The Herb and Drug Mix of Immune Suppressants and Herbal Medicines

| November/December 2000

Not long ago, a patient I’ll call Donna presented me with a challenging dilemma. Donna had suffered from a chronic respiratory disease that forced her to receive a lung transplant. To keep her immune system from rejecting the new lung, she was taking a drug called cyclosporine, an antibiotic-like substance produced by the soil-based fungus Beauveria nivea. She knew that she would be taking this drug for the rest of her life.

Donna came to see me because she felt a bad cold coming on. Would it be all right, she asked, if she took some echinacea (Echinacea spp.) or a similar herb to give her immune system a little boost? As simple as this question may seem, the issues raised in searching for an answer are quite complex and have implications that extend to a wide range of diseases, especially autoimmune disorders.

How immunosuppressants work

Cyclosporine acts as a potent immunosuppressant, meaning that it inactivates a part of the immune system—the T lymphocytes, which are responsible for rejecting foreign substances. This action makes it immensely useful for organ transplant patients. In fact, without this drug and others like it, most transplants would eventually be rejected by the recipient. In recent years, cyclosporine has also been used to treat autoimmune disorders such as rheumatoid arthritis (RA), a condition where the immune system attacks the joints. The rationale for using cyclosporine in these cases is that autoimmune disorders result from a so-called overactive immune system that needs to be chemically restrained.

Unfortunately, the T lymphocytes involved in transplant rejection or autoimmunity are also necessary for fighting off harmful bacteria, viruses, and cancer. Consequently, patients taking immunosuppressant drugs have a high risk of developing lymphoma and potentially life-threatening infections. In other words, the drugs solve one problem but can create another.

Conventional medicine tends to take an adversarial position against disease. It’s as if we’re fighting an all-out war against cancer, infection, and autoimmune diseases. The weapons we use in this war are potent drugs designed to wipe out the enemy. But there are two problems with this approach. First, the “enemy” is often very clever and finds ways to outwit the most powerful weapons. Second, the more powerful the drug, the higher the risk of toxicity. Herbal medicine offers an alternative: Instead of attacking the disease head-on, why not improve the person’s immune function so they can fight off or regulate the disease on their own?

Herbal immune enhancers

Echinacea is only one of a number of herbs known for this kind of immune-enhancing effect. Some of the other herbs I might have considered giving Donna include astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus), aloe (Aloe vera), isatis (Isatis tinctoria), licorice root (Glycyrrhiza glabra), Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus), and Western larch (Larix occidentalis). Additionally, numerous medicinal mushrooms such as maitake (Grifola frondosa), shiitake (Lentinula edodes), and reishi (Ganoderma lucidum), as well as extracts of baker’s yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae), have similar effects.

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