Healing with Herbal Medicine and Phytochemicals
By Elaine Moore
The numerous herbal and plant phytochemicals with anti-inflammatory properties are some of the best complementary therapies for patients with autoimmune disease.
Inflammation occurs after injury or infection as white blood cells rush to the area and initate the immune response. Chronic inflammation, however, causes imbalances in the body’s stores of immune system chemicals, both complements and cytokines, and contributes to autoimmune and other diseases.
Inflammation is a key feature in autoimmune disease. In some conditions, such as Hashimoto's thyroiditis, inflammation contributes to the disease process. In other conditions, such as Crohn's disease, inflammation may occur as a result of the disease. Inflammation occurs as the immune system reacts to injury, infection, environmental agents, malignancy, and cellular changes. In skin, inflammation is most visible because it causes noticeable swelling, redness, discomfort and pain. The process leading to inflammation, which is known as the inflammatory response, also induces changes that aren't seen but influence the effects of inflammation and their severity.
The Inflammatory Response
The inflammatory response is a complex cascade of steps that include an activation of white blood cells, the release of immune system chemicals such as complement and cytokines, and the production and release of inflammatory mediators and prostaglandins. Inflammation may be acute or chronic or relapsing-remitting depending on the disease course. Most conventional treatments for autoimmune disease, including corticosteroids, work by reducing or suppressing inflammation and are called immunosuppressants.
Herbal Anti-Inflammatory Agents
Many herbs also possess anti-inflammatory (also known as antiphlogistic) characteristics. Herbs can be used as the sole therapy in autoimmune disease or as complementary corticosteroid-sparing therapies allowing patients to take smaller doses or shorter courses of corticosteroids. Treatment protocols today often rely on both alternative and conventional treatment options in a discipline known as integrative medicine.
Herbal medicine relies on active plant chemicals with biological properties. Many conventional medicines are synthetic compounds designed to mimic the action of plant chemicals. For instance, the heart medication digoxin is derived from the foxglove plant. In herbal medicine, active chemicals are extracted from the plant parts (stems, seeds, roots, or leaves) that are the richest sources. The active chemicals can be quantitatively measured and prepared in the form of capsules, tinctures, teas, tonics, oils, or poultices. Aromatic herbs such as lavender can also benefit the immune system when used topically or as healing oils.
Other herbs known to reduce inflammation include ginger, turmeric, pokeroot, cleavers, devil's claw, licorice, autumn saffron, boswellin, curcumin, arnica, bromelain, German chamomile, licorice, white willow, witch hazel, and capsaicin.
Many plant chemicals are known to reduce inflammation, including the omega-3 essential oils, which can also be derived from marine sources. Other plant chemicals, which are also known as phytochemicals, that are known to reduce inflammation include carotenoids and catechins, which belong to the plant chemical family known as bioflavinoids bioflavinoids.
The medicinal effects of plant chemicals are referred to as phyotherapy. The various plant chemicals found in plant and herbal sources all have different properties as they go about their business of reducing inflammation. For instance, spice components, such as curcurmin, turmeric, and capsaicin from red pepper reduce inflammation by influencing arachidonic acid metabolism and also the secretion of lysosomal enzymes by macrophages. Curcumin and capsaicin also inhibited the secretion of collagenase, elastase and hyaluronidase demonstrating that they can control the release of pro-inflammatory mediators such as eicosanoids.
Cytokines are chemicals that modulate the immune response. High levels of cytokines cause many of the detrimental consequences in autoimmune disease. Many plant chemicals have effects on at least one of the following cytokines: interleukin-1 (IL-1), interleukin-6 (IL-6), tumor necrosis factor (TNF), and interferon (IFN). Herbs that reduce or modulate the secretion of one or more of these cytokines include Acalypha wilkesiana, Acanthopanax gracilisylus, Allium sativum (garlic), curcurmin, Echinacea purpurea, Grifola frondosa, Panax ginseng, Olygala tunuifolia, Silybum marianum (milk thistle), Tinospora cordifolia, Uncaria tomentosa, and Withania somnifera.
Herbs should never be added to a healing protocol without first consulting with one's integrationist physician or a reputable online resource, for instance NCCAM (www.nccam.nih.gov/). Besides their anti-inflammatory properties, some herbs such as German chamomile also have sedative and spasmolytic properties that could interfere with the effects of other medications or cause undesirable side effects. ♦
© 21 Oct 2006 Copyrighted by Elaine Moore
Antoine Al-Achi, Anti-inflammatory Herbs, U.S. Pharmacist, March 15, 2004.
Kenneth Proefrock, Latest Updates in the Botanical Treatment of Autoimmune Diseases, Southwest Conference on Botanical Medicine 2003.
K. Spellman, Modulation of cytokine expression by traditional medicines: a review of herbal immunomodulators, Alternative Medicine Review, June 2006; 11(12): 128-50.