HERBS FOR IMMUNITYMichael Vertolli, RH November 4, 2003
How to Defend in the Post-SARS World Against the Coming Epidemics
In the last couple of years there has been increasing concern about the potential for epidemics of new infectious diseases. Looking back on the last year of SARS, West Nile Virus and mad cow disease, we can see that the danger is real. Due to the current realities of the world we live in, we can expect that there will be more such epidemics in the future. The question is: what can we do about it?
In order to answer this question, it is necessary to understand the underlying causes of this situation.
As our population grows, the incredible diversity of life that once inhabited this planet is rapidly being replaced by a vast expanse of human monoculture. Large concentrations of any single organism are perfect breeding grounds for opportunistic microorganisms. Another inevitable consequence of overpopulation is poverty. The poorer members of society tend to be immune compromised due to stress, poor nutrition and poor living conditions. It is here that epidemics often arise.
Nature abhors an imbalance. In a healthy ecosystem, the complexity of interactions between millions of species is staggering. Built into these systems are innumerable checks and balances to make sure that the population of any given species does not get out of control. The human species has systematically wiped out any predators that would have helped to keep our population under control in prehistoric times. In addition, our technology has tremendously increased our resource base beyond the normal capacity of our environment. This means that the only mechanism left through which the global ecosystem can keep our population under control is disease.
Micro-organisms tend to be limited to particular populations of specific species of organisms. These microbes live in balance with their host species. The host species allows the micro-organism to perpetuate itself, but when the host population is out of balance with its environment, the micro-organism will proliferate and bring the population back in line. In the process, many of the weaker members of the species will be eliminated and the stronger members will survive and be strengthened. The local population will then come back into balance and its gene pool will be strengthened as well. This is how micro-organisms and their host species live in relative harmony with each other. Under normal circumstances, there is little pressure for the micro-organism to mutate and infect other species.
In our modern world the situation has changed drastically. Most natural ecosystems are being destroyed by human activities. As a result, larger organisms are being wiped out as they are unable to adapt to the loss of their habitat. The micro-organisms that infect them, however, have a much greater capacity to mutate and adapt to the altered environment. These organisms were formerly isolated within a particular population, but they now come in contact with new species. In their new environment there is no longer a diversity of organisms living in relative harmony with each other. Instead, there is a very high population of humans and their livestock. In order to ensure its survival, a micro-organism must therefore mutate to enable it to infect humans or animals raised by humans.
There is a much greater variety of infectious micro-organisms living in tropical climates. This is because many of them can not tolerate the cold winter temperatures of the temperate regions of the globe. Global warming is another unfortunate consequence of human activity. As our winters become milder, climatic deterrents to the spread of many infectious organisms will disappear. We can expect that many infectious diseases that were formerly limited to tropical regions will expand their range.
Many substances have the ability to increase the rate at which micro-organisms mutate. These include environmental pollutants, agricultural chemicals, food additives and many of the drugs that are used to treat the diseases associated with these organisms. This results in the rapid evolution of new strains of these organisms, many of which display varying degrees of drug resistance.
Today we live in a world where millions of people and billions of tons of trade goods are traveling long distances on a daily basis. In this environment it is easy for micro-organisms to be spread throughout the globe in a very short period of time. These organisms can be spread by people, livestock and other animals that are unintentionally transported (e.g. rodents), insects (e.g. mosquitoes) and other means.
Faced with these huge issues, it’s easy to become pessimistic. However, there are simple solutions that can go a long way toward reducing the risks of major epidemics. Unfortunately, most of the approaches that have been implemented by our healthcare system and governments are expensive, only marginally effective, and don’t address the real problems.
The typical approach has involved the use of drugs, vaccines and attempting to destroy intermediate host populations such as mosquitoes. None of these approaches are very effective. There are few effective antiviral drugs and those that are available tend to be very expensive and associated with significant toxicity and side-effects. Viral infections are often treated with antibiotics. Not only are antibiotics completely ineffective against viral infections, the misuse of these drugs encourages the development of antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria, organisms that have traditionally been controlled by antibiotics. Vaccination programs such as flu shots are a waste of money. Most of these viruses mutate so fast that new strains can evolve within a couple of months. Vaccinating for childhood illnesses is not much better, since these tend to be minor conditions and they aid the natural development of a child’s immune system.
Public health professionals tend to promote fear among the general population in order to justify their expensive programs. They often portray risks as being many times greater than they really are. The truth, in my opinion, is that the majority of people who are exposed to these micro-organisms will not get sick. Most of those who do will only experience mild to moderate symptoms. Only an extremely small minority of the population is likely to develop serious complications.
Rather than handing over billions of dollars to pharmaceutical companies to pay for expensive drugs and vaccinations, it would make more sense for our government to invest the money in programs that deal with the real problems. It would be far more effective to focus efforts on improving public health education, dealing with poverty, toughening laws relating to the environmental and agricultural practices, and investing in our own infrastructure so that we don’t need to rely as heavily on global trade. In addition, we need to broaden our healthcare base to include complementary healthcare options that are less expensive, less invasive, and actually make people healthier instead of weaker and more toxic. This is not a political platform, but it should be! As Canadian citizens, the only way we will be able to bring about positive change is by changing our attitudes and lifestyle so that we are part of the solution rather than part of the problem, and by putting pressure on our elected representatives to start rethinking government policy.
We’ve been pretty lucky so far because, in spite of the hype, West Nile Virus and SARS are relatively minor conditions. What are we going to do when something really serious comes around? Our healthcare workers should be commended for the selfless way that they fought the SARS virus. Unfortunately, their efforts were largely misguided. They rallied public support by propagating fear and paranoia. Fear paralyzes the immune system. It’s like rolling out a red carpet for a microbe. In the long run it will not be possible to deal with emerging epidemics the same way. Even if it is possible to contain all subsequent outbreaks, which is unlikely, the financial burden on our healthcare system cannot be maintained for any length of time and the system will invariably collapse.
The individuals who are most likely to develop more severe symptoms when exposed to infectious micro-organisms are those who have undeveloped or compromised immune function. This primarily includes infants, seniors and the chronically ill. If we focus on identifying and remedying social and lifestyle factors that result in compromised immune function, we can put together an action plan that will lead to an increased resistance to infectious conditions, both in the general population and in higher risk groups. There are also many herbs and other natural health products that, if used correctly, can help to optimize immune function.
The major factors that lead to compromised immune function primarily result from poor lifestyle choices. These include:
• Poor diet, especially the over-consumption of processed, chemically laden foods.
• Exposure to chemical pollutants in the environment, work place and home such as chemical solvents, air pollution and household cleaning products.
• Regular use of social and pharmaceutical drugs. This includes coffee, cigarettes, alcohol, marijuana and all hard drugs and pharmaceuticals.
• Lack of exercise. Most people should get at least one hour of mild to moderate exercise per day (such as walking) and a minimum 20 to 30 minute aerobic workout, 3 to 4 times per week.
• Insufficient sleep. Adults should get eight to nine hours per day, teenagers and children need more.
• Too much stress. Exercise and sleep can help here, but in our stressed out society some kind of stress management program such as tai chi, yoga or meditation is highly recommended and may be essential for some people.
• Negative emotions. We need to try as much as possible to reduce anxiety, frustration, anger, jealousy, fear, hatred and other negative emotional states in our lives. It is hard to change our attitudes and break out of emotional ruts, but the reward is a happier, healthier outlook in life.
Now, there are a number of supplementary protocols that can be used to boost immune response. Many essential nutrients can directly or indirectly improve immune function. B vitamins are important to help deal with stress. They should be taken with a good mineral supplement. In the mineral department, calcium, magnesium and zinc are particularly important. Antioxidants are essential to proper immune function. They include vitamin A, C, E and the mineral selenium. There are also many non-essential antioxidant nutrients that support immune functioning. These include the carotenes, bioflavonoid, quercetin, polyphenols such as those found in green tea, grape seed and pine bark extracts, and coenzyme Q10.
There are many herbs that help to optimize immune functioning. Immune stimulants can boost immune function in the short term. They may also be used to treat infections in progress. Some of the most versatile immune stimulants include the various echinacea species, calendula, elecampane and boneset. To support immune function, two or three of these herbs should be taken three to four times per day for one to two week intervals. For best results, repeat this a few times with a one to two week break in between. When we are already sick the herbs should be taken four to six times per day until feeling better.
There are many herbs that attack micro-organisms directly. These can be used together with immune stimulants by anyone who already has an infection. Some of the better antimicrobials include echinacea and calendula mentioned above, as well as yarrow, hyssop, thyme, lemon balm, barberry and others.
Immune tonics have a deeper action on the immune system, but take longer to work. They include astragalus, North American and Siberian ginseng, and reishi mushroom. These herbs should be taken three to four times per day for one or two months. Immune tonics are not suitable for treating infections in progress. For the best results they should be taken following several cycles of immune stimulants.
Vitamin and nutritional supplements should be taken with meals. It’s better to take lower doses more often in the day. Herbs should always be taken on an empty stomach, preferably 20 to 30 minutes before meals and before bed. They are best taken in tincture form, especially tinctures made from fresh herbs. However, many of these herbs are almost as effective when taken as a tea.
TAKING CONTROL OF OUR HEALTH
Herbs and other natural health products are valuable health-promoting aids, but there is no substitute for a healthy diet and lifestyle, and a positive outlook in life. If we simply mask the problem with supplements, their effectiveness will be limited and eventually they won’t work at all.
When faced with issues of global proportions, it is essential that we not forget that we do have the power to change things. At the very least, we have the ability to educate ourselves and take our health into our own hands instead of waiting for someone else to solve our problems. It requires an acceptance of our personal responsibility: to ourselves, our families and our environment. If we work together in this way, we can expect greater health and well-being, for ourselves and future generations.
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, ext. 1. Visit his website: www.livingearthschool.ca Blog: michaelvertolli.blogspot.com