This scanning electron micrograph shows SARS-CoV-2 (round gold objects) emerging from the surface of cells cultured in the lab. SARS-CoV-2, also known as 2019-nCoV, is the virus that causes COVID-19. Image: NIAID-RML

Is it Coming? Is it Going to Be Bad? What Can We Do to Protect Ourselves?

Feb 28, 2020. (Updates to be appended as we go). The new coronavirus is moving fast. When we sat down to write this mid-Feb it hadn’t yet been named. China was having a hard time with it, but that was on the other side of the world. Today, we have name for the virus, COVID-19, and it’s starting to seem more and more worrying at home. Still an epicenter in China; but now clusters elsewhere in Asia and the Middle East, cases in Italy and Britain. Symptoms like fever, sore throat, and shortness of breath. In rare cases, it can be life-threatening.

What’s the Situation / Why are We Writing This?

This article is not meant to traffic in alarmism. No one knows what the future holds, but as things stand right now, I don’t feel especially threatened here in Metro West, MA.  I’m not wearing a mask.  I’m not staying home from work.  I’m not taking my child out of daycare.  I’m not losing sleep.

At least not yet. COVID-19 does appear to pose a greater threat than our other recent pandemic threats. It’s likely to hit harder than swine flu, bird flu, and SARS. That’s not because coronavirus is especially deadly, or especially easy to transmit, but mostly because we can begin transmitting it before we’re aware we have it. So isolation and quarantine may not turn out to be effective.

This article is also not meant to traffic in magical solutions or false certainties.  COVID-19 is too new for us to know how it’s going play out in the real world.  There hasn’t been enough time to do solid research on transmission, prevention, or treatment.  We may believe (as I do) that natural medicine has answers. It’s had answers in the past. But we don’t know for sure.

So we’ll talk about general practices to avoid transmission of respiratory viral infections, protocols to enhance general immune competence… and then highlight some herbs that show promise tackling the virus itself.   

AVOID EXPOSURE / AVOID EXPOSING OTHERS 

The advice here is largely the same thing you’ll hear about the common cold, the same as the flu.  Cough into your elbow.  Wash your hands (soap for 20 seconds) after potential exposure, and before eating or preparing food.  Avoid the subway during rush hour.  Think through points of contact: for example, did you sneeze, then wash your hands?   Okay, washing your hands is great!  But – did you touch the doorknob and the light switch on your way into the bathroom?  Oops…  time to sanitize.  We’ll talk about that in a moment. 

Take yourself out of circulation if you’re feeling under the weather. (Employers, please give sick days graciously).  Everyone wants to feel they’re pulling their own weight, but if that means coming in and getting everyone else sick, it may be time to rethink that strategy.  A neti pot twice daily is a useful practice.   

SANITIZE AROUND THE HOUSE & WORKPLACE

Let me say first, we sanitize too much in our society.  A baseline level of natural microbes is actually good for us.  It keeps our immune systems humming and on an even keel.   

But when someone is visibly sick and probably contagious, that’s a different story.  And in the middle of flu season, or COVID-19. Start by wiping down surfaces where they’ve been with something that can kill viruses.  Countertops, shared phones, keyboards, bedside tables, etc.  Bleach does the trick, of course.  So do some essential oils like thyme and oregano.  I like a brand-name product called PureGreen 24.  It’s natural, and EPA-approved in all 50 states to tackle norovirus, coronavirus, rhinovirus, influenza, and a handful of bacteria.  It’s also safe enough to drink.  (And yes, we sell it).  (And yes, I once drank it). (And yes, it tastes awful). 

If someone in your family is ill, it also helps to run their bedding, clothing, and stuffed animals through the hot cycle of your washing machine. 

STRENGTHEN IMMUNITY IN GENERAL 

You know this, but I’m going to tell you anyways: get a good night’s sleep.  Eat well, focusing on reasonable portions of healthy, whole foods.  If you can add fermented foods and gourmet/medicinal mushrooms into the diet, even better.  (More about mushrooms later).  If you can remove unhealthy fats and refined carbs, that’s good too.  Get gentle exercise, but don’t overtrain.  Any divergence from a balanced, right-sized life registers as stress in the body, and stress depletes immunity.   

Which brings us to herbal and nutraceutical supplements. There are supplements which are directly antiviral, and I’ll get to those in a bit. But I want to talk first about supplements to enhance general immunity. Unlike antivirals, which you tend to take when you’re fighting something off, immune enhancers are generally taken consistently: you need to be on them for days and weeks before they really pick up steam.

Adequate vitamin D is crucial.  For most people, that’s a daily dose of 2,000-5,000 iu in winter, maybe more if you’re already deficient.  Vitamin D deficiencies are one of the major reasons we get more viral infections in winter.  Vitamin D facilitates communication within the immune system. It helps ensure an immune response is coordinated and productive. There’s a reason grandma used to give us that cod liver oil – rich in vitamin D, and vitamin A. 

NAC stands for n-acetyl-cysteine.  It’s an amino acid derivative which enhances immunity, thins mucous, and promotes detoxification.  The real-world benefits are real, and impressive. In one study with 600 elderly Italian men, 600 mg of NAC twice led to a 66% reduction in the number of individuals reporting flu symptoms vs. placebo. That’s 2 out of 3 — that’s a really big deal. In another study, people taking the same dose at the onset of a cold saw their colds cut in half – they lasted half as long, and their symptoms were half as severe. And because of how it enhances immunity, there’s no reason to believe it wouldn’t be every bit as effective with any other respiratory virus.  It’s cheap, has myriad side benefits, and is safe enough to take during pregnancy. 

(As mentioned earlier…)  Medicinal Mushrooms (and Other Sources of Immune-Strengthening Polysaccharides) are worth strong consideration.  While vitamin D increases communication within the immune system, and NAC facilitates and maintains the strength of an immune response against depletion, immune-strengthening polysaccharides sort of instruct the immune system to work more diligently, especially against viruses.

Foods and herbs that contain them include medicinal mushrooms like maitake, shiitake, turkey tail, chaga, etc.; and herbs like astragalus and goji berries.  Not only do these herbs work, they also taste okay.  So they’re easy to take, and easy to give. You can eat goji berries out of hand like raisins.  Maitake mushrooms are nice when you fry them up in butter. Any of the others, if you have a liquid extract, you can squirt it right in your tea, your smoothie, or your juice.  And it’ll taste like tea, smoothie, or juice. I have a two-year-old who gets a squirt each of reishi and astragalus every day. There are dozens of good brands out there, but I especially like the mixed medicinal mushrooms liquids from the Host Defense, and Herbalist & Alchemist companies. For tablets, I reach for a product called “Coricepium” from the White Tiger company.   

Immune-Adaptogenic Formulas are blends combining herbs that directly strengthen the immune system (as mentioned above), with others that simultaneously (and paradoxically) both strengthen and soften the stress response — herbs like ginseng, ashwaganda, and rhodiola. I like using straight-up immune-strengtheners for people who feel fine, and aren’t worn down.  They don’t need help with a stress response. I reach for these blends, on the other hand, for people who are burning the candle at both ends, missing sleep, worrying; getting sick, getting better, but not fully recovering from the fatigue.  Etc.  I especially like the liquid extract called “Immune Adapt” from the Herbalist and Alchemist company, and the “Astragalus 10-Plus” tablets from the Seven Forests company.  

FIGHT THE VIRUS 

Just like pharmaceutical medicine has effective broad-spectrum antibiotics, natural medicine has broad-spectrum antivirals. These are herbs that, generally speaking, don’t work through the immune system, but interfere with the virus directly. We’ll talk about a few of them below.

Most people won’t take direct antivirals every day. You take them when you’re fighting something off. Having said that, I want to be clear that you can be fighting something off even if you don’t have symptoms. So, if you’ve just spent the last hour in a car with someone coughing, sneezing, and wiping their nose; or if everyone else in your house is sick; even if you feel fine, you’re probably fighting something off.

Oh, and the other point I want to make: when you’re really fighting something off, you’re often going to want to take more than it says on the back of the bottle.

Elderberry is a proven flu-fighter… BUT that doesn’t necessarily mean it will work on any other virus.  However, there have been two studies where Elderberry has addressed coronavirus specifically.  One study was in cultured chicken cells, against a different kind of coronavirus.  Another used an obscure Asian species of elderberry, and it used the plant’s stems (we traditionally use berries and sometimes flowers).  So… that falls far short of what we call “gold standard” evidence.  Still, it suggests elderberry might have something to offer. It’s a cause for optimism.   Elderberry syrup also tastes good. It’s easy to give kids. 

Lomatium root is my #1 favorite antiviral herb.   I’ve never found a virus it can’t take on. Whether it’s making fast work of the flu (and it’s legendary for handling the 1918 Spanish Flu), applied topically on plantar warts, heroic doses to intercept the norovirus, reducing viral load in Hep C, or even traditional lomatium-thuja-vitamin A suppositories for cervical dysplasia.  Now, let’s be honest: it’s never been formally researched in a meaningful way.  (One small study from 1994, where it seemed to inhibit HIV viral replication; a screening study of Canadian plants in 1995, where it appeared to completely block cytopathic effects of rotavirus).   But I’ve seen it work – I’m not exaggerating – 100s of times.  Of course I’ve never applied it to the coronavirus (to my knowledge). But it’s still the first thing I’ll reach for, personally, if push comes to shove.  I like to suggest a full dropper of the standard tincture, 3-4 times a day. I’ve been known to take more myself.

There’s been some preliminary research to also suggest that traditional antiviral herbs Isatis, Pelargonium (a.k.a. “Umcka”), coptis, and phellodendron also work against various types of coronavirus.  Other antivirals worth researching include the herb andrographis, and colloidal silver. All of these are broad-spectrum antivirals. There’s no reason to believe they wouldn’t also tackle corona. .

Update — March 2, 2020

This article was meant to summarize the extent of our understanding as of Feb 2020. That understanding may change. Your best bet to stay updated is to link in with the CDC or local health authorities.

This article was also meant to be quick, easy, and accessible — to not bog anyone down with technical minutiae, or overwhelm them with dozens and dozens of options. SO: please don’t take my attempts to be decisive — i.e. recommending one or two brands only — as some sort of set-in-stone Law. There’s a lot out there that’s good. Use what you can.

So, if you’re allergic to something we suggest here, or maybe you need something kid-friendly, or whatever, feel free talk with the people here. We usually have one or two people on staff at any time that can field questions knowledgeably.