Across the Indian subcontinent, and prior to recorded history, the Neem tree has been a source of medicine for indigenous peoples. Its leaves, fruit, roots, seeds, oil, and bark were all harvested by ancient healers, and are now known the world over for their health benefits — some of which are topical, and others which are used internally. The tree is so potent with healing and protective substances that it’s able to resist many common pathogens and insects. Among Neem’s many benefits, of special importance is the tree’s ability to balance and support the immune system — the body’s defense against illness and decline.
Neem’s History in India
At least 10,000 years ago, before the rise of the Ayurvedic system, the Siddha system of medicine was established in India. The name of this traditional healing system loosely translates as “that which prevents mortality,” and is still prevalent in the southern states of India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, and Singapore. The first medicinal plant mentioned in the Siddha teachings is Neem — thus, there is no doubt that Neem was being used as an immune system booster, not only in the treatment of illness, but also in the practice of prevention.
In the first millennium B.C., the land that we now call India was undergoing a great spiritual explosion, giving rise to the Vedas, the great religious and literary works of the Upanishads, the Puranas, and the Mahabharata, as well as the Ramayana. Also taking shape was the Ayurvedic philosophy of healing that similarly recognized all of life — including the human body — as one whole and uninterrupted movement of reality.
Curative plants, such as the Neem tree, fit right in line with this expansion of thinking because they proved that nature provided an answer to — and a way to balance — the ills of humankind. For this reason, Neem is often called a one-tree pharmacy. The holism embraced by Ayurveda dictates that the body’s defense mechanism — namely, the immune system — is perhaps the second line of defense against all illnesses and symptoms. The first line is the mind that transforms thought into actuality, including the state of the body — and thus the state of physical health —but it is the immune system that protects against internal and external threats.
Nearly 4500 years ago, in India, Neem became the pride and joy of Ayurvedic healers and was called the Sarva Roga Nivarini — the plant capable of curing all ailments and ills. The famous Indian sage physicians Charaka (2nd century A.D.) and Sushruta (4th century A.D.), who penned the foundational teachings of Ayurveda, categorized Neem’s medicinal qualities for generations of healers to come. In Charaka’s Ayurvedic text, the renowned healer described Neem as “that which keeps all diseases at bay,” and Arishtha — “reliever of disease.” The tree’s many different parts — from its roots to its leaves — are still used in therapeutic preparations for internal and topical use, and is found in soaps, toothpastes, health supplements, poultices, creams, lotions, natural pesticides, and more.
Neem’s Myriad Health Benefits
Melissa Petruzzello, plant science researcher, wrote that many of Neem’s medicinal and cosmetic uses are based on its antibacterial and antifungal properties; and WebMD reports that Neem contains chemicals that could help reduce blood sugar levels, heal the digestive tract, and prevent plaque formation in the mouth. And we can easily say that one of Neem’s most important actions is that of an immune system booster — Neem aids the body in warding off health issues because its actions are antibacterial, antifungal, antiviral, antioxidant, anti-parasitic, anti-inflammatory, antipyretic (anti-fever), and antiseptic.
Phytochemical researchers Anamika Bose and Rathindranath Baral report that Neem boosts the cell-mediated immune (CMI) system, which is led by killer T-cells, the body’s first defense against infection — including viruses. Neem stimulates T cells and macrophages (white blood cells that remove “foreign invaders” and toxins from the body), and then causes an elevation of both immunoreactive and bioactive TNF-alpha and gamma-interferon. In simpler terms, Neem keeps many viruses from reproducing by supporting white blood cells and so-called killer T-cells that destroy damaged cells known to cause illnesses. Because Neem is a blood purifier and detoxifying agent, it aids the immune system before threatening microbes and toxins have a chance to take hold in the body.
A Go-To Herb
While Neem is often depicted as a cure-all, it is important to keep in mind that its oil, bark, and leaves are unsafe for consumption by pregnant women. In any case, it is always wise to consult with an Ayurvedic practitioner to steer you in the right direction for your particular body type and imbalances. Generally speaking, however, Neem remains a go-to herb for boosting the immune system, detoxifying the body, and protecting the body down to the cellular level.