Thoughts on COVID-19
Last updated: 9:44 pm, March 18, 2020
We were already living through a frightening time before the COVID-19 pandemic hit: a time of melting glaciers and burning forests, a time when more and more wealth is concentrated in the hands of a few while daily survival is becoming a greater and greater struggle, a time when governments and corporations are gathering a staggering amount of information about each of us while withholding alarming amounts of information about the risks we face, a time when goods and capital move across borders at lightning speed while people crossing borders in a struggle to survive face horrendous persecution.
The ancient Greek word “apocalypse” means “revelation.” In that sense, the pandemic we face is truly an apocalyptic event – one that reveals what has been hidden: In a time when the boundaries of our remaining wildernesses are being breached, a virus spreads from wild animals being sold in rural marketplaces into the bodies of people living under an authoritarian regime whose resistance to illness has been worn down by the constant stress of survival. The origin is a microcosmic version of what comes next, as global markets facilitate the spread of the disease across the world from one vulnerable population to the next. Its spread is detected early, but public health agencies in the US withhold information about the scale of the threat in order to avoid derailing the economy and the President’s chances of re-election. It is a disease that settles into the lungs, the organ associated with grief in the traditional medicine of the country the virus originated in, at a time when, consciously or not, we are all feeling the grief of a world in peril. And it is a febrile disease emerging at a time when the planet’s own systems of thermoregulation are breaking down.
Just as we are a society full of people whose immune responses are compromised by stress, we in the US are living in a country where our health care system has been stretched beyond its limits and may begin to break down further under the stress of a pandemic. We desperately need to transform and rebuild that system. That matters for the next pandemic to come. We are out of time to rebuild the health care system for this pandemic.
I deeply believe that this pandemic provides us with the opportunity to find the collective medicine to address the underlying crises that gave rise to it. And, first, we need to live through it.
As an herbalist, I have some ideas about what you can do to try to keep from getting sick with COVID-19 and what I would do if someone I loved contracted the virus. An important caveat: I have not yet worked with someone who has COVID-19. However, I have spent time reading case reports from China and news reports about cases in the US and Europe, so I have some idea of how the illness is likely to present. And, as an herbalist, I work not to try to treat or cure a disease, but to support the body in its efforts to deal with an illness, so I can make some educated guesses about what might work well.
There are some great resources out there describing herbal protocols being used in China, and my friend Stephen Buhner has put out some well thought out ideas about specific herbs for this virus based on research about herbs and other coronaviruses. However, at this point, when even basic commodities are hard to come by in many places in the US, I have the sense that a lot of people might have a hard time getting those herbs. I am going to do my best to emphasize herbs that are relatively easy to come by. I will also do my best to keep updating this document as I learn either through direct experience or through conversations with other herbalists I trust that is rooted in their own experience.
PREVENTIONMost of what I have to say about preventing yourself from contracting COVID-19 you have heard many, many times before.
All of it bears repeating:
• Caution means slowing down, paying attention to everything you do, and making choices based on realistic assessment of the risks you face. If you are cautious, when you begin to get scared or overwhelmed, you can remind yourself that you are taking care of yourself and doing the best you can.
• Wash your hands slowly and mindfully. Let it be the ritual that it is. Let yourself feel the hot water on your hands, and let that feeling bring you more fully into your body.
Many people are recommending washing your hands for the time it takes to sing the “Happy Birthday” song twice. I like to actually sing the song, inserting the name of something I want to see come into the world. (“Happy birthday clean rivers, happy birthday to you.”)
Another great option going around in a meme is to recite the litany against fear from Frank Herber’s Dune while you wash your hands. It is just the right length and it is also a great way to bring yourself out of fear (which generates stress which dysregulates your immune response) and into focused presence:
“I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past,
I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain.”
• People around the world have always burned aromatic plants, hung them from the rafters, bathed in them, brewed them into teas, and eaten them in abundance to ward off both spiritual and physical contagions and come into calm presence. I highly recommend that you do the same.
• Nourish yourselves and each other with soups and broths, especially bone broths and mushroom soups with lots of warming spices.
• “Social distancing” is necessary to stop the spread of the disease and self-quarantine is a wise measure for people who are at high risk from the virus due to age or chronic illness. Rather than approaching these practices as ways of severing connection, take the opportunity they provide to weave other kinds of connection:
• Go outside every day to visit a tree near your home and appreciate its beauty.
• Greet the sun and the moon each day.
• Put out food offerings for your ancestors and the spirits of the land.
• Sing to any people, animals, or plants you live with.
• Call people you love and read stories to each other over the phone.
IF YOU GET SICKLet me say again that these suggestions are speculative ones, based on what I have read about how this illness most commonly presents and what I have seen help people experiencing similar symptoms from other diseases.
In many cases, no matter what herbs people have on hand, they will need medical care. It is especially important to seek immediate help if you or someone you are caring for is experiencing shortness of breath or showing a bluish tinge to their lips or skin.
With that said, let’s look at the most commonly reported symptoms and possible strategies for mitigating them:
In the days before exhibiting respiratory symptoms, many people who later tested positive for COVID-19 experienced nausea or diarrhea.
Easing these symptoms will not prevent the disease from progressing, but may help the person be in a stronger position to fight it off.
Small sips of Ginger or Peppermint tea and small amounts of Cannabis can help reduce nausea.
Diarrhea can be checked with astringents. Raspberry and Blackberry leaves are great for this purpose, Blackberry root is even better – and if you live in a place where invasive Himalayan Blackberry grows, digging up the roots is a great thing to do from an ecological perspective too. Cinnamon in hot water may help if you don’t have another astringent herb available. Keep the person hydrated and give them electrolytes.
Don’t Fear the Fever
Fever is an immune response that makes our body inhospitable to an invading virus.
Contrary to popular belief, fevers from infection don’t rise to the level necessary to cause neurological damage – 108 degrees Fahrenheit. Some children do experience seizures during fevers, but there is no known link between febrile seizures and neurological problems and no known link between febrile seizures and other kinds of seizures.
This does not mean you shouldn’t be concerned about someone spiking a high fever – the fever is an indication that they are acutely ill. It just means that the temperature of the fever is not, in and of itself, an indication of how sick that person is. Pay attention to their overall condition, not just to the number on the thermometer.
Suppressing the fever response can slow healing, so generally speaking, we want to support the fever. Herbs that support the fever response are called diaphoretics, and they fall into two categories: stimulating diaphoretics and relaxing diaphoretics.
Stimulating diaphoretics are warming herbs that help the body generate the heat necessary to build and sustain the fever.
Ginger is a great stimulating diaphoretic. Most of our common kitchen herbs are warming diaphoretics, too: Basil, Oregano, Marjoram, Thyme. Little sips of tea do the job nicely. Honey can make some of the savory kitchen herbs more palatable as teas.
Stimulating diaphoretics are indicated:
• When a person is experiencing chills before the onset of a fever. The chills that precede a fever are an indication that the hypothalamus is trying to elevate the body temperature to drive out the virus – as a result a “normal” body temperature feels cold. Wrap the person up in blankets and give them a nice, hot tea made from a warming herb.
• When a sick person is fatigued and listless.
Relaxing diaphoretics are herbs that relax tension to allow the body to open the pores and ventilate itself. The flowers of the Elder and Linden trees are wonderful relaxing diaphoretics. Lemonbalm is a very nice one as well. Chamomile and Catnip are relaxing diaphoretics that also warm the body.
Relaxing diaphoretics are indicated:
• When a person is running a fever but is not sweating.
• When a sick person is tense and irritable.
Bed rest is important for a person with a fever – ideally you should count the number of days between the onset of the fever and the point when the fever breaks and stay in bed for at least that many days after the fever has passed. Of course, I know this will not be an option for many of you.
Hydration is important, especially if you are sweating a lot. Keep replenishing your electrolytes, too.
Hot baths and saunas are excellent if they are available to you, just remember that you may not realize how much you are sweating in the bathtub, so drink more water than you think you need to. An old sock and some dried herbs can turn your tub into a giant tea cup you can soak in – relaxing diaphoretics are especially nice for this purpose.
I tend to fast from the time my body gets the pre-fever chills until it breaks, but then I am of a sturdy constitution. If you do need nourishment during your fever, simple, clear broths are best.
COVID-19 is primarily a respiratory virus.
Many of the same remedies you will be giving to aid the fever will be relevant in addressing some of the respiratory symptoms -- particularly Elder flower and Linden which soothe the airways, and Ginger which warms and opens the lungs.
Especially in the earlier stages of the illness, many people report a dry cough and tightness in the chest. Marshmallow root infused in cold water is wonderful for soothing a dry respiratory tract. The leaves of Mullein, one of the first plants to grow after a wildfires, given as a tea or a tincture, moisten dried tissues in the respiratory tract and in the fascia associated with the muscles around the lungs, easing dry coughs and opening the chest.
Thomas Easley suggests a commonly available remedy for dry coughs which I have not yet tried: a decoction of 6-12 grams of Almonds. Read more in his excellent piece at: https://www.eclecticschoolofherbalmedicine.com/covid-19/
Less commonly available, but indispensable in my work, Lobelia relaxes tension in the respiratory tract and throughout the body, opening airways. Many health food stores do stock the tincture in their smoking cessation section. Most people will respond well to a low dose – 1-5 drops – of Lobelia tincture which can be given as frequently as needed. Move up to 10-15 drops for more pronounced tension in the chest. Lobelia also has a deeply calming effect on the nervous system and is a relaxing diaphoretic. Its stimulation of the acrid taste receptor does create an odd feeling in the back of the throat that it is good to warn first time users about. It can induce queasiness in some people, though usually not at low doses. At high doses it can be used to induce vomiting, but even at those doses it is entirely safe.
As the disease progresses, it is marked by thick, sticky mucus which people have great difficulty coughing up. Grindelia (Gumweed) and Hoarhound are specifically indicated for breaking up this kind of mucus. Both plants contain diterpenes, the sticky molecules that hold together resins. My own suspicion is that other diterpene-rich medicines, such as Spruce and Pine resins might also be very helpful here, but that is pure speculation. (The needles of these trees make nice teas as well that would be worth trying.) While the sugar in them makes them far less than ideal, many Hoarhound cough drops contain enough of the herb to be helpful in a pinch. Grindelia is best given as a tincture - 5 drops every few hours as an expectorant, 5 drops every 15 minutes during acute coughing fits in this stage.
Onion and Garlic are also both specific for this kind of mucus. Garlic should be chopped up and exposed to the air for 10 minutes, and then given liberally, either raw or cooked. Onions can be chopped up and steamed or sauteed mixed with the flour of your choice and warm water to form a paste to rub on the chest. Kiva Rose Hardin has a beautiful guide to Onion medicine -- https://enchantersgreen.com/onion
Steam inhalations are another great way of opening airways. Put aromatic herbs in a stock pot in water, heat it to the point where steam is rising, and make a tent with a towel over your head and the pot and breathe in the steam. Thyme is likely to be especially effective but also a bit harsh. Here in New England, I am recommending using Pine and Spruce needles. John Slattery in Arizona who is reporting on concerns about a variety of the virus that may be attacking the upper respiratory tract is recommending Creosote Bush leaf steams for those in the desert.
Be in touch with your health care providers throughout the process of navigating this illness. If you or someone you love experience shortness of breath, get to a hospital immediately.
WHAT NOT TO DOSeveral popular approaches are unlikely to help treat COVID-19 and may be harmful:
• Colloidal Silver does not kill viruses. It may kill some bacteria, but only topically.
• Most essential oils are far too concentrated to be safely used internally.
• Ibuprofen, acetaminophen, aspirin and other anti-inflammatory drugs can suppress the body’s healing response, aggravating the disease.
• Goldenseal is great when there is too much thin mucus, when there are topical bacterial infections, and possibly at high doses to make antibiotics more effective by shutting down one form of antibiotic resistance. It is not helpful in the early stages of this illness. However, a Chinese medicine practitioner who I trust greatly has told me that doctors in China are using medicines with similar constituent and energetic profiles to Goldenseal (such as Coptis and Oregon Grape) in more progressed cases of the illness where people have gut dysbiosis and a greasy yellow coating on the tongue. I would not recommend trying to manage this stage of the illness without guidance from an experienced practitioner.
DO YOU WANT TO LEARN MORE? The Matthew Wood Institute of Herbalism (where I am on the faculty) has some great free resources available at https://www.matthewwoodinstituteofherbalism.com
DO YOU NEED TO TALK WITH AN HERBALIST? I have always had an unspoken policy of never turning away someone for an herbal consultation because they could not pay the rate I was asking. In these times, I want to make that explicit. As long as we are dealing with this pandemic, I am willing to have people pay whatever they can afford to pay for a phone consultation with me. In the part of Western Maine where I live, the internet bandwidth is too small to support Zoom or Skype calls and my phone plan only allows me to call people in the US, but I am willing to work with people anywhere if they can call me. I am not able to supply herbs to people, but the herbal dispensary I send my clients to for custom formulae remains open and able to ship herbs right now. As much as possible, I will try to help you work with herbs that you have on hand or can easily access. E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org