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Scientific research on plant medicine’s to boost immunity and be antiviral
CAUTION NOTE: Immune-boosting plant medicines are contraindicated in some conditions affecting the immune system – always consult a NIMH registered medical herbalist and inform your healthcare provider before giving any plant medicine to a child or taking any plant at a medicinal level if you are pregnant, have any medical condition or are taking any medication. Always source plant medicine from an established reputable source.
Boosting the immune system is key to help to combat infections, especially where there is no effective antibiotic or vaccination (or where vaccines are only effective in a proportion of the population). To help boost your immunity it is important to ensure you get regular daylight, eat a regular fresh rainbow diet, take exercise and lower stress.
NIMH medical herbalists use plant medicines to help boost immunity for example during the winter flu season. Plants such as echinacea, astragalus, elderberry and garlic have science to show how they help boost and protect the immune system. Humans have used the plants around them throughout history as medicines, for example to boost the immune system and to help prevent and treat infection and it is only now that science is bringing to light how effective they are – read our Plant of the Day blog for more information.
Studies from labs around the world show just how these plants work, for example to stimulate immune cells and help promote an antibody response, to inhibit bacteria, virus or fungal growth and/ or to control the inflammatory response during infection. For some of these plants there have also been a number of controlled clinical trials in humans. These clinical trials indicate that in group comparisons of test plant and placebo, certain plant medicines are effective as immuno-stimulants.
Plants tested effective in controlled clinical trials to boost immunity include European elecampane root, rosehip berry and elder berry, Eastern astragalus root, ginger root and liquorice root and American echinacea root. Further information on some of these plant medicines is given below. Plants shown clinically to effectively treat a range of respiratory disorders include the common ivy leaf (not the berry!).
NOTE: There is further scientific research required in order obtain full information on how these plant medicines work, though it is important clinically that they are used today as effective plant medicines by National Institute of Herbal Medicine medical herbalists, and herbalists across the globe to help boost immunity and treat infection. Always consult a NIMH registered medical herbalist before taking any plant at a medicinal level if you are pregnant, taking any medication or have any medical condition. Always buy plant medicine from an established and reputable source (eg, Baldwins) to be sure of the identity and efficacy of the plant material and to avoid adulterated products. Do not take echinacea and astragalus in immune conditions without consultation.
Hawkins J, Baker C, Cherry L, Dunne E. Black elderberry (Sambucus nigra) supplementation effectively treats upper respiratory symptoms: A meta-analysis of randomized, controlled clinical trials. Complement Ther Med. 2019;42:361–365. doi:10.1016/j.ctim.2018.12.004
Krawitz C, Mraheil MA, Stein M, et al. Inhibitory activity of a standardized elderberry liquid extract against clinically-relevant human respiratory bacterial pathogens and influenza A and B viruses. BMC Complement Altern Med. 2011;11:16. Published 2011 Feb 25. doi:10.1186/1472-6882-11-16
Porter RS, Bode RF. A Review of the Antiviral Properties of Black Elder (Sambucus nigra L.) Products. Phytother Res. 2017;31(4):533–554. doi:10.1002/ptr.5782
Ulbricht C, Basch E, Cheung L, et al. An evidence-based systematic review of elderberry and elderflower (Sambucus nigra) by the Natural Standard Research Collaboration. J Diet Suppl. 2014;11(1):80–120. doi:10.3109/19390211.2013.859852
Echinacea (Echinacea purpurea)
Several, but not all, clinical trials of echinacea preparations have reported effects superior to those of placebo in the prevention and treatment of upper respiratory tract infections. (Do not take in immune conditions with professional advice).
Barnes J, Anderson LA, Gibbons S, Phillipson JD. Echinacea species (Echinacea angustifolia (DC.) Hell., Echinacea pallida (Nutt.) Nutt.,Echinacea purpurea (L.) Moench): a review of their chemistry, pharmacology and clinical properties. J Pharm Pharmacol. 2005;57(8):929–954. doi:10.1211/0022357056127
Anti-viral medicinal plants
Many plants contain their own antimicrobial (anti-bacterial, anti-fungal) and antiviral compounds in order to survive in their environment. A number of these plants contain active compounds in their volatile (aromatic or essential) oil. These aromatic plants have been used by humans (and animals!) throughout history against microbes and some have been verified as showing activity against certain bacteria, fungus and viruses in laboratory studies.
Though it is important to note that clinical trials on these plants are yet to be carried out, they have a long-established traditional use by medical herbalists to aid the prevention and treatment of infection. These plants include thyme (Thymus vulgaris), sage (Salvia officinalis), marjoram (Thymus mastichina L.), clary sage (Salvia sclarea L.), rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis), bay (L. nobilis), anise (Pimpinella anisum L) and eucalyptus (Eucalyptus globulus). Thyme, sage, marjoram, clary sage, rosemary and bay can all be used in foodstuffs and taken as tea as preventative medicine, and are also used at a medicinal level as plant medicines (- see caution above). To use the essential oils (which contain key bioactive anti-microbial compounds) please note the caution below and use at a maximum of 5% (e.g. 0.5ml per 10ml) in room diffusers, carrier oils and perfumer’s alcohol sprays, or use 2-3 drops on a tissue or clothing. Though we don’t take essential oils internally in the UK yet, in France and other countries they are often taken in suppositories. CAUTION: Essential oils are highly concentrated and some essential oils are toxic. Sage and rosemary are contraindicated in epilepsy. Always consult a qualified aromatherapist before using an essential oil other than how the label recommends.
Choi HJ. Chemical Constituents of Essential Oils Possessing Anti-Influenza A/WS/33 Virus Activity. Osong Public Health Res (Perspect. 2018;9(6):348–353. doi:10.24171/j.phrp.2018.9.6.09
Fani M, Kohanteb J. In Vitro Antimicrobial Activity of Thymus vulgaris Essential Oil Against Major Oral Pathogens. J Evid Based Complementary Altern Med. 2017;22(4):660–666. doi:10.1177/2156587217700772
Loizzo MR, Saab AM, Tundis R, et al. Phytochemical analysis and in vitro antiviral activities of the essential oils of seven Lebanon species. Chem Biodivers. 2008;5(3):461–470. doi:10.1002/cbdv.200890045
Wińska K, Mączka W, Łyczko J, Grabarczyk M, Czubaszek A, Szumny A. Essential Oils as Antimicrobial Agents-Myth or Real Alternative?. Molecules. 2019;24(11):2130. Published 2019 Jun 5. doi:10.3390/molecules24112130
We recommend Botanical Brain Balms (Filbert Press, 2018), Grow Your Own Physic Garden (DPG Publishing, out April 04 and available to buy on our website) and The Modern Herbal Dispensary by Easley & Horne (North Atlantic Books 2016) for qualified information on using plant medicine.