The rasayana or vital energy tonic herbs from Ayurveda or traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) respectively are powerful, often slow acting medicines that act to improve, support, or balance various systems of the body (Winston, 2007). A general scientific term given to these herbs is ‘adaptogens’, a term coined by a Soviet scientist in the 1950s called Dr Nikolai Vasilievich Lazarev (1895–1974), adaptogen is a vague scientific term that means able to resist non-specific stress (Davydov and Krikorian, 2000). Adaptogenic tonic herbs are given special importance in both Ayurvedic and TCM and are considered deeply nourishing for the whole body. In TCM, they are thought to boost the bodies Qi or vital energy.
The vital energy tonic/ rasayana herbs appear to have an affinity for the human immune system. Since they often appear to have both immune stimulating and anti-inflammatory properties, depending on context, they are defined as, ‘immunomodulators’, ‘immune amphoteric’, or ‘immune tonic herbs’. The immune tonics are thought by herbalists to have a balancing effect on the immune system and to have potential for tackling chronic infections, cancer, and autoimmune diseases.
It is important not to confuse herbs that have joint anti-inflammatory and immune stimulating properties (e.g. reishi and astragalus) with herbs that just stimulate the immune system (e.g. echinacea). People with autoimmune diseases may have an aggravation of their disease if their immune system is stimulated, as observed in the case of echinacea (Lee et al., 2004). We shall now turn to examine some of the key immune tonics from our materia medica in more detail.
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 is 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 unfortunately a control group was absent, so merely suggests a potential of the herb for autoimmune disease treatment.
Although there is much scientific work that needs to be done to validate the traditional use of reishi, herbalists report reishi effective in treating a range of immunological disorders from various autoimmune conditions to cancer (Powell, 2015). It also is a jointly calming and stimulating herb and therefore may have a role in reducing anxiety, but also increases an individual’s vital energy with time, with a role possibly in the treatment of chronic fatigue (Groves, 2016).
Ashwagandha is considered a rasayana herb in Ayurvedic medicine which translates to rejuvenator. These herbs are said to guide the body towards health. Ashwagandha has been traditionally applied across a range of diseases including, arthritis, fibromyalgia, 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). However, ashwaganda also appears to have immune stimulating properties (Khan et al., 2009) and so may have use in chronic infections and as a component of cancer treatment therapies (Winston, 2007). Clinical herbalists find ashwagandha particularly useful for treating chronic inflammation (Groves, 2016). Similar to reishi, it has a combined relaxing and stimulating effect and therefore has potential for treating some sleep disorders, anxiety, and fatigue. Ashwagandha and reishi are two of the most widely appropriate herbs in our materia medica and may be considered as supportive tonics in many formula.
Holy basil or tulsi is another rasayana herb in Ayurvedic medicine with a special affinity for the immune system. It is commonly used in Ayurveda to treat asthma and wide range of other conditions (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. In support of these findings, herbalists find holy basil useful in treating chronic infections and chronic inflammation (Groves, 2016). Tulsi is one of the most calming of the adaptogenic tonic herbs and may improve sleep and anxiety.
Astragalus 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 medicinal roots have been used in China for well over 2000 years and they were described within Shen Nong’s Materia Medica which was written in the Han dynasty (200-250AD), but contains teachings passed on in an oral tradition for many hundreds of years before this time (Shao et al., 2004).
Similar to reishi, 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.
The below formula shows a simple combination of immune tonics that which were discussed in this article. By combining herbs with similar actions it is possible to increase the activity of the formula. This tonic formula may have applications in supporting the immune system to prevent infections, it may also have applications in combating chronic fatigue through stimulating the vital energy. This is a mildly warming formula so is less suitable for pitta types and better for vata.
Immune and vital energy tonic compound
Astragalus (1 part) (warming, moistening)
Reishi (1 part) (warming, neutral)
Contraindications: People undergoing immunosuppressive therapy. It is not for use in acute infections.
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 Paleolithic style diet and also good lifestyle decisions. This way many immune related diseases may be improved.
Note: If you are not fully comfortable with a DIY approach for your condition for any reason, please do not hesitate to contact a local professional herbalist for more tailored assistance.
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