Immune Stimulating Herbs

In scientific studies, many herbs have been shown to potentially activate the immune system (Table 23.2). Some of these herbs may stimulate immune system function through the action of a type of sugar molecule known as a polysaccharide.

The immune system has two components: the cellular immune system and the humoral immune system. The immune-stimulating effects of herbs may occur on one or both of these components. Although much MS research focuses on abnormalities in the cellular system, both the cellular and humoral systems appear to be involved in the disease process.

It is important to note that the effects of herbs on MS itself have never been specifically studied. Immune-stimulating effects have been observed in scientific studies, such as test tube experiments or animal studies. However, it is not clear how these observed effects translate into human clinical studies. In other words, it is not known whether a herb that produces an immune effect in a scientific study will necessarily cause any significant effect in a person with an immune system-related disease such as MS. It is also important to note that only a few scientific studies have been undertaken for some herb effects on the immune system. As a result, much more research must be done to more fully understand how these herbs affect immune function and how they might possibly affect MS disease activity.

Many commonly used herbs may stimulate the immune system (see Table 23.2). Echinacea is the most well known of these herbs. Some other herbs in this category are among the most popular herbs in the United States, including alfalfa, Asian ginseng, astragalus, cat's claw, garlic, saw palmetto, and Siberian ginseng. Other immune-stimulating herbs may be found in this book in the chapters on Asian herbal medicine and Ayurvedic medicine.

For people with MS, the use of one rather uncommon herb, woody nightshade stem, is specifically discouraged in The German Commission E Monographs, an authoritative text on herbal medicine [3]. It is not clear if

TABLE 23.2. Herbs That May Stimulate the Immune System






Maitake mushroom



Mistletoe, European



Reishi mushroom


Ginseng, Asian

Saw palmetto

Cat's claw

Ginseng, Siberian

Shiitake mushroom

Stinging nettle

this recommendation is based on any possible immune effects of woody nightshade stem.

In some herbal therapy books, MS is correctly described as an immune disorder; however, it is then assumed that MS is caused by too little immune-system activity and that immune-stimulating herbs are beneficial. Consequently, some of the herbs in Table 23.2 often are recommended for MS.

MS is an immune disorder, but it is caused by excessive immune-system activity. Thus, on a theoretical basis, immune-stimulating herbs may worsen the disease.

It is impossible to develop strict guidelines about the use of these herbs because their exact effects on MS are not known. It may be best for people with MS to simply avoid these herbs. If they are used, they probably should not be used in high doses or on a long-term basis.

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