This is the second in a series of three short articles to help people here in the United States understand the effectiveness of Chinese herbs in the treatment of especially mild to moderate symptoms of COVID-19, also knowns as SARS-CoV-2. (If you haven’t read the first introductory article, you can read it here.) These targeted herbal formulas can help you and your family avoid the need for more urgent medical care. My aim today is to provide people with a brief overview of how Chinese herbal formulas work in the treatment of viral illness. In the final article we will discuss particular herbs that actually block the entry of the COVID-19 virus into the host cells (your cells).
Did you know that Chinese herbal medicine has been heavily utilized in most patients in China with COVID-19? In fact, by the end of February more than 85 percent of patients in China who were diagnosed with COVID-19, or approximately 60,000 people, had received Chinese herbal medicine along with Western medicine treatments. Chinese herbal medicine was used extensively both in local communities to successfully prevent the need for more intensive medical care, and in hospitals combined with Western medicine treatments.
Not only that, but Chinese herbal formulations are routinely given to medical practitioners in hospitals all over China to prevent COVID-19 infection. Studies conducted during the SARS epidemic in 2003 showed that taking Chinese herbs provided a clinical advantage in preventing contraction of the disease in medical practitioners at the time.
Here in the United States, Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) practitioners have been researching what specific antiviral herbs target COVID-19 (and there are several that perform very well here). There has been much communication with TCM doctors in China over which formulas have brought the best outcomes in both the prevention and treatment of COVID-19 symptoms. But why should you consider using them? How do Chinese herbal formulas differ from other OTC herbal remedies and supplements?
First, you need to know that herbs--and especially Chinese herbal formulas--can be very effective if used correctly; however people can often do more damage than good attempting to self treat with OTC herbal remedies. I’ll give an example. People are rushing to buy herbs and supplements which have “antiviral” properties, such as oregano oil, echinacea, or olive leaf extract. However, it is well known in Chinese medicine that most antiviral herbs are very cold and bitter in nature. What this means, is that if you take them by themselves without combining them with other protective herbs, and especially over an extended period of time, then you will damage your digestion. This damage causes a buildup of what we term “Damp” in the system, which can critically aggravate the respiratory symptoms that go along with COVID-19. This is especially true for people who have pre-existing digestive issues; however, anyone is susceptible.
The Chinese materia medica includes many herbs that are potently antiviral and antibacterial, but they are never used alone; they are combined with other herbs depending on symptom presentation. There are strong Heat-clearing herbs for fever and inflammation; herbs that clear Damp and Phlegm and target nasal, sinus, bronchial, lung, and inner ear congestion; herbs that “descend Lung Qi” and treat cough or asthma and difficulty breathing; herbs that “clear Toxins” or clear out by-products produced from the body’s own immune system battling viruses or other pathogens; herbs that target the gastrointestinal system and treat nausea, loss of appetite and diarrhea caused by viral or bacterial attack; and herbs that protect and strengthen the immune system so that the body can fight harder, called “Wei Qi” in Chinese medicine.
Most critically, a good Chinese herbalist will understand the constitution of their patient, and devise formulas that combine herbs that treat symptoms of the viral illness together with herbs that help to address any pre-existing conditions that jeopardize their ability to fight off the virus. That could be an underlying weakness, such as immune or digestive weakness, or it could be what we call an excess condition, such as too much Heat (inflammation) in the system, or too much Damp and Phlegm.
Do you think the pandemic phenomenon of COVID-19 is a brand new one? Of course not! Chinese herbal medicine includes a long history of battling 320 large-scale epidemics over a 2000 year span of time. Over this long period, specific herbs were identified that were antiviral, termed “Wind Heat”, “Wind Cold”, and “Toxins”. Though the Chinese at the time could not identify a virus or a bacteria under a microscope, they recognized that there was a force entering the body like “Wind” that then moved erratically causing symptoms that rapidly came and went. They used the term “Heat” to describe hot inflammatory symptoms such as fever and sore throat, and the term “Cold” to describe symptoms such as chills and feeling cold, as well as the congealing of thick phlegm and mucus. “Toxins” referred to a class of herbs they identified that directly treated viral or bacterial infection.
The herbs that addressed “Wind Heat”, “Wind Cold” and “Toxins” were combined into elegant formulas that targeted symptoms identified during different stages or phases of illness. The Shang Han Lun, written 1800 years ago by a doctor named Zhang Zhong Jing, identified six stages of progressive viral illness and devised herbal formulas to treat each stage, that could be modified according to an individual patient’s constitution. Symptom clusters within the first three stages we all can easily recognize:
Early Stage Wind Heat or Wind Cold (Taiyang): low grade or no fever, aversion to cold, sneezing, runny nose, nasal congestion, headache, sore throat, muscle aches, and fatigue
Mid Stage (Yang Ming): moderate to high fever, dry cough or barking cough with or without phlegm expectoration, very sore and dry throat
Intermittent “Stuck” Stage (Shao Yang): alternating chills and fever worse in the afternoon, bitter taste in the mouth, chest and ribside fullness, irritability, nausea or vomiting, no appetite, weakness
We are still experiencing these same symptoms of early to middle stage viral illness today, and the same herbal formulas work just as successfully to treat them as they did centuries ago. Most COVID-19 symptoms are identical to those of the run-of-the-mill cold and influenza variety, but especially emphasize herbal formulas that open up the chest, clear Damp and disperse Lung Phlegm. People who end up in the hospital from COVID-19 often end up on ventilators because their lungs are so inflamed that they fill with a thick, proteinaceous fluid that they cannot cough up, which then causes acute respiratory distress (and ultimately multiple organ failure due to lack of oxygen supply). Chinese herbs can address early symptoms that lead to this unhappy outcome, but even in later stages can be used to actively reduce this inflammation and fluid build-up.
Hopefully you now not only have a better understanding of the great potential of Chinese herbs in the prevention and treatment of COVID-19, but also realize that the best way to utilize Chinese herbs is under the care of a qualified TCM practitioner. But don’t stop with this realization alone; take action! The BEST time to schedule an herbal consult is before you have viral symptoms; otherwise, reaching out to us as soon as viral symptoms emerge is the next best option. Schedule an appointment with us today so we can tailor Chinese herb solutions for you and your family to arm yourself in the fight against COVID-19.
At Denver Community Acupuncture we are offering:
Chinese herbs can be picked up at Denver Community Acupuncture either during apothecary hours, or outside the clinic from our lockbox outside apothecary hours. Apothecary Hours (until DCA re-opens): Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday 11am - 1pm
Disclaimer: The above article is the professional opinion of Darcy Greenwald, MSOM, L.Ac, and the statements have not been approved or verified by the FDA, or other US federal or state health agencies.