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COVID-19: The Case for Preventive, Immunosupportive Therapy

March 13, 2020

In recent weeks, healthcare providers and government officials have issued warnings against the spread of COVID-19, commonly referred to as coronavirus. Cases of COVID-19 are increasing exponentially, affecting global markets, airline travel, and virtually every sector of human interaction and exchange. With the amount of cases increasing here in the U.S. and the number of illnesses yet to reach its peak, there is heightened alert and a call for action. What can we do?

COVID-19: What Is It?

Although loosely referred to as coronavirus, COVID-19 is a strain of an already well known family of viruses, Coronaviridae. Human coronaviruses are known to cause flu-like symptoms and spread in a way that is similar to the common cold, so what makes this disease different? COVID-19 is a novel strain that for the first time is present in humans. Unlike other Coronaviruses, COVID-19 is unprecedented, which means scientists are still working to understand and map its spread and a vaccine is not yet available. While symptoms mimic those of the common flu virus, strains of COVID-19 have proven deadlier, resulting in a much higher fatality rate, especially in those who are immunocompromised.

Symptoms & Transmission

Although researchers are still studying the specifics when it comes to transmission, we know COVID-19 follows a similar mode of transmission as other viruses, person-to-person contact. Infected individuals spread the virus through respiratory droplets while coughing or sneezing, as well as when coming into close contact with objects handled by someone infected with the virus. While some individuals who tested positive for COVID-19 are asymptomatic, carrying the virus without knowing it, others experience symptoms of cough, shortness of breath, and fever, sometimes up to two weeks after exposure, making early detection more difficult.

Immune-Modulating Herbs & Supplements

The immune system is our body’s defense system, a virtual army of cells that exists to protect us from outside invaders, whether bacteria, viruses, or other foreign agents. It makes sense, then, to strengthen our immune system during times of heightened illness. We can do this through herbs that increase white blood cells, such as Astragalus, Echincaea, and Andrographis, as well as medicinal mushrooms like Reishi.

A very specific type of white blood cell, the Natural Killer (NK) cell, is aptly named because of its role in ridding the body of foreign invaders. A proprietary blend of the mushroom, active hexose correlated compound (AHCC), is remarkably efficient at increasing the body’s level of NK cells and therefore, host defense. AHCC has been studied for the adjuvant treatment of cancer and for its role in treating other viral infections, such as HPV and influenza. This is in addition to other immune supporting herbs, including one of my favorites for pediatric patients, Sambucus nigra. Sambucus, known commonly as Elderberry, is a great herb for boosting the immune systems of children because of its mild taste and because it lends itself well to syrups. I’ll often use Elderberry syrup as a base for formulas with potent antiviral herbs (see below) since it helps to mask the strong flavor of other herbs.

While the use of immune-modulating herbs and supplements may not directly treat or eradicate COVID-19, we can strengthen and support the body’s defense system, rendering ourselves more resilient to outside infection. While generally safe for short periods, long-term use of immune-boosting herbs like Echinacea can be problematic for those suffering from autoimmune conditions so check with a healthcare professional before supplementing.

Antiviral Herbs & Nutrients

Nature is blessed with an array of potent antiviral herbs, in addition to vitamins and minerals that can help both boost the immune system and fight viral infections. While it’s not possible to say whether these herbs exert their antiviral activity against COVID-19, botanical formulas can help reduce illness, helping to differentiate between this novel strain of coronavirus and other viral infections with similar symptoms. We can create botanical formulas to include antiviral herbs such as Lomatium, Ligusticum, and Thuja, all of which exhibit strong antimicrobial properties by producing cytokines, a group of proteins that stimulates the body’s immune response.

Research has demonstrated antiviral properties of vitamin A and zinc, and zinc’s role in supporting the immune system is well studied. Vitamin D, long praised for its ability to boost immunity, is one of the most important nutrients during cold and flu season, especially in parts of the country where levels drop during the winter, such as New England. Antiviral formulas may not be necessary for those who are not experiencing symptoms, but ensuring adequate levels of nutrients that are immunosupportive is essential in preventing the spread of an illness with pandemic potential.

Prevention: Lifestyle, Diet & Stress

When it comes to prevention, the most obvious and yet most essential advice is to practice proper handwashing. If you’re not sure how long you should be washing your hands, the CDC recommends 20 seconds of vigorous scrubbing; (if in doubt, you can sing happy birthday song twice). A less obvious mode of prevention is to take a closer look at stress. Stressors weaken our immune system, giving foreign invaders a chance to thrive, which is why cold sores (caused by the herpes virus), tend to increase during times of stress. There are many effective ways to manage stress, from yoga and daily meditation to herbal supplements, but we can start by ensuring a good night’s rest.

Our diet can play a role in the body’s defense system against foreign invaders. We know that increasing our sugar intake can temporarily lower white blood cell counts, weakening the immune system and making us more susceptible to infections. Diets high in sugar are never beneficial, but we should be especially cautious and limit sugar intake when under the weather.

Although there is no specific treatment for those infected with COVID-19, naturopathic medicine has much to offer in the way of immune support and antiviral therapies to strengthen our body’s immune response and to help differentiate between other viral illnesses. Taking a proactive approach to building our body’s defense barrier is a smart first step in not only preventing the spread of COVID-19, but protecting ourselves from a novel strain of virus that has yet to reach its peak.

Antonio Reale, ND, MS is a licensed naturopathic physician and nutritionist practicing in Wethersfield and Middlebury. He specializes in personalized botanical medicine and is founder of The Herbal Room, a multidisciplinary wellness center in Wethersfield, with an in-house botanical dispensary. Dr. Reale also sees patients weekly at a satellite office in Middlebury. For insurance information and scheduling, visit: www.theherbal-room.com. (860) 257-7210.

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