Integrative Prevention and Treatment Approaches for Coronavirus: Research on Herbal and Supplement Treatment

Human corona virus – COVID19 is one of several strains of coronavirus to create global pandemic since the beginning of the 20th Century, the most well known being the MERS outbreak of 2014, and the SARS outbreak of 2003 during which a total of 8,098 people worldwide became sick, according to the World Health Organization.  No data exists on how many people have actually been infected with current Coronavirus (COVID19), nor those who have developed antibodies to the virus.  We do know that the virus spreads rapidly, and does not require physical contact with another individual to be contagious.  Rather, droplets containing the virus land on surfaces, and if touched and transmitted to the mouth of another individual are capable of infecting that individual with the virus. COVID19 remains viable on surfaces for over 7 days, making it more contagious than other viruses that are only viable for 48 hours. The CDC is not recommending facemasks for protection because the virus may also spread through the eyes and perhaps the skin. Facemasks are recommended for those who have been infected to prevent the spread of the virus through coughing or sneezing.  Masks or gloves may, however, help prevent you from putting your fingers in your mouth or touching food and putting it in your mouth, something the average person does about 90 times a day. (Ever tried eating a cookie with a fork?)

What we do know is that while COVID19 is lethal in approximately 2-3.5% of  reported cases, there are an even larger number of people who have the antibodies for the virus, yet have had no symptoms or illness from it. That is, their immune systems were able to fight off the virus before they developed any symptoms or complaints. Those with stronger immune systems may be able to rid themselves of the virus faster, shortening the time during which they are asymptomatic carriers of the disease. Asymptomatic carriers may be able to spread the virus for up to three weeks following exposure, so we should all be cautious not to spread the virus to others who may be more vulnerable.  The stronger our immune systems and the faster we can rid ourselves of the virus, the less likely we are to unsuspectingly spread the disease.

Human coronaviruses typically cause respiratory illness, and are more symptomatic in people with pre-existing respiratory conditions like asthma, and those who smoke. Symptoms are also more serious in those with weaker immune systems, in this case, specifically the elderly. Natural remedies have been used for thousands of years to boost immune function and protect people from viruses and other pandemics. These remedies can improve immunity in two ways. Some preventive strategies increase the strength of the immune system to fight off viral infections. Other remedies act directly on the virus itself, and work to destroy it. Both of these strategies decrease the overall contagion of the virus by different mechanisms.

Prevention involves a number of factors including preventing exposing yourself to the virus, preventing the spread of the virus to others, and preventing or minimizing symptoms if you have been exposed. New “social distancing” practices involving avoiding contact with groups of people and public places, and avoiding physical contact such as shaking hands, help prevent spreading the virus. Wash your hands frequently when you have been in public, and cover your mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze. These are appropriate methods for preventing spread.

Another way to reduce the spread and lethality of the virus is to maximize your own health so that you are better able to fight of any pathogens to which you are exposed, and to reduce the length of time that you may be a carrier if you have been exposed. There are several known methods for strengthening your immune system so that it is better able to fight off the virus, or to minimize symptoms and restore health. Viruses mutate quickly, and developing vaccines is a relatively slow process.  No vaccine currently exists for protection from the COVID-19 strain of Coronavirus.  Researchers have, however, explored other alternatives to bolstering immunity and reducing the risks of illness.

Several strategies for boosting the immune system and for directly attacking viruses are discussed below.  While the COVID19 strain of virus is too new for research to definitively address the potential of these strategies to affect this particular strain, the following practices have been found to be effective anti-viral strategies against other strains, and may potentially offer some benefit for the current pandemic. Most of these strategies have a long history of use in traditional medicine to ward off pathogens, improve recovery time, and improve health and well-being. Additionally, there are many reports of people suffering from the usual seasonal flu-like symptoms. The remedies discussed below have a proven history of use against many infectious diseases and are worth considering in today’s circumstances. In all cases, if you are sick or concerned about your health, consult with your physician or other health care provider about your personal circumstances and well-being before beginning any treatment.

Herbs to Enhance Immunity

Several supplements are commonly used to boost the immune system, and to relieve symptoms of respiratory illness. 

Dr. John Alloway, D.C., a fourth generation herbalist who practices at The Mindfulness Center in Bethesda, Maryland, recommends a number of herbal and dietary supplements to help boost immunity.  One of Dr. Alloway’s recommendations is the use of elderberry syrup for prevention. Studies published in the Journal of Virus Research show that elderberry, a traditional medicinal herb with anti-inflammatory properties, displayed “strong antiviral” potential, both destroying the viral cell wall, and preventing viral attachment. Another study conducted at the Institute for Medical Microbiology in Germany showed that liquid elderberry extract had an inhibitory effect on human flu viruses. The study authors stated that the activity of elderberry suggests that “additional and alternative approaches to combat infections might be provided by this natural product”. Dr. Alloway recommends elderberry syrup at a dose of four tablespoons of syrup per day for seasonal protection. 

Dr. Alloway also recommends Echinacea to boost immune function, and to ward off viruses and secondary bacterial infections.  Echinacea is a traditional herbal therapy, native to North America and used for centuries by American Indians to treat symptoms of colds, influenza, and other diseases. Research published in the Journal of Pharmaceuticals showed that Echinacea purpurea possesses “potent antiviral activities, at non-cytotoxic concentrations, particularly against membrane-containing viruses. Thus all strains of human and avian influenza viruses tested (including a Tamiflu-resistant strain), as well as herpes simplex virus, respiratory syncytial virus, and rhinoviruses, were very sensitive to a standardized Echinacea purpurea preparation.” Dr. Alloway recommends a dose of 300 mg Echinacea daily for prevention.

Fresh garlic and ginger may help your body fight against respiratory viruses. Studies suggest that both garlic and ginger have antiviral properties. Though it’s too early for research, both may help increase your recovery rate from COVID-19. Fresh ginger helps fight off the viral infection caused by human respiratory virus. Ginger may also help reduce the breathing difficulties. Garlic and ginger have excellent anti-inflammatory properties to help calm down the inflammation of the tiny sacs at the end of the breathing tubes in the lungs. In a study on the effects of aged garlic, subjects who consummed garlic “showed reduced cold and flu severity, with a reduction in the number of symptoms, the number of days participants functioned suboptimally, and the number of work/school days missed”. These results suggest that supplementation with aged garlic may enhance immune function. If you don’t have garlic or ginger, you can try turmeric. Turmeric contains curcumin, an anti-inflammatory compound which has been shown to help reduce the severity of pneumonia caused by Influenza A virus.

Supplements to Boost Immune Function

Vitamin C is perhaps the most well-known supplement for boosting immune function and fighting off viral infection.  Researchers at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine reported that the use of high dose vitamin C was able to attenuate the acute respiratory distress syndrome that was caused by a viral infection associated with the SARS virus.

Zinc is also a proven antiviral intervention. Research published in the Journal of Evidence-Based Complementary & Alternative Medicine suggests that oral zinc may reduce the length and severity of a cold by interfering with the viability of viral cells and boosting immunity. Dr. Alloway recommends a dose of 20 mg Zinc per day for seasonal protection.

Probiotic supplements have also been found to improve clinical symptoms, reduce mortality and suppress inflammation in the respiratory system, as well as decrease virus titers, enhance viral cell death, and boost pro-inflammatory cytokines in your immune system to ward off viral infections. Bifidobacterium longum is known to activate innate immunity by increasing natural killer cell activity in the lungs and spleen and by inducing a significant increase in natural killer cells in the respiratory sytem.  Researchers state that “Bifidobacterium longum as a probiotic may be used as a prophylactic agent in the management of influenza epidemic.”

Most interestingly, studies have shown that coronaviruses, which can persist on surface areas for up to seven days, are destroyed on copper alloy surfaces. A study conducted at the University of Southampton Centre for Biological Sciences, showed that human coronavirus 229E was rapidly inactivated on a copper alloy surface. Copper as well as copper/zinc brass destroyed the viral genomes and irreversibly affected the viruses, causing disintegration of the viral cell. Consequently, researchers suggest that copper alloys can be used to help reduce transmission of respiratory viruses from contaminated surfaces and to protect the public health. 

Dr. Alloway will discuss the use of supplements herbs, and host of other holistic therapies for the treatment and prevention of coronavirus at an upcoming workshop at The Mindfulness Center.

Debbie Norris
Debbie Norris

Deborah Norris, Ph.D. is author of In the Flow: Bridging the Science and Practice of Mindfulness, and Editor-in-Chief of Dr. Norris is Founder of The Mindfulness Center™, based in Washington, D.C. She is Psychologist-in-Residence and Director of the Psychobiology of Healing Program at American University, and past professor at Georgetown University Medical School. Renowned for her online meditation teacher programs, The Science of Mindful Awareness (SOMA), Dr. Norris is an internationally recognized speaker and educator on mindfulness, yoga, and integrative mind-body therapies. A health scientist with over 40 years of experience ranging from traditional medical and psychotherapeutic practices to integrative therapies and lifestyle practices, she teaches and conducts research in mindfulness, behavioral medicine and other holistic approaches to happiness and well-being.

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