Herbs for Autoimmune Disease

Nervines and Refrigerants for Autoimmune Diseases, Written by Kathy Eich


What is an autoimmune disease?

It’s difficult to pinpoint how many people autoimmune diseases affect. According to John’s Hopkins Medical Institute, the National Institutes of Health estimates that 5-8% of Americans (that is 16-25 million people) have an autoimmune disease. Johns Hopkins also tells us the following:

“The National Institutes of Health has estimated that at least 80 human diseases are caused primarily or secondarily by an autoimmune response. New diseases are being added to the list frequently.”

“Autoimmune diseases have been found in virtually every organ system in the body.”

An autoimmune disease causes antibodies from a person’s immune system to attack and destroy a specific organ or tissue in their body. Antibodies are proteins in the blood that detect and destroy invading pathogens. We all have them, not everyone has antibodies that turn on the person they are supposed to protect.

For example, someone with Celiac disease does not produce the enzyme needed to metabolize the two proteins that compound to make gluten (gliadin and glutenin). When a Celiac sufferer eats gluten, the immune system sends antibodies to destroy the villi that line the small intestine, thus impairing absorption of nutrients, and causing a host of other health problems. Other destructive effects and symptoms may be felt in the colon and the duodenum.

In Multiple sclerosis, the immune system is triggered to attack and destroy the myelin sheaths around the nerves along the spinal cord and in the brain, causing inflammation. Once the attack is over, and the flair ceases, there is an amount of healing that occurs. The healing leaves scaring (sclerosis). The cycle, over the course of time, will leave many scars, thus the name, Multiple sclerosis. The damage interferes with messages being sent from nerve fibers to muscle, organs, skin and tissue body wide.

Some other examples of autoimmune disease and the location of the body they affect/destroy are:

  • Chron’s Disease- duodenum, small intestine (sometimes colon, too)
  • Ulcerative colitis- colon (sometimes small intestine, too)
  • Rheumatoid arthritis- joints
  • Lupus- most any part of the body- nervous system, heart, kidney, lungs, skin, muscles, joints
  • Hashimoto’s Disease- thyroid
  • Graves Disease- thyroid
  • Chronic Fatigue Syndrome- possible that serotonin sensitive brain cells are being destroyed, leading to autonomic nervous system dysfunction, and imbalances in energy level, leading to a heightened sense of pain, autonomic nervous system disorders, depression, fatigue, brain fog, and flu like symptoms

An Herbalists Perspective on Autoimmune Disease- What Might These Diseases Have in Common?

We see from the brief descriptions above that each autoimmune disease is unique. Each disease destroys its own part of the body, and has a particular action or body function that it disables. There are, however, common physiological threads and symptoms that I’ve found many of these diseases share from working with individuals.

  • A distressed and over active Autonomic Nervous System, and Central Nervous System with some anxiety; in some cases nervous system stress can cause a disease to flair
  • Low grade fever that is chronic when the disease is active
  • An element of excessive heat in the areas of the body affected by the disease, leaving other areas cold and deficient
  • The unpredictable element “wind” that drives up temperature, creates tension and constriction in muscles and the autonomic nervous system, thereby stimulating immunity and the hypothalamus (I believe)
  • Deficient cardiovascular and circulatory function
  • Inflammation exacerbated easily by diet with poor breakdown of nutrients, absorption and, in many cases, poor cellular metabolism
  • Poor liver function sometimes accompanied by a swollen liver, and/or swollen spleen
  • Symptoms that are exacerbated by heat and/or excessive stimulation (depending on the time of the year) or how hot a food or plant consumed is. (And yes, some plants can aggravate someone with autoimmune disease. I will provide a brief list.)

What may cause autoimmunity?

There are many things in our environment and diets that can be implicated in the cause of autoimmune diseases and disorders. GMO’s, chemical exposure, hydrogenated fats and other foods that promote inflammation in the body may all be a part of the problem. In the case of healing, our diet and exposure must change.

But other events and family health history also need to be considered, and play a role in a therapeutic approach.

  • Trauma and stress that preceded the diseases first appearance (causing PTSD and other emotional challenges and patterns)
  • Family history of autoimmune diseases- inherited
  • May be preceded by a virus



Other Supportive Therapies

  • Bodywork
  • Cranial sacral therapy
  • Yoga
  • Therapy to identify emotional triggers
  • Dietary manipulation
  • Lifestyle changes
  • Soul retrieval

Lifestyle Modification Musts for Autoimmune and Chronic Disease

  • Get enough sleep!! Sleep supports synchronicity of internal function body wide.  It can: improve how we deal with stress; the function of our cardiovascular, and nervous systems, adrenal glands (how we adapt to stress), digestive and urinary tract and immune system.
  • Eat healthy!! Limit or avoid sugar, processed foods, eating out, soda, hydrogenated fats, MSG, nitrates, and GMO’s. If you feel that eliminating gluten is not possible, avoid GMO grains, diversify grains, and eat sprouted grain bread. Greatly reduce the amount of dairy you consume, especially if you feel congested and have an excessive amount of mucous. Eat chemical free/organic as often as you can.
  • Begin to include in your week regular gentle exercise to help reduce stress- swimming, yoga, walking

Emotional Patterning and Disease

Emotional patterns are shaped early on. They pop up in our head translated into words that become a little voice in our head. The voice makes reference to the world around us and to ourselves. It can be the voice of reason, and encouragement. But it can also be a negative force with detrimental effects as it begins to tear at our self-esteem and undermine our work. With this voice, our emotional patterns are shaped, and we are conditioned to perceive and interact with our world a certain way.

Words in this case are not harmless, especially when used repeatedly, and are perceived as truth by the speaker or listener. They are powerful. Their impact burrows deep into the core of who we are and how we function, the energy of which roots itself in our physical body, and can manifest as dysfunction and/or disease.  Think about it. When we emotionally attack ourselves, we are training and giving permission to the warrior immune system to do the same.

To retrain the body one must retrain the mind and the voice in our head. Put away the guilt, and begin to quiet that negative voice in your head. Start by telling it to be quiet, or tell it to shut up. Also, when you find yourself saying negative things to yourself, stop, and say something nice and supportive. It will feel forced at first, but after a while will become more natural. It will also help you see who in your life is supporting your negative self-image. When you recognize others you have chosen to be in company with that are unhealthy, you can make a choice to stand up for yourself with them, and tell them to be quiet, be supportive, or leave.

These things are easier said than done, and may take a lifetime to get control of. But it is worth it.

Herbalism- Tastes to Balance Autoimmune Disease With Plant Examples 

(Please note: these plants and their corresponding tastes have many uses besides those spoken about in this handout and talk. I am, for time’s sake, sticking to their use in autoimmune conditions. Thank you!!)

In days past, the internal plant to person relationship began with taste.  Through taste herbalists would decide a plants ability to cool, heat, dry, moisten, calm or stimulate.  They would appraise the plants basic actions, determine specific medicinal uses and assess which organs each plant had an affinity for.

When working with modern day chronic conditions, it is important to know if the nature of the illness is hot, cold, dry or moist, and where the disease causes the body be over stimulated or too relaxed. The person would be assessed similarly. All of this information helps a practitioner recommend plants and other therapies most appropriate for the person. The treatment goal would be to begin setting up a physiological and emotional energy matrix that does not support illness.

The following herbs and their relative tastes are excellent support for autoimmune conditions.

Acrid Bitters

o   Acrid bitter plants affect the following organ systems: nervous system, digestive, urinary tract, muscles, liver and gallbladder, heart, respiratory tract, blood and circulatory system

o   Relax the nervous system, either Autonomic or Central, making one shiver when they touch the tongue.

o   The Autonomic Nervous System can over stimulate the immune system. By relaxing it, we relieve tension that can drive disease.

o   By relaxing the nervous system, circulation is stimulated (not with heat), moving blood to the periphery, and opening the pores to lower temperature. This also improves blood flow to tissue, and can have positive affects on blood pressure.

o   These plants don’t cool, dampen or stimulate vital function. They balance nervous system function, which in turn improves energy flow body wide.

o   Relaxants that reduce tension in muscles due to nervous system constriction/tension.

o   Examples of acrid relaxant plant medicines:  lobelia, passion flower, wild lettuce, Blessed Thistle, Boneset, blue/hoary vervain, Calendula, catnip, valerian, hops, chamomile, cramp bark and black haw

Blue vervain(Verbena hastata or stricta): Taste: acrid bitter Energetics: sedative, relaxing diaphoretic, diuretic, bitter tonic, mild antispasmodic, anti-anxiety, anti-inflammatory for headaches, aphrodisiac, Organ System Affinity: spine and nervous system, urinary tract, stomach, immune system, head, adrenals, circulatory system, blood; Contraindications: dry eczema and psoriasis (from client experience); sometimes high blood pressure medications (also learned from client experience) Part of plant used: leaves and flowering tops (stems removed); must be tinctured freshTincture Dosage: 5-20 drops for ages 5 and up 3-4 times daily; Sample Formulas: High hot headaches: Tinctures: feverfew and blue vervain, Autoimmune nervine formula: blue vervain, skullcap

According to Maude Grieve, vervain is derived from the Celtic ferfaen– fer, ‘to drive away’, and faen, ‘a stone’, a name that identifies its ability to expel urinary gravel.  The Iroquois tribe used the plant to drive away individuals who were obnoxious, also reflective of the ‘to drive away’ purpose of the plant, though they had no knowledge of the Celtic meaning.

Specifics for autoimmune- opens pores of skin to help reduce fevers; headaches that radiate from the spine and neck, relaxes Autonomic Nervous System tension and agitation that results in exhaustion, periods of depression and anxiety, and tension in the upper body; relieves wind that drives unbreakable patterns of tightness in nervous system/spine-recycles energy from nerves to adrenals; Iroquois use it for heat sickness in summer; relaxes nerves that are functioning in excess, which improves blood circulation (not by heating and stimulating, though); supports the urinary tract

Motherwort (Leonurus cardiaca): Taste: bitter, acrid, aromatic, relaxing to nervous system and heart; stimulating to liver Energetics: anti-spasmodic (heart, large intestine, uterus), anti-anxiety, nervine tonic, vasodilator, hypotensive, cardio tonic, emmenagogue, cholagogue (seeds), mild diuretic Organ System Affinities: heart, Central Nervous System, uterus, large intestines/colon; Contraindications: some high blood pressure medications (from client experience); tincture is contraindicated in first 2 ½ trimesters of pregnancy; Part of plant used: flowering tops and leaves (without stems); best if tinctured fresh or dry (the tea can be a bit bitter, and lacks the blood pressure lowering alkaloids) Dosage: Tincture:3-15 drops, 3-6 times daily;Sample Formulas: Anxiety: daytime tincture of motherwort, hawthorn, and skullcap; nighttime tincture of motherwort and passionflower, or motherwort and blue vervain; Hyperthyroidism: tincture of motherwort, passionflower (if bulging eyes), lemon balm, and bugleweed (only 5 ml. of bugleweed in a 30 ml. bottle)

The Greeks gave motherwort the name “mothers herb”, using the tea for pregnant women with anxiety. Leonurus is another Greek derived word. Leon means ‘lion’, andourus is ‘tail’. When in flower, motherwort resembles a lion’s tail. The species name,cardiaca, refers to heart, for motherwort is a heart tonic. When motherwort goes to seed, I believe it looks like a spine.

Specific for autoimmune- great for nervous tachycardia, arrhythmias and palpitations; strengthens the heart while lessening Central Nervous System overstimulation and agitation; assists autoimmune disease where anxiety and stress reactions can perpetuate a disease flare; excellent remedy for anxiety and insomnia in those with hyperthyroidism and other autoimmune conditions; by relieving stress, can improve mood

Skullcap leaf (Scutellaria laterifloraTaste: bitter, pungent, cooling and drying;Energetics: Central and Autonomic Nervous System tonic/adaptogen, nervous system anti-spasmodic (for respiratory, heart, tremors and ticks in Parkinson’s, mild Tourette’s, and restless leg), cholagogue Organ System Affinity: Central and Autonomic Nervous System, liver, stomach, lungs, heart, gallbladder, skull/head;Contraindications: none known; Part of plant used: flowering tops (without stems); may be made as a fresh plant tincture, or a dried plant tea; Dosage: tincture dose- 5-10 drops, 3-4 times daily; steep 1 tsp. for 10 min. in 6-8 oz. of water; drink 1-2 cups daily; Sample Formulas: Anxiety with stomach issues: tincture of: skullcap, peppermint, and yellow dock root; tea of skullcap and lemon balm Autoimmune disease with anxiety, shakes and the inability to cope with stress: tincture of skullcap, blue vervain, and hawthorn

Specific for autoimmune- an Autonomic Nervous System antispasmodic that controls or stops tics and tremors associated with excess adrenaline causing, heart spasms that result from stress, Parkinson’s, mild Tourette’s, restless leg, and autoimmune conditions; mild cholagogue that supports the liver function without being too stimulating; nervine tonic that retrains a nervous system poorly affected by an overactive adrenal response; headaches from nervousness


o   Sours have an effect on the following body systems: Liver, gallbladder, stomach, large intestine, veins and muscles, blood and circulatory system, heart, nervous system, tissue

o   Sours cool and bind things that have separated as a result of too much heat.

o   They assist blood coagulation, astringe/tighten tissue disallowing leakage.

o   Improve circulatory function, blood flow and heart function, lessen excess heat generated by an overactive immune system, and reduce inflammation. Sours, due to their high anti-oxidant content and other tissue stabilizing actions, such as astringency, also help repair cell walls and tissue damaged by the heat. The end result: function is improved.

o   Excessive heat is irritating to the nervous system. Sours bind and cool that which is excessively hot, which calms agitation in the tissue, blood and nervous system.

o   Examples of sour plant medicines are: cranberries, linden blossom (TiliaAmericana), lemon balm (Melissa offic.), hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) berries, raspberry leaf (Rubus idaeus) and rose hips, citrus fruits, wild cherry bark (Prunus serotina), berries

Hawthorn (Crataegus monogynaTaste: sour, sweet, astringent; Energetics: astringent, anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidant, decongestant, muscular anti-spasmodic to the heart, lungs and bladdercholagogue; Organ System Affinity: liver, gallbladder, heart, circulatory system, blood, muscles; Contraindications: some high blood pressure medications; Part of plant used: leaves, flowers and berries; fresh or dried as a tincture, or made into a tea; Dosage: 5-10 drops of tincture 3-4 times daily; 1 tsp. of herb part of choice steeped for 10 min. (bring berries to a boil; they are very hard when dried) in 6-8 oz. of water, drink 1-2 cups daily; Sample Formulas: Heart and Nervine Support- tinctures of hawthorn, motherwort, and blue vervain; tea of linden, hawthorn; Liver, Nerves and Heart- hawthorn, skullcap, yellow dock root

The name hawthorn comes from the Anglo-Saxon ‘haegthorn’, meaning hedge-thorn. Crataegus is derived from the Greek word, ‘kratos’, meaning hardness, ‘oxus’, sharp and ‘akantha’, for thorn.  This translation reflects the fact that the wood is very hard, and the tree is covered with long sharp thorns.

Specific for autoimmune disease- the heat of autoimmune disease weakens the heart and circulatory system, hawthorn is an excellent compliment to most all autoimmune therapy plans; improves heart function post respiratory infection; improves circulation to a degree; tones the muscle that is the heart, and acts as an anti-inflammatory, thereby normalizing arrhythmias and regular heart function where there is deficiency and disease; excellent support for anxiety; has been found effective for early stages of Alzheimer’s and dementia; for CFS

Linden (Tilia spp.Taste: soursweet to acrid, for heat and wind Energetics:diaphoretic, nervine and heart tonic, sedative, cephalic for headaches of high heat (of or relating to the head, here, drawing heat from the head downward), anti-inflammatory, hypotensive (when nervous), anti-spasmodic, mild demulcent/emollient and mild astringent (balances the tone of tissue) Organ System Affinity: nervous system, heart, blood and circulatory system, head, colon; Contraindications: low blood pressure; Part of plant used: flowers and leaves may be used to make a tincture or tea

Dosage: 3-10 drops of tincture 3-4 times daily; 1 tsp. in 6-8 oz. of how water steeped 10 min; drink1-2 cups of tea daily; Sample Formulas: Heart stress with anxiety and/or insomnia: tincture of linden, motherwort and/or passionflower; Vertigo: tea or tincture of linden blossom and hawthorn berries; tincture of linden; High hot headaches- tincture of blue vervain, feverfew, linden

Specific for autoimmune- helps maintain a normal body temperature; relaxes the heart and nervous system that are tense (constricted), thereby improving blood flow body wide; an excellent sedative for nervous system agitation with insomnia; vertigo from stress or virus; a mild astringent for nervous diarrhea; is a muscular anti-spasmodic that has an affinity for the heart; for headaches from heat that stays in the head when blood cannot properly circulate down

Astringent, Bitter to Slightly Sour Plants

o   Without being too simulating, these plants can improve digestion, assimilation and absorption. They also help the digestive tract and immune system deal with inflammation of the spleen, villa in the small intestines, and liver.

Red root (Ceanothus americanusTaste: bitter, sour, astringent Energetics: astringent, anti-diarrheal, lymphatic anti-inflammatory, blood tonic, Organ System Affinity: lymphatic system, spleen, blood, small intestine, colon, mucous membranes,

The blood and extra cellular fluid cannot be cleaned properly, thus leading to acne and chronic skin disease, such as eczema and psoriasis.

Specific for autoimmune- improves interstitial fluid circulation around the cellular matrix, lymphatic circulation, and reduces inflammation of spleen and villa in small intestine; dries mucous that is in excess; diarrhea; excess mucous production, (as can sometimes occur in MS)

Yellow dock root (Rumex crispusTaste: bitter, sour, earthy, cooling; Energetics: alterative, astringent, laxative or anti- anti-diarrheal (depending on what is needed), anti-inflammatory, dries excess mucous in the bowel or respiratory tract; assists the breakdown and absorption of iron, fat, A and E, protein, and the B vitamins; drawing agent for pus and infection, cholagogue, chronic skin afflictions, jaundice;Contradictions: none known; Part of plant used: root; tinctured fresh or dried;Dosage: lower doses of tincture for diarrhea, higher doses for constipation 3-10 drops;Sample Formulas: High liver enzymes- tincture of: yellow dock root, milk thistle, and burdock root; To improve skin conditions, metabolism and absorption of nutrients- yellow dock root, red root, and skullcap

The Navajo considered yellow dock to be life medicine, and deemed it’s healing power as being characteristic of the direction of the east, a direction that supports life, light and growth.

Specific for autoimmune- relieves constipation or diarrhea, inflammation in the colon, and jaundice when these symptoms are in direct relation to assimilation and digestive issues; balances the mucosal tone of the colon and the lungs; stimulates and improves digestion and absorption without being too stimulating as to aggravate; improves liver function and tone, helping the liver support the skin, digestion, and detoxification; can help improve liver function post drug therapies, such as steroids, and cancer treatments, helping bring enzyme levels back to normal

Other Plants to Consider

Other nervines: California poppy (tea or tincture; excellent sedative for nighttime use; also may be used in tiny doses throughout the day with passionflower for prickly nerve pain), Passionflower (tea or tincture; sedative and cardiac tonic; regulates cardiac rhythm; use with California poppy in small doses throughout the day for prickly nerve pain), Lemon balm (tea or tincture; for nervous stomach and to suppress thyroid function in hyperthyroidism; use with bugleweed and motherwort for symptom management), Oat straw tea (nourishes joints and connective tissues), Milky oat tincture (an excellent nervine tonic and restorative; also good for insomnia; combines well with high blood pressure medications), Rose and Rosehips (tea or tincture; refrigerant that cools tissue, decreases inflammation, is a nervine tonic and heart tonic; and tones to restore function)

Adaptogen herbs: Holy basil in winter (tea or tincture; to improve circulatory system and adrenal function), Schisandra (tincture; is the 5 flavored fruit, having the tastes sour, salty, pungent, sweet and salty; is a tonic to the lungs, pancreas, liver, kidney, adrenals and heart); Gotu kola (fresh plant tincture; is an excellent plant for cell regeneration, especially the skin and mucous membranes; I use it in formulas for colitis and ulcerative colitis)

Refrigerants: Raspberry leaf (tea or tincture; tones, cools and astringes structure to improve function), Lemon balm, California poppy, Rose and Rosehips

Plant to Avoid or Limit

  • St. Johns wort due to possible immunosuppressant drug interactions
  • Too much ginger
  • Preparations of fresh elderflower
  • Echinacea and elderberry
  • Asian ginsengs, for they tend to be heating and stimulating
  • Plants that are too warming and drying

Whatever choices you make in regards to your disease are yours. Whether you chose to go the Western medicine route, or attempt to go without. Many of the recommendations and information here is a compliment to Western therapies. Most of my clients, in fact, are on a drug or two to manage their disease, but use plants and other alternative therapies to help retrain their physiological and emotional body. The most important thing to remember is to make informed choices.  And to let go of any guilt you hold around those choices.