Immune - Lymphatics and antibiotics

by Paul Bergner

From The Healing Power of Echinacea and Goldenseal (Prima 1997)

Blood purifiers

I described “blood purifiers” in Chapter Three, explaining the Eclectic use of echinacea. Several herbs in Chapter Fourteen are also blood purifiers. The berberine-containing herbs in Chapter Fourteen are also blood purifiers. Here are two more herbs from that category. These are both well suited to the less-serious conditions listed in Table 3.2

Burdock (Arctium lappa)

Burdock ranked eleventh in a recent poll of medical herbalists in the United States of their most important herbs (Bergner 1994).

It ranks in my personal top three for frequency of prescription to my patients. No scientific research exists into burdock or its constituents, but it has been important in Western traditional medicine for thousands of years. Burdock enhances liver function by promoting the flow of bile, increases circulation to the skin, and is a mild diuretic. The Eclectics considered it a lymphatic herb, promoting the flow of lymph. The homeopathic Hale even stated that it was equivalent in its lymphatic action to poke root, a toxic herb used for serious lymphatic congestion and tumors. It is also a traditional anti-cancer herb, appearing in the famous Hoxsey formula for cancer and a number of formulas used in the last century for cancer. It is my number-one herb for boils. Burdock contains high amounts of the constituent inulin, which may have an effect on the immune system. Other inulin-containing plants, such as dandelion root and elecampagne, are widely used as blood purifiers or tonics. Take burdock root as a tea, in normal beverage quantities, up to four cups a day. You don’t have to be sick to take burdock as a beverage. It’s properties will help keep you well, and it makes an excellent coffee substitute.

Cleavers (Galium aparine)

Cleavers is another herb for which little scientific research exists. Like burdock, however, it has a strong reputation among traditional herbalists as a blood purifier and lymphatic herb. It is used today as a cooling remedy in fevers and inflammations, for swollen glands, and for urinary tract infections. It’s purifies lymph promoting properties are partly responsible for its “blood purifying” effects. As we saw in Chapter Four, an increased flow of lymph promotes enhanced circulation of the immune weapons of the lymph glands, including T-cells and antibodies. It may also purify the blood through its diuretic properties.

Lymphatic herbs

Both the herbs above have reputations as lymph-promoting herbs, but are used for broader indications as well. The two herbs that follow are more specific to the lymphatic system, and may be used for acutely swollen glands.

Red root (Ceanothus spp.)

The Eclectics used red root for stagnancy of the portal venous system. The is the series of veins that carries nutrients from the digestive tract to the liver for processing before it can enter the general circulation. Like other venous blood, portal blood has no pulse or pressure. It also has to move upwards, against gravity, to get to the liver. A sedentary lifestyle, a heavy diet, intestinal disorders, and liver stagnancy can all cause this network to become stagnant. This also effect immunity because blood from the spleen, a lymphatic organ that filters the blood, must also drain through the portal system. Key Eclectic indications for the use of red root were a swollen spleen and a stagnant liver. It was used by soldiers during the Civil War for spleen inflammations that accompany malaria.

Portal venous stagnation is invariably accompanied by stagnation of lymph. About two-thirds of the lymph in the body is derived from the portal system. The lymph from most of the body passes through the same anatomical area as the venous blood on its way back to the general circulation near the heart, and is pumped by the same mechanisms. Thus red root is also considered a lymphatic herb. We don’t know exactly how it works, but red root is clinically effective not only for enlarged spleen, but for such lymphatic conditions as swollen glands, pelvic congestion, and ovarian cysts.

According to herbalist Michael Moore, the dose for the tincture is large: 1/2 to 1 1/2 teaspoons three or four times a day. The dose for the tea is small however, from one eighth to one quarter cup of a standard decoction. He also recommends a milder tea in larger quantities: 2 tablespoons of the root boiled for twenty minutes in a quart of water. Then take a third of the quart an hour before each meal.

Note that the very best mover of portal venous blood and lymph is aerobic exercise. The vigorous deep breathing and pumping of the diaphragm mechanically move the blood and lymph out of the abdomen and into the general circulation. A high-fat diet promotes lymphatic stagnancy as well, because all the fats from the digestive system must be drained through the lymphatic vessels before they reach the general circulation. More fat makes for “thicker” lymph after meals.

Ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens)

This southwestern plant, according to herbalist Michael Moore, is a specific for lymphatic and venous congestions of the pelvic area. This could include conditions ranging from swollen pelvic glands, to hemorrhoids, to uterine fibroids. This is not a well-known plant, and may not be available in some health foods stores, but we use it invariably in our clinic for conditions of pelvic congestion. The dose is two droppers of the tincture four times a day.


The following herbs, unlike most I’ve describe so far, are true antibiotics. Usnea will kill germs, molds, fungi, and other microorganisms when applied topically, but will also treat such conditions as bronchitis, pneumonia, or urinary tract infections. A constituent in uva ursi breaks down to produce an antibiotic substance in the body which is then excreted in the urine, delivering the antibiotic directly to the urinary tract.

Usnea, Old Man’s Beard (Usnea spp.)

Usnea species are antibiotic and antifungal lichens that hang like little beards from trees throughout the forests of the Pacific Northwest. Thus its traditional name “old man’s beard.” A lichen is not really a plant, but is a fungus and algae living together as a single organism. The fungus provides a rigid structure for the chlorophyll-rich algae, which cover the fungus and provide nutrition for both. Together they produce constituents different from those of either original organism — chemicals with unique antibiotic and antifungal properties to protect the lichen from microorganisms. These compounds are useful for their antibiotic effects in humans as well, especially for urinary and respiratory tract infections, athlete’s foot and other fungal infections. Usnea ointments are common medicinal agents in Europe, used for topical fungal infections. Usnea appears to have immune-enhancing properties as well. European preparations have been shown to enhance resistance to colds and flu (Weiss 1988). Alectoria usneoides, a close relative that is often found hanging from the same tree as usnea, was used in traditional Arabian medicine for a swollen spleen, another possible indication that it affects the immune system favorably. Another related species is used in traditional Chinese medicine for respiratory infections and skin ulcers. Usnea has been used in traditional European medicine for mucous membrane infections, diarrhea, dysentery, and weakness of the stomach (Hobbs 1992).

The usnic acid in usnea is effective against gram positive bacteria such as streptococcus and staphylococcus, making usnea a valuable addition to herbal formulas for sore throats and skin infections. It is also effective against a bacterium that commonly causes pneumonia Table 19.x shows some conditions that usnea has been used for in European research.

Some clinical uses of usnea in european medicine

athlete’s foot



bacterial infection



fungus infection

lupus erythematosus




sinus infection


vaginal infection (trichomonas).

urinary tract infection

(Source: Hobbs 1992)

Usnea should be taken as a tincture or a salve. I recommend combining it with herbs such as echinacea, yerba mansa, or osha when treating colds, flu, and sore throats when bacterial infection is suspected. It is indispensable in the treatment of strep throat, and can prevent the need for antibiotics. If your sore throat lasts longer than about a week, and you don’t successfully treat it with herbs, be sure to see a physician. It can also be combined with uva ursi when treating urinary tract infections.

Uva-ursi, bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva ursi)

Uva ursi is a classic urinary tract tonic and anti-infective. The constituent arbutin in uva ursi breaks down in the body to form the antibiotic constituent hydroquinone, which is excreted through the urinary tract. The antibiotic constituent thus has no undesired effect on the intestinal bacteria, and is delivered directly to whatever bacteria are in the bladder or urethra. Echinacea is, of course, an immune stimulant. Combining the herbs attacks the bacteria directly via hydroquinone in the urine while echinacea strengthens the innate resistance.

Clinical properties and uses of echinacea, according to Douglas Kirkbride, D.C., N.D., of Canada

Influences all the mucous membranes, but especially genitourinary tract.

Astringent and tonic to the urinary tract

Catarrh in the bladder

Leukorrhea in the female


Practically every urinary condition

Ulceration of the bladder and kidneys

Prostatic weakness.

Prolapsed uterus

Flaccid vagina and uterus.

Tonification of the pelvic organs, male or female

Uva ursi has more to it than bacteria-killing ability.    Canadian Naturopath and Chiropractor Douglas Kirkbride is a master herbalist, have more than forty years of clinical experience. In a 1991 lecture, he described one herb from each of the major therapeutic herb categories — the one herb that he simply couldn’t do without. For urinary tract herbs, he chose uva ursi. Table 19.x shows some of this clinical observations. Kirkbride suggests taking uva ursi as a tea in the following formula as a urinary tract tonic.

Uva ursi                     one ounce

Squaw vine (Mitchella repens)        one ounce;

Dandelion root (Taraxacum off.)        one and one-half ounces

Simmer in 1 qt water for twenty minutes.

Strain and give 4 tablespoon doses three times a day

It is best to avoid uva ursi in chronic kidney inflammation. I have one confirmed case where it caused elevations of creatinine in such a condition, verified by rechallenge, an indication of worsening the inflammation (Tilgner 1996).

Case Study: Urinary tract infection

A patient of mine was a 38 year-old woman complaining of a ten-month continuous urinary tract infection. A single species of fecal bacteria had been found in the urine on lab testing by an M.D. The infection had been treated unsuccessfully with antibiotics for ten months.


Uva ursi                     1 ounce

Echinacea angustifolia            1 ounce

Nettle leaf (Urtica dioica)         30 drops

One dropper three times a day.

On follow up two months later, the patient said the original infection had cleared in six days, and the patient remained asymptomatic for two months following. Mild symptoms began to return after two months, and lab tests again showed fecal bacteria, but at about half the colony size as previously.
  Copyright 2001 Paul Bergner

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