With the coronavirus making all the headlines, many people are wondering about natural remedies that can support your body and mind during these difficult times. Naturally, many of us are turning to what are described as antiviral herbs. This week, I'll explain how antiviral herbs work and how they can support your immune system.
How Do Antiviral Herbs Work? When we hear the term antiviral, it’s easy to jump to the conclusion that they work just like pharmaceutical antibiotic drugs. In other words, if you have an infection, then you take something to kill the pathogens. But herbal antivirals don’t work that way. In fact, they simply can’t work like 'chemical drugs'. But like we'd say in France, "Antibiotics are not automatic"-- inherited from a early 2000s national campaign to cut antibiotic overuse.
Perhaps, first of all, we need to explain what a viral infection is. When you have a viral infection, the viruses have invaded your cells. Controlling a viral infection is problematic because the virus is replicating from inside your own cells. Instead of killing viral cells, what herbal antivirals can do is inhibit the virus from attaching to your cell walls or inhibit the replication of the virus once it gets into your cells.
Herbal remedies can therefore give your immune system the upper hand to clean up the rest of the infection.
Herbs Go Beyond Being Antiviral
As is often the case, herbs rarely do just one thing. Some herbs that have antiviral activity can also modulate or boost the immune system. That’s really cool! Because really, when we talk about any type of infection, it’s your immune system that is the biggest and baddest player on the field and you want to support it and rely on it as much as you can. Using herbs to ward off a viral attack is just one way to use herbs for a viral infection. There are many other ways we can give the immune system a helping hand.
When it comes to upper respiratory infections, we can think of using herbs in several ways:
Many herbs can modulate or strengthen the immune system. When taken before an illness (or sometimes at the start of an illness) these immune-modulating herbs can shorten the duration of an illness or stop it entirely. Most of us would agree that not getting sick in the first place is the best choice!
That's why I swear by using a combination or herbs/blends (herbs are synergetic remember?) like one of the first blends I developed - Immune Boost to try to prevent colds in the first place but, then also to support your immune system when under attack; and Man Flu to start drinking as early as possible when feeling under the weather. And bam! It usually sorts me out within a few days.
Many herbalists’ experiences show that nourishing the immune system can help to stave off illness, and this is especially helpful for people who are overworked or stressed on a regular basis. Who's not, am I right?
2. Support Healing and Address Symptoms
Many over-the-counter drugs for colds and flu are aimed at stopping any and all symptoms, often by inhibiting your body’s natural defences.
Symptoms are the body’s response to the viral pathogen – stopping symptoms like this can often reduce our ability to heal. For example, if you have a lot of congestion, you can take a decongestant that will dry you out. This is problematic because mucus is a valuable part of the immune system, acting to envelop and flush pathogens out of the body. Or if you have a fever, you might take aspirin or a similar drug to artificially lower your fever. This is often counterproductive because the fever is your body’s attempt to rid your body of the invading pathogens, which are sensitive to high temperatures. Or if you have a cough, you could take a cough-suppressant medicine. You can probably guess that this might be a bad idea, to keep all of that mucus in your throat and lungs, and might even lead to deeper problems like lingering cough, bronchitis, or pneumonia. The bottom line is, unless symptoms are severe, we don’t want to stop those important processes.
Herbs especially excel when they are used to support your immune system, rather than trying to stop it. With herbs, you can get some symptomatic relief while also supporting healing and shortening the duration of your illness. For example, if you have a lot of thick, stuck congestion, you can take herbs that thin the mucus and help you dispel it. The result is that you don’t overly dry your mucous membranes and you support your body’s natural defences (the mucus) while also helping your body expel the gunk. Like Stuffy Nose and Breathe Easy - two other blends that work wonders together. They have similar effects but combined they're just the dream team, one focusing all its efforts on reliving nasal congestion whilst the latter can look after your lungs (coughs).
When herbs are used in this way, they aren’t necessarily “antiviral” as much as they are profoundly supportive of your body’s natural responses to a viral infection. While these herbal allies don’t work directly on the virus, they do support our body’s defences against the pathogen.
Because the virus takes over and destroys many of your cells in its effort to replicate, viral infections are tough on the body and can leave you feeling worn out, worn down, and deeply tired. In our rush to get back to work and responsibilities, it’s easy to ignore the recovery phase. However, this can lead to further illness or an even longer recovery time. Rest and simple nutrient-dense foods are obviously important for recovery. Herbs can also play a supporting role. For example, our lungs often feel the effects of a virus long after other symptoms have abated. Using herbs to strengthen and restore lung health can shorten that recovery process. I often get a lingering dry cough after an upper respiratory infection; using demulcent herbs to soothe my mucous membranes is my favourite way to quell that irritation. Think Marshmallow root like in Breathe Easy Demulcent herbsdon't tend to work if you boil them, so you might want to have a go at doing a cold infusion if that's the effect you're after. This is how.
It works so well that I often wonder what people do without herbs!
Let's take a look at some of my favourite herbs.
Elderflower is one of our best herbal medicines for supporting a healthy fever process, especially when someone is hot, restless, and not sweating. Elderflower relaxes and opens the capillaries and allows for heat to escape. It's also commonly taken at the onset of an illness to shorten the duration. Herbalist Maude Grieve wrote in the 1930s that elderflowers are an “almost infallible cure for an attack of influenza in its first stage.”
Mint tea also brings welcome relief to the symptoms of colds and influenza. Hot mint tea can support a healthy fever process while also relieving tension and mild aches and pains and supporting the digestion during the viral infection.
While fresh rose hips are famous for being high in vitamin C, dried rose hips are also filled with antioxidants that help to modulate inflammation. The soothing demulcent qualities of rose hips can also soothe an irritated and dry throat. Plus, they taste really good!
Taken as a hot tea, yarrow can make you sweat. It promotes circulation to the periphery, dilating capillaries and letting heat escape through the skin. Used in this way, it can be a powerful treatment supporting the fever process when someone is hot, restless, and not sweating. Yarrow is very similar to elderflower in this action, but based on their taste and my experience, it feels like they work in different ways. From modern science, in vitro studies show that yarrow may also have the ability to inhibit viral replication. Note: Yarrow is not recommended during pregnancy.
If you want to check out the blends I've mentioned in the article, click below.
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