More than two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, there is a lot we have learnt about the disease. For us, some of the most interesting research has highlighted how herbal medicine can be helpful in reducing the severity of the illness and used as part of a preventative approach.
This article provides our medical herbalists’ views on how we can protect ourselves and support the body as it responds to the infection with the help of herbal medicine. Whilst there is no evidence of natural medicines curing COVID-19, there is a growing body of research showing that herbal medicine can help to manage symptoms and support the body’s natural defences as it fights the infection.
We will be exploring the following questions in this article:
- What is COVID-19, how does it spread, and how does it affect the body?
- How can we protect ourselves from COVID-19?
- How can herbal medicine support the body as it responds to the infection?
We will also be presenting some of the products we’ve developed here at Zen Maitri that can help.
This piece provides general views about the disease, but if you or a close one is suffering from COVID-19, in addition to avoiding being in close contact with people at higher risk from COVID-19, we recommend booking a consultation with one of our medical herbalists so that we can offer you bespoke advice. If you are worried about your symptoms, visit 111.nhs.uk, call 111 or get in touch with your GP.
What is COVID-19?
COVID-19 is a disease caused by a new type of enveloped virus from the coronavirus family. The name “corona” comes from the appearance of the particles that surround the virus, as these look like a crown (“corona” in Latin). It was reported by China on 31 December 2019 to the World Health Organisation (WHO), after a large rise in pneumonia cases of unknown cause in the Wuhan area. For identification purposes, the WHO named the disease COVID-19 on the 11th of February 2020 and the virus itself is called (SARS-CoV-2).
How does COVID-19 spread?
The novel virus is spread between people who are in close contact with one another. The virus can spread from respiratory droplets created when an infected person coughs, sneezes, speaks, sings or breathes. The droplets can then land in the mouth, nose or eyes of people nearby or can be inhaled into the lungs. This virus spreads very easily from person to person.
Data suggests that infected people are most contagious just before they develop symptoms (namely 2 days before they develop symptoms), and early in their illness. Some spread might be possible from people who never develop symptoms, although this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads. It also may be possible to catch the virus by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching your nose, mouth, or possibly eyes.
How does COVID-19 affect the body?
The main symptoms are fever, tiredness, and a dry cough. Some people experience aches and pains, a runny nose, nasal congestion, a sore throat and diarrhoea. These symptoms affect people differently but a majority of people do not have severe symptoms. The symptoms of fever, cough and shortness of breath may appear 2-14 days after exposure. Most people recover from the disease without needing special treatment. Anyone with a serious cough, fever, and difficulty breathing should seek medical attention.
Those considered at risk for severe illness from this virus are older adults and people who have severe chronic medical conditions like heart disease, lung disease, high blood pressure or kidney disease. Age is a significant factor. Older people are far more likely to have serious COVID-19 illness.
Almost all serious consequences of this virus feature pneumonia and those who catch the virus can be placed into four categories:
- The first group is the least serious; people who have the virus but have no symptoms.
- Second are those who get an upper respiratory tract infection with symptoms of a fever and a cough and possibly milder symptoms such as a headache. Those people with these minor symptoms are still able to pass on the virus but may not be aware they have it.
- The third group are those who develop flu-like symptoms that would normally keep them off work.
- The fourth group develops a severe illness that features pneumonia.
How can we protect ourselves from COVID-19?
To ensure a healthy and strong immune system, it is important to eat a healthy balanced diet with plenty of vegetables and fruit, have sufficient (7-8 hours) and restful sleep, regular and adequate exercise, breathe clean air and manage our stress levels in a healthy way. It is widely acknowledged that psychological stress can negatively influence the functioning of the immune system in many diseases. In light of this, as well as leading a healthy and balanced lifestyle, supporting the body’s resilience to stress is also of prime importance. Herbs which are particularly helpful in doing so include adaptogens, which as the name suggests, assist the body to deal with and adapt to stress, and nervines, which nourish and support the nervous system, thereby improving resilience to internal and external stressful stimuli.
The best starting place to support and nourish the body in these stressful and uncertain times is by making use of herbs with adaptogenic and nervine actions, which include, amongst others, Ashwagandha, Rhodiola, Siberian Ginseng, Tulsi, Chamomile, Vervain, Oats and Skullcap.
Our Balance collection contains many of these herbs and it is designed to reduce cortisol levels and support, strengthen and nourish a healthy nervous system.
In the time of a global pandemic, we can also supplement the nervous system and endocrine system support with other immune-building herbal medicine to promote general immunity and protect against pathogens such as viruses.
Many herbal medicines help protect the immune system and are immunomodulating (immune regulating). Their action on our bodies when ingested is like a dimmer switch regulating things (such as our immune system and so on) up and down. This differs from the mechanisms of conventional drugs, which may be forceful in the way they turn enzymes or hormone production on or off and often cause side effects. In some ways, herbs have the potential to be more effective, sophisticated and nuanced in their action and how they help regulate immune action against invaders.
A number of herbal medicines have now been studied and have been shown to have the potential to directly inhibit COVID-19. 10 antiviral components were screened by Yan et al. (2020) including hesperidin, saikosaponin, rutin, baicalin, glycyrrhizin, mulberroside A, puerarin, orientin, amygdalin, and ilexgenin A, and all of them can directly bind to both host cell target ACE2 receptors and target the viral protease that is used to infect the host cell.
Of these compounds, those commonly available in the UK include Licorice root containing glycyrrhizin, Baical Skullcap containing baicalin, Andrographis containing andrographolide, Ashwagandha root containing withanone, Elecampane containing britanin, and Barberry root containing berberine. Quercetin is also a natural compound found in fruit and vegetables such as onions, apples, and broccoli. The richest natural source is found in capers. Quercetin inhibits the virus attachment and is in the drug development pipeline by the company Quercagen.
Preventing the virus from penetrating into the body following exposure
Following potential exposure to COVID-19, it is important to prevent the virus from reaching the lower respiratory system and causing viral pneumonia or getting into the digestive tract.
Simple home treatments can be done in the morning and evening as part of our daily routine as both preventative measures and at the initial signs of upper respiratory infection. These include:
- Steaming the face and nose
- Gargling turmeric powder and salt
- Oil pulling with coconut or sesame oil to provide lubrication to the mucus membranes in the mouth and throat
- A nasyam treatment, which involves inserting medicated oil into the nostrils, providing lubrication to the mucus membranes in the nose.
These treatments help to strengthen our barriers to the virus and reduce virus replication.
Herbal medicines can also be used at this stage for symptomatic treatment. Our Cough syrup containing Thyme, Marshmallow and Licorice syrup is a soothing blend of herbs to assist with relieving the symptoms of dry, tickly and irritating cough by soothing mucus membranes, reducing inflammation and supporting the respiratory system. Herbs such as ginger, cardamom, inula/elecampane, garlic and cinnamon are mucolytic expectorants which help to dissolve the thick sticky mucus that can build up in the sinuses and the lungs.
Our Echinacea and Elderberry syrup is a gentle combination to support healthy immune system function, assist the body in fighting bacterial, viral or fungal infections and enhance recovery from such infections.
Herbs and foods which contain Vitamin C are also helpful at this stage, and reports from China and the United States have indicated that hospitals treating COVID-19 patients who receive IV Vitamin C recover better than those who do not. A wide range of herbs are naturally high in Vitamin C. Our Immunity range contains the following herbs which are high in Vitamin C Elderberry, Rosehip, Nettle leaf, Thyme and Amla.
For a continuous cough, antispasmodic herbs such as thyme, elecampane and cherry bark can be taken to relax and soothe the cough reflex of the respiratory system.
Supporting the body as it responds to the infection
The most common symptoms of COVID-19 are fever and dry cough, but these are not always present. The fever is felt by the body when it goes above the normal temperature of 36.5C/97.7F by 0.25C/0.5F, which is considered a low-grade fever, and a high fever is considered to be above this. A fever of 37 C/98.6 F kills or attenuates the coronavirus.
Symptoms of fever are heat and sweating, but also possibly headache and painful muscles, due to the increased inflammation by cytokines that the body makes to fight the virus. The COVID-19 fever is usually low grade and intermittent; it can come and go at intervals of a day or two.
Rest is the best thing you can do if you have a virus and symptoms including fever, to let it take its course. There is some evidence for "starving a fever", maintaining an empty stomach to enable the body to produce ghrelin which controls fever and is anti-inflammatory and pain relieving. There is evidence that NSAIDs such as Ibuprofen and aspirin can interfere with the fever’s healing/virus-killing process and promote the infection.
Coronavirus seems to prefer to attack the cells in our lungs called goblet cells and ciliated cells. Goblet cells produce mucus that keeps our lungs moist and the ciliated cells have small hairs that sweep up foreign bodies such as bacteria and viruses and dust into the throat which are removed by coughing. When our immune system realises that these cells in the body are under attack, it can mount an excessive/hyperimmune reaction and cause inflammation and damage to healthy tissue under these cells. This inflammation in the lungs can also cause breathing difficulties. If you have any significant breathing difficulties this requires medical attention at a hospital.
If you have a fever, drink plenty of warm water to replace fluids and support your immune system with nutritious food. Warm vegetable broths and stews with plenty of ginger, garlic and onion are ideal. Herbal medicines such as our Recovery tea with Elderflower, Peppermint and Yarrow are anti-inflammatory and diaphoretic in nature, assisting to disperse the heat of the fever. Our Immunity range will assist in improving immune function at this stage with Echinacea, Elderberry, Tulsi, Olive leaf and Amla.
Protecting the lungs and supporting the respiratory system
If COVID-19 enters the lungs the virus can infect cells, including cilia which have a small hair-like structure and stick out from cells in the lungs, moving continuously in order to move mucus and debris up and out of the lungs. SARS viruses work by killing the cilia they infect enabling debris and fluids to build up in the lungs, causing pneumonia. When the infection becomes this serious the immune system can become highly activated. This sends large numbers of immune cells to the lungs to stop the infection, clear out the debris, and heal the tissues.
Our Immunity tincture contains Andrographis, Echinacea Root, Tulsi, Elderberry, Olive Leaf & Amla and Immunity capsules contain Andrographis, Echinacea Root, Tulsi, Elderberry, Olive Leaf & Rosehip. Our Immunity Tea contains Tulsi, Elderberry, Olive leaf & Rosehip.
All of these herbs will assist the immune system and manage the body’s reaction to the virus.
Our breathe range is specific to assisting with supporting the respiratory system and lung health with mucus membrane trophorestorative (meaning that they restore the health of the mucus membranes) and demulcents to soothe and protect the mucus membranes of the nose, sinuses and lungs.
Our Breathe Capsules contain Plantain, Elecampane Root, Marshmallow Root, Echinacea Root & Thyme and our Breathe Tea has Plantain leaf, Elecampane, Marshmallow Root, Echinacea Root & Thyme, all of which will support optimal function of the lungs and assist with any deep infection.
What can be done to support those who might develop pneumonia?
For those who develop pneumonia, conventional medical support must be sought – and herbs can be used integratively alongside conventional treatment and advice to support and nourish the body and manage symptoms.
The most important aspect is to manage the fever (disperse heat) with diaphoretic, antiviral and anti-inflammatory herbs such as elderflower, peppermint and yarrow (such as in our Recovery tea).
Immune system support and expectorants such as echinacea, thyme and elecampane are also particularly important to expel infection, increase warmth and support the lungs.
Reducing dairy products and sugar which promote mucus and inflammation is important at this time, along with warming, light and preferably liquid foods. Eating foods that are rich in Vitamin C also helps improve immunity, provides antioxidant support and helps clear out excess mucus from the respiratory system.
Hawthorn leaf and berry support the cardiovascular system and heart if the heartbeat is elevated. They can also be used as an ACE inhibitor to increase the presence of ACE-2 and help protect the lungs from injury.
Essential oils such as rosemary, eucalyptus, hyssop or cajeput can be vaporised in a diffuser or massaged on the chest diluted in a carrier oil.
The standard advice from the NHS for coronavirus is to get lots of rest, drink plenty of fluids (water is best) to avoid dehydration (drinking enough so that your pee is light yellow and clear), and take paracetamol or ibuprofen if you feel uncomfortable.
Apart from the usual recommendations of exercising, eating nutritious food, getting out into the sunshine for vitamin D, adequate rest, sleep and relaxation, if you would like to support your immune system and lungs with herbal medicine we have a range of options as capsules, tinctures (liquid extracts) and tea, or we can make a mix tailored custom blend for you following an online consultation.
This particular coronavirus is a novel virus and while we know many herbal medicines and natural treatment strategies have been shown to be helpful/effective for previous coronaviruses, we cannot say they will definitely be helpful for COVID-19. The recommendations in this article should not be seen as alternatives to the advice and treatment of your doctor or NHS practitioner.
Zen Maitri products to support you through COVID-19
Help your system to deal with an active infection with our Recovery tincture and herbal tea
Support your immune system to prevent any infections with our Defend range
Our Defend range brings a blend of herbs that can boost your natural defences, helping your immune system to keep any infections at bay, easing inflammation and raising your energy levels. The range includes a tincture, capsules and a herbal tea. It includes antimicrobial and immune-modulating herbs such as echinacea, holy basil, elderberry, andrographis and amla.
Boost your immunity, endurance and cognition with our Mushroom Power Mix
Our Mushroom Power Mix is an excellent all-rounder that harnesses the mysterious benefits of therapeutic wild mushrooms to promote vibrant health and vitality and boost immune function.
Soothe a dry cough and support your natural defences with our herbal syrups
Our Cough syrup containing Thyme, Licorice and Marshmallow in a sugar syrup is a delicious and potent blend that soothes the throat, eases inflammation and helps the body to combat infections.
Our Echinacea and Elderberry syrup offers a robust herbal line of defence against harmful germs, with powerful immune-boosting abilities.
Support your respiratory system with our Breathe range
If you are suffering from mild respiratory symptoms, our Breathe range (tincture, tea, bath salts, Breathe easy balm) and Nasya oil can help bring some relief by opening your airways, combating congestion and soothing your respiratory tract.
If pneumonia and breathing difficulties develop, in integrative care with conventional medical attention, we recommend booking a consultation with a qualified medical herbalist to help relieve any symptoms.