In This Section
The layout of the immune system
The immune system is a magical, wonderful, subtle and powerful process, involving many different types of cell and tissue. Some tissue is fixed (e.g. appendix and tonsils) while others are mobile (white blood cells).
The "fixed" components include:
- The bone marrow, which matures white blood cells.
- The thymus gland, which educates certain cells and maintains immunity.
- The spleen and liver, which store immune cells.
- The tonsils, appendix and Peyers patches in the gut, which contain specialised tissue to defend the body at vulnerable points.
The intelligence of the system is quite wonderful to study. For instance, chemicals issue from damaged cells and can pass through capillary walls and encourage certain white blood cells to "eat" microbes and debris via a process called "phagocytosis". Their numbers increase as they determine the severity of the situation. Cells can also produce a chemical called interferon which limits the replication of a virus. Other types of cells secrete histamine which causes blood vessels to dilate and this brings more blood and immune cells to a target area. Yet other cells increase their numbers in allergic responses including asthma, hay fever and in skin conditions like psoriasis and eczema. Some of these can help control allergic reactions by neutralising histamines. And yet other cells destroy foreign bodies (antigens) that have reached deeper areas of tissue; these "big eaters" are capable of isolating affected areas while they deal with antigens.
The lymphatic system
This fine network of vessels contains many cells of immunity. Lymph helps to clean up cells and tissue, and it collects dead and dying cells and takes them to lymph glands where they are finally broken down and eliminated. Your tonsils and appendix have lymph tissue in them. T-cells (a type of white blood cell found here) are vital for fighting against abnormal cell structures – for example, cancer cells. They also fight fungi, bacteria and some large molecule drugs like penicillin. It is T-cells that are counted and act as a measure of immunity in chronic disease situations like AIDS. (With autoimmune diseases the T-cells may act against their own cells instead of foreign ones; many autoimmune diseases are on the increase and new disease patterns are emerging.) B-cells are another type of immune cell found in the lymph – they help to develop immunity. The main role of B-cells is to secrete antibodies when they come into contact with a specific antigen. There are different types of B- and T-cells, including "memory cells" which remember a previous invasion and then act quickly if re-infected, and antibody-producing cells (in the case of B-cells) or cytotoxin-producing cells (in the case of T-cells) which aid the destruction of invaders or abnormal cells. This process means that a previous encounter with an infection is "remembered" and creates resistance to further incidences of that infection.
The immune story
Plant medicine remains a mainstay for coping with infection. Many cultures had a clear understanding of the immune system; others had (and still have) obvious difficulties comprehending the true nature of disease and plagues. Jill Davies writes and speaks about these in her books and lectures. "I have heard many stories from different cultures about the use of plants, fire, wind, air and water and how they can help the body defend itself." For example, French girls and women who packed lavender essential oils for the perfume trade in the seventeenth century didn't catch typhoid and it soon became evident that lavender, just by handling it, could prevent this. Another story around lavender is also fascinating. A small band of thieves was captured in France, staggering under the weight of gold, jewels and silver culled from graves of the rich, many of whom were unlucky victims of a plague (which often killed off entire villages and whole sections of counties at a time). The thieves were told they could escape the punishment of death if they revealed how they had avoided the plague when continually dealing with the very infectious dead. They disclosed all! The secret was simple: they collected a variety of wild thyme, marjoram, rosemary, and lavender, depending on their availability. They crushed the leaves and rubbed them over their entire body, releasing the green, oily, sappy residues. A daily, or twice daily, treatment had kept them free of the plague.
We may think we are steps ahead because we have access to clean drinking water, and sewage does not contaminate our roads and rivers. We have warm and decent housing, central heating, good food, and access to quick and efficient medical care. However, in some ways we're steps behind. An example of this was the E.U law in the 1980s insisting that all chopping boards in catering kitchens were plastic. Years later it was discovered that plastic chopping boards harboured unchallenged germs in the tiny cutting grooves, whereas the natural essential oils, resins and gums within wooden boards act as natural and ongoing germ protectors, constantly being released when cutting grooves are created in the wood. It appears that wood is a living organism, rooted or un-rooted.
All life has an immune system, including plants and trees. Understanding immune systems and the spread of infection is incredibly complex, but more is being discovered all the time. Knowledge about lymphocytes was evident in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries but tremendous new insights have resulted from research in the last 50 years. Humans are slow to evolve, but microbes are not; they mutate incredibly quickly. Even if the industrialised world threw all its resources at controlling microbes we would still need to develop worldwide immunity, and this takes time. In 1993 it was estimated that 1.7 billion people worldwide were infected with tuberculosis bacillus but only a small percentage developed the disease. Malaria remains the biggest killer with 100 million people contracting this dreadful disease each year; two children every minute die of it. The standard drugs still being used are not as effective as they were. Interestingly many "old" or poor world diseases have returned and are spreading to richer nations. Insects remain the biggest mass killers of all time. Yet other diseases have become more and more resistant to antibiotics; in fact, the National Institute of Health in the USA has called it an epidemic of microbial resistance. In 2013 a select committee of MPs in UK parliament have identified antibiotic resistance as the major security risk faced in our times due to the civil unrest and panic that will accompany any epidemic.
Planetary population increases by over 93 million a year and we are all more mobile than ever before. Viruses cross food chains between animals and humans – as demonstrated by the "bird flu" and "swine flu" epidemics. Infectious diseases are still the world's highest cause of death, killing at least 17 million each year. In fact, according to the World Health Organisation up to half the 5.72 billion people on earth are at risk of endemic disease.
Modern immune problems
Antibiotic resistance is a long term problem that has been known about and ignored, but is now becoming critical. Complacency about antibiotics given to animals and via prescription for humans has weakened our immune system by killing valuable beneficial flora, and has allowed resistance to develop in the bacteria themselves. Doctors recognise the dangers of this. The number of patients with food poisoning via contaminated meats and dairy products (salmonella etc.) is constantly increasing – the available antibiotics are becoming ineffective because bacteria have built up resistance to these and other groups of drugs. Pork, sausages, chicken, take-away restaurant food and and meat pastes are all in the high risk category, but supermarket meat is no less suspect. Intensive farming methods using antibiotics, steroids and hormones are damaging both human and animal immune systems, and the spread of new strains of bacteria which are highly resistant to antibiotics is rising rapidly.
Another modern immune problem is caused by the many chemicals in our households and environment. They can place a huge burden on the immune system. Bio-accumulative toxins, from benzene to ethyl phenol, which are found in car exhausts, drinking water, pesticide sprays, wood treatments, paints and household cleaners are but a few. These chemicals may have a role in ME, asthma, allergies, and more.
Vaccination attempts to mimic natural cellular activity but instead of being subtle, as experienced naturally in daily life, it may be a strong stimulus. Vaccination can "tie-up" a body's B- and T- cell memory capacity to such an extent that immune function is not free to deal with any other new challenges. Natural immune system coding, whereby immunity is achieved through overcoming normal infections one by one in childhood, is more subtle; between 3 and 7 percent of immune cell memory capacity is tied up through natural coding instead of 70 percent when a vaccine is used. This was revealed in data collected by the Humanitarian Society in 1983. The immune system needs to have time to "self-educate" and recognise and remember for itself.
Live vaccine precautions
If you decide to immunise your baby with the live polio vaccine, make sure you wash your hands carefully in essential oils after all nappy changes for three months after he or she receives the vaccine. Keep your baby out of contact with any of the following people because they are at high risk of contracting vaccine-induced polio.
- Those receiving radiotherapy or taking chemotherapy or other immune-suppressing treatments.
- Those taking systemic gluco-corticoids like cortisone creams on the skin.
- Anyone with congenital immune deficiencies.
- Anyone with a history of paralytic disease.
If you or any other adults wish to be vaccinated, make sure you have the killed vaccine, which has a higher safety record than the live vaccine. Live vaccines are considered riskier for adults.
Viruses & bacteria
It is generally believed that viruses are different from bacteria, in that bacteria operate outside cell walls whereas viruses choose a "host" cell that they enter in order to replicate themselves (some can mutate, e.g. HIV, in order to survive). Although modern drug medicine can deal with fungal or bacterial infections, it has struggled to affect viruses. Now it is possible to invade viruses' sophisticated defence system. This could lead to entire "families" of antiviral drugs in the future. This could have a similar outcome to the story of our modern antibiotics. It is interesting to note that through plant screening tests, naturally occurring plant chemicals have been found that will enter virus-infected cells and successfully break them down.
Rife was a scientist who discovered that viruses and bacteria were the same life forms presenting at different stages. He built his own microscope and laser with greatly increased powers. His studies subjected the viruses and bacteria to vibration and they all acted in the same way. He also actually managed to kill viruses with vibration. Using this theory he developed Rife generators and used them successfully for people with cancer and other diseases. Using this approach he successfully treated many patients. Sadly the man somehow posed a threat to the USA government and the American military raided his premises in order to destroy his results. They succeeded. He died a broken man, impoverished and an alcoholic as a direct result of the destruction of his research, being denied the right to heal and with the consequent discredit and ridicule that ensued. Interest in his work is now resurfacing and it may prove that viruses and bacteria are one and the same thing.
More on antibiotics
Antibiotics were developed after the production of vaccines. This class of drug was hailed as the wonder drug of the 50s. The earliest of these was penicillin, discovered by Alexander Fleming. It revolutionised health care – probably like no other class of drugs. "Miracles" must have been witnessed regularly with this drug. Nevertheless, this and other antibiotics have become increasingly abused and overused in the years since it was first developed. Repeated courses of antibiotics can disturb the immune system so much that they can create further immune problems, and can themselves become dangerously ineffective. Repeated use of antibiotics in children, toddlers and babies can lead to severe conditions. These may include cases of unresolved tonsillitis (often resulting in surgery to remove the tonsils) or chronic respiratory problems, skin disorders, middle ear infections and hyperactivity. These common childhood problems may be reflected in a difficult and sickly transition into puberty, and may be linked to deeper problems like ME, cancer and other virulent immune disorders in adulthood. Of course there are situations where they provide the most effective answer for critical conditions, especially for vulnerable groups. In the USA, between 1977 and 1986, antibiotic prescriptions accounted for more than 50 percent of all paediatric prescriptions and their use for under 10-year-olds doubled. It is not surprising that bacteria are now becoming resistant to antibiotics.
In a 1981 audit of antibiotic use in the USA published in the "Review of Infectious Diseases", it was claimed that 50 percent of all prescribed antibiotics were either used in situations not warranting antibiotic usage, or the wrong dose – or duration of dose – was administered. Similarly in Britain a survey revealed that two thirds of all antibiotic usage was inappropriate. Since then the tide has turned and medics are thankfully often reticent to prescribe them.
Stress and its link to the immune system
Chronic unmanaged stress can inhibit immune and endocrine (hormonal) function, and so managing stress is a key part of supporting the immune system. Stress starts with our own perception of a situation. Lack of control over events, time pressures and unhelpful conditioning to stress (such as not expressing "negative" emotions and being unable to say NO) are all considered major stressors. As herbalists we can treat the nervous and immune systems but assertiveness training, time management skills, and self-help groups can also be helpful. Physical exercise can help to reduce stress and its effects on the body (especially when it is based on fun rather than duty) and it fundamentally improves immunity and endocrine function.
How we think and feel 'IS' the immune system
The key to an effective immune system is the general well-being of our mind, body and spirit. Becoming sick is not simply one problem; it develops because of a number of breakdowns. As well as stress, other psychological burdens such as fear and guilt depress immune function. While the huge increase in cancer is a modern problem, it is an old disease as medical anthropologists have demonstrated. Increasingly there is an admission that our thoughts and feelings have an unmeasured but profound impact on immunity. The science of psycho-neuro-immunology is the study of the link between psychological processes (including stress and how we deal with it), the nervous system and the immune system and is revealing fascinating links between all aspects of our selves – visible and known as well as unconscious and hidden. A stressed, overworked, unhappy life can lead to disease problems, whereas the opposite scenario is capable of catapulting one out of disease.
For those who are enlightened about a positive mental attitude (the Tibetans made this a specialty in their culture), the subject becomes something of a meditation itself. Maintaining genuinely good and positive feelings in any situation creates vibrations and these vibrations create different auras and body chemistry. Kirlian photography and chromatography can reveal these normally invisible elements. Body chemistry creates smells and fragrances which can attract or repel at an unconscious level, affecting you, other people, animals, insects and plants – everything that lives and has its own vibration. Bad, angry or depressed feelings, or living with the pain of past hurts and resurrecting them for fresh complaint and suffering on a daily basis, can cause a kind of "internal poisoning" and affect your immune system; this has been demonstrated. It is better to get the help you need to transcend these feelings, accept the past or current situations that cannot be changed, and move on to better health. Here are a few ways to explore stuck feelings.
- Psychotherapy and counselling
- Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP)
- Life coaching
- Belly breathing
- Laughter – explore the work of Norman Cousins and Robert Holden
- Sound therapy such as Tibetan crystal bowls, tuning forks and didgeridoos may also help. Some appear to change the shape and colour of blood cells and disintegrate cancer cells. Cells will produce a specific combination of frequencies, that can be targeted by the rhythm of music to create an emotional and physical balance. This can help concentration and patience. An example to illustrate the point: baroque music plays at 60-70 crochets a minute, which is just below the heart rate – this will calm people. In order to release imagination and intuition, you need a tempo just above the heart rate.
- Dancing with music is an age-old joy and panacea. Many spiritual masters believe that women in particular should dance, that this is their birthright and their greatest meditation technique. Sufism (Islamic mysticism) brings both music and dance together.
- Music, laughter, breathing, dancing, nature and colour are all readily available tools. They lift and harmonise the spirit, enhancing life, breaking old patterns and inviting new creative possibilities. Add to this good food and hygienic living. Then your physical and spiritual being may be equally liberated.
Herbs for immunity
Herbs that help the immune system can be used both on a vibrational level (flower essences or homeopathy) and on a physical level (herbal medicine, herbs used in cooking, and essential oils). Each plant has individual traits and it may work in several ways as a means for empowering the immune system. Some encourage T- and B-cells; some create oxygen, keeping cell and other activity alive and healthy. Other herbs encourage elimination through the skin which, if it remains clogged, causes toxicity and a "stale" body.
This is a category of herbs which can help you to adapt more quickly to whatever is new in your surroundings, be it emotional, physical or environmental. They can help to strengthen and change hereditary weaknesses. Some plants can help speed up adaptation processes. Famous adaptogens are Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus), schizandra (Schizandra chinensis), reishi (Ganoderma lucidum) and suma (Pffafia paniculata).
The Russians have probably done the most work on adaptogens. Recent studies highlight many secondary adaptogenic herbs that are slightly less strong than the herbs already mentioned but remain very effective. They balance and normalise the immune system, nervous system and hormone system. Those most recently studied include gotu kola (Centella asiatica), wild oats (Avena sativa), astragalus (Astragalus membranaceous), and burdock (Arctium lappa).
All these herbs can be used daily as food, in herbal teas, as tinctures or in capsules. They are ideally suited to combine with other plants as they mix well and remain balanced and supportive.
This beautiful plant is a herb of our time and if used on a more widespread basis, could help balance major negative immune trends because of its strong ability to fortify against environmental pollutants and radiation. It can help to regulate blood sugar levels. It also influences and nourishes the pituitary and adrenal system. It protects the liver and helps eliminate drugs from the body. On a daily basis Siberian ginseng increases our ability to resist infection. Although it is called a ginseng it is in no way related to other ginsengs, either by its action or its botanical structure; it got its name purely because it gave vitality. In order to avoid confusion it may be wiser to refer to it by one of its other common names, Eleuthero. It is a shrub which mainly grows wild in Russia.
This is a well-loved and well-known herb and is described as an immune adaptogen by many leading herbal practitioners. It is cultivated in Britain and Europe, but the only place it still grows in its natural habitat is North America. Native American Indian tribes have been aware of the benefits of echinacea for many centuries. The white Americans grudgingly accepted this towards the end of the 18th century. This has only comparatively recently reached Europe. Amongst other things, it has been found to cure deadly rattlesnake bites. It was used as a major immune stimulator by the indigenous peoples who loved this pretty purple-rayed flower with its yellow centre. When sick they sucked on the root all day to enjoy its tingling, almost metallic taste. The tingling is caused by a chemical called isobutylamine and many herbal scientists have said the tingling is linked to its healing properties. Herbalists have demonstrated that Echinacea angustifolia is the preferred species and that tingling and numbing of the tongue should be the deciding factor when buying the tincture. By 1914 this herb was scientifically proven to activate phagocytes (immune cells that engulf or "eat" bacteria and other wastes in the body). Recognised in the 1930s in Germany, it has been re-welcomed in a new wave of interest and is being used more than ever. Germany is the largest producer and importer of echinacea in Europe, using the superior fresh tincture from wild organic plants grown in America. More recently they have been growing their own and making fresh tincture from this. They also produce hundreds of medicinal products with echinacea as one of their ingredients.
Echinacea broadly acts by doubling or tripling our T-cells (although some tests have shown that it can increase available T-cells by 10 times and some research has shown an increase of up to 15,000 times). It also activates areas of the immune system which are only motivated in serious conditions (macrophage production); it also vastly increases the amounts of interferon, interleukin, immunoglobulin and other important natural immune chemicals present in the blood. It aids and boosts the number of immune fighter cells and then stimulates them into action, by mimicking the function of the cell wall which gives a signal to the body that an immune response is needed when the cell is old or sluggish. Groups of bio-chemicals called polysaccharides and alkylamides are two of the many active constituents found in this herb that are so rightfully revered. Short term benefits include the treatment of colds. It also speeds up recovery from chronic immune depression illnesse. It is also an adaptogen in that it can calm and regulate autoimmune conditions. Echinacea can also be put directly onto bites, stings and cuts, and enters the bloodstream that way. Remember, however, that echinacea cannot fully work unless vitality-building herbs and food (and other immune supporters) are used alongside it to build the bone marrow reserve. In other words, eat well and exercise!
To find out more, download for free Jill Davies' e-book on "Echinacea".
Garlic (the immune system's friend)
Fresh garlic is a stronger anti-fungal than Nystatin, and it has been proven to destroy viral infections on contact. This has included measles, mumps, chicken pox, herpes simplex 1 and 2, herpes zoster, viral hepatitis, scarlet fever, rabies and more. It also kills many types of bacteria including streptococcus, staphylococcus, typhoid, diphtheria, cholera, bacterial dysentery (travellers' diarrhoea), tuberculosis and tetanus. For a deeper insight, research the work of Kerry Bone who has done the best worldwide research on this plant. You can also download for free Jill Davies' e-book on "Garlic".
Garlic juice diluted 1: 25,000 can inhibit bacterial growth and kill bacteria. This makes it a useful broad spectrum antibiotic, but one which encourages friendly bacteria and improves intestinal flora and digestion. It should be used daily to keep immune levels balanced.
Other kitchen herbs for immunity include turmeric, oregano, thyme, cloves, basil, horseradish, onion – but the list is endless. Make sure these are included for "plate diversity" and bio-chemical challenge on a daily basis.
Probiotics & soil organisms
Probiotics are organic substances – the term literally means "for life" – and they work very differently to antibiotics, which kill germs (very often indiscriminately). What we now realise is that a balanced ratio of beneficial gut bacteria will protect and prevent intestinal toxicity and give good general protection from infection. The highest numbers of beneficial bacteria are situated in the small and large intestine – it is thought about 1,000 billion microorganisms in total. This flora itself can easily weigh around 4 pounds! All bacteria have different actions, some "living" in intestinal walls, others moving on and through, working as needed. In all, this protection deals with invasive parasites, yeasts, and so on. Their other jobs include helping to break down bile and helping to reduce toxic residues that encourage putrefactive bacteria. They can produce some B vitamins and some digestive enzymes, particularly lactose. It’s a big subject; for detailed background research look at www.natren.com.
One of the most effective ways to prevent disease is to wash your hands correctly for the correct length of time, at least 6 times a day. It is so simple yet only 1 in 6 people even bother to wash their hands at all after using the lavatory! You can find videos on Youtube that clearly demonstrate great hand washing techniques and here is one: handwashing.co.uk.
Our herbal formulae are strong flavoured and effective. Our herbs enjoy a long history of use. A large proportion of them are grown in English soils, harvested using bio-chemistry analysis and many of them are processed fresh, which heightens their remedial properties. The majority are grown organically and are sustainable and wild-crafted. All manufacturing is carried out using licensed good manufacturing practice.