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What is Defensive Qi (chi) and Which Herbs Enhance the Immune System?

By Peter Steele, DOM, AP, MSOM, LAC

Patients will be pleased to know that herbs used to strengthen the immune system are pleasantly sweet tasting. The reason for this is that adaptogenic herbs contain glycosides and saponins which are perceived as having a sweet flavor by taste buds. Because of this, in traditional medicine, it is said that sweet herbs are needed to strengthen the defensive qi of the body. Interestingly enough, traditional peoples also associated the color yellow with the earth element, and the vast majority of herbs that strengthen the immune system are indeed also yellow due to their chemical makeup.

What are some of the herbs that are used to strengthen the immune system?

One of the most commonly used ones at Rezilir would be ginseng. In fact, many patients are taking ginseng without even knowing it; the primary ingredient in the nasal spray Synapsin is a compound called ginsenoside Rg3, which is an extract from the ginseng plant. Ginsenoside Rg3 has been shown in peer-reviewed studies to modulate microglia (the immune system of the brain), reduce neuroinflammation, improve cerebral blood flow, and reduce depressive symptoms. Besides its use in Synapsin, Ginseng is also used as an herbal extract available through the Rezilir Herbals line.

Another herb that is very commonly used in the clinic is astragalus, also known as milkvetch. In contrast to ginseng which is very finicky and slow-growing (and therefore quite expensive), astragalus grows all over as a weed and is very inexpensive, making it great for a patient population that is already under financial strain from their illness. The chemical compounds in astragalus have been shown to improve immune response and also increase patients’ white cell counts over time. Steven Buhner, the herbal expert on Lyme disease, also heavily advocates the use of Astragalus as a prophylactic during tick season, as well as a supportive herb for patients who are struggling with a weakened immune system from spirochetal infection. It is for these reasons that astragalus is in the majority of our immune formulae, from the popular Immune-Plus formula for general immune support to the LD-Core Immune formula for patients suffering from Lyme disease.

The last herb that we will discuss today to promote healthy wei qi is one that many patients already have in their kitchen as a tea or spice; licorice! The main compound in licorice that is responsible for its pharmacological effects is glycyrrhizin, another sweet-tasting saponin. Like astragalus and ginseng, the compounds in licorice have been shown in studies to increase the number and activity of white blood cells, and in addition research would suggest that it reduces allergic reactions as well as inflammatory cytokines, both of which affect the patient population at Rezilir. Interestingly, preliminary research out of Germany indicates that glycyrrhizin may have use in the treatment of the novel coronavirus due to its antiviral activity. Because of its safety and versatility, licorice is used in many of the supplements at Rezilir; everything from immune-boosting support to formulae for antimicrobial, digestive, metabolic, sleep, and even hormonal issues. This widespread use dates all the way back to the beginning of its use as an herb; traditional herbalists believed that licorice’s sweet taste and harmonious nature meant that it would enhance just about any formula it was added to.

In traditional Asian medical practices, there is the idea of “qi” or “chi” that is usually translated as “energy”. This translation, however, does not accurately convey the true nature of qi to the common English speaker.

In ancient China where the concept first evolved, people wrote using a logographic system. This means that the written characters of the language represent the words themselves; words are not made up of letters like alphabetic systems. The character used to represent qi, , is made up of the character for rice, , and the character for steam, , thus illustrating the concept of qi as a sort of rarefied substance (steam) produced from more base materials (rice). Simplifying this concept as just “energy” does the understanding of traditional medicine a disservice.

To further compound the confusion when discussing qi with a layperson, there are actually many different types of qi. Although ancient people didn’t have the biomedical understanding that we do today, they still understood that air and food contained “energies” (qing qi and gu qi respectively) that could be extracted by the body to produce vital substances like blood and to fuel metabolism. They were also vital to the production of wei qi, or “defensive energy.”

That’s right, the ancient Chinese had an understanding of the immune system as well as germ theory. The idea of xie qi (pathogenic energy) being transmitted from person to person via an infectious particle dates back to the physician Zhang Ji who lived in the first century AD (predating Pasteur’s work by almost 700 years). The Chinese character for this pathogenic qi, , proves their understanding of the concept of germ theory as it is illustrates the idea of a small insect () being carried on the wind () and transmitting illness.

What does all this have to do with our clinical practice today?

As mentioned previously, although the ancient Chinese and other Asian cultures did not have our modern scientific understanding of the human body, they still understood conceptually how it worked and devised different treatments to address all aspects of health and disease. Entire schools of thought were developed around strengthening the body’s wei qi, including the famous Earth School founded by the physician Li Dongyuan in the 12th century AD.

The school was named after the earth element because this was the element associated with the spleen and lymphatic system, which the ancient physicians correctly associated with the body’s immune functions. The Earth School advocated that the key to treating disease was by regulating and strengthening the immune system itself, as opposed to fighting the pathogen. The primary means which they used to accomplish this was with the modification of the patient’s diet, but they also developed many different herbal formulae for when this was not enough.

In summary, thousands of years of traditional herbal practice are increasingly being validated by modern science, offering us new insights into the treatment of disease. As research continues, it is likely that more herbal extracts like ginsenoside and glycyrrhizin will make it to the market as medications, improving patient’s quality of life and reducing dependence on synthetic pharmaceuticals. Here’s to a cleaner and brighter plant-based future!

To schedule an herbal consultation, information on Rezilir Herbals or to book an appointment with Dr. Steele, please REQUEST an APPOINTMENT or call the office at 1-866-REZILIR

Further Reading:

Cheng Z, Zhang M, Ling C, et al. Neuroprotective Effects of Ginsenosides against Cerebral Ischemia. Molecules. 2019;24(6). PMID: 30897756

Cinatl J, Morgenstern B, Bauer G, Chandra P, Rabenau H, Doerr HW. Glycyrrhizin, an active component of liquorice roots, and replication of SARS-associated coronavirus. Lancet. 2003;361(9374):2045-6. PMID: 12814717

Fu J, Wang Z, Huang L, et al. Review of the botanical characteristics, phytochemistry, and pharmacology of Astragalus membranaceus (Huangqi). Phytother Res. 2014;28(9):1275-83. PMID: 25087616

Han S, Sun L, He F, Che H. Anti-allergic activity of glycyrrhizic acid on IgE-mediated allergic reaction by regulation of allergy-related immune cells. Sci Rep. 2017;7(1):7222. PMID: 28775294

Kang A, Xie T, Zhu D, Shan J, Di L, Zheng X. Suppressive Effect of Ginsenoside Rg3 against Lipopolysaccharide-Induced Depression-Like Behavior and Neuroinflammation in Mice. J Agric Food Chem. 2017;65(32):6861-6869. PMID: 28762741

Liu D, Su J, Lin J, et al. Activation of AMPK-dependent SIRT-1 by astragalus polysaccharide protects against ochratoxin A-induced immune stress in vitro and in vivo. Int J Biol Macromol. 2018;120(Pt A):683-692. PMID: 30170064

Raphael TJ, Kuttan G. Effect of naturally occurring triterpenoids glycyrrhizic acid, ursolic acid, oleanolic acid and nomilin on the immune system. Phytomedicine. 2003;10(6-7):483-9. PMID: 13678231

Yoshikawa M, Matsui Y, Kawamoto H, et al. Effects of glycyrrhizin on immune-mediated cytotoxicity. J Gastroenterol Hepatol. 1997;12(3):243-8. PMID: 9142643

You Z, Yao Q, Shen J, et al. Antidepressant-like effects of ginsenoside Rg3 in mice via activation of the hippocampal BDNF signaling cascade. J Nat Med. 2017;71(2):367-379. PMID: 28013484

Zhou L, Liu Z, Wang Z, et al. Astragalus polysaccharides exerts immunomodulatory effects via TLR4-mediated MyD88-dependent signaling pathway in vitro and in vivo. Sci Rep. 2017;7:44822. PMID: 28303957

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