Life Extension Magazine March 2014
Safely Manage Autoimmune Diseases
By Kathy White
Mainstream medicine has no cure for the millions who suffer from crippling autoimmune conditions such as arthritis, lupus, and psoriasis.1
Victims of autoimmune disease are often injected with costly and potentially dangerous drugs that suppress the immune system, leaving the patient vulnerable to future infections and at an increased risk for cancer.1-3 Victims of autoimmune disease have little choice but to live in those moments between the pain.
However, a sudden explosion of scientific interest has occurred in a glucoside extract from the white peony root for its ability to treat autoimmune diseases by bringing a dysfunctional, over-excited immune system back into balance.4,5
Peony glucosides are extracted from the root of the peony flower. Peonies are members of the same botanical family as the buttercup and produce fragrant flowers in a variety of colors.6 The peony is an extremely long-lived plant, and it is not uncommon for peonies to live for a hundred years. They have been cultivated in both Japan and China for at least several centuries, perhaps even a millennium.6
The peony plant has been recorded to have medicinal properties since the times of Hippocrates and is still widely used today in both Indian and Chinese medical systems.7 There are many different varieties of Peony plants, Red Peony and White Peony among them. The most common species used in medicine today is White Peony—named for the color of its roots, not its flowers (which can include a number of color variations).6
Because of its ability to rebalance a malfunctioning immune system due to its unique dual-acting mechanisms, peony glucosides are now recognized as a drug by the Chinese State Food and Drug Administration for treatment of rheumatoid arthritis, one of the leading autoimmune diseases.5
Unlike the dangerous drugs used to treat autoimmune disorders, peony glucosides work to simultaneously suppress excessive harmful immune functions while also boosting calming immune components.4 A calm and balanced immune system is the most important step in reducing the pain and threat of autoimmune disorders.
Chinese scientists have discovered a broad spectrum of applications for peony glucosides for those suffering from autoimmune disorders.
Dual Action Restores Immune Balance
Peony glucosides , unlike most medications, have multiple mechanisms of action that include immuno-modulatory properties and the reduction of inflammation-promoting molecules that are typically elevated in autoimmune diseases.4,8-15
Peony extract contains specific molecules found in plants known as glucosides. The most abundant and active glucoside is Paeoniflorin (pay-own-i-floor-in), which is responsible for much of Peony’s medicinal benefits.4 Paeoniflorin is so important in peony glucosides that it is used to standardize the formulation to a specific amount of paeoniflorin.4
Paeoniflorin has been shown to normalize out-of-control immune system cells that can be out of balance in autoimmune diseases.4,8-15 In a healthy person, these immune cells maintain a steady balance between the inflammatory and anti-inflammatory stimuli. However, in autoimmune diseases, numerous cells produce inflammatory chemicals, which results in non-stop, destructive inflammation.
Through a series of mechanisms, paeoniflorin promotes a rebalance between inflammatory cells and calming anti-inflammatory cells.13,16,17 This rebalance sharply reduces production of inflammatory cytokines and breaks the cycle of ever-increasing levels of inflammation, especially in the areas of the body most vulnerable to autoimmune attack, such as joints and blood vessels.12,13
Paeoniflorin has also been shown to account for many of the pain-relieving properties of peony glucosides. Studies of experimentally-induced arthritis in rats demonstrate reduced swelling and scar tissue in joints, along with decreases in bone and cartilage destruction; together, all of these factors affect how much pain people feel from their arthritis.18
In laboratory mice with excessive inflammation (for example, those with arthritis or psoriasis), peony glucosides inhibited over-active immune reactions, resulting in reduced cytokines and overall inflammation.4 But in animals whose immune system is suppressed (similar to people treated with steroids, having chemotherapy, or with immune-impairing diseases such as HIV/AIDS), peony glucosides enhanced the immune response, bringing antibodies and immune system attack cells back up.4 Translated into human terms, this implies that people with overactive immune systems, such as those with lupus and other autoimmune diseases, would benefit from the immune-suppressing effects of peony glucosides. At the same time, those with suppressed immune systems would see fewer serious infections and a lower cancer rate.
Peony glucosides achieve this immune balance by a variety of subtle mechanisms that include slowing the maturation of cells that promote immune responses while boosting maturation of the regulatory cells that return the immune system to its normal, neutral state.17,19 This level of immune balancing is beyond what current medications can do (medications typically either boost or suppress immunity, not both at the same time). The result of this balancing act is likely to be a substantial reduction in symptoms and flare-ups of both autoimmune diseases and their counterparts, infections and cancers in people with under-active immunity.
This dual action immune balancing extends all the way to target tissues. For example, in rheumatoid arthritis, over-active joint-lining cells create a hyperinflammatory response in the joint, producing pain and destruction of the joint surfaces. Peony glucosides prevent those cells from becoming over-stimulated, sparing the joint from autoimmune damage and reducing joint pain and swelling.9,17,18,20
Unlike mainstream medications that aim only to shut down the inflammatory response, peony glucosides are a true immunomodulator, which rebalances the disordered immune response and enables the body to restore its own equilibrium.
In China, peony glucosides are an approved drug for treatment of rheumatoid arthritis, the most common autoimmune arthritis.5,21
In laboratory experiments, animals with rheumatoid arthritis develop increased numbers of inflammatory cells. These cells then produce high levels of inflammatory cytokines resulting in destructive inflammation of the delicate tissues lining the joints. The end result is destruction of the joint. Supplementation with peony glucosides appears to reduce the population of inflammation-provoking cells while increasing the inflammation-suppressing ones.16 The result is that inflammatory cytokine levels fall while the over-active immune response in the joints begins to reverse; animal studies show that this biochemical reversal of inflammation is accompanied by reversal in joint damage and pain.9,13,17,18, 20,22
Treatment with peony glucosides produces a significant reduction in both arthritis severity and joint damage.16,18,23,24 Studies in animals with experimentally-induced arthritis, for example, demonstrate a reduction in clinical manifestations of arthritis after treatment with peony glucosides.23,24 Arthritis scores, numerical summaries of joint swelling, range of movement, and other parameters are lower in supplemented animals than in controls.16,24 Finally, autopsy results of these experimental animals reveal significant reductions in visible joint damage of the kind that produces pain and immobility in human sufferers.18
As an added benefit in preventing the further destruction caused by arthritis, peony glucosides reduce the excessive new blood vessel growth (angiogenesis) that contributes to excessive tissue growth within the joint.25 When excess tissue builds up inside a joint, victims experience decreased range of motion, stiffness, and often pain with movement, as they try to force the joint to overcome the obstruction created by bulky tissue.
Human studies with peony glucosides have focused on its use in conjunction with mainstream therapies. One early study found that adding peony glucosides to a standard drug, methotrexate, originally used for chemotherapy, resulted in a faster onset of action, and lowered serum measures of inflammation significantly more than with the drug alone.26
Additional studies demonstrated that more people (97.5%) experienced at least some relief when treated with both peony glucosides and a standard immunomodulatory drug, leflunomide, compared with those treated with the drug alone ( 85%).27
Levels of inflammation fell faster when peony glucosides were included in medication regimens, and the onset of protective action was faster.26-28 Peony glucosides also reduce the liver toxicity of the commonly-used combination of methotrexate and leflunomide with improvements in clinical disease scores.29