Herbal Support for COVID-19
Let me start by saying that fear and panic over the are the last thing you want to allow because this state of mind will definitely have a negative impact on your immune system. There is a lot of fear-mongering going on these days and it does nothing but distract us all from constructive thoughts and actions. What I am hoping to share in this article is some reassurance for everyone who feels overwhelmed by the current state of the world and offer some ways to help ourselves stay strong in the midst of a barrage of pathogenic ideas, emotions, viruses, etc.
Below I will hi-light some herbs that can help prevent infection and reduce the severity of symptoms. I will also review some diet & lifestyle recommendations for boosting your resistance. Let’s prepare, not panic.
The current strain of Coronavirus has been labeled COVID-19. Coronaviruses are a class of enveloped viruses that spread primarily through respiratory droplets and other bodily fluids. They produce symptoms similar to the flu, including fever, cough and shortness of breath. Like all viruses, they have to find a way into our cells in order to replicate themselves. Some coronaviruses like SARS do this by attaching to a chemical in our bodies called angiotensin converting enzyme 2 (ACE-2). ACE-2 converts angiotensin 2 (a vasoconstricting hormone) into a less potent form.
When ACE-2 is used as a Trojan horse by the virus, the presence of ACE-2 in our bloodstream goes down, resulting in vasoconstriction (the opening in your blood vessels becomes smaller). This creates high blood pressure, reduced blood flow and lower oxygenation levels, leading to generation of free radicals and setting up a vicious cycle of tension and inflammation.
Another thing that can happen when we become infected by this virus is something called a cytokine cascade. This is when we produce a lot of cytokines, which stimulate the migration of immune cells to the site of the infection, but in doing so create a lot of inflammation. Inflammation is an important phase to infection, but when the inflammation goes unchecked, fluids can accumulate in the lungs, worsening our respiratory symptoms. Cytokine storms generally occur in advanced stages of illness and whole they are common among people who suffer greatly, they are not a common phenomenon among most people infected with respiratory diseases.
With abundant inflammation comes porousness in our tissues and space is created for the virus to move beyond the endothelium to infect the dendritic (immune) cells and prevent the immune system from forming an effective adaptive response.
I’m not writing this to incite fear; I’m taking time to explain this so that you can understand some of the ways in which herbs can support us through an infection. There are dozens of antiviral herbs in this world, but I’m choosing a few select ones that seem to fit this virus the best.
This is just a sampling of herbs and how they can be used from a Western scientific perspective. Here is a little more information on a few antiviral herbs that stand out to me:
6 Indispensable Herbs:
Japanese Honeysuckle -a potent antiviral herb with a long history of use in Eastern medicine. It is part of a formula called Shuang huang lian that was effectively used during the SARS outbreak, another kind of coronavirus, in 2003. It is also in another formula often recommended for viral infections called Yin Qiao San. It is used in TCM for treating pneumonia, influenza and other wind-heat conditions. Honeysuckle is in the same family as Elderberry.
Chinese Skullcap (Huang Qin)- another Chinese herb used for fever and infection. This is another component of the formula Shuang huang lian mentioned above. The root is antibacterial and antiviral (it blocks the virus from attaching to ACE-2). It also protects the liver, spleen & lymph and reduces the inflammatory cytokine cascade. Huang Qin can be helpful for allergies and autoimmune disease, especially when combined with immune amphoterics (licorice, mushrooms)
Licorice– an adaptogen, immune amphoteric, antiviral and demulcent herb. Licorice strengthens endocrine function. It soothes & heals mucus membrane tissue in the lungs. As an immune-amphoteric, it can strengthen a weak immune system while simultaneously reducing a hyperactive immune response (i.e. cytokine cascades). Licorice strengthens T-cell counts and can prevent viral attachment.
Cordyceps– also known as caterpillar fungus, is tonic for the immune system, blood, kidneys & lungs. adaptogen, immune amphoteric. Another immune amphoteric (like licorice) it can reduce excessively high immune activity (cytokine cascade) or enhance excessively low immune activity. It protects the cilial cells, endothilial cells and kidneys while stimulating dendritic cell maturation. Cordyceps can also improve energy and strengthen the heart. It is used in TCM to treat chronic coughs.
(You can find astragalus in our Elderberry Chai and Immune-Building Broth Packets)
Usnea, St. John’s Wort, Lemon Balm, Isatis root and Hyssop are other antiviral herbs worth exploring. There are so many options provided by the plant kingdom! When in doubt, go for the food-grade herbs: you really can’t go wrong with elderberry, garlic, ginger, astragalus and medicinal mushrooms.If you do get sick and need symptomatic relief, expectorants & diaphoretics can support your respiratory system: Hyssop, thyme, elder flower, peppermint (try our Gypsy Cold Tea)
Following viral infection, it’s good to support the lymphatic system with herbs like Cleavers, Red Clover, Calendula, Violet, Nettle, Mullein or Chickweed to help with the resolution phase. (try our Love Your Lymph Tea Blend or Sparkling Lung Tonic Tea)
10 ways to keep your immune system strong to prevent infection:
- Hygiene- obviously. Wash your hands often, avoid contact with face/mouth.
- Get plenty of rest. I know that we are all incredibly busy and stressed out, but if we don’t start prioritizing sleep over other seemingly important things, we will be much more vulnerable to all kinds of negative influences.
- Avoid sugar. Sugar suppresses your immune system. 1 tsp will suppress immune function for several hours (so don’t eat sugar before going out into the world).
- Avoid stress (i.e. fear/panic). Stress suppresses immune function (it diverts energy to other organs/tissues that help us fight/flight.)
- Eat fruits & vegetables high in Vitamin C, E, beta-carotene and zinc.
- Eat ginger & garlic. Garlic and ginger are both great antivirals. My go-to protocol for the flu is drinking a cup of hot ginger-lemon tea while taking a ginger bath (I pour 2 qts of strong ginger tea into my bathtub). Before bed, I grate 2-3 cloves of raw garlic onto a piece of toast with honey. I always wake up feeling 50-70% better.
- Eat mushrooms! Medicinal mushrooms strengthen the immune system. Maiitake & Shiitake mushrooms are good in soups and stir-fries. Reishi, Chaga, Turkey tail and others can be taken as a tincture, capsule or decoction, but aren’t very good as a culinary herb.
- Get your Vitamin D. Vitamin D modulates both innate and adaptive immune responses. Without it, T-cells cannot react to an infection. 15 minutes of sunlight per day is recommended, and vitamin D supplements are affordable if you can’t make enough from sunlight.
- Stay hydrated- our mucus membranes are our first layer of defense against pathogens. Keep them moist by drinking plenty of water.
- Build healthy gut flora- lactic acid bacteria have been found to enhance the immune system and reduce the risk of cancer. Beneficial bacteria interact with various receptors and immune cells in the gut and help to maintain the antimicrobial barrier of the mucosa. Eat sauerkraut, kimchi, yogurt, kefir, etc. and take probiotics if you can’t regularly get lots of fermented foods in your diet.
Some Other Facts to Help Ease Your Mind…
According to a Washington Post Article, 82% of the cases have been mild with symptoms that require little or no medical intervention. It is difficult to get an accurate tally in the early stages of an outbreak because many mild cases will go unreported.
“The fact that there are so many mild cases is a real hallmark of this disease and makes it so different from SARS,” said Jennifer Nuzzo, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health’s Center for Health Security. “It’s also really challenging. Most of our surveillance is oriented around finding people who require medical attention.”
The likelihood that many more people are infected than what current statistics show significantly changes the fatality rate of the disease. Early reports of COVID-19 put the coronavirus death rate at around 2%, but a more recent report published on Friday in the New England Journal of Medicine estimates 1.4% and there is a strong chance that the final number will be lower. This number is calculated by dividing the number of confirmed deaths by the number of infected people. Since the number of infected people is probably greater than what is being reported due to many with mild symptoms not seeking medical treatment, the fatality rate will likely be further diluted. Here is a good article on the latest reports on death rate and how much it varies by location. https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/coronavirus-death-rate/
As a comparison, the flu kills about 0.1% of people who become infected. The 1918 flu killed an unusually high amount of people (2%). Yes, the coronavirus has the potential to spread much faster than the flu because it is a novel disease and we do not have existing antibodies/vaccines, but if your immune system is strong and you are able to take good care of yourself (i.e. get good rest, good nourishment and stop subjecting yourself to stressors), your chances dying from this disease are very low. Let’s focus on strengthening ourselves, staying nourished, grounded and sane.
Start by watching this 8-minute video by Joan Borysenko with 3 simple practices to reduce stress and engage the self-healing capacities of the body.
Is Elderberry Safe?
There is conflicting opinions about this, as one theory suggests that because elderberry has been shown to increase interleukin-6 (IL-6), which is an immune mediator that acts as a pro-inflammatory cytokine. This is a theoretical position, and is a highly reductionist perspective that does not take into account the whole picture of elder, immunology, or the individual infected. It is true that IL-6 can be pro-inflammatory, but it simultaneously acts as an anti-inflammatory. Anyone who has taken a class in immunology knows that immunity is a complex web of feedback loops and that it is impossible to predict how one person’s immune system will respond to one simple stimulus. Elderberry has been shown to stimulate both inflammatory and immunoregulatory cytokines, with a net non-inflammatory effect. Because of the complexity of herbs, it is very rare for an herb to incite a cytokine storm. One exception may be in people with autoimmune conditions, specifically with already over-active immune systems who already have excessive inflammatory cytokine activity. This is the only time that herbalists have reported observing pro-inflammatory effects in clients using elderberry.
It should also be noted that a cytokine storm is a phenomenon that occurs in advanced stages of infection. If someone is experiencing a cytokine storm, they should be in the hospital and not trying to self-medicate with elderberry. If elderberry doesn’t seem to be working after a few days, you may want to move on to stronger antiviral herbs.
My experience of elder is that she is incredibly gentle. The fact that elder is indicated for both the very old and the very young, and that there are no known drug interactions, make me trust that her chemical profile is well-balanced and that she does not strongly or directly stimulate or suppress any specific processes in the body. I would personally use elder to treat myself or my family if I suspected that one of us caught the coronavirus. I would, however, probably pick a different herb to use for someone with an autoimmune condition like lupus or rheumatoid arthritis, since this seems to be the one area that herbalists have seen a worsening of symptoms when using elderberry.
When things start to get confusing, I like to come back to my senses- literally. Make a strong cup of elderberry tea. Breath in the aroma. Notice the smell. Take one sip and pay attention. How does it taste? How does your body respond? You can tell a lot about an herb just from a few sips, if you sip them with intention and awareness. If elder is for you, then it will taste and feel good. If you feel any aversion to it, maybe it is not right for you at this time.
Here are some good articles/posts on this topic:
Herbal Antivirals by Stephen Harrod Buhner
Herbal Therapeutics by David Winston
Corona Virus: Don’t Panic but Prepare (presentation by Claudia Wingo)