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Herbs, Nutrition and Supplements for Immune Defence

Herbal medicines have shown the potential to assist in the treatment of several types of viral infection resistant to medical treatment53.

Different viruses use a range of strategies to enter host cells.  The SARS-CoV-2 virus enters by attaching to angiotensin-converting-enzyme-2 (ACE-2) linkages on the surface of cells in the respiratory tract.  These cells are also found in other parts of the body including the digestive tract, kidneys and central nervous system.  Some traditional herbal medicines have been demonstrated to inhibit the ability of coronaviruses to attach to ACE-2. Yang et al, in a review of research on traditional Chinese herbal treatment of SARS-CoV-2 listed herbs and some nutrients as substances which have potential to block viral entry, penetration and absorption54.  Stephen Buhner in his book Herbal Antivirals mentions many herbs that can interfere with viral attachment to ACE-2 linkages55.

During the 2003 SARS outbreak Chinese research showed that a combination of two commonly available patent formulas appeared to dramatically reduce the rate of infection in a high-risk population of hospital workers and medical technicians.  The 1063 people taking the formula were reported to have zero rate of infection as compared to 0.4% rate of infection in the control group56.

There are numerous other herbs that have demonstrated anti-viral effects against other viruses but not specifically against coronaviruses 57, 58, 59, 60.

Research conducted during the COVID-19 epidemic has found that a number of traditional formulas seemed to decrease symptoms and promote recovery.  In February 2020, the Chinese government issued an announcement that Chinese herbal medicine should be recommended to all COVID-19 patients.  During the height of the epidemic around 85% of people in China were treated with a combination of traditional Chinese herbal medicine and antiviral, anti-inflammatory and antibiotic pharmaceuticals54.

Herbal formulae used in China varied according to province.  One of the most popular pre-made formulae, Lianhua Qingwen, showed promising results. A systematic review of this formula concluded that in capsule form it appeared to be more effective and safer than Oseltamivir, Ribaririn and Ankahuangmin capsules (Niu et al., 2017).  Lianhua Qingwen was the first new drug variety approved by China’s National Drug Administration’s rapid drug approval channel during the 2003 SARS epidemic.  Two studies that retrospectively analysed the clinical efficacy of this formula in confirmed and suspected COVID-19 patients concluded that it markedly relieved symptoms, and promoted recovery in patients with pneumonia61,62.  One hundred thousand boxes of this formula were shipped to Italy as part of the Chinese assistance to Italy during the difficult time of the Coronavirus pandemic there63.

Researchers investigating traditional Chinese herbal medicine identified their ability to inhibit a number of the inflammatory cytokines and inflammatory factors activated during cytokine storms linked to common complications of respiratory diseases caused by coronaviruses54.

Many of the Chinese herbs used in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) formulae were found to be able to inhibit inflammatory cytokines and chemokines.  However, the best practice of TCM involves individualised prescriptions* with the choice of herbs mostly dependent on the patient’s stage of disease and TCM diagnostic syndrome presentation.  A common remedy may be given in the prevention phase.  However, in the influenza, pneumonia or recovery phases patients are categorised according to various TCM syndromes.  Herbs are prescribed according to the syndrome on the basis of individual assessment.

Diet and Nutritional Supplements

Overly strict dietary regimes with limited varieties of foods, as well as highly processed diets, can be problematic for the immune system.  Numerous macro- and micro-nutrient dietary deficiencies and dietary imbalances will compromise the immune system.  Fibre in the diet acts as a prebiotic that supports the complex and diverse microflora needed for immune regulation.  Diets high in refined starches, sugar, saturated and trans-fatty acids, poor in omega 3 fats, natural antioxidants and fibre from fruits, vegetables or whole grains can compromise the immune system and contribute to excessive production of inflammatory cytokines and rduced production of anti-inflammatory cytokines.  Diets low in protein will also reduce immunity.

The Mediterranean diet is a diet that supplies good levels of micronutrients with a balance of macronutrients.  It has been studied extensively for its ability to protect against a range of chronic diseases characterised by some degree of chronic inflammation.  This diet has both antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, with a normalising effect on cytokines and other inflammatory biomarkers64.

The Mediterranean diet is characterised by a high consumption of plant foods (fruits, vegetables, pulses, whole grains, nuts and seeds) with moderate consumption of wine (mainly with meals); moderate consumption of fish, seafood, yoghurt, cheese, poultry and eggs; and low consumption of red meat, processed meat products and seeds.  The diet includes an abundance of plant foods high in flavonoids and polyphenols – noticable by their varieties of colour.

Other specific foods that reduce inflammatory biomarkers include garlic, olive oil and nuts66,67,68.  Many fruits and vegetables shown to contain flavonoids to reduce inflammation include tomatoes, onion, parsley, celery, apples, oranges, berries and turmeric.

The Gut Microbiome

The composition of the gut microbiome and the integrity of the gut barrier have important implications for inflammation and immune system health. In the presence of intestinal permeability, pathogenic bacteria and inflammatory compounds are able to cross into the bloodstream. Lipopolysaccharide (LPS) found within the cell walls of many Gram-negative bacteria is one of these inflammatory compounds.  LPS is released when those bacteria die.  This stimulates an inflammatory cascade and immune response69.  A healthy gut microbiome helps in the competitive inhibition of pathogenic bacteria and it is possible that this has beneficial effects on immune resistance to viral infection.

For more information on beneficial foods and how to support your immune system, contact us at True Medicine on 07-5530 1863.


Source:  JATMS Vol26;2;2020 Integrative and proactive strategies for maintaining health in the era of COVID-19 by Rosalba Courtney ND, DO, PhD.  Source references available.

* The philosophy underlying all that we do at True Medicine.