herbs and nutrients that help your immune system fight viruses

“I was wrong,” Louis Pasteur is said to have cried out as he died, “The terrain is everything.”

Whether or not this death bed confession really happened, the battle between germ theory and terrain theory did. And germ theory won. In battling infection, conventional medicine has focussed exclusively on the germ, while natural medicine has focussed also on the terrain.

If there was a pond in your yard swarming with mosquitoes, would you spray the mosquitoes or clean the pond? Conventional medicine sprays the mosquitoes, but the pond is still stagnant and the mosquitoes will come back. But, terrain theory reminds us, it is much more effective and long lasting to clean up the pond. It is much easier to prevent the infection than it is to kill it once you have it. And a healthy terrain sets the conditions not to invite it back because the pond is no longer a welcoming terrain for invaders to live in and breed.

So, how do you keep your terrain, your body, healthy? Keep your immune system healthy.

The Immune System
Your immune system’s head office is the thymus gland. A healthy immune system begins with a healthy, well nourished thymus gland. Your body needs the full host of nutrients from a healthy, whole, plant based diet. But the thymus gland especially craves two nutrients: zinc and vitamin C. B6 is also important.

Zinc is probably the most important nutrient for the thymus gland. Zinc increases the production and function of thymic hormones. Vitamin C is antiviral and antibacterial and possesses the ability to enhance host resistance. It enhances the levels of the antibody producing white blood cells that kill viruses, bacteria, yeast and tumor, as well as the T cells that devour these invaders without antibodies. Vitamin C also increases levels of interferon, your body’s own antiviral compound.

Zinc and vitamin C are both antioxidants. Zinc, C, carotenes and other antioxidants, including vitamin E and selenium, play a key role in immunity by preventing the free radical assault that literally shrinks the thymus gland.

Vitamin C
Vitamin C is antiviral, antioxidant and anti-inflammatory. It’s power over viruses is demonstrated by its dominance over the common cold. A review of 21 studies that used 1-8g of vitamin C found that vitamin C reduces the length and severity of colds by 23% (Scand J Infect Dis 1994;26:1-6). A double-blind found that 1g of vitamin C reduced the risk of catching a cold by 45% and shortened the length of the cold by 59% compared to a placebo (Nutrients 2014;6:2572-83). But you should take even more: it’s best to take at least 2g a day (Med Hypotheses 1999;52:171-8).

The most current word on vitamin C comes from a meta-analysis of 9 controlled studies that found that taking extra vitamin C on top of regular supplementation at the onset of a cold shortens the cold by a significant 56% and significantly relieves symptoms, including chest pain, fever and chills (Biomed Res Int 2018 ;2018:1837634).

Zinc is essential for immunity. Since seniors are more susceptible to infection, researchers gave elderly people who had low zinc levels either 30mg of zinc or a 5mg zinc placebo for 3 months. The number of immune T-cells rose significantly more in the people on zinc, suggesting that zinc can boost immunity (J Clin Nutr 2016;103(3):942-51).

The media insists that zinc lozenges don’t work. And they’re right: when a study deliberately gives the wrong form or a placebo dose, they don’t. But when you take the right dose of the right form, zinc lozenges kill the common cold every time. The best forms of zinc lozenge are zinc gluconate, zinc acetate, and zinc gluconate-glycine. Other forms or those flavoured with citric acid, tartaric acid, sorbitol, or mannitol don’t work as well.

Several studies show that taking 13-23mg of zinc lozenges every 2 waking hours fights off a cold in about 4 days compared to 7-11 days with a placebo (Antimicrobial Agents Chemother 1984;25:20-24; Ann Intern Med 1996;125:81-88; Ann Intern Med 2000;133:245-52; J Infect Dis 2008;197:795- 802). A review of the research found that when at least 75mg of zinc lozenges a day was used, people got better significantly faster in 7 out of 8 studies (Open Respir Med J 2011;5:51-58). A meta-analysis looked at 3 placebo-controlled studies of zinc acetate lozenges. The zinc lozenges lessened the length of the cold by nearly 3 days. The average length of the cold in the 3 studies was 7 days. But taking zinc lozenges shortened the cold by 2.73-2.94 days (BJCP 2016;82:1393-8)!

The most recent meta-analysis included 3 studies of zinc acetate lozenges. The doses ranged from 80-92mg a day of elemental zinc. By the fifth day of the study, 70% of the zinc lozenge group had recovered from their colds compared to only 27% of the placebo group. That means that 2.6 times more people were cured in the zinc lozenge group. People taking zinc lozenges recovered 3.1 times faster (Open Forum Infect Dis 2017;4(2):ofx059).

Echinacea is king of the immune herbs. All kinds of studies prove its efficacy over viruses. But three deserve to be highlighted.

In the largest study ever done on echinacea, 673 healthy people were given either echinacea or a placebo for 4 months in a double-blind fashion. The people on echinacea had significantly fewer colds and cold symptoms, showing that echinacea both prevents and treats colds. The echinacea group caught 149 colds that lasted a total of 672 days; the placebo group caught 188 colds that lasted 850 days. The echinacea group also had significantly less recurrence of colds: 65 compared to 100 in the placebo group (Evid Based Complement Altern Med 2012(2):841315).

An important meta-analysis included 6 high quality, placebo-controlled, long term studies of echinacea on respiratory tract infection recurrence and complication (including pneumonia, bronchitis, ear infection, sinusitis). Using echinacea reduced the risk of recurrence by a significant 35%. In people with higher susceptibility due to stress or weakened immunity, the reduction was an even more impressive 50%. Using echinacea reduced the risk of complications by 50%, including 64.9% reduction of risk of pneumonia, ear infection and tonsillitis (Adv Ther 2015;32:187-200).

The third is a double-blind study that compared Tamiflu, the leading flu drug, to a blend of Echinacea purpurea and elderberry. By day 5, the herbs were already slightly more effective; by day 10, 90.1% of the herb group had recovered versus 84.8% of the drug group. There were less complications and side effects in the herb group (Curr Ther Res 2015;77:66-72).

Echinacea does not fight infections the way antibiotics do. It safely and effectively concentrates on the terrain, not the germ. Though it does have mild antibiotic and antiviral properties, echinacea really does most of its work by helping you do yours: it doesn’t kill the bacteria and viruses, it helps your immune system to fight off bacteria and viruses in the way it’s naturally supposed to. Echinacea helps your immune system in three main ways.

First, it stimulates the production and activity of immune cells. Echinacea increases your immune cells’ capacity to engulf and destroy cancer cells and invading pathogens. It literally helps the immune cells to devour them: a process called phagocytosis. Echinacea also has an interferon-like effect. Interferon is your body’s own immune enhancing virus and cancer fighter.

Secondly, echinacea activates a secondary system, called the alternate complement pathway, that is triggered when antibodies go to work and destroys invaders.

The third way that echinacea helps your immune system is really cool. Your immune system’s first line of defense is a protective barrier called hyaluronic acid. Germs spread through your body by eating their way through this barrier by means of an enzyme called hyularonidase. Once through the barrier, germs can spread throughout the body and attack your cells. Echinacea has the incredible ability to inactivate hyaluronidase and lock invaders out.

Elderberries are loaded in powerful antioxidant flavonoids known as anthocyanidins. The anthocyanidins enhance immune function (Watzl et. al., 2000). Elderberry extract activates the immune system by strongly increasing inflammatory (European Cytokine Network 2001) and anti-inflammatory (IMAJ 2002) cytokine production. Cytokines are tiny proteins put out by immune cells that communicate messages to other immune cells to modulate the immune response.

Elderberry helps you recover from the cold in only 2-3 days compared to 7-8 days on a placebo (J Altern Comp Med 1995;1:361- 9; J International Med Res 2004;32:132- 40). A placebo-controlled study found that elderberry relieves fever, headache, congestion and cough in only 2 days. Elderberry is also better than placebo for nasal congestion. The researchers concluded that elderberry is fast, effective and as good as or better than antiviral drugs for the flu (Online Journal of Pharmacology and Pharmacokinetics 2009;5:32-43).

Two important new elderberry studies have told us a lot more about how and how well it works. New research shows that elderberry inhibits infection at a very early stage by blocking proteins that allow viruses to attach to and enter cells. This discovery confirms earlier research that also found that elderberry crucially stops viruses from penetrating into your cells, preventing them from replicating (J Alt Comp Med 1995).

But one of the reasons that elderberry works so well is that it blocks the virus at many stages, making sure it can’t slip through. Elderberry is even better at inhibiting the virus from propagating at later stages if the virus has gotten into the cell. This new study also confirms that elderberry also stimulates the release of cytokines, the messengers that immune cells use to coordinate a more efficient response to viruses. The researchers found that it is elderberry’s anthocyanidin flavonoids that are doing the antiviral work (J Funct Foods 2019;54:353-60).

As for how well elderberry works, a new meta-analysis included 4 controlled studies: 3 that looked at the flu and one that looked at colds. Elderberry made a big difference, significantly reducing the severity and duration of symptoms. It worked for both flu and cold but may have been even more effective for flu (Complement Ther Med 2019;42:361-365).

Andrographis is seldom discussed, but a massive systematic review of 33 controlled studies has demonstrated the power of this herb over acute respiratory infections, including, amongst others, cold, flu, bronchitis, pneumonia, laryngitis and tonsillitis. Meta-analysis of 4 studies concluded that andrographis is significantly better than placebo. Meta-analysis of 12 studies concluded that andrographis is significantly better than drugs for all symptoms but cough. Meta-analysis of 6 studies concluded that andrographis + drugs is significantly better than drugs alone. The authors caution that not all the included studies were of high quality (PLoS One 2017;12(8): e0181780).

Though the media likes to inform you that garlic has no antiviral properties, it does. Double-blind research shows that taking 2.5 grams a day of aged garlic extract enhances T-cells and natural killer cells and significantly reduces the severity of colds and flus while significantly reducing the number of days of school or work missed. Over the 6 month study, the garlic group had 58% fewer colds and 61% fewer days with colds. They also had 21% fewer symptoms with the colds they did catch (Clin Nutr 2012;31:337-344). And when people were given placebo or garlic supplements containing 180mg of allicin for 12 weeks, the placebo group caught a total of 65 colds while the garlic group caught only 24: that’s a significant benefit. The placebo group suffered 366 days of illness compared to only 111 in the garlic group. The garlic group recovered a full day faster than the placebo group (Cochrane Database Syst Rev 2014 Nov 11;11:CD006206).

This sweet herb is powerfully antibacterial, antiviral, anti-inflammatory and antioxidant. It is also antispasmodic, expectorant and demulcent, which is valuable if our viral infection includes a cough.

Licorice has cortisol like effects. The glycyrrhizin in licorice root is similar in structure to cortisol and fools our bodies by passing itself off as this anti-inflammatory hormone. In addition to its own cortisol-like action, licorice also inhibits the breakdown of cortisol, allowing it to stick around and work longer. Licorice is able to boost the action of both the body's own and pharmaceutical corticosteroids.

Licorice also supports the immune system. It induces interferon and other immune system components and has antiviral, antibacterial and antioxidant properties against a host of invaders. Licorice activates macrophage and natural killer cell activity. Though tested only in test tubes and not in people, a 2003 study published in Lancet found that, in test tubes, the glycyrrhizin in licorice inhibits the replication of the coronavirus that causes SARS (Lancet 2003; doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(03)13615-X).

To help your body fight viruses, drink plenty of fluids-- dehydrated mucous surfaces are a better breeding ground for viruses—and eliminate sugar. Sugar competes with vitamin C for transport sites into white blood cells, so it decreases vitamin C and impairs white blood cell function.

Get plenty of rest: deep sleep immune-enhancing compounds are released and several immune functions are increased. Remember to exercise and practice deep breathing and relaxation exercises.

The Natural Path is intended for educational purposes only and is in no way intended for self-diagnosis or self-treatment. For health problems, consult a qualified health practitioner for a comprehensive program.


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