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. These medicines are given special importance in both Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine. Each tonic herb has its own unique properties and some have a greater affinity for the immune system. These herbs are often immunomodulators which means they can 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 three examples of tonic herbs that have an affinity for the immune system.
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 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). This is interesting as polysaccharides and triterpenes from reishi have shown protective effects on the liver in animals. 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 this study is interesting, a controlled larger study is required.
Although there is much work human studies that needs to be done, several modern herbalists report reishi as 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 other medicinal mushrooms such as 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). 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 calm energy adaptogen and has a role in treating some sleep disorders, anxiety, and fatigue.
3. 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.
The immune tonic herbs are important allies against autoimmune disease and chronic infections, although we need more well controlled 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 combined with other anti-inflammatory herbs such as turmeric or boswellia for a greater clinical effect. It is also important that these herbs are used in the correct context that includes a healthy diet and lifestyle, this way many immunological disorders may be improved or even overcome.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.