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Adaptogenic Herbs and Their Effects on the Immune System

Adaptogenic is a term used in herbalism to reflect the ability of a plant to work as a biological response modifier. For a plant to be adaptogenic it must meet three criteria, as defined by the Russian doctor I.I. Brekman:

  • It should cause no harm and place no additional stress on the body.
  • It should help the body adapt to many and varied environmental and psychological stresses.
  • It must have a nonspecific action on the body, supporting all the major systems, such as the nervous system, hormonal system, and immune system, as well as regulating functions (such as the blood sugar); if they are too high, an adaptogen will lower it and vice verse.

This article will deal with a few of the most common researched herbs like astragalus, Siberian ginseng, panax ginseng, shizandra, shitake, reishi and maitake mushrooms. We will also look at the ability of these substances to be used in conjunctions with other types of therapy for the treatment of heart disease, cancer, chronic fatigue and numerous other disorders.

Let’s begin by looking at how adaptogens work. Through numerous scientific studies it is known that the pharmacological actions of adaptogens are very complex. It has been noted that they have the ability to increase endurance and to reduce fatigue. They stimulate the immune system indirectly; build the body’s resistance to non-specific stresses such as, chemicals in the environment, overwork, poor diet and emotional factors. They work as immune stimulants also by boosting resistance to pathogens, viruses and bacteria.

According to Christopher Hobbs in his book Medicinal Mushrooms he states that he classifies immune active herbs into three categories adaptogens, surface immune stimulants and immune tonics. Each of these areas works differently and is applied to specific conditions. Let take a closer look at these three areas.

  • Adaptogens boost immunity by supporting and balancing the endocrine (glandular) system. More specifically laboratory tests have shown that they support adrenal functions, help cells to use oxygen more efficiently and increase cellular respiration. Of course we know that the stress glands are the adrenals and when the adrenals are weaken we can experience fatigue and suppressed immunity.
  • The immune stimulating properties of adaptogenic herbs are due to the ability to stimulate a specific white blood cell called a macrophage. Macrophages (macro=big, phage=eater) are white cell that eat up or destroy pathogens in the blood such as bacteria, yeast, and viruses. They live in the mucus membranes of the body but also travel through the internal organs. They are our first line defense and stimulating this aspect off our immune system protects us from colds, flu and other types of infection. Some herbs that have this action are echinacea, thuja, osha, and wild indigo.
  • Immune tonics are the next classification and they work by supporting the bone marrow reserve, from which the macrophage and all other immune effector cells (t-cells) and reds blood cells are made. Reishi mushroom has been one of the researched adaptogens that works in this manner. It is interesting that in traditional cultures they cooked with these herbs and eat them as part of their diet.

Looking closer at the specific adaptogenic herbs begins with astragalus. Astragalus has been used in china for thousands of years. It has been the subject of numerous studies in the United States by the National Cancer Institute. Research has shown that astragalus increases the total number of white blood cells, strengthens the activity of macrophages and promotes what is called cellular immunity. Studies at the university of Texas MD   Anderson Hospital and Tumor Institute found that the t cell function in cancer patients was lowered by the use of chemotherapy and radiation. When astragalus extracts were administered they found that immune functions improved dramatically. Currently astragalus is being researched in HIV and aids related syndromes.

Schizandra is another adaptogen with a lot of clinical research. It has been shown to have a stimulatory effect on the central nervous system without being over stimulating. It is considered a general tonic, a detoxifier of chemical toxicity including chemotherapy. It is an antioxidant and a powerful liver protector.

Panax and Siberian ginseng are both considered adaptogenic. It is most noted for it’s anti fatigue and anti-aging effects. It appears to have some anti-tumor effects. It has been shown to enhance the overall immunity including antibody response, natural killer cell activity, and interferon production and to promote phagocytosis. It has also shown some ability to protect the body during radiation therapy.

Let’s look at some of the medicinal mushroom and how they work in the body. The first one we will discuss is the reishi mushroom. Extensive research of this mushroom shows why it has been used for over 4000 years in China and Japan. It has been used traditionally for the treatment of hepatitis, cancer, hypertension, arthritis, insomnia, asthma, bronchitis, and ulcers. The pharmacological effects of reishi are numerous and include analgesic, anti inflammatory, antibacterial, antioxidant, antitumor, antiviral, cardiotonic, expectorant, liver protective, and they have been shown to increase production of interleukin 1 and 2, increase white cell count, and enhance natural killer cell activity. It has been the subject of numerous clinical trials with animals and humans and is specific for numerous types of cancer.

Shitake mushroom is probably better known because it is used in food preparation. It has a wonderful taste as well as being researched for its adaptogenic properties. The data on this mushroom is overwhelming. It has antitumor effects are non-toxic to the body and is considered a support nutrient during chemo and radiation therapy often leading to longer survival times. It has immune regulating effects by activating natural killer cells as well as increasing production of interferon, a potent chemical secreted by natural killer cells. It also possesses antiviral, antibacterial, liver protective and cardiotonic properties.

The last adaptogenic is the maitake mushroom otherwise know in Appalachia as “hen of the woods”. Research shows that this mushroom reduces blood pressure and helps to lower LDL cholesterol. It is considered liver protective, antitumor and a macrophage activator. Human clinical trials have shown it being effective in enhancing immune functions when used with lung, stomach and liver cancer. It has also shown to help patients during chemotherapy.

As you can see that the researched benefits of adaptogenic herbs have a wide array of benefits to our bodies. They are protective as well as therapeutic. It is important to do research on your own when it comes to using these substances. Be sure to consult with your health care practitioner for their use in a treatment program.

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