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 Herbal Medicine: Immune Disorders--A Traditional View  

Mary walked into the acupuncturist's office and surveyed the situation. She was a little uncertain, this being her first trip to a Chinese doctor. As she looked around the reception room, she saw rows of jars containing what appeared to be brightly-colored roots, seeds and fruits. There were also strange mushrooms--black and varnished hanging on the wall in front of her. She wondered if she was doing the right thing....

She walked up to the receptionist and was given a form to fill out that had questions like, "what kind of climate do you prefer?" (she said warm) "What percentage of raw food do you eat?" (about 30%) and "How easily do you fall asleep?" (slowly). After being shown into a cozy room with soft lighting, she was asked to sit on the treatment table and make herself comfortable. Soft music was playing in the background and the wall was covered with charts of people with funny lines running up and down their body with small dots spaced regularly along them. Just then the acupuncturist came in.

Greeting her warmly, she asked her some questions about her symptoms and her life, her family and parent's health and then put her fingers on her wrist--she said to take her "pulses." Mary had to stick her tongue out and the practitioner took a few more notes. Finally she said, "Mary, you have kidney yin deficiency and a damp spleen." Dumfounded, Mary said, "is it serious?" to which the acupuncturist replied, "it is a very chronic condition, brought on by stress, eating food that is too cold (like fruit) for your constitution, and by overwork." This has harmed your assimilation, weakened your adrenals and immune system."

If you are like most of us, you are always looking for ways to be more healthy--to feel better and to have more energy. To be stronger, and this includes our whole being, but also every body system.

Every one of us has a certain body system or area that is especially sucesptible to stress, both internal (like the inability to relax) and external (such as pollution). In one person it might be the lungs, and we are constantly coughing up mucous; in another, it might be our immune system, which can lead to an amazing variety of the kinds of imbalances that medical science loves to put names on. These include cancer, chronic fatigue syndrome, candidiasis, allergies, lupus, AIDS and perhaps even the common cold.

In the above consultation, we learned that Mary had weakened her adrenals and immune system by innapropriate diet for her constitution, living situation, work and climate she lived in. This is a very common situation today, and coupled with the many chemical and other environmental stressors such as second-hand cigarette smoke and electromagnetic radiation from computers and power lines, has led to immune system imbalances being among the most common types of ailments. Chronic fatigue syndrome, candidiasis and tooth and gum disease are a few examples.

The good news is that, based on a knowledge of our own strengths and weaknesses, we can adjust our diet and lifestyle so that we should be able to easily withstand these environmental pressures. In other words, humans are marvelously adaptable. When we turn our consciousness towards healing ourselves and this planet we live on, living more in tune with the laws of the natural world, amazing things happen!

If we have a chronic immune weakness of any kind, we may be uncertain how to proceed. There are so many different kinds of doctors or health-care providers. I have found that the important thing is asking for help. Once we do this, we have taken the first step on our healing path. What kind of practitioner we choose is a matter of personal choice. In my experience, it is always best to get a second opinion--and by this I don't mean two opinions from the same kind of practitioner. If it feels the most comfortable, go to a physician and get a variety of western tests. Then go to an acupuncturist, naturopathic doctor or chiropractor and get a different perspective. Instinctively we will know what approach is most gentle and effective for us--perhaps we get the best results when we work with all three.

With this background, I would like to present some practical examples of immune imbalances and how to best proceed.

Not everybody will develop the same disease when their immune system has been weakened by years of stressful factors. Consequently, when we seek the advice of a traditional healer or herbalist we may learn something very interesting about ourselves. We learn that we are very unique and that our pattern of imbalance may be quite different than another person--even one that has the same symptoms, such as low energy, lower back pain and depression.

How are immune imbalances best repaired? Let's look at two distinctly different classes of immune imbalances.

Surface Immune Conditions
We may be fundamentaly strong and our basic constitution and present state of health sound, but we are temporarily invaded by an external influence, such as coldness or a pathogen, such as a flu virus. These types of immune imbalances come and go--for instance, the average person gets 2.4 colds a year. These are called "surface" or superficial imbalances.

The western names for common surface imbalances include colds, flu, mild allergies (such as hayfever) and various types of acute infections, if they are not chronic (such as bladder or yeast infections). These are often best balanced by "surface immune-system" herbs such as echinacea, osha, yerba mansa, lomatium, with the addition of a cooling herb like goldenseal. There are many formulas of this type in natural food stores everywhere--and they often have echinacea and goldenseal as the lead herbs. This type of formula can be taken in 3 10-day cycles, or less if needed. The herbs in this formula call forth our immune reserves--it stimulates our immune system. It tells our immune cells to come to the site of external infection and clear out the pathogens. I have seen so many amazing successes over the years with this type of formula that I am very enthusiastic about them.

Deep Immune Imbalances
Now if we have been under stress for some time, and we tend to have a weak constitution anyway--which is the state of vitality we inherited from our parents, our immune system might be quite deeply weakened. In this case, the above formula will not answer our needs. It will try to call forth our immune reserves, but there are none! Our reserves are almost gone. The stimulation of echinacea will only create a further weakness. We may seem to get better, but ultimately, it will not work. In this case what we need to do is strengthen our immune system on a deep level--we must nourish or "tonify" our immune reserves. This is what is called "bone-marrow reserve" in western medicine, because all of our immune cells are first created in the bone marrow, the deepest most protected part of our body.

Examples of this kind of immune disorder is cancer, severe allergies, environmental illness, candidiasis, chronic fatigue syndrome and AIDS. In these kinds of weaknesses, our immune system must be strengthened over a period of time; sometimes it takes years to fully "recharge" our immune reserves. Remember that it took years to get to this point in the first place.

Herbs: There are a number of herbs that have thousands of years behind them and a tremendous amount of modern clinical and laboratory work to show that they are especially effective at building up our immune system on a deep level. These herbs can be found in natural food stores everywhere (as well as at the acupuncturist's) in a variety of formulations. They include astragalus, ligustrum, reishi, shiitake, codonopsis and atractylodes, among others.

Whatever system of healing we decide to follow, we are the best judge of what is helping us. As we grow in awareness of our own strengths and weaknesses and progress on our healing path, we discover that herbs, diets and all other healing methods are simply helpers to aid us in discovering and releasing our own healing power.

Diet for a Healthy Immune System
I have found the best programs for these kind of ailments include eating a mostly (about 60-70%) cooked high carbohydrate died, with mostly whole grains and legumes and vegetables. Make them organic, unprocessed (deemphasize flour products like breads and muffins) and a good variety. Raw fruit (including fruit juices) should be kept to a minimum unless one lives in a very hot climate. During the summer a moderate amount is fine, during the winter, it is best to use them very sparingly. Be moderate with raw vegetables and salads, though not as much as with fruit. These foods are cooling, moisturizing and induce elimination, which is fine if you are too hot, dry and have a build-up of excessive fat or toxic wastes. If you are already cold, too moist and deficient, eating too many raw foods will further aggravate the situation. To summarize, the rules of diet for strengthening immune imbalances are easy:

1. Eat food that is the highest quality, whole, unprocessed and suitable for one's constitution, work and climate.

2. Do not overeat, eat too late at night or in the morning before some exercise.

and most important,

3. Don't worry about what we eat--we can consistently and gently remind ourselves when we are not doing what we know will create the best health, but we should not worry--relax and enjoy it.....whether it is a greasy burger or the finest organic brown rice.

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 About The Author
Christopher Hobbs LAc, AHG Christopher Hobbs is a fourth generation herbalist and botanist with over 30 years experience with herbs. Founder of Native Herb Custom Extracts (now Rainbow Light Custom Extracts) and the Institute for Natural Products......more
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