*Note: This post may be updated as time goes on and we get more information
As herbalists, we’ve been following the spread of COVID-19 and wanted to give you a few updates on some of the most useful approaches you can take to stay healthy, support your loved ones, and reduce the spread of the disease.
The first order of business is good basic hygiene! Hand washing with regular soap and water for 20-30 seconds is the best approach. Coronavirus is an enveloped virus, meaning that its genome is surrounded by a fatty membrane (just like our cells). These membranes are vulnerable to soap: it dissolves the bonds between the fatty layers, neutralizing the virus. Frequent handwashing is perhaps the most effective public and personal health tool we have.
Hand sanitizers are an alternative, to use in a pinch or when traveling, away from a sink, etc… The FDA and EPA have put out an extensive list of sanitizers that are effective against COVID-19 (see this document for the full list of approved disinfectants: https://www.aphis.usda.gov/animal_health/emergency_management/downloads/coronavirus-disinfectants.pdf ). What stand out to us, as herbalists who would rather avoid solutions with bleach or other harsh chemicals, are sanitizers based on alcohol or thymol (a part of the essential oil of thyme).
1. Alcohol-based hand sanitizer
Basic recipe is 2 parts alcohol, 1 part aloe gel
Key consideration: the alcohol you use can be rubbing (isopropyl) or "regular" (ethyl, or ethanol), but must be at least 90% (180 proof). Concentrations are listed on the bottle (eg. at the drugstore, rubbing alcohol should say "91% isopropyl alcohol"). Don't use 60% isopropyl or anything lower than 90%. Alcohol-based sanitizers need to be 60-70% alcohol.
You CAN add 5-10 drops essential oil per ounce of sanitizer if you want, just to improve odor and make it more pleasant.
Dispense into squirt bottles. Squirt a pea-sized amount on your hands, rub in, and allow to dry. Note that this is a little more runny than commercial hand sanitizer gel, but it is still effective.
*Note that our first experiment making this required us to blend and strain this to get a useful consistency.
2. Thymol-based and alcohol-free hand sanitizer
FDA/EPA have approved "Thymox" (a solution of 0.25% thymol) as a coronavirus-effective disinfectant.
We can recreate a 0.25% thymol solution using these ingredients:
Water, 29 mL (about 1 fluid ounce). Using distilled water is best, but any clean, fresh water will do.
Gum Arabic, a dispersant, 300 mg (https://www.amazon.com/Pure-Organic-Ingredients-Ingredient-Watercolor/dp/B07DFSGH9F/). It is important to add a dispersant so that the essential oil will be evenly distributed throughout the solution, and no small drops will form that could cause skin irritation.
Benchmark Thyme essential oil, 0.8 mL (consistently high thymol concentration, which is assayed https://www.benchmark-thyme.com/benchmark-thyme/). If you can’t find benchmark thyme essential oil, regular thyme essential oil will do.
Add the essential oil to the gum Arabic and mix thoroughly. Add the paste to the water and shake well.
Pour into a spray bottle and dispense by spraying. Rub into the hands and allow to dry.
In terms of herbal support, we know very little about this virus, seasonality, and transmission. It does seem to be more contagious than the flu, and does affect those over 60 and with heart disease, lung disease, and diabetes more significantly. There is no evidence that any of the classic herbs we use for cold and flu "treat" the virus. Instead of treatment, we have been focusing on good hygiene and prevention by strengthening immune function.
To keep your immune system strong, please take good care of yourself: good food, good hydration, and most importantly good sleep. If stress around all this is an issue, consider adaptogens like American ginseng (if available organic), Ashwagandha, or Eleuthero ("Siberian" ginseng). Do not "go it alone" on this infection, especially if working or in contact with higher-risk populations. The virus can cause symptoms to progress into a danger zone quickly. Don't delay asking for support. The key symptoms seem to be dry cough and fever, though this can vary. Call your care provider(s). Follow their directions.
Herbal support centers around plants and mushrooms that support good immunity, but don’t overstimulate immune function. The following are simply ideas for herbs to consider to stay healthy as part of immune supportive routine including all the above information. Again, these are not herbs that are known to "treat" COVID-19 infection.
Not all of these herbs are a good idea for all people. As always, attention to the individual is very important. Given that, this list may help stimulate ideas for those that already have a good understanding of herbs, but for those that don't please only take it as a jumping off point from which to do more research.
If you'd like any specific advice about how you or someone you know can stay healthy please contact us to set up a consultation at firstname.lastname@example.org or 802-540-0595.
1. Immunomodulant herbs - Astragalus and medicinal mushrooms, especially reishi (Ganoderma lucidum / tsugae / oregonensis). Relatively high amounts: 1 tsp. Astragalus tincture 2x/d, 7-12 g Astragalus total in caps/powder/decoction daily. 2 mL mushroom extract and/or blends, or 3-4 g mushroom extract powder, or 4-5 g mushrooms decocted daily.
2. Lung support herbs include Asclepias tuberosa (pleurisy root), licorice root (caution w/ high blood pressure), mullein leaf, elecampane root, Platycodon grandiflorum (balloonflower) root, Usnea.
3. Warming aromatic diaphoretics are theoretically a good idea: ginger, angelica, Lomatium, Ligusticum (osha – consider other options, as this herb is endangered).
4. Consider avoiding elderberry for those at greater risk to reduce the risk of over-stimulation of an immune reaction. Elderberry lectins, not present in other berries, ramp up immune function and inflammatory cytokine production, which is THEORETICALLY a concern as the cause of death is connected to sepsis and cytokine storm in vulnerable folks (see this paper from China as reference: https://www.medrxiv.org/content/10.1101/2020.02.26.20026989v1.full.pdf).
We know of no herbs that have evidence of efficacy for Covid19 treatment, as this novel virus presents a lot of unknowns. However one formula (Shuang huang lian) is receiving attention in China for herbal treatment of the virus, but keep in mind it is often used as an injection. It is Baikal skullcap root (Scutellaria baikalensis), Forsythia fruit, and Honeysuckle flower (Lonicera japonica). For details on the case series and treatments being used in China, see this paper: https://www.medrxiv.org/content/medrxiv/early/2020/03/03/2020.03.01.20029611.full.pdf
If you or someone you know has symptoms or has had contact with a confirmed infection, the first step is to call your healthcare provider and let them know, and receive guidance. After a plan is in place, we as herbalists can provide support using some of the strategies outlined above.
May you have good health, strong immunity, and peace of mind as we all work together to keep our elders and most vulnerable safe.
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