Strengthen Your Defences: Tools for Surviving in a World of Dangerous VirusesMichael Vertolli, RH December 1, 2012
In these modern times, a number of diseases seem to be on the increase, and many of the infectious diseases which we had considered to be more or less wiped out are starting to come back again. These include bubonic plague, pneumonic plague, anthrax, tuberculosis, and others. A number of them are demonstrating resistance to antibiotics. For example, there are strains of TB that have become resistant to multiple antibiotics and now need to be treated with increasingly dangerous drugs.
All things considered, it would be easy to create an aura of fear and paranoia around the fact that modern medical treatments are failing, yet there are other ways that we can protect ourselves, and that is what we will discuss here. More specifically, there are numerous herbs, nutrients, and lifestyle changes that can form a formidable defence against microorganisms that have the potential to harm our bodies.
A large number of the viruses and bacteria creating havoc all over the world these days have developed the ability to mutate rapidly in response to the various drugs we are using to treat them. Thus they are a real threat to our species.
It is useful at this point to try to understand the purpose of microorganisms in the overall scheme of things. They exist. They are integrated members of the earth’s biosphere, and as such they have a purpose. Many disease organisms and various pests that we hear about, even locusts attacking crops, have an important ecological purpose, partly to keep nature in balance.
If you look at situations where disease organisms tend to multiply and proliferate, it’s in areas where there are dense populations of the host organism, whether it be humans or crops or any other species. Today, the human population is growing at an enormous rate, and our sheer numbers combined with environmentally damaging lifestyles are having a negative impact on the global biosphere. Consequently, we’ve created a situation wherein the only effective tool which nature has left to restore balance is by reducing our population through disease-causing organisms.
In huge urban centres where millions of people are living very close together, we have an environment which is quite conducive to the spread of microorganisms.
In essence, part of the reason for the growing tenacity of bacteria and viruses and their ability to mutate is in response to the needs of the global ecosystem to bring the human species into balance. Nature is stressed, and she is trying to cleanse herself.
In response to this, the first thing we need to realize is that it is pointless and harmful if we succumb to anxiety and fear; these emotions have a profound negative influence on the functioning of our immune system. There are positive things we can do to strengthen our own immunity, and help nature restore balance. These include eating organic unprocessed foods, reducing stress, purifying our indoor air and water, improving our digestive and eliminative functions, exercising regularly, and, in general, living in greater harmony with nature. In addition, reducing or eliminating our use of stimulants, and avoiding the use of antibiotics except in crisis situations, is very helpful. In these ways we can do our best to live in a way that is more a part of the solution rather than a part of the problem.
There are also specific herbs and nutrients for fighting off infectious and/or dangerous viruses.
Antioxidants are a very important means by which we can increase our body’s ability to deal with stress, whether from environmental toxins or from harmful microorganisms.
Many vitamins and minerals have an antioxidant effect. Antioxidants help to protect our body from the harmful effects of many kinds of toxic stress. They include vitamins A, C and E, beta-carotene and other carotenoids, and selenium (a mineral that works together with vitamin E. In addition, some of the B complex vitamins have an antioxidant effect, and help our body to deal with stress. Zinc is a nutrient that is important for immune health, as is vitamin D. Although we produce vitamin D when our skin is exposed to sunlight, we can boost our immune health by supplementing vitamin D from early September to late April when the sunlight isn’t as strong, the days are shorter, and we tend to be outside less and wear more clothing. Supplementing with any of these nutrients can increase our body’s resistance to disease.
Polyphenols such as proanthocyanidins, anthocyanins, and flavonoids help to protect our tissues from oxidative stress and boost our overall immune response. Polyphenols and carotenes are very common in fruits and vegetables, so it is important to eat sufficient quantities of these. Many of these substances are plant pigments. The highest quantities can be found in green vegetables and brightly coloured fruits and vegetables. Unfortunately, the highest level of antioxidant pigments in fruits is in their skin – but often we peel the skin to remove pesticide residues. That’s another reason why it’s important to eat organic. Peeling then becomes unnecessary.
Antioxidant polyphenols can also be found in three types of supplements: 1) pine bark extract, 2) grape seed extract, and 3) bilberry fruit extract. Of the three, the most concentrated is grape seed extract, although pine bark extract is fairly close. However, grape seed extract is much less expensive.
Supplementation with coenzyme Q10 has been found beneficial for certain types of chronic degenerative diseases like heart conditions and diabetes. It is also effective for auto-immune conditions and as a general immune system booster.
Many of these nutritional supplements tend to be mutually synergistic. For example, vitamin E, coenzyme Q10, and selenium work well together. The same applies to vitamin C, flavonoids, and other polyphenol extracts. Using a combination of these supplements is more effective than taking them individually.
Herbs for Acute Infections
Aside from nutritional support, there are many herbs that can provide important immune support. Immune stimulants are short-term immunomodulators that stimulate the immediate response of the immune system to any type of stressor.
Lymphatic herbs stimulate lymphatic drainage – important because the activities of our immune and lymphatic systems are closely linked. Antivirals and other antimicrobials have a direct impact on various microorganisms and parasites. They weaken or kill pathogenic organisms directly, as opposed to working indirectly by stimulating our immune system. Immune stimulant, lymphatic and antimicrobial herbs are useful in stimulating an immediate response to attack by a particular microorganism. However, they are not appropriate for long term use.
One well-known immune stimulant is the herb and roots of purple coneflower (Echinacea spp.). It can be used both in the treatment of infections, and as a tonic to stimulate our immune response. As a tonic, it must be used for short periods of time, followed by a break. This is true of most immune stimulants. Their effectiveness drops off if they are used for more than a week or two.
To prevent infection, the best way to use immune stimulants is to take them three or four times a day. In general, herbs are best taken on an empty stomach for adequate assimilation. So, we would take the immune stimulants three or four times a day on an empty stomach for a period of a week or so, and then stop taking it for a period of time. For the average person, that might mean taking them one week per month during that time of year when they are most susceptible to infections, probably autumn to spring for most people.
Immune stimulants can also be used to treat an infection in progress. The sooner we start using it, the more effective will be the results. When treating an acute infection in progress, begin by taking the herb(s) every couple of hours, or maybe even every hour if is an extremely virulent infection. Then gradually decrease the frequency of the dose as symptoms improve. That’s important.
Sometimes people who use immune stimulant herbs obtain poor results. It’s usually because they weren’t using enough of it, or they started too late, or both.
Echinacea is also a lymphatic and an antimicrobial. It discourages the proliferation of various types of microorganisms and helps stimulate lymphatic drainage as well.
Two other very good immune stimulants are elecampane root (Inula helenium) and plantain herb (Plantago spp.). Both of these herbs also support the respiratory system and are good for coughs and colds. Like echinacea, they support the lymphatic system as well.
There are some immune stimulants that are particularly useful for viral infections. These include boneset herb (Eupatorium perfoliatum), yarrow herb (Achillea millefolium), black elder flower (Sambucus nigra), and blue vervain herb (Verbena hastata). All of these herbs lower fever and aid lymphatic drainage. They are excellent herbs for colds, flu, and other feverish and viral conditions.
There are some immune herbs that primarily stimulate the lymphatic system and are very synergistic with other immune stimulants. These include the various bedstraw herbs (Galium spp.), such as cleavers herb (G. aparine), yellow bedstraw herb (G. verum), and sweet woodruff herb (G. odoratum), as well as stinging nettle herb (Urtica dioica) and horsetail herb (Equisetum arvense).
One other herb that belongs in this category is goldenseal rhizome and root (Hydrastis canadensis), primarily because it is an effective antimicrobial and antifungal herb. Goldenseal does not really stimulate the immune system, but is an excellent antimicrobial. It is a bit more tricky to work with because it contains alkaloids which can build up in our body over a period of time. Therefore it should not be used by small children, pregnant or nursing women.
Goldenseal is used for bacterial, fungal, and some kinds of parasitic infections. It is not particularly useful for colds and flu. We should only use organically grown sources of goldenseal because wild populations are being wiped out due to over-harvesting.
Immune tonics and adaptogens are herbs which have an overall beneficial effect on immune function. The difference between these herbs and immune stimulants is that these herbs must be taken for long periods of time. Their action builds up slowly and continues to work long after we stop taking them.
Overall, immune tonics increase the adaptive response of the immune system to all types of stressors.
Of the more common ones, the best known are various ginsengs such as North American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius), Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococ-cus senticosus), and Chinese milkvetch (Astragalus membranaceus). All three of these herbs have an overall very deep influence on the body’s immune response, and they are best used over a long period.
In addition to those herbs, there are a number of medicinal mushrooms that are excellent long-term immune tonics and adaptogens. These include reishi mushroom (Ganoderma lucidum) and other related polypores such as artist’s conk (G. applanatum) and hemlock varnish shelf (G. tsugae), as well as chaga fungus (Inonotus obliquus), birch polypore (Piptoporus betulinus), and turkey tail (Trametes versicolor). These fungi are useful for all manner of chronic and auto-immune conditions, including serious conditions like cancer and AIDS. In addition, they can be taken over a period of a month or two as immune tonics by healthy individuals in order to boost overall immune response.
Immune tonics are not recommended for acute infections, but they are very good for chronic auto-immune conditions and as long-term tonics to be taken when you’re healthy, to boost your overall immune response. And, for that purpose, they are best taken two to four times a day depending on the type of preparation being used, and taken for periods of a month or more, usually two to three months at a time.
As always when attempting to self treat, if it doesn’t work, or you have any unusual reactions, or if you are taking any medications you should consult a qualified herbalist or natural health practitioner who is experienced with Western herbs.
For the benefit of our health and well-being, it is important we realize that we as individuals do have the power to strengthen and revitalize both ourselves and our world. Although it is easy to become fearful when reading the headlines about dangerous viruses, we need to maintain a positive outlook and have faith in our ability to find and implement solutions to these challenges.
Michael Vertolli is a Registered Herbalist practising in Vaughan (just north of Toronto). He is the Director of Living Earth School of Herbalism, which offers in-class and online general interest courses, certificate, and diploma programs. For more information: 905-303-8723. Visit his website: www.livingearthschool.ca Blog: michaelvertolli.blogspot.ca