How Herbs Impact Autoimmune Disease... Safely!
Humans have been using herbs for as long as 60,000 BC. At that time humans looked to animals to see what plants they were consuming to determine safety. Thankfully, research and Science have allowed us to better understand herbs and their mechanism of action to ensure they are consumed appropriately and safely. If we fast forward to the 19th century, this is when herbs were starting to be isolated for drug development.
Did you know that 70% of medication for cancer treatment comes from plants?
When we think about cancer treatments we know we want to support our immune system to fight. This is very telling when we think about the medicinal properties of herbs, specifically as they relate to the immune system. While this is fascinating, it’s not always this straightforward when we apply herbs to autoimmunity.
Many of us are looking to natural methods of healing, and while it is possible to support our autoimmune disease through nature and food, we also want to ensure we understand the medicinal properties behind what we are consuming. Herbs have the ability to calm an overactive immune system, but on the flip side, they can also have the ability to stimulate an already stimulated immune system.
Immune-stimulating herbs can exacerbate autoimmune disease, as we don’t want to upregulate our immune system, but rather support it. Immune-stimulants such as echinacea or elderberry can typically be used short term to boost our immune system against a known infection, but use in autoimmune disease should be done with caution.
Let’s get a little scientific and understand where these herbs play a role in our immune system.
To try to simplify the immune system lets focus on two major pathways:
- Cellular immunity (T-helper 1)
- Humoral immunity (T-helper 2)
T-helper cells are a type of cell within the immune system that when they are activated signals other immune cells to “attack” the invader. They are categorized differently based on how they are activated and what they release to kill:
- Th1 pathway is activated by intracellular organisms and secrete certain immune cells to kill off that organism.
- Th2 pathway is activated in response to antigenic stimuli from extracellular organisms and leads the body to secrete a different set of immune cells and support the function of antibody-producing B cells.
Evidence has accumulated from animal models and human studies to suggest that Th1 cells are involved in the development of organ-specific autoimmune diseases, such as Hashimoto’s, MS, rheumatoid arthritis, and type 1 diabetes. In these conditions, Th1 is considered pathogenic or “bad” whereas Th-2 cells are more protective. By contrast, Th2-cell dominance was found in patients with lupus, atopic dermatitis, and allergic diseases.
If we apply herbs to these two pathways you can see how it can impact autoimmune disease….
We want to maintain a balance between Th1 and Th2 cells. If we have a Th1 dominant autoimmune disease, we don’t want to incorporate herbs into our lifestyle that stimulate Th1, and likewise for Th2 dominated diseases.
· Pine Park
Let’s look at an example:
If you have Hashimoto’s, your Th1 cells may be more dominating as they are upregulated and causing an autoimmune response to your thyroid gland. If you started consuming elderberry daily in an effort to boost your immune system, you will INCREASE the Th1 response. As a result, you are going to increase that response and attack your thyroid gland as well, leading to an autoimmune flare.
How do we REGULATE this balance?
As we consider our immune system, we want to help create a balance between our T-cells to avoid that stimulating effect. One way that we do this is by increasing T-regulatory cells. Some herbs that help increase T-regulatory cells include curcumin, resveratrol, EGCG found in Green Tea and cinnamon. We incorporate many of these herbs in our blends to help support that immune balance.
It’s also important to remember that not all herbs impact the immune system but rather present benefits in other ways. Nervine herbs help to support stress and nourish our nervous system. These include herbs such as lavender, chamomile, and linden. Several herbs are also well known for their ability to support our digestive system. This is always of importance for autoimmune disease as we consider the gut and its role in autoimmunity. Herbs that support digestive healing include peppermint, chamomile, and marshmallow root.
Not one size fits all
Healing is never “one size fits all”, but having a deeper understanding of the process of healing allows individuals to create their own healing journey. Herbal medicine can be incorporated into one’s lifestyle, but understanding the effect on the immune system is imperative to ensure the appropriate response is achieved. Herbs can be utilized to help mitigate the symptoms of autoimmune disease and support those organs indirectly associated with them.