How to boost your immune system with herbs – Eleuthero
Eight Herbs for the Immune System
Common Names: (English) eleuthero • Siberian ginseng • touch-me-not • devil’s shrub
Species Used: There are 25 or maybe 38 species (thanks, guys) in the genus, and while the primary one used isEleutherococcus senticosus, there is emerging evidence that a number of the species are also medicinally active in similar ways. Eleutherococcus sessiflorus is used in Korea, identically to eleuthero. Eleutherococcus cissifolius is used in Tibet, fresh juice for eczema.
Eleutherococcus spinosus (a.k.a. E. pentaphyllus, fiveleaf aralia) is an invasive in the United States in Connecticut, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Utah, and West Virginia, and, as well, Ontario, Canada. It is used similarly to eleuthero as a tonic adaptogen for general debility, rheumatic pains, and weakness. Its use should be explored as a now locally established, important immune plant and adaptogen.
Note: Acanthopanax senticosus is sometimes given as a synonym for E. senticosus.
The root is the most commonly used part of the plant, but the bark from the woody stems is actually higher in what is considered to be the most active constituent of the plant (eleutheroside B). The fruits are also usable and the leaves have some activity as well. The Chinese use every part of the plant in various ways for this and that.
Preparation and Dosage
There are, in general, three primary forms of eleuthero that are used:
1) the Russian high-concentration formulations, generally 2:1, 1:1, or 1:2;
2) lower-strength 1:5 tincture formulations; and, finally,
3) capsules, usually standardized in some way or another (though I prefer the powdered herb myself).
If you are growing the plant and making your own extracts, the eleutheroside B content in the bark of woody stems is about four times that of the roots, so use that rather than kill the plant to get the roots.
Properties of Eleuthero
Adaptogen (a substance that increases nonspecific resistance to adverse influences)
Helps restore task endurance
Mental clarity stimulant
Herb stores everywhere; the Internet. But really, if you are in a region in which the plant will grow easily, buy a few seedlings and plant them. Once established, the plant will spread and provide medicine for you forever.
Most of the Russian studies were conducted using a 1:1 tincture in 30 percent to 33 percent alcohol. The dosage ranged from 2 to 20 ml per day (the smaller dose is a smidgeon under ½ teaspoon). This means people were taking from 1/16 to ⅔ ounce (and in some instances up to 1½ ounces) of tincture per day. At an average cost of $7 to $12 per ounce of tincture (in the United States) this can be prohibitively expensive at the upper dosage ranges.
The Russians generally dosed 2 to 16 ml, one to three times daily for 60 days with a 2- to 3-week rest period in between. Russian researchers, at these kinds of dosages, saw responses within a few days or even hours of administration.
In this concentration, and at those doses, eleuthero is an immune stimulant, not a tonic. Using it at those doses in this concentrated a form is, in my opinion, specific for debilitating diseases accompanied by severe fatigue, brain fog, depression, muscle weakness, tendency to start getting better with inevitable relapse, and chronically depressed immune function.
You can, of course, take lower doses of the concentrated extracts, which would indeed make the tincture more tonic in nature.
Dosage of the Russian formulation in treating chronic, debilitating disease: Please read carefully. In chronic, highly debilitated conditions, the stronger Russian formulation is the only type of tincture that should be used—at least initially. I suggest the product sold by Herb Pharm, which is the only company I know of that actually exceeds the Russian specifications. Their formula is a 2:1 rather than a 1:1 (i.e., 2 parts herb to 1 part liquid rather than 1 and 1).
For the first 30–60 days: 1 tsp, 3x daily, the last dose occurring no later than 4 P.M. This dose can be increased if necessary.
After 60 days: Discontinue the herb for 2 weeks.
Then: Repeat if necessary.
If symptoms decrease after using the Russian formulation for a while and immune function seems better, you can change to either an encapsulated form or a 1:5 alcohol/water tincture (see below). Both of these are weaker, but more tonic, in their actions.
If symptoms and overall health are better on the stronger extract but worsen once you stop it, or if the presenting symptoms are severe, then the extract may be a better choice for continual use instead. Continue the dosage of the stronger extract: 30–60 days on, 2–3 weeks off, 30–60 days on, and so on.
TONIC FORMULATIONS AND DOSAGES
I have generally used, and prefer in conditions other than persistent chronic disease (e.g., Lyme disease) or severe chronic fatigue, a weaker tincture, as do many American herbalists and herbal companies: 1:5, 60 percent alcohol, 1 dropperful (1/3 tsp) of the tincture, 1–3x daily for up to a year.
In my experience this dosage and pattern of use is less stimulating to the system and the long-term effects are better. The body gradually uses the herb to build itself up over time, the herb acting more as a long-term tonic and rejuvenative than an active stimulant. With this type of tincture it is not necessary to stop every 1 to 2 months, nor have I seen any of the side effects that can occur with the stronger Russian formula. The Chinese, much less given to tincturing anyway, use 4.5–27 grams, often as a decoction or powder.
This weaker American tincture in my clinical experience takes 6 months to become really effective and should be used at least that long; a year is better. It is great for long-term, mild chronic conditions that won’t resolve and that present, in Caucasians, with a pallid face, poor elasticity in the skin, mild skin eruptions, weak energy, monotonic voice, and general passivity.
As an encapsulated form I suggest 1,200 mg minimum daily. In acute conditions 3x that amount. Some manufacturers used to standardize the herb to 0.8 percent eleutherosides B&E, but that is becoming less common as the herb is understood better. I am not sure it is necessary.
I like this form of the root and, in conditions such as severe, long-term chronic fatigue, blend it with some other powdered herbs that I buy by the pound (Pacific Botanicals—see Resources—is good for this): 2 parts each eleuthero, astragalus, milk thistle seed, and spirulina, and 1 part each licorice, chlorella, turmeric, and ashwagandha. Take it for a year, ¼ cup of the blend, every night just before bed, mixed in 8 to 12 ounces juice or water in a blender. It will turn the condition around.
I also use it by itself sometimes, a tablespoon in a bit of water or juice.
Side Effects and Contraindications
Insomnia and hyperactivity can occur with use of the stronger Russian formulation, especially when taken in large doses. Do not take after 4 P.M., just an FYI on that one.
Eleutherococcus is, in general, completely nontoxic and the Russians have reported the use of exceptionally large doses for up to 20 years with no adverse reactions. It is especially indicated for people with pale unhealthy skin, lassitude, and depression.
For almost all people no side effects have been noted. A very small number of people have experienced transient diarrhea. It may temporarily increase blood pressure in some people. This tends to drop to normal within a few weeks. Caution should be exercised for people with very high blood pressure (180/90) especially if eleuthero is combined with other hypertensives such as licorice.
With extreme overuse: tension and insomnia.
Increases the effects of hexobarbital, monomycin, kanamycin.
Habitat and Appearance
Siberian ginseng, a persistent, aggressive shrub from 3 to 15 feet in height, grows throughout parts of China, Russia, Korea, and even a bit in the northern islands of Japan. The plant is native to, as Richo Cech at Horizon Herbs puts it, “cold northern lakeshores and woods of China and Siberia.” Essentially, it likes mixed and coniferous mountain forests that have good soils and get a bit cold. I have found related aralias growing to 9,500 feet (2,900 m) in the Colorado mountains in similar terrain. The American ginseng grows in similar, though wetter, and not nearly so high, terrain in the Midwest and northeastern United States, often among oaks or oak/pine mixed forest. Eleuthero will apparently grow wherever other aralias have established themselves—similar-terrain sort of thing.
Eleuthero’s stem is covered with spines and the plant, when mature, presents an aggressive, intimidating presence that has given rise to some of its common Russian names: touch-me-not and devil’s shrub. After flowering, it produces clusters of blue-black berries a bit similar to blueberries in appearance. Typical aralia/ginseng family leaves.
Due to its popularity as a medicinal, it is undergoing heavy planting in the United States and has begun to escape captivity. Soon it will be, like a number of important medicinals (among them Japanese knot-weed and about half of the antibacterials discussed here), a naturalized, aggressive weed with qualities unknown to those it irritates. (It is currently considered invasive in Ohio and Tennessee.)
Cultivation and Collection
The plant is generally cultivated from seeds, but it will, so they say, apparently sprout easily from stem and root cuttings as well—strip or prune off the lower leaves from the stems, stick into moist potting soil or well-drained garden soil—in autumn. Keep moist until well rooted. Eleuthero, according to gardeners whom I trust, likes rich soil, lots of water, and deep woods. However, some other sources indicate the plant is hardy to zone 3 and can grow in sandy, loamy, or clay soils, even if they are nutritionally poor, even in full or partial sun. I don’t know, I haven’t seen an aralia or ginseng grow in those kind of soils or conditions. Nice, though, if true.
Horizon Herbs (see Resources) sells stratified seeds in hydrated coir, pretty much guaranteed to germinate. Once established, the plant never goes away. It takes about 4 years before the plant is mature enough to produce flowers and seeds. The eleutheroside content is much higher by the fourth year. Don’t harvest before then.
The roots and stem bark are harvested in the fall. Cut the larger roots into smaller pieces, peel the stem bark off in strips. Leave in a drying tray until antihydration is completed. Store as usual—plastic bags, in plastic bins, out of the light in a cool location. I would strongly suggest harvesting the fruit and drying it for later use in syrups.
Commercially purchased root in bulk will already be cut and sifted or powdered to industry standards.
Eleutherosides A through M, ciwujianosides, eleutherans, isofraxidin, friedelin, beta-sitosterol, daucosterol, ethylgalactoside, chlorogenic acid, rosmarinic acid, and so on. A lot of people think the eleutherosides are the important adaptogenic and immune constituents, especially eleutheroside B and perhaps E.
Chlorogenic acid is a fairly strong antioxidant and antihyperglycemic with antiviral, antibacterial, and antifungal actions. It slows the movement of glucose into the blood. Rosmarinic acid is also potently antioxidant and anti-inflammatory, with antiviral and antibacterial actions as well.
Eleutheroside B content in the bark of the woody stems (400 mg/100 gm) is nearly four times that of the roots; eleutheroside E content, however (30 mg/100 gm), is only about one-third that of the roots. The fruits have about the same eleutheroside E content as the stem bark but only about one-tenth the eleutheroside B content. The stem bark (850 mg/100 gm) has 50 percent more chlorogenic acid than the roots but half the rosmarinic acid (11 mg/100 gm). The fruits have half as much chlorogenic acid but eight times the rosmarinic acid as the stem bark. The fruits are high in rutoside (150 mg/100 gm), the stem bark not so much (66 mg/100 gm).
Traditional Uses of Eleuthero
Though used in China for several thousand years, Eleutherococcus was brought to prominence by intensive Russian research in the latter half of the twentieth century. Then the emerging herbal renaissance in the United States caught wind of it, retitled the plant Siberian ginseng, and the boom was born. It became a major herb-of-the-day for a while, then was supplanted by rhodiola—the new kid on the block.
No record of it in my library or anyplace else I can find.
TRADITIONAL CHINESE MEDICINE
Acanthopanax gracilistylus and A. senticosus (a.k.a. Eleutherococcus senticosus) are both used in Chinese medicine. The former plant goes by wu jia pi and is used for relieving rheumatic conditions, for strengthening the tendons and bones, and for rheumatic arthralgia, weakness in the legs, retarded walking in children (striking image), general weakness and debility. It does have some of the same eleutherosides in it.
Eleutherococcus senticosus goes by ciwujia in the Chinese system and does have a fairly strong presence in Chinese medicine. The Chinese use the root but also consider the stems, leaves, and fruit to be effective medicinals. Eleuthero is, in their system, vital-energy tonifying, spleen invigorating, kidney tonifying, and tranquilizing. It is used primarily for asthenia of the spleen and kidney, weakness and soreness of the lower back and knees, physical weakness, insomnia, frequent dreaming, and anorexia.
The Chinese have done some pretty good research on it as well.
WESTERN BOTANIC PRACTICE
Unknown in the West (unless you count Russia) until the herbal boom in the latter half of the twentieth century.
Eleutherococcus has a number of complex effects on the body; there are four important ones: 1) on the hypothalamus/pituitary/adrenal system; 2) on the immune system; 3) on the liver and pancreas; and 4) on the heart and circulatory system. All these actions combine to produce the plant’s unique adaptogenic actions.
The hypothalamus/pituitary/adrenal system: Eleutherococcus maintains the functioning of the hypothalamus/pituitary/adrenal system at optimum levels, altering its function in response to external factors. (As well, the herb appears to act as an adrenal tonic, helping restore function and health in both overworked and damaged adrenals.) If a person is under severe stress, the system ramps up; if the stress is less, the system activity lowers—in essence, the definition of an adaptogen. It helps the body adapt to external stressors, no matter what they are. The result of this is more energy, greater endurance, and enhanced response capacity to demands on the system.
The immune system: The herb has the same effects on the immune system; in other words, it maintains its functioning at optimum levels in response to outside stressors. In this instance, the stressors are disease organisms entering the body. Studies have found that how the immune system responds depends on what kind of disease stressor is affecting it. The different parts of the immune system are activated to match the particular type of stressor affecting the organism. Eleuthero has particularly strong effects on the spleen and spleen functioning.
The liver and pancreas: Eleutherococcus strongly affects the way the body deals with glucose in both the liver and pancreas, essentially optimizing how both organs affect glucose and then optimizing the actions of glucose in the body. This substantially increases energy levels. Essentially, it is fuel optimization.
The heart and circulatory system: The herb affects heart and vessel function, optimizing oxygen uptake, availability, and use in the body, thus increasing energy and endurance. Tendency toward hypoxia is reduced, no matter the cause.
Pharmacokinetic studies have found that the constituents from Eleutherococcus are first concentrated in the liver, kidneys, spleen, and pancreas. Within 2 to 4 hours they concentrate in the pituitary, heart, and adrenals. There are lesser concentrations in the thymus, testes, and brain. The concentration in the adrenals is three times that of the other organs. The constituents, once they reach the organs, begin exerting specific effects.
In the pancreas, the constituents concentrate in the islets of Langerhans, which are responsible for insulin synthesis. Eleutherococcus stimulates more efficient functioning of the islets, protects them from damage, and can both reverse and prevent alloxan-induced injury to them. This is part of the way the plant exerts effects on glucose metabolism. The resynthesis of glycogen is enhanced in the liver and throughout the body. Thus, as glycogen levels fall during exertion, they are resynthesized very rapidly so that energy levels remain high.
In the spleen, eleuthero stimulates the production of antibodies and facilitates the removal of antibody-coated bacteria. The production of monocytes is increased and their movement to injured tissues is facilitated, as is their transformation into macrophages. This increases phagocytosis, macrophage activity, and both innate and adaptive immune responses. Dendritic cell numbers and function are also increased. Dendritic cells are highly present in tissues that contact the external environment—skin, nose, lungs, stomach, intestines—as well as in the blood. They interact with T and B cells to initiate and shape adaptive immune responses. They are a crucial and major part of the immune system, and they are highly activated by Eleutherococcus; in essence, they become more potently adaptable in their immune responses.
Again, Eleutherococcus’s effects on the immune system are both stimulatory and modulatory; that is, the potency and sensitivity of the system is increased but how it behaves after that depends on the stressors the body is experiencing. Numerous studies, in vivo, show that Eleutherococcus significantly increases the survival time and number of survivors of mice injected with lethal microbes, irrespective of the disease organism used. It is highly stimulatory of the adaptive immune response to disease. The plant also helps the body more effectively deal with pollutants and toxic overload.
Additionally, Eleutherococcus does have some antiviral action. It inhibits human rhinovirus, respiratory syncytial virus, and influenza A virus in vitro. This, combined with its immune actions, makes it a perfect herb in helping prevent viral infections. One Russian study on young men using the herb found a significantly reduced incidence of influenza infection compared to those who did not use the herb. Another Russian study of 13,000 auto workers found that those who took the herb developed 40 percent fewer respiratory infections than was normal for their group. And in yet another one, conducted from 1973–1975, 1,200 auto workers were given the herb with tea annually for 2 months each time; disease incidence decreased by 20 percent to 30 percent, depending on the year.
A number of clinical trials have shown significant immune-enhancing activity, including significant increases in immunocompetent cells, specifically T lymphocytes (helper/inducers, cytotoxic, and natural killer cells). Tests of the herb have repeatedly shown that it increases the ability of human beings to withstand adverse conditions, increases mental alertness, and improves performance. People taking the herb consistently report fewer illnesses than those who do not take the herb. Part of its power is its ability to act as a tonic stimulant on the adrenal glands. It normalizes adrenal activity and moves adrenal action away from a cortisol/catabolic dynamic to a DHEA/anabolic orientation. Basically, this reduces stress and normalizes physiological functioning throughout the body.
In another Russian clinical trial, 2,100 healthy adults were given the herb and found to better handle stressful conditions. They showed increased ability to perform physical labor, withstand motion sickness, and work with speed and precision despite loud surroundings. Their ability to accurately proofread documents increased and they more readily adapted to diverse physical stresses: high altitudes, heat, and low-oxygen environments.
Other studies have found that the herb heightens mental alertness, improves concentration, and boosts the transmission of nerve impulses in the brain.
There are scores of Russian studies; this just touches on them. A number of other studies have been conducted in the United States and Europe, most often on athlete endurance—which the herb helps.
The Chinese have done a number of studies on the plant. In vivo studies have found the plant to have significant calming actions in the CNS, to be highly regulatory of the body’s response to nonspecific stimuli, to increase tolerance to hypoxia, to be protective from radiation exposure, to be actively detoxicant, to be a potent antistressor, to rectify endocrine disorders, to modulate both red and white blood cell levels and blood pressure levels, to have a wide range of immune modulation actions, to be antineoplastic and anti-inflammatory, to optimize heart function, to be gonadotrophic, and to stimulate tissue regeneration.
Chinese clinical studies found the herb useful in treating physical symptoms due to anxiety (insomnia, palpitations, anxiety, dizziness, and so on), to reverse leukopenia due to radiation, to be highly effective in treating coronary diseases of various etiology, and to be effective in acute obstructive cerebral thrombosis, chronic bronchitis in elderly patients, altitude sickness, arthritis, and chronic fatigue.
Eleutherococcus senticosus is strongly antihepatotoxic and hepatoprotective in vivo against CCL4-induced hepatotoxicity and is a hepatoregenerator, significantly stimulating liver regeneration in animals with portions of their liver surgically removed. Other studies have found the plant to have anticancer, antioxidant, and anti-inflammatory activity, to be of value in ischemic stroke, and to be fairly neuroprotective, while at the same time increasing mental alertness and acuity.
There is a fairly good reading list on the plant in the bibliography.