how herbs can be a health ally during a global pandemic

I have found myself vacillating between two realities these days (“these days” meaning every day seems to bring something new since Covid-19 has begun to sweep through). There is the day-to-day addressing my current reality, adapting to what is being asked and finding some sort of business as usual from home. The other “reality” is this question, what wants to come of this? What wants to be born from this time? In order for me to allow the conscious reset that I think wants to be born, some letting go of the business-as-usual mindset must fall away (quarantine and chill, if you will). 

That said, what I will speak to in this blog is more of my business as usual reality. Traditional Chinese Medicine is my profession (at this point in life) and my obsession. That said, if anyone wants to muse about the reconfiguration of dharmic paths, by all means reach out and we can go there. 

Before I jump in to herbal medicine and why it can be considered an ally during these times of global pandemic I want to express the importance of listening to the guidelines set by the Center for Disease Control. It is imperative to consider the health of the community and seek CDC guidance. I advocate for social distancing, adequate hand-washing, personal protective gear, quarantine when necessary, and other recommendations set by the CDC. These will slow the spread of the virus and allow time for our medical system to prepare.

In this blog I will speak to the health of the immune systems. If an immune system is strong a person can be a carrier of the virus without presenting symptoms. It is socially responsible to be aware of this so as not to transmit the virus to others (who may be immune compromised or of a vulnerable age). A healthy immune system will not slow the spread of the virus.

In addition I want to add. Western medicine is a master of crisis care and diagnoses, both are critical in times of infectious disease outbreaks. This is where we will get the test for Covid-19, helping track where the virus is and how it is spreading. This is where a vaccine will be discovered. This is where Tamiflu will be produced (Tamiflu is derived from shikimic acid, a metabolite found in star anise. Herbs are the basis of pharma). In addition, as this viral infection takes hold many people will require emergency medicine and ventilators. Deep bow to this technology. 

Integrative medicine joins both western and alternative medicine/Chinese Medicine (CM). Currently, hospitals in China are reporting reduced recovery time in patients receiving with integrative care (western pharmaceuticals and CM herbal formulas). In addition, twenty-three provinces in China have distributed CM herbal prevention to not only hospital workers, the people of the front lines of infection, but to citizens as well. The value of prevention through herbal medicine is steeped in their culture.

Classic Chinese Medicine (CM) literature (written ~4,000 years ago) describes the treatment of epidemic diseases using herbal formulas. Before modern medicine and vaccines all that was available was what was found in nature. These works have been studied, passed down and expanded upon over the years. In addition to herbs, these texts list basic prevention as; consuming a healthy diet, exercise, and avoiding the source of the infection (social distancing and quarantine). This is the foundation of how Chinese herbal medicine can aid in the prevention of illness as well as address early onset symptoms. 

How Disease Is Viewed In Chinese Medicine:

In CM, disease has different “levels.” I’ll try to simplify this as much as possible in hopes of showcasing why prevention and early-onset of symptoms is where herbs are best utilized to address disease. The principle idea is that disease begins at the surface of the body. The point of contact when someone becomes a carrier of the virus. Think about all of the hand-washing and advice to not touch noses or mouths. These are points of entry where a strong immune system can initially control the amount of virus replication. This is the first layer of treatment according to CM. 

If the virus begins to replicate it is looked at as moving from the surface of the body to a deeper level. This is the time when classic onset symptoms may be felt, such as slight fatigue or a tickle in your throat. In CM herbs to “release through the exterior” would be used. In other words, herbs that modulate the immune system and have some antiviral, antibacterial or other anti-inflammatory functions. 

Let me back track to the Tamiflu comment. It takes large amounts of star anise to derive the amount of shikimic acid used in antiviral medications. That said, Chinese herbal medicine diversifies the number of herbs with antiviral functions and other functions to help with symptoms. This bypasses the need to isolate one constituent at high doses to become effective. The practice of formula making has been in use for thousands of years with great success, especially when dealing with communicable disease and viral infection.

The prevention stage and initial stage are two areas where Chinese Medicine excel for communicable disease. Historical data, studies during the SARS corona-type virus and H1N1 show with 95% confidence that CM herbal prevention is effective in protecting against infection. Covid-19 is a novel virus, meaning never before seen and treatment is unknown.

When the disease moves to deeper levels in the body according to disease progression in CM, a patient will begin to experience increased and more intense signs and symptoms. With Covid-19 such symptoms may include increased fatigue, cough, sore throat, fever chest constriction. CM herbs can be supportive during this stage with a normal cold or flu, however, Covid-19 is an aggressive disease that can burrow into the lung cells. This is why it is important to receive western intervention, a Covid-19 test and treatment.

Should the patient recover from the critical stage the final stage of disease in CM theory is recovery. This will be important with Covid-19, and other infectious respiratory diseases, as after such an infection the body is taxed and the lungs may require residual healing support

Why Prevention?

So why prevention? In the case of Covid-19, all be exposed at some point and either people have a healthy immune system at their defense to prevent severe illness or there is a vaccine (in about a year or so) to aid immunity. This is why prevention and health awareness is important with such a disease.

The main principles of prevention and early onset treatment in CM are to: 

  • “Tonify Qi” meaning bolster a robust immune system and support a strong body composition.

  • Protect the body from communicable diseases

  • With Covid-19 particularly, herbs are used to resolve excess dampness. Damp leads to phlegm, mucous and congestion. With Covid-19 a thick and sticky mucous develops deep within the lung bronchioles creating chest constriction and difficulty breathing leading to extreme disease progression. 

     

How Specific Herbs Help:

A few examples (of the hundreds) of herbs used for contagious disease.

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    1. Huang Qi (Astragulus, Astragali Radix): 

      • “Tonify Defensive Qi” (I will use the term as it is categorized in classic CM and then try to explain it in western medicine terms. However, I do want to say herbs and western meds really are quite different. Herbs have functions that can be translated into scientific terms, but in the whole, herbs and herbal formulas are broad and vast. They do not perform one function (as with pharmaceuticals). In fact each herb can perform three or four or even more functions, so their synergistic effect is immense and complicated. That said, I will do my best to preserve the function category as well as simplify explanation). 

      • Stimulates the immune system. Promotes generation of specific and non-specific immunity. This means there are some immune cells that act as the vacuums, roaming around eating up anything foreign. Huang Qi promotes that. There are also immune cells that find invaders, remember those invaders, specifically hunt them down and then tell all of their friends to hunt them down as well (this is called generating “antibodies).”

    1. Jin Yin Hua (Honeysuckle Flower, Lonicerae Flos): 

      • “Clears Heat, Eliminates Toxin”

      • Anti-viral and anti-bacterial. Specifically anti-viral to the flu virus.

      • Specifically shown to inhibit replication of the SARS virus (a corona type virus. Though Covid-19 is note has not been studied specifically, SARS is of the same category of virus though less aggressive). 

      • Has been shown to have antiviral function in non-toxic concentration, meaning herbal dose is effective.

      1. Ban Lan Gen (Isatis root)

        • Anti-inflammatory 

        • When viruses shed they leave behind cytotoxins which can cause an inflammatory response. This is what leads to sepsis and organ failure. This herb has been shown to neutralize this response specifically. 

        • Has been studied and shown to directly inhibit the SARS virus 

        1. Herbs to directly protect the cilia in the lungs. Cilia are tiny cells that look like protrusions in the lung passageways that act like hairs, moving in a wave-like fashion to move mucous and gunk through to the lumph for clean-up. Covid-19 (and SARS) destroys these cells leading to the build-up of thick mucous, pneumonia and inhibiting breathing. 

          • Herbs to help specifically are: Licorice, Scutellariae Radix, Cordyceps:

        There’s a lot of information in this little blog. However, I am confident the addition of herbs and Chinese Medicine into your disease prevention is worthwhile. The beauty of herbal medicine is that there is positive evidence with little to no side effects. Side effects, if any, are often negligible. We live in a world where diseases are changing all the time, viruses have been doing this for billions of years, might as well seek out remedies that offer more benefit than risk. 

        How To Take Herbs:

        In Chinese Medicine, a person’s body composition is taken into account. Herbal remedies are tailored specifically to each person’s needs. Even in the aforementioned statement about prevention herbs being used in 23 provinces in China, there are 4 different formulas prepared to meet the basic differences in each person. This is to ensure the microbiome and standing immunity is not disrupted by using the wrong herb.

        I am available for herbal consultations and can ship herbal remedies directly to you. Herbs come in many forms to make consumption convenient and effective. We can discuss options at time of consultation. 

        Additional Support:

        Herbs are not for everyone. I get that. Full-disclosure, they may not taste great, but often only have to be taken for a couple weeks when dealing with colds, flus, immunity. 

        There are other supportive options. As of right now, our acupuncture sessions are suspended at the clinic, though acupuncture treatment can also be great for longterm illness recovery. 

        Offerings via virtual conference: 

        • Nutritional guidance

        • Acupressure practices

        • Qigong

        • Meditation

        • Mindfulness/journaling practices/connecting in supportive conversation during this time of conscious (r)evolution. 

         

        Be well friends.

        Please email with any questions or concerns (you can scroll down to “Ask Dresden” to access the contact form). I am happy to be in service to you at this time. 

        Dresden

         

        Resources:

        Chinese Medical Herbology and Pharmacology. John Chen, Tina Chen

        Scientific data for herbal medicine presenting a historical perspective, trials conducted during SARs epidemic and current prevention programs used in China

        Interview with TCM doctor in Wuhan