The rasayana or superior tonic herbs from Ayurveda or TCM are powerful, often slow acting medicines that act to improve or tone various systems of the body, i.e. they are directional in their effect (Winston, 2007). Another term given to these herbs are adaptogens, a term coined by a Soviet scientist that means able to resist non-specific stress. Adaptogenic tonic herbs are given special importance in both Ayurvedic and TCM. Many of these herbs have an affinity for the immune system. Due to this reason and their versatility they are often called immunomodulators, which means they can have both immune stimulating and anti-inflammatory properties. These herbs may have applications in tackling chronic infections, cancer, and autoimmune diseases.

Note, it is important not to confuse herbs that have joint anti-inflammatory and immune stimulating abilities (e.g. reishi and ashwagandha) with herbs that just stimulate the immune system (e.g. echinacea). People with autoimmune diseases may have a flair up if their immune system is potentiated, as observed in the case of echinacea (Lee et al., 2004).

1. Reishi

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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 by herbalists across a diverse range of diseases including joint pains and allergic asthma (Winston, 2007). It is the triterpene acids from the fruiting body of reishi that have been found to have anti-inflammatory properties (Akihisa et al., 2007). While it is the polysaccharides from reishi that are responsible for its immune stimulating activity (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 and complement cancer therapy may be justified. A large double blinded human study found reishi was effective against chronic hepatitis B (Gao et al., 2002). A human study found reduction of inflammation in cells and tissues extracted patients with Crohn’s disease with reishi treatment (Liu et al., 2016), although in this case a control group was absent.

Although there is much scientific work that needs to be done on reishi, herbalists report reishi as effective in treating a range of immunological disorders from various autoimmune conditions to cancer (Powell, 2015). It also is a calming adaptogenic herb and may have a role in reducing anxiety, but also does increase an individual’s energy with time (Groves, 2016).

2. Ashwagandha

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Ashwagandha is considered a rasayana herb in Ayurvedic medicine which translates to rejuvenator. These herbs 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). 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). A later additional well controlled human study supported ashwagandha alone as effective against osteoarthritis (Ramakanth et al., 2016).

Clinical herbalists report ashwagandha useful for treating chronic inflammation (Groves, 2016). It also described as a more calming adaptogen and has a role in treating some sleep disorders, anxiety, and fatigue. Ashwagandha is one of the most widely appropiate herbs in our materia medica.

3. Holy Basil

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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 in comparison with the placebo arm.

Herbalists find holy basil useful in treating chronic infections and chronic inflammation (Groves, 2016). Tulsi is one of the most calming of the adaptogenic herbs and may improve sleep and anxiety.

4. Astragalus

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Astralagus is found growing beside forests in Korea, China, and Japan (Kuhn and Winston, 2000). The alternative Chinese name, ‘huang qi’, means, ‘yellow vital force’. In reference to it’s stimulation of the ‘vital force’. Astragalus membranaceus medicinal roots have been used in China for well over 2000 years. They were described within Shen Nong’s Materia Medica which was written in the Han dynasty (Shao et al., 2004).

Astragalus has well known potent immune enhancing properties connected to its polysaccharides (Shao et al., 2004). The immune potentiating properties of astragalus were also detected in vivo as it increased the rejection of a foreign graft in an animal model, the authors concluded that astragalus may have applications in immune depleted patients (Chu et al., 1988). There is good scientific support in humans for astragalus’s role in reducing fatigue, as there was one positive well controlled trial conducted on cancer patients (Chen et al., 2012).

Astragalus is widely used as a tonic by herbalists to support the natural functioning of the immune system (Cho et al., 2007). It may be of application in individuals suffering with chronic infections and to prevent infections occurring. It is not commonly used to treat autoimmune disorders in contrast to the herbs above, but for building a strong immune response. It also may be combined with reishi in the treatment of chronic fatigue as both gently stimulate an individuals vital energy with time.

Formulation Notes

The below formula shows a simple combination of immune tonics that which were discussed in this article. This tonic formula may have applications in supporting the immune system to fight current infections and also in preventing infections.

Simple Immune System Formula

Astragalus
Reishi

Summary

The immune tonic herbs are important allies against chronic infections and autoimmune diseases and have been employed by herbalists for many centuries. I should add it is important that these herbs are used in the correct context that includes a healthy diet, e.g. a plant based modified Paleolithic diet, and also good lifestyle decisions. This way many immunological disorders may be improved or even overcome.

References:

Akihisa, Toshihiro, et al. “Anti‐Inflammatory and Anti‐Tumor‐Promoting Effects of Triterpene Acids and Sterols from the Fungus Ganoderma lucidum.” Chemistry & biodiversity 4.2 (2007): 224-231.

Babu, P.D. and Subhasree, R.S., 2008. The sacred mushroom “Reishi”-a review. The American-Eurasian Journal of Botany, 1(3), pp.107-110.

Chen, Hung-Sen, et al. “Studies on the immuno-modulating and anti-tumor activities of Ganoderma lucidum (Reishi) polysaccharides.” Bioorganic & medicinal chemistry 12.21 (2004): 5595-5601.

Chen, Hong-Wen, et al. “A novel infusible botanically-derived drug, PG2, for cancer-related fatigue: a phase II double-blind, randomized placebo-controlled study.” Clinical & Investigative Medicine 35.1 (2012): 1-11.

Cho, William CS, and Kwok N. Leung. “In vitro and in vivo anti-tumor effects of Astragalus membranaceus.” Cancer Letters 252.1 (2007): 43-54.

Chu, Da-Tong, W. L. Wong, and G. M. Mavligit. “Immunotherapy with Chinese medicinal herbs. II. Reversal of cyclophosphamide-induced immune suppression by administration of fractionated Astragalus membranaceus in vivo.” Journal of clinical & laboratory immunology 25.3 (1988): 125-129.

Gao, Yihuai, et al. “A Phase I/II Study of a Ganoderma lucidum (Curt.: Fr.) P. Karst.(Ling Zhi, Reishi Mushroom) extract in patients with chronic hepatitis В.” International Journal of Medicinal Mushrooms 4.4 (2002).

Gao, Yihuai, et al. “Effects of Ganopoly®(A ganoderma lucidum polysaccharide extract) on the immune functions in Advanced‐Stage cancer patients.” Immunological investigations 32.3 (2003): 201-215.

Groves, Maria. Body into Balance. Storey Publishing, 2016.

Gupta, Apurva, and Surendra Singh. “Evaluation of anti-inflammatory effect of Withania somnifera root on collagen-induced arthritis in rats.” Pharmaceutical biology 52.3 (2014): 308-320.

Jeba, C. R., Rama Vaidyanathan, and G. Rameshkumar. “Immunomodulatory activity of aqueous extract of Ocimum sanctum in rat.” International Journal on Pharmaceutical and Biomedical Research 2.1 (2011): 33-38.

Khan, Sheema, et al. “Molecular insight into the immune up-regulatory properties of the leaf extract of Ashwagandha and identification of Th1 immunostimulatory chemical entity.” Vaccine 27.43 (2009): 6080-6087.

Kuhn, Merrily A., and David Winston. Herbal therapy and supplements: a scientific and traditional approach. Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2000.

Kulkarni, R. R., et al. “Treatment of osteoarthritis with a herbomineral formulation: a double-blind, placebo-controlled, cross-over study.” Journal of ethnopharmacology 33.1-2 (1991): 91-95.

Lee, Alice N., and Victoria P. Werth. “Activation of autoimmunity following use of immunostimulatory herbal supplements.” Archives of dermatology 140.6 (2004): 723-727.

Liu, Changda, et al. “Anti-inflammatory Effects of Ganoderma Lucidum Triterpenoid in Human Crohn’s Disease Associated with Down-Regulation of NF-κB Signaling.” Inflammatory bowel diseases 21.8 (2015): 1918.

Mondal, Shankar, et al. “Double-blinded randomized controlled trial for immunomodulatory effects of Tulsi (Ocimum sanctum Linn.) leaf extract on healthy volunteers.” Journal of ethnopharmacology 136.3 (2011): 452-456.

Powell, Martin. Medicinal Mushrooms-A Clinical Guide. Mycology Press, 2015.

Ramakanth, G. S. H., et al. “A randomized, double blind placebo controlled study of efficacy and tolerability of Withaina somnifera extracts in knee joint pain.” Journal of Ayurveda and integrative medicine 7.3 (2016): 151-157.

Rasool, M., and P. Varalakshmi. “Immunomodulatory role of Withania somnifera root powder on experimental induced inflammation: An in vivo and in vitro study.” Vascular pharmacology 44.6 (2006): 406-410.

Shao, Bao-Mei, et al. “A study on the immune receptors for polysaccharides from the roots of Astragalus membranaceus, a Chinese medicinal herb.” Biochemical and biophysical research communications 320.4 (2004): 1103-1111.

Singh, Surender, D. K. Majumdar, and H. M. S. Rehan. “Evaluation of anti-inflammatory potential of fixed oil of Ocimum sanctum (Holybasil) and its possible mechanism of action.” Journal of Ethnopharmacology 54.1 (1996): 19-26.

Winston, David, and Steven Maimes. Adaptogens: herbs for strength, stamina, and stress relief. Inner Traditions/Bear & Co, 2007.