An East-West approach to immune health

ayurvedic herbs

The overall health of our immune system reflects how our inner and outer environments interact every day. Even though we can be making healthy decisions to the best of our ability, we are still confronted with battling the toxic burden from everyday life. With the increasing toxicity on the planet through air pollution, contaminated soils, and persistent pesticides, there is, as a result, more dysfunction in peoples’ bodies.

Why we get out of balance

People are sicker than they have ever been. As Dr. Alejandro Junger, creator of the Clean program, says, “We have removed ourselves from the ways of nature.” Moving away from the rhythms of nature and the natural environment can mean immune imbalance that often translates into allergies, autoimmune diseases, constant colds and flues, and even food reactivities.

“As above, so below, as within, so without, as the universe, so the soul …”
― Hermes Trismegistus

Both East (Ayurvedic and TCM) and West (Functional Medicine) medical approaches would agree that we need to support the immune system in a nature-based, systems-wide manner through foods, dietary supplements, and lifestyle. Where they differ slightly is in the language and the organization of the systems. Where they are similar is in the common ground of using plants as therapeutic agents.

When it comes to the Ayurvedic approach to immunity, we want to be sure that the doshas (our constitutional elements of Vata, Pitta, and Kapha) remain in balance. Often, they become imbalanced because we remove ourselves from natural rhythms by eating foods out of season or continuing to work by artificial light when it is dark outside. Ayurveda (‘the science of life’) provides practical strategies to re-align with the environment through the energetics of whole herbs.

What can we do about it?

Recently, the Ministry of Ayush, or the department of the Indian government that deals with health, put out a notice to the Indian citizens over the past months to address the concerns of the pandemic from the viewpoint of prevention. They highlighted the plant-based traditions of Ayurveda and discussed the following immunity self-care guidelines supported and referenced by Ayurvedic literature:

  1. Drink warm water during the day.
  2. Cook with spices such as turmeric (Haldi), cumin (Jeera), coriander (Dhaniya), and garlic (Lahsun).
  3. Drink herbal tea containing Holy Basil (Tulsi), cinnamon (Dalchini), black pepper (Kalimirch), dry ginger (Shunthi), and raisin (Munakka) once or twice daily.
  4. Drink golden milk (turmeric in hot milk) once or twice daily.

They also provided lifestyle strategies like the nasal application of oils, oil pulling in the mouth, and steam inhalation using mint or caraway in the case of upper respiratory issues.
In a similar way, in Western science, we know that plants signal to our cells the changes in the environment – a concept referred to as xenohormesis. The more diverse our plant food intake, the more we create immune resilience, especially through the metabolism of the gut microbiome.

Plants for health balance

The Institute for Functional Medicine published its position paper on botanical agents for immune health, specifically to address the upregulation of the inflammasome and inflammatory activity that occurs with infection. Several of the plants mentioned would seem to overlap with a very similar mechanism of anti-inflammatory herbs in Ayurvedic medicine.

Select plant actives mentioned by the Institute for Functional Medicine to help with infection and immune health include:

  • Quercetin, a phytonutrient found widely throughout the plant kingdom such as in onions and apples, which acts as an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory agent.
  • Curcumin, one of the active compounds in turmeric, which can help not just with reducing inflammasome activity, but also slow viral replication.
  • Epigallocatechin gallate from green tea at 4 cups daily, or in EGCG form of 225 mg once per day as a supplement.
  • Resveratrol, a common plant compound found in grapes and other plants, at 100-125 mg once daily as a supplement.

In general, both Eastern and Western medical systems can agree to the benefit of plants for immune health and support because of the multitude of anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and stress-modulating phytonutrients they contain. The focus in Ayurveda is often to use the whole plant so receive the complex array of compounds working together in harmony.

In Western herbal medicine, there is more emphasis on extracting what appears to be the ‘active’ component. Either way, there is great utility to the healing of plants. While it’s important to be thinking about prevention strategies with these Ayurvedic and Functional Medicine plant-focused recommendations, we can also be following a general plant-based diet rich in fruits and vegetables to help overall with better function and health in the body on a daily basis.

Written by Deanna Minich, PhD

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