In a previous blog, we explored the possibility of a balanced immune response, one that is wiser and stronger all year round (not just during “immune season”). How can we get a wiser immune system? I believe that the answers are embedded in nature and in the inherent intelligence of our own bodies.
That said, no other botanical, I believe, can be more helpful for a wiser immune system as Cistus incanus—a plant that almost no one in the U.S. knows about, which nevertheless has been treasured for thousands of years in Europe as a daily infusion.
Cistus Incanus: A Survivor and a Thriver
Imagine you are hiking up a dusty, stony hill under the hot Mediterranean sun. The land is parched after a recent wildfire. But just around the bend, a shimmer of pinkish-purple catches your eye. As you clamber on, the path spills into a thick stand of plants, filled with flowering shrubs with crinkly, pink-to-purple-hued blossoms and resinous leaves. Meet Cistus (Cistus incanus), an evergreen in the rockrose family.
As you can probably tell, Cistus is a survivor, able to adapt to and even thrive in harsh conditions (Ferrandis et al., 1999). Likely inspired by Cistus’s strength and adaptability, ancient Mediterranean people began to incorporate it into daily life as a tonifying infusion and as a remedy for a range of discomforts and challenges, including for immune support (read more about Cistus here).
As is so often the case, our forebearers were right. Thanks to insights by modern technology and science, we now know that polymeric polyphenols probably have a lot to do with Cistus’s healing power. This unique class of polyphenols is abundant in Cistus, and they are used by Cistus as part of a protective strategy in the often-harsh growing conditions of its native lands.
Cistus’s magic can also take care of you, infusing your system with a rare, signature array of protective polyphenols that can help you face immune challenges with resilience and balance.
To use an analogy, a Cistus-fueled immune system might be able to patrol the “streets” better and is more alert and ready to respond. If your immune system could speak, it might say ahhhhh as some of the “static noise” in the background is silenced and cleared away by the polyphenols and innumerable other protective phytoactives in Cistus. (I've written more extensively about Cistus in my free 14-Day Immune Wellness Journey—you can sign up at no cost here).
| Some scientists speculate that red blood cells, which were recently shown for the first time to be critical immune sensors (Lam et al., 2021), can be coated by polyphenols, which protects them from oxidative stress (Koren et al., 2010).
While of course there is certainly much more to discover, the power of polyphenols may reach much farther than we currently know!
A Symphony of Synergy
While Cistus is undoubtedly special as a solo herb, through the science and art of herbal synergy, other plants can help Cistus work even more deeply and with greater power.
For example, the full-spectrum of naturally occurring vitamin C in rose hip, cherished as food and medicine the world over for generations, can increase the activity of Cistus. Sumac berry, celebrated in the Middle East, is also nutrient-dense and adds a tangy zest to herbal infusions. In addition to helping Cistus work more powerfully, both rose hip and sumac berry also offer their own unique arrays of immunoprotective polyphenols.
Another vitamin C-rich helpmate for Cistus is black currant leaf, revered in European folk traditions for acute and chronic immune challenges. Modern science corroborates traditional use: evidence shows that a small concentration of black currant leaf extract can help the body overcome immune challenges. While you may be more familiar with black currant berry, it is the leaf that most intrigues me for its wiser-immune system potential. Plus, it’s delicious!
A dear old favorite, ginger rhizome is beloved among medicine systems dating back thousands of years, including in India, Iran, and China. Ginger is rich in the immunomodulating polyphenol gingerol, which can help reinstate balance throughout the immune system and body. Well-known as a digestive herb that both activates and soothes digestion, ginger has also been shown to amplify gut microbiome diversity (Wang et al., 2021). Interestingly, ginger’s warming, spicy energy is often relied upon in many herbal traditions to catalyze and empower other herbs in a formula—in short, ginger is a multi-talented herb that brings its own magic to a formula and helps other herbs reach their potential more efficiently!
Turning now to the fungal kingdom, we find a woody, lumpy-looking outgrowth that clings to northern birch trees and can survive remarkably cold temperatures. This humble mass is chaga, the conk of a mushroom called Inonotus obliquus, which has been prized as medicine for millennia, especially by ethnic Siberian groups like the Khanty people (Géry et al., 2018). Chaga, when growing wild on birch, produces betulinic acid, known to balance immune responses.
All the above-mentioned plants possess extraordinary abilities. What happens when we take that kind of power into our bodies? Along with their multitude of potent healing gifts, perhaps these immune allies infuse our beings with a medicine that science has not yet discovered, but one that our ancestors sensed the truth of so long ago.
Illustration by Rosie Schulick of Rosie's Wonders Connection Cards.
Ferrandis, P., Herranz, J. M., & Martínez-Sánchez, J. J. (1999). Effect of fire on hard-coated Cistaceae seed banks and its influence on techniques for quantifying seed banks. Plant ecology, 144, 103–114. https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1009816309061
Géry, A., Dubreule, C., André, V., Rioult, J. P., Bouchart, V., Heutte, N., Eldin de Pécoulas, P., Krivomaz, T., & Garon, D. (2018). Chaga (Inonotus obliquus), a future potential medicinal fungus in oncology? A chemical study and a comparison of the cytotoxicity against human lung adenocarcinoma cells (A549) and human bronchial epithelial cells (BEAS-2B). Integrative cancer therapies, 17(3), 832–843. https://doi.org/10.1177/1534735418757912
Koren, E., Kohen, R., & Ginsburg, I. (2010). Polyphenols enhance total oxidant-scavenging capacities of human blood by binding to red blood cells. Experimental biology and medicine, 235(6), 689–699. https://doi.org/10.1258/ebm.2010.009370
Lam, L., Murphy, S., Kokkinaki, D., Venosa, A., Sherrill-Mix, S., Casu, C., Rivella, S., Weiner, A., Park, J., Shin, S., Vaughan, A. E., Hahn, B. H., Odom John, A. R., Meyer, N. J., Hunter, C. A., Worthen, G. S., & Mangalmurti, N. S. (2021). DNA binding to TLR9 expressed by red blood cells promotes innate immune activation and anemia. Science translational medicine, 13(616), eabj1008. https://doi.org/10.1126/scitranslmed.abj1008
Wang, X., Zhang, D., Jiang, H., Zhang, S., Pang, X., Gao, S., Zhang, H., Zhang, S., Xiao, Q., Chen, L., Wang, S., Qi, D., & Li, Y. (2021). Gut microbiota variation with short-term intake of ginger juice on human health. Frontiers in microbiology, 11, 576061. https://doi.org/10.3389/fmicb.2020.576061 https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fmicb.2020.576061/full
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