimental models with upregulation of antibody production (Jeba et al., 2011). These immune stimulating activities have also been clearly seen in humans (Mondal et al., 2011). In the human study of healthy individuals, significant increases in IFN, IL-4, T-helper cells, and NK-cells were observed after 4 weeks. Modern day herbalists find holy basil useful in treating chronic infections and chronic inflammation (Groves, 2016). As defined by Maria Groves, it is another calm energy adaptogen alongside ashwagandha and a key tool in our herbal toolkit.
Tonic herbs or adaptogens are indispensable allies against autoimmune disease and chronic infections, although we need more human studies, the studies we currently have support their medicinal potential. As we have seen in the ashwagandha osteoarthritis clinical trial (Kulkarni et al., 1991), they may also be blended with anti-inflammatory herbs such as turmeric or boswellia for a greater effect. It is also most important that these herbs are used in the correct context that includes a healthy diet and lifestyle, this way many immunological disorders may be treated or even overcome.
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