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

This is a slight reworking of an article I wrote in early February and published last month. The biggest thing I’ve reworked is the title. That original title (again, written in early Feb) was “Is the Coronavirus Coming to Get You?” And if you read that now and cringe, trust me, your author does too.  It seems remarkably tone-deaf in light of what we’re facing right now, and I want to apologize for it, sincerely.  The other major change here is I’ve cut almost the entirety intro. By now, most of us have already heard enough about the virus.  So let’s skip right past all that, cut right to what we can do.

What is this article going to be about?

Let’s start with what this article is not going to be about. This article is not going to tell you how herbs and supplements can make you bulletproof to novel corona (or any virus). It is not going to offer guarantees. It is not going to provide solutions to take the place of responsible social distancing, conscientious hygiene, and self-quarantine where appropriate. 

No, COVID-19 is simply too new for us to speak with any great certainty how our favorite herbs and supplements will play out in the real world. Even if they play out like I hope they will – like I believe they will – not everyone is going to be taking the same herbs you are. So we all need to do our part to minimize potential spread.

Anyways, we’ll talk about protocols to enhance general immune competence… and then highlight some herbs that show promise with viruses, generally speaking.

STRENGTHEN IMMUNITY IN GENERAL    

Unlike direct antivirals, herbs and supplements that strengthen general immunity generally take days — even weeks — to ramp up. They may have some value if you start when you’re fighting something off.  But that’s not the best way to use them. The best way is daily

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. None of this is rocket science. 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.

Adequate vitamin D is important.  That doesn’t mean mega-doses. It means enough. That’s a daily dose of 2,000-5,000 iu in winter, maybe more if you’re already deficient. Bear in mind, we make vitamin D when sun hits our skin. Vitamin D deficiencies are one of reasons we’re more susceptible to 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 (n-acetyl-cysteine) is one of the most versatile and powerful supplements in the natural medicine chest.  It’s an amino acid derivative, a precursor to glutathione[1] which enhances immunity, thins mucous, and promotes detoxification. The real-world benefits are real, and highly impressive. In one study 600, elderly Italian men were randomized to either take two pills a day of NAC or a placebo over the winter season. At the end of the study, an equal number of men in both groups had been exposed to the flu – you could tell because blood tests showed they’d built an immunity to it. But the ones who had taken the NAC were literally 66% less likely to have felt or reported flu symptoms. That’s 2 out of 3 — that’s a really big deal, statistically and actually.             

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 the way NAC works, its various mechanisms, ought to be relevant across a broad spectrum of respiratory viruses.  Especially relevant, the more the virus has an affinity for the lungs. It’s cheap, has myriad side benefits, and is safe enough to take during pregnancy.             

I also like to recommend good herbal immune formulas. These fall into three basic categories.

  1. Direct, simple immune strengtheners
  2. Immune-adaptogenic formulas that directly strengthen immunity while also addressing the effects of fatigue on the immune system.
  3. Constitutionals — formulas that address needs or weakness specific to your constitution.

When I think of direct immune-strengtheners, I think of medicinal mushrooms (and other sources of immune-strengthening polysaccharides), which I mentioned earlier. First of all, these herbs are complementary to (not redundant with) vitamin D and NAC. While vitamin D increases communication within the immune system for optimal coordination, and NAC maintains the vitality of an immune response in the face of depletion, these polysaccharides tell the immune cells that surveil and scrutinize other cells to work more diligently.  

Foods and herbs that contain immune-strengthening polysaccharides 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. 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 with a little garlic and thyme. 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 in her morning smoothie. There are dozens of good brands out there, but I especially like the 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 that combine direct immune-strengthening herbs (as mentioned above), with herbs that simultaneously (and paradoxically?) both strengthen and soften the stress response — herbs like ginseng, ashwagandha, rhodiola, and codonopsis. Basically, look at straight-up immune-strengtheners if you feel fine. Look at the immune-adaptogenic formulas if you’re feeling worn-down. If you’re under a lot of stress, 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. But as products move in and out of stock, please don’t feel married to these. We’ll always have something to recommend.  

Constitutionals are so personalized; I’m not going to get into them here. Our staff can walk you through options. Even better: work with a clinical herbalist with their own apothecary. They can get to know you and blend something personalized.    

FIGHT the VIRUS

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

When should you take these? Well, for 20 years, I’ve been telling people to take direct antivirals only when they’re fighting something off. “You don’t need to be symptomatic,” I’d say, “you just need to be exposed. So, let’s say you’re about to get on a plane. Or someone behind you in the movie theater is coughing — consider yourself exposed.”            

In today’s climate, it’s hard to know where to draw that line on “exposed.” We’re dealing with a virus that might hit hard – and we’re constantly looking over our shoulder for it. So, should we take direct antivirals all the time?  Every day for the next 3 or 6 or 12 months?  I don’t know. What I can say is, I take a solid dose of antivirals twice a day at least. But I’m also out and about, here at the retail store, most days of the week. If you’re self-quarantining (or close enough) you may not need to take these daily.  Not that it’ll hurt you to do so. Just it’s another thing to take. And it may drain the limited supply we now have of some of these vital herbs.

BUT – when push comes to shove – if you do start feeling symptomatic, you’re probably 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 with other viruses. Having said that, there have been two studies where elderberry has addressed Coronavirus specifically.  One study was in cultured chicken cells, against a different kind of Corona. Another used an obscure Asian species of elderberry, and it used the plant’s stems (we traditionally use berries and sometimes flowers). So… that definitely falls far short of what we call “gold standard” evidence. Still, it suggests elderberry might have something to offer. Elderberry syrup also tastes good. It’s safe[2], and easy to give kids.  

Lomatium root is my #1 favorite antiviral herb.  I’ve never found a virus it can’t take on, to some degree or another. 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: lomatium has 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 novel 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.    

This article has to end at some point. This is as good a place as any. Even though there are dozens of other herbs to talk about. There has been some preliminary research to suggest that traditional antiviral herbs Isatis, Pelargonium (a.k.a. “Umcka”), coptis, and phellodendron also work against various types of Coronavirus. Reports out of China the last few months mention forsythia, honeysuckle, and Baikal scutellaria. Other antivirals worth researching include the herb Andrographis, the coconut fat derivative monolaurin, and colloidal silver. All of these are useful against a broad spectrum of viruses, and are likely to have some value here as well.

Supply Chain / Shortages / Options

By the time you read this (maybe April, maybe later) some of what I’ve written about may no longer be available – temporarily, or until the next harvest.  The demand for medicinal herbs has skyrocketed. If that’s the case, come talk to us. Or to anyone knowledgeable about herbs and natural medicine. There’s usually another brand, another formula, another herb. Nothing I’ve written about is the only option.   


[1] Glutathione is a major endogenous antioxidant in the body, but it’s more than just an antioxidant.  Want to get technical with it? Check out this wonderful paper from 2019. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fimmu.2017.01239/full Long story short, adequate intracellular glutathione “fine tunes” the immune response to viruses specifically and can reduce the effects of oxidative stress on immunity. It can reduce the damage caused by an excessive inflammatory response. AND, glutathione starts to get depleted the more the immune system is under stress.


[2] Recently, there has been a whole tizzy on the internet about elderberry and cytokine storms, i.e. that elderberry may actually make Coronavirus symptoms worse by increasing the damaging inflammatory response linked to late-stage, serious COVID-19.  Long story short, this is not a concern using elderberry in any normal situation. Period. And it’s highly unlikely to be an issue even in extreme situations. (Yes, elderberry has some components which increase inflammation. It also has some components which decrease inflammation. There is no reason to believe (biochemically, clinically, or traditionally) the pro-inflammatory activity outweighs the anti-inflammatory activity. None. HOWEVER, in the interest of surplus caution, perhaps we should discontinue elderberry if COVID-19 ever moved towards the point where it would put a person on a ventilator…?