A few days ago I got a panicked call from a close friend who works in a hospital. She had been sick for a few weeks with a progressing cough, which then started to cause a feeling of profound chest fullness and lung irritability. Worried about possible quarantine, she did not want to go to urgent care (it was the weekend), and yet she was afraid she might have COVID-19. We quickly went through her symptoms and she sent me a picture of her tongue (important in TCM diagnosis). I have a small granule herbal pharmacy at home, and so I made her up a formula, which her husband picked up that evening. It took some time, as herbs work on a different level than many OTC meds that are designed to provide immediate relief, but after1-2 days she was feeling significant improvement in her symptoms. Equally important, her stress levels had radically reduced. This is the kind of scenario that I feel many could benefit from in the use of Chinese herbal medical interventions to prevent the need for more advanced medical care, as we face growing numbers of COVID-19 cases in the coming months.
This is the third and final article 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. These targeted herbal formulas can help you and your family avoid the need for more urgent medical care.
The first article provides a brief introduction to how Chinese herbs have been extensively used in China in the treatment of COVID-19, in over 85% of patients diagnosed with COVID-19 both locally in communities and in hospitals by the end of February 2020. It is my belief that this has contributed greatly to the low fatality rate in China. Chinese herbal formulas have been used specifically in the treatment of viral symptoms for centuries, in over 320 wide-scale epidemics that occurred over a 2000-year period. It is my opinion that Chinese herbal medicine is the most advanced system of herbal medicine in the world, with by far the most complex and targeted formulas designed to treat a range of viral symptoms at various stages of infection.
The second article discusses how Chinese herbal formulations work, and why it is not advised to use OTC or online herbal remedies based on general recommendations, but to seek the help of a qualified practitioner of Chinese herbal medicine.
In this final article we will look at specific herbs that have been clinically shown to actually block the entry of the COVID-19 virus into the host cells (your cells). However, it isn’t my intent to introduce these herbs so that you can search online and purchase them as “COVID-19 antivirals”. I cannot emphasize enough that this is not an effective way to treat this virus.
Rather, it is my intent to share with you that specific Chinese herbs have been clinically shown (in vitro and in animal studies) to actively restrain the virus from entering the host cells, and that including these herbs in formulas that treat actual presenting symptoms is a potentially potent method of fighting early to mid stage COVID-19 symptoms before they ever get out of hand. (Note: If you have a cough and are noticeably short of breath it is recommended that you immediately contact your physician for more urgent medical care.)
I want to reiterate that most antiviral (and antibacterial) herbs in Chinese medicine are cold and bitter, and can easily cause harm to the digestive function if taken alone and over a period of time. This harm to the digestion can cause a build up of fluids we call “Damp” in Chinese medicine, and can be identified through such signs as a swollen tongue with “teethmark” edges. This buildup of fluids is not desirable in the event of contracting COVID-19, as it will contribute to the buildup of fluid in the lungs that is so problematic with this particular virus. Thus, these antiviral herbs are not meant to be used as a preventive by themselves, nor to be taken as individual herbs at onset of infection, but rather are used within a formula that is tailored to the patient's current condition.
That being said, let’s take a look at six herbs being used extensively in China in the treatment of COVID-19. Five of them are directly antiviral, and the sixth supports immune function. I am providing the Chinese name in Pin Yin, followed by the latin name in parentheses. You can also check out the website American Dragon, which is the best online source I have found for accessing detailed descriptions of both single Chinese herbs and Chinese classic herbal formulas.
Please note that one of the most fascinating and powerful aspects of using herbs is that many of them have broad spectrum anti-microbial action. What this means is that they are often antiviral, antibacterial and often antiparasitic, but that certain herbs are stronger in one of those categories than others. While the following herbs are ALL antiviral, they also have significant antibacterial properties that are highly useful in preventing the secondary infections so common in viral illness.
Jin Yin Hua (Fl Lonicera japonica). Jin Yin Hua is usually combined with an herb called Lian Qiao (Fr Forsythiae), both of which contain substantial antiviral activity. The two are used together in a common 10-herb classical formula called Yin Qiao San, used for early stage viral illness with symptoms such as sore throat and headache. (Yin Qiao San is the basis of common OTC remedies such as Cold Snap that may be purchased at many health food stores in the United States.) Jin Yin Hua has broad spectrum inhibitory effect against multiple strains of Staph, Salmonella, Pseudomonas, and Mycobacterium, and has shown significant antiviral activity against the influenza and coxsackie virus. Of 21 herbs tested, Jin Yin Hua showed the highest ability in vitro to inhibit SARS-CoV replication at non toxic doses; many of the other herbs required a high concentration to exhibit the same effect.
Ban Lan Gen / Da Qing Ye (Rx/Fm Isatidis). Ban Lan Gen and Da Qing Ye are the root and leaves respectively of the Isatis plant. These two herbs can be added to formulas either individually or together to dramatically strengthen the antiviral action of the formula. Ban Lan Gen is used in a common 6-herb formula called Gan Mao Ling for early stage colds and flu symptoms that is sold in many health food stores. Very cold and bitter in nature, both Ban Lan Gen and Da Qing Ye are strong antivirals, and also exert anti-inflammatory and antibacterial effects. They have been shown to exert antiviral effect against multiple strains of influenza virus including avian influenza, Japanese encephalitis, herpes simplex, hepatitis B, human cytomegalovirus, and coxsackie virus. Both Ban Lan Gen and Da Qing Ye directly inhibit the enzyme activity of the SARS (SARS-CoV) function.
Yu Xing Cao (Hb Houttuyniae) Yu Xing Cao is an interesting herb in the “Clear Heat Toxins” category in Chinese medicine, which means it has strong antiviral, antibacterial and anti-inflammatory activity. It is used in many formulas that treat infection in the respiratory tract such as bronchitis and pneumonia, as well as infection in the gastrointestinal and urinary tracts such as dysenteric diarrhea and urinary tract infection. It has shown broad spectrum antiviral effect against multiple influenza strains, herpes, and HIV. Yu Xing Cao has shown some of the strongest antiviral activity against the SARS virus, exhibiting significant inhibitory effect (preventing entry in the host cell), and increasing the proliferation of lymphocytes, important white blood cells in our immune function. Since an inhibition of lymphocytes is a key feature of COVID-19, this is an important herb to include in formulas.
Xiang Chun Ye (Fm Toonae Sinensis). This is a relatively obscure herb in the Chinese materia medica, and is not found in many classic herb formulas. Xiang Chun Ye clears inflammation from the lung and helps treat cough; it also clears “Heat Toxins” (inflammation often with exudate and/or pus caused by viruses and bacteria). Xiang Chun Ye contains a compound called TSL-1 that selectively binds to SARS-CoV to inhibit cellular entry of the virus into host cells, thus inhibiting its replication in the body. This herb was found to be the single most effective herb to eliminate COVID-19 (SARS-CoV-2).
Wu Bei Zi (Galla Chinensis) This is a multifaceted herb with the potential to treat COVID-19 on many levels. While cold in nature like most other strong antiviral herbs, Wu Bei Zi does not damage digestion, and can be used to help resolve both chronic cough and chronic diarrhea. It also helps to “consolidate Kidney Jing” in Chinese medicine, which means it can help with the recuperation and recovery stage of illness, when someone is wiped out and exhausted. Wu Bei Zi has shown antiviral activity against Epstein-Barr and HIV, by interfering with the entry of the virus into the host cell. Wu Bei Zi contains two compounds called TGG and Luteolin that have been identified to exhibit prominent anti-SARS viral activity; that is, they bind avidly with the surface spike protein of SARS virus and thus interfere w/ entry of virus to host cells.
Huang Qi (Rx Astragali) Many people are familiar with the very popular Astragalus herb--the root of which has been boiled into teas and steeped into tinctures and wines for many centuries for its celebrated medicinal properties. There is a reason for its popularity: the administration of Huang Qi, which translates into “Yellow Emperor” or “Yellow Leader” indicating its superior class within the realm of herbs, has been shown to strongly strengthen the immune system. Huang Qi has been shown to promote the production of T cells (critical in the activation of the immune system in fighting infection), and activation of B cells (the part of the immune system associated with antibodies and immunological memory).
Huang Qi in Chinese medicine is said to “tonify (strengthen) the Qi (life energy), tonify the Wei Qi and consolidate the exterior (strengthen life force related to immunity or preventing pathogens from entering the body), regulate water circulation and reduce edema, relieve numbness and pain, and promote the discharge of pus and generate flesh”. You can see why this herb could be added to formulas in many stages of the treatment of COVID-19!
Huang Qi is one of three key herbs in the formula Yu Ping Feng San also known as Jade Windscreen, which is sometimes sold at health food stores in the United States. This formula is frequently used in the treatment of mild seasonal allergies, and in the prevention of seasonal allergies. It has also been heavily used combined with other herbs in prevention formulas provided to hospital workers in China both for the current COVID-19 outbreak, as well as SARS back in 2003.
In conclusion, my love of Chinese herbs and appreciation especially for the incredible precision of Chinese herbal medicine began back in the late 1990s when I took a two-year certification course in Chinese herbal medicine under the instruction of a brilliant if highly unconventional teacher up north of Missoula in Montana who happened to also have a PhD in biophysics from MIT. The two year course was a happy combination of learning traditional Chinese herbal principles combined with a connection to modern science that gave me a deep and abiding respect for this medicine. We had to purchase a pound each of the over 150 most common single herbs that we studied in depth (the entire materia medica is composed of well over 1000 herbs) . We boiled up each herb into a tea according to its unique instructions, and learned to make formulas ourselves based on signs (tongue and pulse diagnosis) and symptoms; in doing so we developed an intimate relationship with each plant and its qualities.
The gifts of being able to use Chinese herbal medicine for years in the treatment of myself, my family and my patients ever since have been incalculable. As a direct result of properly applied herbal medicine, no one in my family has had to use antibiotics in the last decade, apart from my daughter getting a septic infection from an ear piercing (she was a chronic finger sucker at the time).
One of my greatest frustrations has been the lack of understanding about the proper use of herbs in the American public. This includes the many times I have seen people unfamiliar with, and thus unwilling to make use of, the tremendous health benefits that herbs can provide. Part of this unwillingness has been fed by the plethora of readily available herbal supplements and products flooding the health industry, with people self-prescribing with little to no understanding of the intricacies of herbal medicine. “Herbal medicine didn’t work for me,” they might say. Of course it didn’t work--it takes many years to understand how to use herbal medicine properly and in a way that will consistently see results. Traditional Chinese herbalists in China are considered doctors of Chinese Medicine, and intern for years in hospitals. They do not practice acupuncture; they focus only on Chinese herbal medicine.
I have had patients come in after multiple rounds of antibiotics and steroids from a bout of pneuomonia or sinus infection, still coughing or congested after weeks and even months--but unwilling to try the Chinese herbal teas that would bring them to wellness within a matter of days to a few weeks. I just shake my head helplessly; how can I help them to understand? I have thought to myself on countless occasions how dramatically we would reduce our heavy dependency on harsh OTC medications or prescriptions if only we were able to regain the wisdom of our herbal science traditions--Ayurvedic and Traditional Chinese being the two by far most developed.
If you took the time to read this series of three articles, I hope 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, so that we can start to treat you for any imbalances in your contitution; 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 herb consults by teleconference that you can schedule Monday through Thursday with either Kate or myself. You can schedule yourself or a family member in either directly through MindBodyOnline if you are a return patient, or send us an email and we will schedule you in: email@example.com.
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.