The Ginseng Series - The Immune System

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The job of your immune system is to defend your body against various microorganisms that cause disease. Hence, it is important for you to maintain the health of your immune system. There are multiple ways in which you can do that such as by maintaining a healthy lifestyle (doing regular exercise, quitting smoking, getting adequate sleep, minimizing stress), improving your diet (eating lots of vegetables and fruits), taking vitamin and herbal supplements, maintaining a healthy weight etc.

What is the Human Immune System?

The immune system is the body’s natural protective mechanism and is required for your survival. Without it, your body is open to being attacked by disease-causing organisms. It is your immune system that keeps you healthy as you sail through an ocean of pathogens.

It includes a network of tissues, cells and organs which work in association to protect the body against various infectious organisms and invaders. These invaders include viruses, parasites, bacteria and fungi all of which have the potential to cause illness.

When the immune system founds a pathogen or a foreign organism, it starts an immune response. The main cellular components of the immune system are:

White blood cells (WBC): They are also referred to as leukocytes and circulate in the lymphatic vessels and the blood vessels in the body. When WBCs find a pathogen, they start multiplying and also send signals to other cells of the immune system. They are stored in thymus, spleen, bone marrow and lymph nodes in the body.

There exist two main kinds of WBCs:

  1. Phagocytes: They surround and break the pathogens and ultimately absorb them. There are various types of phagocytes including neutrophils (primarily attacks bacteria), monocytes (the largest type of cells which play several roles), macrophages (these remove pathogens and dying and dead cells) and mast cells (help in the healing of wounds and defending against pathogens).
  2. Lymphocytes: They help your body remember previous pathogens that have attacked the body and recognize them in case they attack again. The life of lymphocytes starts in the bone marrow. Some of them remain in the bone marrow and form B lymphocytes while others reach thymus and form T lymphocytes. The roles of these two types of cells is as follows:

B lymphocytes: Their role is to form antibodies and send signals to T lymphocytes.

T lymphocytes: Their role is to destroy or kill compromised cells in your body and send signals to other leukocytes.1

How does Immune System Works?

The immune system works by detecting proteins or antigens which are present on a cell’s surface. An antigen is a substance which starts or triggers an immune response. An antigen can be a bacterium, virus, toxin, foreign body or fungus. However, in some cases, it may be one of your own body cells that are dead or faulty.

When the antigen is spotted by B lymphocytes, they start secreting antibodies. Antibodies are specialized proteins, which lock with specific antigens. A specific antibody is made by a B lymphocyte. Though antibodies lock with specific antigens, they are unable to destroy them. This is done by T lymphocytes, which destroy antigens locked by antibodies. Antibodies can also neutralize toxins produced by microorganisms.

All these cells form part of your body’s immune system and offer your body protection from disease. This protection from disease is referred to as immunity.2

Innate Immunity

It is the initial defence mechanism of the body against various invaders and infections and it consists of four main components:

  1. Chemical/physical barriers including mucous membranes, skin, and stomach acidity
  2. Cellular components (Natural killer cells and phagocytes form a part of innate immunity)
  3. Blood proteins including inflammatory mediators and complements
  4. Cytokines which regulate the innate immune system cells

Acquired Immunity

It is the immune response that occurs when there is stimulation by an antigen and an antibody is secreted (as already discussed). The main players in acquired immunity are B lymphocytes and T lymphocytes and the antibodies secreted by them.

What is Ginseng?
Ginseng is a plant that is native to Asian countries including Korea and China. The Asian form of Ginseng is referred to as Panax Ginseng. An American form of Ginseng is also there which is grown in Brazil and is referred to as Panax Quinquefolium. The meaning of the word ‘Panax’ is ‘all heal’ and it refers to the therapeutic benefits of ginseng to general health. The active ingredient of Ginseng, ‘Ginosenosides’ is present in the roots of the plant.

The Asian Ginseng or Panax Ginseng is among the oldest known herbal medicines. It is being used in traditional Chinese medicine for greater than 7000 years. In China, it is referred to as the “root of heaven” as it is believed that it has the ability to provide cure to every ailment.

Benefits of Ginseng

It helps in the improvement of physical and mental performance in the body. It also improves utilization of sugar in the body. It increases the breakdown of lactic acid; thereby, promoting muscle recovery after strenuous exercise. Additionally, it improves concentration and cognitive function by releasing Ginsenosides that helps in inducing energy and producing a calming effect when under stress.3

How does Ginseng Help the Immune System?

Panax ginseng has been widely known to benefit the health of the immune system by strengthening it and by helping your body fight off disease and infections. It works by improving the performance of various cellular elements of the immune system. Ginseng helps in regulation of each kind of immune cells such as natural killer cell, macrophages, T lymphocytes and B lymphocytes. It works by increasing the activity of natural killer cells, increasing total count of lymphocytes and raising T-helper cell levels.4

Ginseng extracts help in producing antimicrobial compounds, which work to protect against viral and bacterial infections. Research in mice demonstrated that ginseng reduced the bacterial count in kidneys, spleen and blood. Ginseng extract also prevented the death of mice due to sepsis and inflammation.

According to a review published in the Journal of Ginseng Research, ginseng is among the best known herbal medicine that helps in clearing microbes from the body.5

According to a study published in the journal Immunopharmacology and immunotoxicology, Panax ginseng has immunomodulatory properties and it works by stimulating the activity of natural killer cells.6

Another study published in the Journal of agricultural and food chemistry demonstrated that ginseng stimulated immune function by increasing the activation of macrophages.7

Ginseng extract also improves production of antibody in response to microorganisms which act as antigens. An American Journal of Chinese Medicine study demonstrated that extract of ginseng-induced antibody responses that are antigen-specific when it is administered orally. Due to its ability to increase the production of antibody by the body’s immune system, it helps your body fight against pathogenic microorganisms or antigens invading the body.8

Certain studies which are done to explore its effects on immune system health have maintained their focus on cancer patients who are undergoing chemotherapy treatment or surgery. In one study 39 stomach cancer patients were followed who had cancer surgery. They were given 5,400 mg ginseng every day for the duration of two years. The patients showed significant improvement in their immune function and had reduced symptom recurrence. 9

In another study which was published in the Journal of Ginseng Research, the effects of the extract of red ginseng on the markers of the immune system were examined in patients suffering from advanced stage stomach cancer who were undergoing chemotherapy treatment post surgically. After the duration of three months, patients who were taking the extract of red ginseng had improvement in their immune system markers in comparison to patients who were taking placebo.10

Another study published in the Journal of Ginseng Research suggested that patients suffering from advanced colon cancer who took ginseng have about 35% greater chances of remaining free of disease for the duration of five years following a curative surgery and about 38% greater survival rate in comparison to those patients who did not take it. 11

A study published in the Journal ‘Drugs under experimental and clinical research’ suggested that extract of ginseng could potentiate the effect of vaccinations given for diseases such as influenza. 12

Hence, ginseng helps in strengthening the health of the immune system and may even potentiate the effects of some vaccinations.13

Other Supplements to help the Immune System

Apart from ginseng, there are other supplements that may help to strengthen the immune system. Some of them are described below

Zinc

Zinc is a supplement that helps in regulating the body’s immune response. It does so by regulating the functioning of T lymphocytes, which defends your body against cancers and pathogenic microorganisms. The function of T lymphocytes declines as you age. According to a study published in the American journal of clinical nutrition, an increase in the concentration of serum zinc by zinc supplementation was associated with an improvement in the immunity of nursing home elderly patients. The immunity improved as there was an increase in the T cell numbers.14

Vitamin C

Vitamin C is among the major boosters of the immune system. In fact, deficiency of vitamin C may make you prone to fall sick. According to a review published in the Annals of Nutrition and Metabolism, the concentration of vitamin C in the plasma decline rapidly during stress and infections. It has been found that vitamin C supplementation improves immune system components such as the activity of natural killer cells, antimicrobial activity and lymphocyte proliferation. The review further states that adequate intake of vitamin C not only relieves the symptoms but also shortens the duration of respiratory tract infections such as common cold.15

Vitamin B6

Vitamin B6 plays a role in supporting the biochemical reactions that are part of an immune response. According to a review published in Nutrition Reviews, it has been suggested that a deficiency of vitamin B6 affects both cell-mediated and humoral immune responses and these functions may be restored by repletion of the vitamin by supplementation.16

Vitamin A

Vitamin A also helps in boosting the health of your immune system. According to a review article published in the journal, Nature reviews immunology it has been suggested that Vitamin A has crucial and unexpected effect on the body’s immune response. The metabolites of Vitamin A exert specific and potent immunomodulatory effects such as activation and proliferation of lymphocytes, differentiation of T helper cells and regulation of immune response.17

Selenium

Selenium is a mineral that is required by the body in trace amounts but it very important in maintaining the health of the immune system. According to a study published in the journal Advances in nutrition, dietary selenium has been shown to play a vital role in the treatment of bacterial and viral infections. It does so by enhancing the body’s immune system.18

Garlic

Garlic helps in boosting the immune function of the body and in fighting infections. According to a study published in the journal Clinical Nutrition, it is suggested that supplementation with aged garlic extract enhances immune function and also reduced the severity of flu and colds.19

Your immune system helps to protect your body against various infections and diseases. Hence, it is important to maintain the health of your immune system. There are many ways to keep your immune system healthy and one of them is to take various herbs and supplements. Ginseng is a powerful herbal medicine that has been known to benefit the health of the immune system. Its ability to strengthen the immune system is supported by multiple scientific evidence.

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