In addition to a healthy lifestyle, several herbal medicines could increase the body’s natural defenses. The most famous is Echinacea, but a Chinese species – the astragalus – is also indicated as well as several plants called “adaptogens” and the essential oil of ravintsara. Find out how these natural remedies work.
What medicinal plants to boost immunity?
People with weakened immune systems are more prone to infections (colds, cystitis, yeast infections, warts, etc.) and may experience chronic fatigue. The body’s defenses are naturally weak in young children, but they are not the only ones to risk more frequent contamination: this can also be the case for the elderly, patients suffering from intestinal problems, diabetes or cancer or stressed individuals, too sedentary or malnourished.
The immune system has a very complex functioning but we can schematize it by distinguishing the “non-specific” (or “innate”) immunity which allows an immediate reaction of rejection of pathogenic agents, and the “specific” immunity which develops in a few days and results in an immunological memory. However, scientific studies have shown that several medicinal plants have a targeted action on this system.
Echinacea, a major plant of immunity
“The major remedy in herbal medicine to act on immunity is echinacea,” says pharmacist Jacques Fleurentin, a specialist in herbal medicine. This spectacular flowering plant comes from the traditional North American pharmacopoeia which considers its root as a panacea for health, treating very diverse pathologies and in particular respiratory tract infections.
Under the name echinacea hide in fact several plant species, three of which are of medicinal interest: Echinacea angustifolia, E. pallida and E. purpurea. Scientific studies have shown how they work to strengthen the body’s defenses: Echinacea act both on innate immunity by strengthening the action of white blood cells and their phagocytic power, and at the same time on specific immunity by stimulating the production of antibodies by T lymphocytes
“I recommend Echinacea as a preventive measure but also at the start of a cold or flu-like illness,” says Jacques Fleurentin. The plant is sold in the form of herbal tea and plant extracts, dry or fluid. You can simply infuse 2.5 g of Echinacea root for 1/4 liter of hot water for 10 minutes and drink 3 times a day. One can carry out cures of 4 days on 7 or 10 days per month: one should indeed not take this plant continuously so as not to over-stimulate the immune system.
It is used in winter or to avoid relapse, in the case of recurrent urinary tract infections for example. It goes without saying that echinacea is not recommended in the event of an autoimmune disease or treatment affecting the immune system. It is also contraindicated in people allergic to Asteraceae (ragweed, sagebrush, etc.).
Astragalus, a tonic from the Chinese Pharmacopoeia
Jacques Fleurentin recommends a second plant to increase the immune system. It is the astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus var. Mongholicus), traditionally used in Chinese medicine which considers its root as a powerful invigorating organism. Studies have shown immunostimulatory effects.
“Astragalus has an interesting antiviral spectrum,” added the pharmacist. It is found in the form of dry or liquid extracts. Ask for advice from a health professional or even a practitioner of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) before using this plant, not recommended in case of autoimmune disease but also of hypertension and in case of pregnancy and breastfeeding.
Adaptogenic” plants for immunity
Astragalus is part of a group of plants called “adaptogens”, that is to say which increase the resistance of the organism against aggressors of different natures (physical, chemical or biological) in a non-specific way.
These medicinal species are interesting for strengthening immunity and Jacques Fleurentin recommends rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea), ginseng (Panax ginseng) and eleutherococcus (Eleutherococcus senticosus) to increase the resistance of the organism to infections. Like Echinacea and Astragalus, all are roots that are found in the form of dry or liquid extracts.
Ravintsara essential oil acts indirectly on immunity
In the form of essential oils, several plant species are known to help the body defend itself against pathogenic infectious agents. We especially hear about ravintsara (Cinnamomum camphora CT 1,8 cineole) in prevention of winter diseases. Dr. Pharmacy and aromatherapist Aude Maillard explains: “This essential oil contains eucalyptol (or 1.8 cineole) which has a mucoregulatory effect, that is to say that it strengthens the mucoid carpet of the respiratory walls”.
Ravintsara essential oil therefore helps to better evacuate microbes by improving the defense barrier that the mucous membranes constitute. But so far no studies have been done on the precise mode in which the essential oil of ravintsara strengthens the immune system in itself.
The pharmacy specialist in aromatherapy Cecile Adant recommends placing 2 drops of ravintsara essential oil on the wrists every morning 5 days a week during an epidemic period. “Increase the doses by applying 3 to 4 drops 3 to 4 times a day if you get sick,” she says. You should know that we find eucalyptol, the active molecule of ravintsara, in other essences including: radiated eucalyptus, globular eucalyptus, niaouli, rosemary cineol, lavender aspic, noble laurel and myrtle.
As essential oils penetrate the organism in depth, it is essential to use organic labeled products. Ravintsara essential oil should not be used during pregnancy and breastfeeding and in children under 6 years of age.