Flu season is here, and our immune systems remain our primary defense against viruses of all types. The makers of Tamiflu, a leading antiviral drug used to treat the flu, report on their web site that adults with the flu felt better 1.3 days faster when they took this drug in clinical trials. Children in similar trials felt better 1.5 days faster. To me, this does not look very impressive. If I get the flu, I want to feel better immediately! And the flu is only one possibility. For most of the viruses in our environment, notably the 200+ varieties that cause common colds, there are no drugs that even claim to help us kill the virus.
So I went to Whole Foods to see what nutritional products are sold to aid the immune system. I found a section about four feet wide under the sign “Immune Support”, with a variety of products and manufacturers. The product with the most ingredients is Wellness Formula from Source Naturals, Inc. The label lists 29 ingredients, but some of these appear to be redundant, as in “Boneset Aerial Parts” and “Boneset Aerial Parts Ext. 4:1”.
I bought a bottle of Wellness Formula and checked out what the medical journals have to say about its herbal contents. To my delight, I found much more information than I could reasonably use for one article. So I counted the number of medical journal articles for each herb. From my own days in the research lab, I believe the number of articles is a reasonable indicator of the success of the investigation: scientists have a strong preference for experiments that show positive results. If a line of research shows more negative than positive results, it will most likely be dropped.
For the literature search, I used as keywords the name of the herb plus the word “immune”. I limited the search to articles with the keywords in the title and/or abstract fields. Here are the top ten herbs in Wellness Formula, ranked in order of the number of medical journal articles I found on each one:
1. Echinacea, 113 articles
2. Astragalus, 92 articles
3. Garlic, 66 articles
4. Cayenne fruit, 41 articles
5. Propolis, 36 articles
6. Angelica, 36 articles
7. Elder berry, 21 articles
8. Ginger root extract, 19 articles
9. Andrographis, 12 articles
10. Eleuthero, 9 articles
Wellness Formula contains five other herbs with a few (2 to 8) medical journal articles on immune effects: isatis, grape seed extract, olive leaf, goldenseal, and pau d'arco bark.
Most of these ingredients are available individually and/or in other formulas.
The PubMed search engine for the National Library of Medicine is available at:
Tamiflu's results in treating the flu:
Viruses that cause the common cold:
Linda Fugate is a scientist and writer in Austin, Texas. She has a Ph.D. in Physics and an M.S. in Macromolecular Science and Engineering. Her background includes academic and industrial research in materials science. She currently writes song lyrics and health articles.