Immune support, Chinese Medicine and COVID-19

sprout in the dirt - Immune support, Chinese Medicine and COVID-19

“Without going outside, you may know the whole world.

Without looking through the window, you may know the ways of heaven.

The farther you go, the less you know.”

Lao Tsu, Tao Te Ching, Forty Seven

If you’re here you already know that my focus is on women’s hormonal, sexual and pelvic health. I’m by no means an infectious disease expert; however, I do have a Master’s degree in East Asian Medicine that required me to study the pathogenesis of epidemics and various infectious diseases from both a biomedicine and Traditional Chinese Medicine point of view.

In fact, the classes that I took on infectious disease in Traditional Chinese Medicine were some of the most complex theories and herbal formulas that I studied during my entire education. Chinese Medicine has a 2000+ year tradition of effectively managing epidemics. It’s quite impressive really. So, while it feels odd to write about this material, it also wouldn’t feel congruent to keep this information to myself.

When the COVID-19 pandemic descended upon us all, I quickly turned to some trusted sources in regards to how it was being managed in China and specifically using Chinese herbal medicine. I have listened to talks by Dr. John Chen, who has written some incredible Chinese materia medica textbooks, and I have read some of the work of Dr. Heiner Fruehauf, who is an esteemed acupuncturist, herbalist and scholar who is translating some preliminary studies from China on COVID-19.

I have my own serious critiques and doubts around how this has been managed both in the USA and worldwide; however, that is not what this post is about. Here, I’ll be sharing solely about the potential role of Chinese Herbal Medicine in the pandemic and general recommendations for system fortification during this time or anytime really.

Orienting to the territory

This is really complex territory and I’m not going to pretend I can easily explain how infectious disease is studied and understood in Chinese Medicine. After all, that is like learning a new language. You really can’t rush the process or think that if you pick up a few key herbal formulas you’re good to go.

However, what I do want to make clear is that Chinese herbal medicine has powerful antiviral, antibacterial and also antitoxin herbs, along with herbs that help resolve phlegm, fortify immunity before becoming ill and help the recovery process. What is so fascinating about the medical system in China is how integrated it truly is. Patients often receive intravenous or oral herbs alongside whatever western pharmaceuticals are recommended. Herbal pharmacies are already part of the hospital system there, so it is easy to administer and widely available, not to mention there is ongoing research for efficacy.

I haven’t studied in China but I did spend time in Taiwan, which has a similar medical system, and it’s really something you cannot comprehend until you see it. It’s not perfect but the integration of traditional medicine and western medicine is impressive.

Respiratory Illnesses and COVID-19

From the research I’ve done thus far, COVID-19 seems to present most often in severe cases as Damp Toxicity. What does that mean? It means that the main pathogenic factor from a Chinese Medicine point of view is Dampness and/or Phlegm, which obstructs the Lungs and leads to further complications. When Dampness or Phlegm accumulate in an area of the body it creates Stagnation (and often pain). Stagnation of Qi and Blood creates Heat which can create more toxicity and further complications as you can imagine. Toxins as described by Dr. Chen, are the broken down parts of cells and viruses and other pathogens that need to be cleaned up by macrophages (a type of white blood cell). The Damp-Phlegm pathogen is so strong in severe cases that it is blocking the Lungs and causing respiratory distress and potentially leading to other co-infections. 

It’s very important to note that in Chinese Medicine the priority is placed on differential diagnosis case by case. From one disease as western medicine understands it, many different patterns or Chinese Medicine diagnoses can emerge. That’s because every individual meets a certain pathogen uniquely, given their own health background, constitution, diet, lifestyle, environmental factors and so much more. It is a very refined process of studying how the pathogen affects each person uniquely, although some key signs and symptoms may overlap. From a Chinese Medicine viewpoint, those with underlying conditions of Damp or Phlegm (like cardiovascular disease or chronic respiratory diseases) are at higher risk of severe infection. It is equally important to note that those with underlying digestive weaknesses, which can lead to Damp accumulation, are also at a higher risk, although this has not yet been mirrored in the western medicine understanding of COVID-19. 

I cannot stress enough how quickly infectious disease patterns of diagnosis shift, sometimes over the course of a few hours really, and COVID-19 seems to be particularly quick in it’s pathogenesis. If you want to effectively treat infectious disease with Chinese Herbal medicine, you’re often changing formulas every few days if not more frequently and making small adjustments for the individual. This is why I don’t emphasize patent formulas (herbal formulas that may be more widely available) for acute respiratory illnesses. While it is definitely effective and helpful to have few herbal formulas on hand for the common cold and overall prevention of flu season, if you develop a more complex respiratory infection, it’s ideal to get support from a practitioner.

So, what to do?

Current recommendations in the USA and many other western countries are to self-isolate if you have any symptoms similar to those of COVID-19: dry cough, fever, fatigue, body aches, digestive upset, runny nose. Only those who are higher risk for complications or have had direct contact with someone who has tested positive or have travelled to an area with a high infection rate are being tested. It’s abhorrent but that is a post for another day. 

Remember, the vast majority of cases will be a mild to moderate illness. However, I know for me personally, I would not want to sit around waiting to see if it gets worse! If you develop symptoms, it’s time to take some action to mitigate those symptoms and help your body recover from the illness. This may be the time to reach out to me or your own acupuncturist for a specific herbal formula and other measures of home care. I’m offering virtual sessions at a discounted rate at this time and you can schedule here. 

You can also follow the below recommendations for overall immune support. In this global crisis, we are seeing very clearly what western medicine has always excelled at, life saving measures for those in critical condition. On the other hand, they currently have little to offer around prevention, mitigation of symptoms and immune fortification for complete recovery. 

Immune support and prevention

There are a few studies coming out of China that are quite remarkable for showing the efficacy of the patent formula Yu Ping Feng San (Jade Windscreen Formula) for preventing flu like illnesses and even other strains of coronavirus. As you can imagine, that formula is hard to find right now! However, that could change in the coming weeks and months and I do think it’s a mild enough formula that I feel comfortable recommending it here. I would only express caution if you tend towards dryness or have other underlying immunological conditions. It’s always best to work with an herbalist to determine what’s the best approach for you. You definitely don’t want to take this if you are already developing an acute illness, as it’s contraindicated. 

With so many herbal formulas and even single herbs in short supply right now, it’s good to know that your best line of defense is tending to your own digestive system. Because COVID-19 is mainly a disease of Dampness, ensuring that your digestive system is strong and is not contributing to an increase in Dampness in your system is vital. According to Chinese Medicine, the immune system is rooted in and closely linked to digestive health, and this is being mirrored in western medicine with the ever-expanding understanding of the microbiome. In fact, I think in coming years as more research is done around this pandemic we will discover a microbiome related risk factor for developing severe COVID-19.

Here are my main tips for tending to your digestive health: 
  • Minimizing refined sugar and all processed foods
  • Eating at regular times or intervals
  • Reduce or eliminate inflammatory foods: gluten grains, corn, soy, dairy (raw may be an exception for some), industrialized animal products, alcohol, refined sugar, many plant oils (corn, soybean, canola)
  • Sip hot water throughout the day, add ginger and/or lemon for added effect
  • Do not drink cold water, especially with meals 
  • Focus on increasing organic, local (when possible) veggies and fruits and grass fed beef, free range chicken or pork, wild caught fish or seafood, pastured eggs
  • Don’t read news or watch tv while you’re eating, instead try to eat in a relaxed environment and not on the go

These are fairly simple guidelines but they aren’t necessarily easy to follow or adapt as a lifestyle. I recommend integrating one or two at a time and go from there. If you have underlying digestive health issues, now is a good time to get support to address those more fully.

There’s a lot of information out there about supplements for immune support and again, many are in short supply for that reason! Here’s what I personally take during cold / flu season:
  • Extra vitamin C, liposomal is good but I like Pure Synergy Pure Radiance C
  • Vitamin D, during this time I would recommend moderate doses of this, so maybe 500-1000 IUs per day if you have otherwise normal levels of vitamin D
  • Zinc, best in lozenge format so that zinc has contact with the back of the throat

This cannot replace a whole foods diet. Food is medicine. There are even many foods or food-derived substances that are medicinals in Chinese Medicine. Now is a good time to become familiar with some of those and include them in your diet. I’ve created a table with foods and medicinals that I feel are relevant for digestive support and immune fortification right now.

Common NamePinyinChinese Herbal Medicine CategoryFunction
GingerSheng jiang Release the exterior: disperse Wind-ColdWarms and fortifies digestion and also goes to Lung channel
Green OnionCong baiRelease the exterior: disperse Wind-ColdRelieves nasal congestion and abdominal pain by dispersing cold.
GarlicDa suanHerbs that expel parasitesPrevents bacterial and viral epidemics. Warms and strengthens digestion by clearing stagnation.
Citrus PeelChen pi Regulate QiFortifies digestion by drying Dampness and preventing stagnation
Job’s Tears (Chinese pearled barley)Yi yi renHerbs that drain Dampness Drains dampness by promoting urination and strengthens digestion. Mildly clears internal heat.
CardamomSha renAromatics that transform DampnessImproves digestion by preventing stagnation and warming the Spleen and Stomach.
TurmericJiang huang Herbs that regulate BloodMoves Qi and Blood to eliminate pain. Anti-inflammatory effect. 
FennelXiao hui xiangHerbs that warm the interior Warms digestion and Kidneys. Regulates Qi to alleviate pain.
**Astragalus Huang qi Tonify QiStrongly tonifies immune system.
HoneyFeng miTonify QiMoistens Lungs and Large Intestine and improves digestion. 

**Astragalus is a root that can be added to broths or made into a warm infusion, not exactly a food or food like substance but worth including here. 

Some of these, like ginger or garlic, are common in western diets so that could be an easy addition. You can simmer ginger and dried citrus peel (which you can simply dry at home) for 5 minutes and add honey as a daily digestive tonic. You can add cardamom to oatmeal or soups. Turmeric and fennel go well with rice dishes or curries. 

Consuming these foods, spices and food derived substances in normal dietary amounts is safe but if you have any doubts be sure to check in with your own intuition, an herbalist or your healthcare provider. Food can go a long way in preventative medicine and immune fortification.

Chinese Medicine in the treatment of COVID-19

There is emerging research and information on the treatment of active COVID-19 infections with Traditional Chinese Medicine therapies, namely acupuncture and herbal medicine. In a western culture and medical system, this will not be considered on a large scale. We’re just not there yet.

However, just because the hospital and medical system are turning people away until they need life-sustaining interventions, like ventilator use; doesn’t mean one cannot find mitigation of symptoms in other ways. I strongly encourage you to consider who might be of support from a distance if you do become ill during this time. This could be myself, another trusted acupuncturist or herbalist, a naturopathic doctor or the like. This is a time where an integrative approach could be very supportive.

I am not in any way against life saving treatment when needed and I think it should be available for every person who needs that level of care. Yet the reality is that many won’t need that level of care but could still benefit from home care, herbal medicine and immune support. Chinese Medicine inherently excels at prevention and also during the recovery phase for rebuilding a person’s system after severe illness.

Again, due to the complex nature of how infectious disease is treated in Chinese Medicine, I’m not going to share specific formulas or herbs at this time but many are being studied and utilized based on 2000+ years of use. I’m here to offer support on individual cases, if needed.

Pandemic + Possibility

My hope is that this pandemic will be an entry point for many to consider their underlying health and vitality and how they care-take their own life and the livelihood of their immediate community and environment. We cannot escape that we are part of the natural world and as we emerge from it, we are also subject to it’s dangers, seen and unseen. This has always been and will always be. As much as we would like to believe we can think our way out of any threat to our survival or create measures that maintain ultimate safety, we simply cannot. That is the greatest illusion to our real humanity.

In this world crisis, and it truly is such, there is ample possibility for individual and collective healing. It’s a call to take back your power and take action for the collective while still holding the possibility and power of social, political and medical critique. At least in the USA, so many things have gone wrong in dealing with this pandemic and while that is not the focus of this post, it’s revealing the broken-ness of how we collectively view healthcare.

That can stop for you now. All it takes is really being honest with yourself and taking responsibility for your own vitality. It doesn’t insure that you won’t become ill. It doesn’t mean you’ll never need or want to utilize western medicine. That’s far from the point.

What it does mean is that you radically accept that safety as a social, political, medical construct is an illusion and you deeply accept your humanity, including potential susceptibility to illness and even death. We are human animals, part of the natural world, which includes viruses and illness and even death. It also includes potent plant medicine and healing and regeneration and unimaginable resilience. The possibility during a pandemic is to root deeper into your own inherent wisdom, resilience and your inner healer, aspects that may have been long forgotten in the hustle of modern life.

There is fertile ground in chaos and disruption. There is potential in crisis. Have faith and be courageous.

Questions? Email me here. Ready to book a virtual session? Find that here.

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