Surviving and Thriving in a World Full of VirusesMichael Vertolli, RH November 1, 2014
The recent Ebola outbreak has brought the issue of a potential viral pandemic back into the public’s awareness. As scary as Ebola is, the likelihood of a global pandemic is relatively low because it’s a slowly mutating virus and not easily transmitted between humans. It was the poverty, poor sanitation, and insufficient medical resources in the ‘hot zone’ which caused the outbreak to become so serious. Had the global community mobilized quickly with money and resources, instead of waiting for some future pharmaceutical solution, the epidemic could have been brought under control more quickly.
Nevertheless, any number of potential global pandemics are far more likely in modern times due to global warming, habitat destruction, human overpopulation, extensive global trade and travel, and poor diet and lifestyle practices among much of our population – due to poverty in some regions and affluence and over-consumption in others.
Probably the greatest threat is the H5N1 avian influenza virus. There could be severe consequences if this virus mutates into a form that is easily transmitted between people. Unfortunately, conditions that increase the risk of continue to exist in Asian markets where overcrowded and stressed out wild and domestic animals and humans co-exist in close quarters.
What’s important is that we not lose sight of the bigger picture. Firstly, no one really knows if a global pandemic is going to occur, and if it does – when, where, what kind, and how severe it’s going to be. There’s no point worrying about something that may or may not happen and over which we have no control. What we need to do more of is live each moment to the fullest and embrace the mystery. We will be happier, healthier and feel more fulfilled if we do.
The same thing applies to death. We’re all going to die. What we don’t know is where, when and how. Traditional cultures get this. They may mourn death, but they also accept it as a fact of life. In modern Western culture we see death as something evil and like to pretend that it isn’t going to happen. Maybe there will be one or more pandemics, and maybe one of them is going to kill us. All the more reason to live our lives to the fullest right here and now!
That said, there are basic principles and practices that will increase our resistance to viruses and other pathogens. The more of these we put into practice, the better the results. It doesn’t mean that we won’t get sick, but we’ll get sick a lot less, it will be shorter and less severe when we do, and if some new disease for which we have no immunity does come around, we’ll have a much better chance of surviving it. Overall, it is best if we follow these guidelines as a means of living well rather than out of fear of illness. Here are my recommendations:
1) Diet – Eat a healthy diet focusing on whole, natural, certified organic foods including lots of vegetables and fruits. Eat grains and grain-like seeds whole as much as possible, not as flour products. Reduce consumption of processed foods, greasy foods, animal products, and simple carbohydrates (sugar and white flour). If you eat dairy and/or animal protein, purchase good quality organic products and consume small serving sizes of these foods. If you have any food sensitivities, avoid those foods as much as possible, preferably completely.
2) Exercise – Get lots of exercise. Walk a lot and include at least 30 minutes of moderate to strenuous aerobic exercise three to four times per week. Also, minimize the amount of time spent sitting at computers, watching TV, or driving for long periods of time. When these are unavoidable, stop, get up, move around and stretch for a couple of minutes every 20-30 minutes.
3) Rest and Relaxation – Many of us are sleep deprived and some rely on caffeine to stay alert. Ideally, for most adults seven to nine hours of sleep is optimal, depending on the person. Children, adolescents and people who are sick need more. We also need down time. Watching action or violent TV shows and movies, playing video games, or text messaging are not down time. Taking long walks, especially in nature, or just sitting quietly in a park or our backyard is. The key is to do something we enjoy that is calming, relaxing, and doesn’t involve too much excitement or mental chatter.
4) De-stressing – Most people are way too stressed out. Being chill about microbes, exercising, and getting sufficient sleep and down time is a start. We also need to learn to be fully present in our life. We don’t need to be accessible 24/7, nor do we need to be constantly updated about everything our friends are doing. As a result, one of the best ways many people can reduce stress these days is to keep their cell phone turned off most of the time.
We also need to realize that we create most of the stress in our lives through automatic maladaptive stress-response patterns that we have repeated for decades. Most stress isn’t inherent in situations. We create it through the stories that we tell ourselves about those situations. These patterns are learned and they can be unlearned by becoming more mindful and/or replacing them with better response patterns.
Disciplines such as meditation, prayer, yoga and tai chi can be helpful, as can a good counsellor or therapist.
5) Connecting With Nature – Although the modern paradigm tries to convince us otherwise, we are natural beings and we need to nourish our connection with nature just as much as we need air, water, food, shelter, exercise and love. Being in and with nature both fulfills an inherent need and is one of the best ways to reduce stress. However, racing around in nature on ATVs, snowmobiles, and noisy motorboats isn’t as beneficial.
6) Probiotics – When it comes to microbes, we need to stop seeing them as our enemies and realize that for the most part they are our friends. Life would not be possible without them, and most of them are directly or indirectly beneficial to us. Even potentially pathogenic organisms are mostly good for us. We are exposed to them every day and many of them live in and on our body all of the time.
Mostly, they just provide ‘exercise’ for our immune system, which is necessary for proper immune function.
That said, it is essential that we have a healthy population of friendly microorganisms living in and on our body. We are intimately connected to the world we live in, physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually. Our body functions more like an ecosystem than an individual entity. The microorganisms that normally live in and on us work together with our cells to help create an environment that is mutually beneficial to both. They also work with our immune cells. In a way they are part of our immune system.
There are many things that disturb our internal ecology. Antibiotics are the worst and they should be used only when necessary, which is very rarely, possibly never for some people. Excessive ingestion of natural antimicrobials can have a similar affect, especially when they are very concentrated such as essential oils. We also need to eat lots of fibre and have a strong, healthy digestive system. When our digestive system isn’t functioning well it will lead to changes in our gut flora. The most important contributors to poor digestion are overloading the digestive system by eating too much, too often, or too close to bedtime. This system needs to rest – regularly! The other major cause of poor digestion is too much stress.
A good probiotic supplement should contain at least five to six strains of bacteria, including Lactobacillus rhamnosus. A good potency is 10 billion active cells or more. Probiotics must be refrigerated, and in capsule form, because the capsule helps to protect the culture from moisture and oxygen. It is essential that you open up the capsule and mix it with water because it is necessary to get the culture into your mouth and throat. From there it can spread deeper into your respiratory system. Getting the culture into your mouth, throat, and respiratory system is the most important factor in terms of preventing viral infections as most viruses enter our body via this route. Swishing the water with probiotic culture around in your mouth before swallowing it will facilitate the culture getting established in your mouth and throat.
Probiotics should be taken on an empty stomach at least four hours after eating, one hour after drinking anything other than water, and 30 minutes before eating or drinking anything other than water. Empty the capsule into 6 – 8 oz of water that doesn’t contain chlorine. What works even better is to add it to warm water with a tablespoon of organic psyllium husks or whole flax seeds, as these help the culture to adhere to mucus membranes and support its growth. In my view, the best time to take probiotics is first thing in the morning.
Even if we eat well and have healthy digestive function, there are lots of things that can throw off the balance of our internal microflora. For that reason it’s a good idea to take a good probiotic supplement for three to four weeks, three to four times per year as a prophylactic. We should also take it any time we feel like we are getting sick, for the duration of the illness and at least one week afterwards. In some ways this is even more important than taking herbs – but taking both is best. Probiotics are also recommended any time we travel a significant distance, starting a week before we leave and ending a week after we return.
7) Hygiene – Connected to the probiotic issue is the health of the microflora of our skin. One of the biggest challenges in this regard is our current obsession with sterility – a result of our microbe phobia. Yes, it is important to wash our hands whenever they are ‘dirty’, however the use of antimicrobial soaps, hand sanitizers and similar products is detrimental to the health of skin and the organisms that live on it. Soap alone is antimicrobial enough, and even too much soap is a bad thing.
For women, disturbances of the microflora that occur from washing their genital region with soap, or getting chlorinated and/or soapy water into the vagina while taking a bath, are among the leading causes of vaginal infections. The only time that soap is warranted (externally) is during menstruation.
For both women and men, washing with soap after sexual intercourse can help to prevent STDs, but practising safe sex with safe partners is better.
If you are concerned about microbes on your hands, periodically washing them with plain yogurt will help to keep your population of skin microbes healthy, which is an important natural way of preventing infection. Yogurt is also good for our skin!
A special note here to parents: these guidelines also apply to our children. Not only will our paranoia about cleanliness encourage them to grow up to be anxious, fearful adults, but there is a growing body of evidence (officially called the ‘hygiene hypothesis’) that infants and young children need to be exposed to microorganisms from their environment, especially soil, in order for their immune systems to develop properly. Excessive hygiene at an early age is correlated with an increase in autoimmune conditions later in life. Go figure!
8) Supplements – The issue of supplements is too complex to cover in detail here, but there are many that can help boost immune function. At the very least I recommend a good quality low potency multivitamin with minerals; non-acidic vitamin C (I prefer mineral ascorbates over ascorbic acid); polyphenols such as flavonoids, anthocyanins and catechins; zinc; selenium; and omega-3 fatty acids.
Melatonin is also important, but it is better to support the body in producing a sufficient level of its own melatonin rather than taking it as a supplement. This means plenty of exposure to outdoor light (without sunglasses) during the day, as well as sleeping in a spot that is completely dark at night. It is best if people who usually need to get up at night learn to navigate their way to the bathroom in the dark rather than turning on lights. Or use a red night-light that isn’t very bright. The red light spectrum doesn’t shut off melatonin production as readily as other colours. One of the reasons that immune dysfunction is so prevalent today is that our melatonin production atrophies with age, largely due to stress, lack of sunlight, and sleeping in environments that aren’t dark enough to maintain consistent melatonin levels all night long.
9) Reduce Exposure to Toxicity – This includes pollutants in our environment, workplace and home such as chemical solvents, air pollution, and household cleaning products. It also includes agricultural and food processing chemicals. It is also best to reduce our use of social and pharmaceutical drugs. This includes cigarettes, marijuana, ‘hard’ drugs and pharmaceuticals (especially antibiotics). If you consume caffeine and/or alcohol, do so in moderation. Once per day is acceptable, although it isn’t good to have either of these every day. Two cups of tea in a day is OK as they contain roughly the same amount of caffeine as one cup of coffee. It’s also better to drink dark roasted coffee because it contains less caffeine. Caffeine containing “energy drinks” are never recommended.
10) Immune Stimulating Herbs – Immune stimulants are short-term immunomodulators that stimulate an immediate response of our immune system to any type of stressor. To give the immune system a boost, it is best to combine four to five of them and take them for short periods of time followed by a break. Their effectiveness drops off if they are used for more than a week or two. An immune stimulant formula is taken three to four times per day. In general, herbs are best taken on an empty stomach for adequate assimilation. So, we take the immune stimulants three to four times per day on an empty stomach for one to two weeks and then stop taking them for at least another week. For the average person, that might mean taking them one week per month during the time of year when they are most susceptible to infections, probably September to April for most people.
For a stronger boost, immune stimulants can be taken one to two weeks on, followed by one to two weeks off, for several cycles. This is called pulsing them. Taking them continuously for a longer period doesn’t increase their effectiveness, but pulsing them more does.
Immune stimulants can also be used to treat an infection in progress. The sooner we start using it, the more effective the results. When treating an acute infection in progress, begin by taking the formula every couple of hours, or maybe even every hour if the symptoms are intense. Then gradually decrease the frequency of the dose when the symptoms start clearing up. Sometimes people who use immune stimulant herbs obtain poor results. It’s usually because they weren’t taking enough and/or they started too late. For acute infections, it is even more effective if we combine immune stimulant herbs with herbs that treat the specific kind of infection that is present.
Effective immune stimulants that are versatile and easy to use include purple coneflower herb and root (Echinacea spp.), elecampane root (Inula helenium), plantain herb (Plantago spp.), pot marigold flower (Calendula officinalis), boneset herb (Eupatorium perfoliatum), yarrow herb (Achillea millefolium), black elder flower (Sambucus nigra), and stinging nettle herb/rhizome (Urtica dioica).
11) Immune Tonic Herbs – Immune tonics work more slowly and deeply than immune stimulants. They must be taken continuously, three to four times per day, for at least two to three months. Immune tonics are not recommended for acute infections, but are very good for chronic auto-immune conditions and as long term tonics to boost overall immune function. They work best when following a period of time pulsing a good immune stimulant formulation.
Some of the immune tonics that I often use are North American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius), Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus), Chinese milkvetch (Astragalus membranaceus), turmeric rhizome (Curcuma longa), and a number of fungi including lacquered polypore or reishi (Ganoderma lucidum), artist’s conk (G. applanatum) hemlock varnish shelf (G. tsugae), birch polypore (Piptoporus betulinus), tinder fungus (Fomes fomentarius) and turkey tail (Trametes versicolor).
12) Antiviral Herbs – Many herbs have antiviral properties. They are important to include, along with immune stimulants, in formulations for the treatment of viral infections such as colds and influenza. During an outbreak of a particularly nasty viral infection, they can be pulsed along with immune stimulants to boost resistance. Although the action of antivirals doesn’t wear off in the same way as with immune stimulants, if they are used continuously there is a risk that viruses that we repeatedly come in contact with could develop a resistance to the herbs that we are using. Taking them continuously is not recommended and it’s best not to use the same herbs all the time.
Some of the common and effective antiviral herbs include all of the immune stimulants that I mentioned above with the exception of plantain and elecampane. Other excellent antivirals include: lemon balm herb (Melissa officinalis), hyssop herb (Hyssopus officinalis), heal-all herb (Prunella vulgaris), mad-dog skullcap herb (Scutellaria lateriflora), peppermint herb (Mentha x piperita), St. Johns Wort herb (Hypericum perforatum), blue vervain herb (Verbena hastata), oregano (Origa-num vulgare), marjoram herb (O. majorana), wild bergamot herb (Monarda fistulosa), sage (Salvia officinalis) and cinnamon bark (Cinnamomum verum).
When using antivirals for serious conditions it is necessary to add a potentizing antiviral herb to the formulation. These herbs are less tonic and more intense and, as a result, tend to have side-effects and potential toxicity associated with them. We usually only include one of these herbs in a formulation, at a proportion of about 20%, supported by some of the more tonic antivirals listed above. The high potency herbs are associated with a greater potential for toxicity and should only be used under the guidance of a qualified herbalist, so they will not be discussed here.
The medium potency antiviral herbs that I use include black walnut leaf or fruit husk (Juglans nigra), creosote-bush or chaparral leaf (Larrea tridentata), and myrrh resin (Commiphora myrrha).
All of the immune tonic herbs that I mentioned are antiviral as well. We don’t use them in immune stimulant formulations or for acute infections, but we do get additional antiviral benefits from immune tonic formulations. In general, I prefer to use tinctures made from fresh herbs. Although other forms will work, these will get the best results.
Anyone who is pregnant, nursing, has a serious health condition, or is taking pharmaceuticals should consult with a qualified herbalist or other health care professional trained in the use of herbs before using any of these protocols. If you try any of these herbs and have an unusual reaction or don’t get sufficient results, your condition may be too complicated for self-treatment and it’s best to consult with a practitioner. The issue of infectious disease is complex. Just remember that there are a lot of positive things we can do if we choose to. So, live well, be aware, and most importantly, don’t succumb to fear!
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