Many people are interested in herbal help during the cold and flu season. Some plants, such as echinacea, garlic and elder, are well known. These are most useful during the acute phase; to be used once a person is beginning to feel under the weather.
Not as well known are the Immune Tonics. These are plants that have traditionally been used to strengthen the immune system. The goal is to reduce the chances of getting sick in the first place.
The two immune tonic herbs used the most at our school are Astragalus and Reishi.
Astragalus is Astragalus membranaceus and is also known as Astragalus propinquus. The Mandarin name in Traditional Chinese Medicine is Huáng Qí.
Reishi is Ganoderma lucidum although other Ganoderma species are also used.
Astragalus is the woody root of a plant in the bean family growing in China. When purchasing, look for long slices of the root; the best ones look similar to a large tongue depressor. In this case, bigger is better. The older the plant, the bigger the root and the more vitality has been stored in the roots. Unfortunately, these are hard to find in commerce. Thumb-sized root slices are much more common.
Astragalus has long been used in China to increase the Wei Chi; the defensive energy. This is a specific type of energy that is similar to (but not exactly the same as) the immune system in the Western view. It strengthens our resistance to getting sick rather than curing a specific disease.
Reishi is a large, woody mushroom with a shiny coating resembling varnish. In fact, the botanical name, Ganoderma, means shiny skin.
This mushroom has a legendary, almost mystical status in some traditional Asian cultures. Some common names from Asia are Emperor’s Mushroom, the Herb of Spiritual Potency, Mushroom of Immortality or simply the Spirit Plant. (Spirit in this context refers to an energy or vitality such as the will to live or a spirited horse).
Out of all the medicinal mushrooms currently on the market, Reishi is the most thoroughly researched. A recent look at the PUBMED.gov research database shows more than 1000 entries for the term ‘Ganoderma”. While it has a deep tonifying and strengthening effect throughout the body, we are looking at its immune potential in this article. It has the ability to increase the Wei Chi, very similar to Astragalus although I see the effects of Reishi to be broader.
Both these herbs require a hot water decoction to release their health-giving benefits. Here is the approach used at our school:
- Add a small handful of sliced Astragalus roots to a blender. Grind them into a coarse powder. It will look a bit like fluffy sawdust. Pour this into a large bowl.
- Use an equal amount of Reishi mushroom. Break it into smaller pieces with your hands. Add to blender. This will also become a coarse, fluffy powder. Pour into the same bowl with the Astragalus.
- Mix both herbs thoroughly with a large spoon.
- We grind enough at one time to fill a quart canning jar, packed tightly.
- Next, put a little more than one quart of water in a large pan. Then place a cupful of the ground herbs into the water and stir so they are well wetted.
- Simmer the covered pot on a low flame for 30 minutes. Turn off heat and let sit for at least an hour; it can also steep overnight.
- Strain out the herbs. The final amount of tea should be one quart. Drink two cups daily. One quart will last two days.
The taste is earthy-woody. If you are used to the flavors of nature, you will love it. If you are fairly new to using and tasting different plants, you may not like it. A bit of honey or a pinch of ground licorice root can be added during the simmer phase to make a more palatable drink. (A tip about using licorice – a little goes a long way. When adding licorice to tea for flavor, use it like you would salt. Too much is awful.)
The effects of this drink are gentle and it must be used over time to work. We usually begin using these herbs in early November and drink this preparation several times a week through February. Don’t think of this as an assignment, something you must do everyday. It is better to approach this as integrating it into your lifestyle; instead of reaching for a soda or coffee during the day, have a few sips of this decoction. To make the preparation easier, a large pot can be prepped, then poured into 8 oz. or 16 oz. canning jars and frozen. Thaw a jar as needed for your daily drink.
Use in Stews and Broth
Both herbs can be added to long cooking stews. This is a common dish during winter in China. In recent years bone broth has regained its popularity in America and these herbs are readily added to this recipe.
The flavor of Astragalus is mild enough that most people won’t notice 3 or 4 root slices added to a stew pot. Reishi has a stronger flavor and I use a lesser amount in stews.
Just be aware that being woody and fibrous, neither herb is edible. Leave them in big enough pieces that they can be removed before freezing or serving the final dish.
What About Tinctures?
Concentrated alcohol-based extracts known as tinctures are popular in the American herb community. These are an effective way to use many herbs. However, both Astragalus and Reishi are rich in water-soluble polysaccharides. There are differing opinions on the effectiveness of using these two herbs as tinctures. My preference is to use the traditional method of a long-simmered decoction.
Jade Screen is a traditional tonic immune formula that has written origins dating to 1347 AD by the Chinese scholar Zhu Dan Xi.
It has just three herbs with the primary herb being Astragalus. It is a primary formula for strengthening the Wei Chi.
It is available in tablet form from many herb retailers. I have had good success with this product.
Three points to remember for this formula:
1. To be effective, it must be taken long term – several weeks at least. In our family, we use Jade Screen tablets daily November through February.
2. It is used for prevention. Don’t wait until you are sick.
3. It should not be used during the acute phase of a cold or flu. Take it before or after you are sick – not during.
Over the years, many people have found these herbs and formulas to be wonderfully helpful in the prevention of colds and flu. Combine these herbs with a lifestyle that focuses on stress reduction, proper diet and quality sleep… and the Echinacea and garlic may not be needed this winter.