Coronaviruses explored through Herbs
Let's take the time to explore the mechanisms of action of some known antiviral herbal medicines and how and why they might be useful in keeping your immune system in optimal function during viral exposure. I will also break down a bit further some technical aspects of how viruses in general work and specifically some information about corona viruses in general.
First and foremost, I want to reiterate that there is currently no known cure for COVID-19 - this is a novel virus that we have not seen before, however it is a type of virus genome that we have had contact with and exposure to in the past.
Corona viruses are enveloped, positive-stranded RNA viruses that make up the largest genome of all viruses. Like most RNA viruses, corona viruses (of which, SARS and MERS are members of as well) frequently engage in recombination of their genetic code; constantly manufacturing new variations that previously were not in existence. Viruses are one of the most highly adaptable organisms on this planet. Most of what is to follow has been informed by herbalist Stephan Buhner's recommendations on the best herbs used to treat corona viruses that we have met in the past - and I would highly recommend a fuller read of his amazing book, Herbal Antivirals.
Mechanism of Infection: Why Corona Viruses Target the Respiratory System
Somewhat oversimplified, once in the lungs, the virus infects specific cells, among them the cilia. The cilia are the tiny hair-like cells at the very end of our respiratory tract that continually move like waves on the ocean. This facilitates a wave-like movement of mucus and debris up and out of the lungs. During a viral infection with certain corona viruses, including COVID-19, the cilia are often killed after being infected with the virus. Once these tiny hair-like cells are damaged and out of commission, debris and fluid builds up in the lungs, aka pneumonia sets in.
When the infection is advanced to the point of a pneumonia setting in due to cilia damage, the immune system becomes highly activated. Immune cells are transported to the lungs in large numbers to help stop the infection, clear out the debris, and heal the tissues.
As this happens during the course of an infection, the affected cells (mostly the cilia of the lungs) send out molecules with a chemical signal, that for short can be grouped wholly into the term cytokines. When cytokines are released it is usually seen as inflammation, which can cascade into greater and greater degrees of inflammation, sometimes referred to as a cytokine storm, and can then start effecting other systems in the body. This is why there is often acute kidney damage associated with Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), another corona genus virus.
Natural Protocols for corona virus infections:
The rationale is to find plants that will offset the actions of the corona group of viruses, then to examine those available in order to choose the plants that are present in most categories of action and that have a tradition of use for similar kinds of infections.
What is needed are plants that have the following actions:
1.) Plants specifically helpful for the corona-group of viruses
2.) Block viral attachment to ACE-2 receptor sites
3.) Protect Lungs, Cilia, and Reduce a Cytokine Cascade Response
4.) Reduce autoimmune over-stimulation and Protect endothelial cells
Herbs Helpful Against Corona-Group Viruses:
The strongest known so far are: Chinese Skullcap (Scutellaria baicalensis) root, Houttuynia spp, Licorice root (Glycyrrhiza spp). Japanese Knotweed (Polygonum cuspidatum) is also effective as an antiviral for coronaviruses as a group.
Herbs Helpful to Protect ACE-2 function:
One they enter the body, the corona-group of viruses attach to angiotensin-converting enzyme-2 (ACE-2) receptors that are on the surface of cellular membranes. This protein found on many cells throughout the body, including the lungs, heart, vascular cells, and the kidneys. ACE-2 is intimately involved in regulating renal electrolyte homeodynamics; regulates constriction and relaxation of the vessels in the vascular system, and is ultimately crucial to the functioning of most organs.
These ACE-2 receptor sites are the entry point for viral infection of cellular tissues. Once ACE-2 is damaged by viral attachment and penetration ACE-2 levels in the affected organ fall. The lungs show enhanced vascular permeability, edema, neutrophil accumulation and worsening lung function. This can compound later with the damage to the cilia in the lung, leading to fluid accumulation and pneumonia.
Herbs to Help Protect the Lungs, Cilia, and Reduce Cytokine Cascade:
Protect Lung Cells from Hypoxia: Rhodiola spp. Protecting the cells from the induced hypoxia significantly reduces the damage in the lungs. Rhodiola is specific for this. It prevents hypoxia-induced oxidative damage, increases intracellular oxygen diffusion, and increases the efficiency of oxygen utilization.
Herbs to Help Protect Epithelial and Endothelial Cells:
Protect Epithelial & Endothelial cells: Japanese Knotweed (Polygonum cuspidatum)
Auto-antibodies are produced that begin to attack host epithelial and endothelial cells, increasing the damage to the tissues - mostly in the lungs, but could be seen in the spleen, kidney, liver. Reducing autoimmune hyperactivity and protecting endothelial cells is crucial.
Kimberly Jean, BSN, MA
Herbalist and Educator, Perfect Supplements
Kimberly holds a Bachelor's of Science in Nursing and a Master's of Arts in Education Research and Administration. She currently sits on the Editorial Review Board for the Journal of the American Herbalists Guild. Kimberly has studied directly under Alexis Durham lead herbalist at Herb Pharm, Sajah Popham of Organic Unity spagyrics, Pearl Sites and Tyler Wauters of Hawthorn Institute, amongst many others. Kim, in recent years, started and directed several large scale commercial herbal apothecaries for community retailers on both the West and East coast, with close working knowledge of over 300+ botanicals.
As always, the information in this section is intended for educational purposes only and is not a substitute for the advice of a qualified healthcare professional. Herbs can have interactions with medications and other natural products. If you consider taking an herb, I encourage you to read up on it before you begin consuming it, its extract, or essential oil.In addition if you are pregnant or nursing, you have to be very careful as to which herbs you can safely take. As an herbalist, I am sharing this information as a starting point, if you do decide to take action, please consult with a qualified healthcare professional who is familiar with your unique and specific situation.