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Anyone who uses nutritional supplements or nutraceuticals such as herbs, vitamins, and minerals is probably familiar with this statement which is on the packaging of all these products. It has to do with “structure function” claims regarding all supplements. Any product which has not been through the rigorous FDA approval process has this statement on it if there is even the slightest hint that it might help cure or prevent any illness.
The FDA is extra vigilant about enforcing this provision when the public has become concerned about any new threat to their health. They have already put out a warning that there is no known alternative cure for COVID-19, also known as the "coronavirus".
Having said this, there are many herbs which have documented benefits to viral infections. This article will cover some of the most well known herbs and various ways to prepare them for use.
First, the herbs:
Above, echinacea flowers (purple cone flower)
Echinacea Purpurea is a species of flowering plant that is native to North America. It became integrated into Western herbal medicine when a Swiss herbal medicine producer learned that the Kiowa, Cheyenne and Pawnee tribes use it for the treatment and prevention of colds. According to WebMD, echinacea boosts the immune system by increasing white blood cell count. [SOURCE]
Echinacea is commonly combined with another native herb called Goldenseal. According to WebMD, the active ingredient in Goldenseal, berberine, may be effective against bacteria and fungus. Studies have shown that bacteria and viruses often work together to invade and infect cells so the combination of these herbs makes sense.
Above, olive leaves on an olive tree
The one herbal remedy that has the most widespread endorsement of mainstream medicine for anti-viral activity is the extract of olive leaves. According to PubMed which is a publication of the National Institute of Health, research with Olive Leaf showed that it reduced the infectivity of viruses by 70-90%. Another article in PubMed declares that oleuropein “could be used as a promising source of natural anti-virals” The active ingredient in Olive leaf is oleuropein. The traditional use in regions where olives are grown is to prepare a tea. [SOURCE]
Above, osha root
Osha is another plant native to the United States which has a history of medicinal use by Native American tribes. It grows in the mountains of southern Colorado and northern New Mexico.
According to the National Institute of Health, Osha has been used by native Americans and Hispanics to treat influenza and pneumonia as well as overall immune system stimulation for many generations. [SOURCE]
The root of the plant is used traditionally to make a tea. It is often combined with a strain of wild Oregano which is native to the same geographic region.
Above, oregano flower and ground oregano
Oregano is another herb which is widely accepted by federal health authorities as an effective anti-viral herb. PubMed published a study in the May 2014 edition called “Anti-viral efficacy and mechanisms of action of oregano essential oil and its primary component carvacrol against murine norovirus”. The study showed that Oregano oil was very effective at eradicating this particular virus and showed promise for viruses in general.
Interestingly, Oregano is not really a single species but a class of botanicals that contain carvacrol and thymol. Traditional Oregano is the Turkish variety and that is what is used in most culinary preparations. The Oregano which is native to the southwest U.S. is not related to the Turkish plant and has never been properly identified. According to botanical researcher, Todd Bates of Taos NM, it is probably a member of the Monarda family.
Above, andrographis leaves
Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) recognizes a wide range of herbs as having anti-viral properties. One of the most interesting is Andrographis.
According to Alternative Medicine researcher, Dr. Janet Zand, studies have been done where scientists cultivated different types of influenza which were deadly to mice. The mice were given Andrographis and then injected with the various strains of deadly flu. Survival rates of the mice were between 80-100% depending on which strain of flu they were given. [SOURCE]
Many practitioners of TCM believe that Andrographis should only be used for two days when cold/flu symptoms start. Taking it any longer than that has an opposite effect whereby it can weaken the body.
Above, elderberry fruit
Unlike the other herbs listed which all have a bitter taste, Elderberry has a delicious taste much like other common berries. It is commonly used in jams, wines, and pastries. Medicinal Elderberry preparations are typically syrups or lozenges.
Israeli researchers began researching the folk medicine claims some years ago to find out whether there was any truth to them. They concluded that Elderberry had benefits in relieving cold and flu symptoms.
WebMD mentions that experts believe Elderberry is good for cold and flu symptoms and helps relieve fever. [SOURCE]
Elderberry is one of the most commonly available cold and flu remedies. It’s typically found in any health food stores, grocery stores, and pharmacies.
Above, raw cannabis oil extract
New discoveries regarding the medicinal effects of cannabis are coming out on a regular basis. Although the cannabinoids which people normally associate with medical use have not shown any anti-viral properties, the lesser recognized monoterpenes, more commonly known as essential oils, show potential. These compounds are what give herbs their flavor and aroma and are used in the science of aromatherapy for their healing properties. Now there are even cannabis hand sanitizers coming to market leveraging the antibacterial and antiviral properties of these compounds.
The National Institute of Health has published a study from Tehran University in which the monoterpenes beta-pinene and limonene showed strong anti-viral properties. Both of these compounds are common in the flowers of cannabis. [SOURCE]
Preparing anti-viral herbs for use
Although all of the herbs listed above can be utilized by simply making a hot tea out of them, a proper extraction using the correct method and best solvents will make the most out of their medicinal properties. Most herbs have a range of compounds that can vary from strongly polar to strongly non polar. Water is a strongly polar molecule so those chemicals will extract efficiently in a tea preparation but the non polar compounds will remain in the herb and will not benefit the tea drinker. Ethanol has non-polar properties, so a combination of ethanol, a nonpolar solvent and water, a polar solvent is best when making an herbal medicine.
Herbal practitioners have always maintained that the best method for ingesting herbal medicine is a tincture which uses ethanol and water to extract and then preserve the herb in liquid form. The traditional method of extracting herbs is to grind them and place them in large glass bottles to soak in a combination of ethanol and water. After periodically shaking the bottles and letting them soak for an extended period, the extracted herb is strained out and the resulting herbal decoction is bottled for consumption.
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In this method, a perforated basket of ground herb is suspended above a warm pool of solvent. Typically, ethanol and water. An inverted condenser with multiple drip points is suspended above the basket of herb. By warming the solvent and cooling the condenser, a distillation cycle is created which allows the solvent to continuously vaporize and condense thereby dripping through the basket and extracting the herb in the process.
A small amount of solvent can be used to extract a large amount of herb since it is continuously re-distilling through the basket which yields a rich, thick tincture with the full profile of active constituents.
So, are herbs the answer?
The obvious question here is, do any of these herbs cure coronavirus? The answer is, we don’t know. It’s much too early to say with any certainty. What we know is that all the herbs listed above have shown anti-viral activity with other viruses in federal government studies. It’s reasonable to predict that some of them might lessen symptoms even if they do not provide a complete cure.