Strengthening Immune System Weakness with Chinese Herbs

We now know, almost intuitively, that strengthening the immune system benefits general good health and may contribute to longevity.  This idea has historical roots in TCM Fu zheng (support the vital force) therapy, as well as Ayurvedic Rasayana therapy (discussed in a separate section). Modern extensions of the ancient ideas can be found in practices so new that they have not yet been officially named. They involve the use of nutrients and/or herbs to strengthen, activate or calm immune cells and potentiate or modify specific host defense mechanisms. We already know how to do this in a general way from our ancient herbal roots, and many herbalists would argue that they have known this from day one. However, it is also clear that holistic health care practitioners are gradually learning how to do this in a more specific way. Proposed names for this concept include “immunotherapy” and “biological response modification.”

Modern testing methods now allow us to identify and monitor specific changes in the components of the immune system that occur with the use of herbs and nutrients. This enables us to constantly increase our knowledge and gain more insight into how specific nutrients and herbs affect different components of the immune system.  Here is an example of how immunotherapy can work. In the phenomenon called anergy, the immune system fails to recognize a threat so it does not mount a response. Anergy poses a major problem in diseases such as cancer and AIDS, as it allows tumors or viral particles to escape immune surveillance.   To do this tumors utilize a variety of methods.  They release inhibitory chemicals (such as interleukin-10), as well as chemicals that induce immune cell death (apoptosis via fas signaling), and disrupt normal immune cell-to-cell interactions (Costello et al. 1999). In our articles on the immune system you will see how many different herbs have been shown to affect each these areas of immune dysfunction, giving us potential tools to overcome these problems.

TCM Fu Zheng Treatment for the Immune System

Western scientists are just beginning to understand how to strengthen non-specific host resistance. However, TCM doctors have long had practical methods for strengthening the whole organism. The group of tonics called Fu Zheng are used by TCM doctors specifically for this purpose. Many of the herbs in these formulas are chosen primarily from the traditional category of Qi tonics. Qi tonics strengthen the digestion, restore energy, generate fluids and build the blood. Some of the primary Fu zheng herbs include astragalus root, ganoderma mushroom, codonopsis, white atractylodes, honey fried licorice root, and ginseng root.  The other TCM blood and Yin  tonics can be included in this group, but the Qi tonics predominate. Formulations made from these herbs can be used to strengthen the immune system, and are especially useful for immune deficiency problems such as HIV or cancer.

Physicians in the Department of Pharmacology, Toxicology, and Therapeutics at the University of Kansas Medical Center, Kansas City performed extensive screenings of the major Fu zheng formulas. They selected the “Ten Significant Herb Great Tonic Decoction” (Shi quan da gu tang), which contains astragalus and nine other herbs, as the most effective potent biological response modifier.  This formula is used traditionally against anemia, anorexia, extreme exhaustion, fatigue, Yin deficiency, digestive weakness and general weakness, particularly after illness.

According to numerous studies over eight years, the Ten Significant Herb Great Tonic formula had extremely low toxicity while exhibiting very strong immuno-modulatory and immuno-potentiating effects (by stimulating blood immune factors and interleukin production in association with NK cells). (read the full abstract)

It is usually given as a decoction in China with some ginger root and jujube date.  It has also been shown to potentiate therapeutic activity in several chemotherapies (mitomycin, cisplatin, cyclophosphamide and fluorouracil) and radiotherapy, and to inhibit the recurrence of malignancies and prolong survival in cancer cases.  The formula ameliorates and/or prevents the side effects, including GI disturbances such as anorexia, nausea, vomiting, hematotoxicity, immunosuppression, leukopenia, thrombocytopenia, anemia and nephropathy, of many anticancer drugs (Zee-Cheng 1992).

Here is the formula for the Ten Significant Herb Great Tonic:

Ginseng root (ren shen): 6-9 grams
White atractylodes rhizome (bai zhu): 9-12 grams
Poria mushroom (fu ling): 12-15 grams
Honey fried licorice root (zhi gan cao): 3-6 grams
Cooked rehmannia root (shu di huang) 15-18 grams
White peony root (bai shao): 12-15 grams
Dang gui root (Angelica sinensis): 12-15 grams
Chuan xiong rhizome (Ligusticum chuanxiong): 6-9 grams
Cinnamon bark (rou gui): 6-9 grams
Astragalus root (huang qi): 15-18 grams