When news of the coronavirus made it to the States in December 2019, I felt concerned, to be sure, but far from panicked. I live in one of the remotest archipelagos in the world and early reports suggested that it was being closely monitored and contained. Since then, the world as we know it has been turned upside down. Now, COVID-19 isn’t the province of an unfortunate few but a daunting possibility many of us are either directly experiencing or may face.
Shortly after the first COVID-19 cases were announced in my home of Oahu, I closed the doors of my health center and turned to telemedicine. And yet within days, my patients began contacting me not about their usual health conditions, but what one described as the “flu from hell.” One experienced the whole spectrum of symptoms; another passed out—sudden dizziness is a symptom of the virus—and damaged his rib. I went from being on the sidelines of the coronavirus to the thick of it (albeit, mercifully, by phone).
The CDC, US Surgeon General and more remind us that, at this stage, there is no cure, treatment or vaccine for the COVID-19 strain of the coronavirus—a novel viral infection that enters the human body through the eyes, nose or mouth. Once inside the respiratory tract a number of symptoms may manifest, including a fever (your immune system’s counterattack to the invader), a cough (the standard response to having something in your lungs that simply shouldn’t be there), body aches, fatigue, headache and, in some cases, digestive problems. The deeper the infection burrows into your lower respiratory system, including your lungs, the more problematic it can be, leading to difficulty breathing, pneumonia and, as we all know, death.
As experts have stressed, COVID-19 is not an extreme form of the seasonal flu. Though the death rate for COVID-19 is unclear, most research suggests it is higher than that of the seasonal flu, Live Science reports. (The mortality rate of COVID-19 varies with the age of the patient infected with the virus. Older patients, for example, are more likely to have life-threatening symptoms.) Additionally, COVID-19 has a reproduction rate in the human body up to twice as high as the flu…one in five sufferers may require hospitalization…and its incubation period—the amount of time that passes between initial infection and the onset of symptoms—can be as long as 14 days (typically, it’s between one and four days for the flu). As a species, we have lived with influenza viruses for over 100 years, but we have not had previous exposure to this novel COVID-19 virus, so we have no immunity to it. At the time of writing this, there are no proven-effective treatments.
So, while I have not been able to “treat” my COVID-19-positive patients, I have been able to help them mitigate their symptoms and encourage a healthy immune response to help them through the disease. Although none of these strategies can be considered a cure or treatment for COVID-19, here is what I’ve recommended:
While many may be flocking to the shelves for echinacea and elderberry—two natural therapies that have garnered a reputation for their immune-boosting qualities—I’ve advised against both and have instead recommended zinc.
Due to the intricacies of COVID-19 and, in the simplest of terms, one needs to upregulate and downregulate certain parts of their immune system rather than just “bolster” it as a whole.
As my colleague Lise Alschuler, ND, professor of clinical medicine at the University of Arizona College of Medicine, writes in “Integrative Considerations During the COVID-19 Pandemic,” COVID-19’s ability to wreak havoc is due to viral activation of cytoplasmic NLRP3 inflammasome—a multimetric protein complex that initiates an inflammatory form of cell death and triggers the release of proinflammatory cytokines. (In sum, an inflammatory storm.)
COVID-19 may be vulnerable to the inhibitory effects of zinc, which operates as an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory agent. What’s more, zinc works at the mucus membrane—precisely where COVID-19 “gains entry.” Or, as Alschuler reports, “Zinc may prevent coronavirus entry into cells and appears to reduce coronavirus virulence.” I recommended 50-100mg per day to be taken with food.
Similar to zinc, vitamin A works at the mucus membrane and supports healthy mucus membranes. As noted in a study published in the Journal of Clinical Medicine, vitamin A ”is known as an anti-inflammation vitamin because of its critical role in enhancing immune function. Research also shows that a vitamin A deficiency is linked to an increased risk of infectious respiratory diseases. It can be taken for prevention or used during the acute phase of an infection. I suggest taking 10,000 iu per day for prevention for two to three months, and upwards of 25,000 iu per day for acute infections up to three months. Note that high doses of vitamin A for long periods of time—e.g., 100,000 iu per day for three months—can cause toxicity. For pregnant women, doses higher than 10,000 iu per day of vitamin A can harm the unborn fetus.
We tend to think of melatonin as a salve for insomnia but emerging research shows that the sleep aid and naturally-occurring hormone also targets that aforementioned NLRP3 inflammasome. While further research needs to be done to verify its potential on COVID-19, researcher Doris Loh claims that because “the pro-inflammatory cytokine storm effects are induced by the activation of NLRP3 inflammasomes, the ability of melatonin to inhibit NLRP3 inflammasome elevates this powerful molecule to a truly unique position in the fight against COVID-19.”
Alschuler, whose “Considerations” was reviewed by a number of experts, including Andrew Weil, MD, adds to this, saying, “In fact, the age-related decline in melatonin production is one proposed mechanism to explain why children do not appear to have severe symptoms [of COVID-19] and older adults do.”
Additionally, melatonin decreases oxidative lung injury and inflammatory cell recruitment during viral infections, Alschuler says.
I recommended 3 mg to 15 mg to be taken in the evening before bed. Note that in some people, high doses of melatonin can cause unusual dreams or headaches.
In addition to healthy eating practices—a wholesome, organic plan that includes plenty of vegetables, fruits and lean protein—I’ve asked my COVID-19-positive patients to include three particular plants in their daily diets: Ginger, for its warming, anti-inflammatory effects; and garlic, which has antimicrobial and possible antiviral effects. I also encourage my patients to eat cooked and raw onions, which contain sulfur compounds that combat mucus and encourage the discharge of mucus from airways.
My recommendation is to make a ginger-garlic tea consisting of three inches of sliced raw ginger root simmered for 20 minutes in 4 cups of water. Add one to two cloves of thinly sliced garlic, let it steep for five minutes, strain and add a spoonful of honey. Drink a cup every few hours. (Best taken with food in the stomach as garlic may cause nausea in some people.)
Hydrotherapy—formally known as hydropathy—is a timeworn technique that’s long been used by naturopathic physicians for a variety of symptoms. Alternating the use of hot (as in very hot) water, cold water and steam, the method has been shown to increase oxygen consumption. In addition, due to the increased activity of lymph movement, leukocytes (or white blood cells, which fight infection) and natural killer cells, hydrotherapy is thought to have immune-enhancing effects.
Another reason to do hydrotherapy is for fever inducement. This means supporting your body in having a temperature (of 102 degrees or less). This may be controversial but I argue that fevers—up to a certain degree—are a good thing, as they operate as part of your body’s natural defense system to, quite literally, burn away invaders and may accelerate recovery.
An easy home treatment to help support your immune system to fight an infection, or to induce a “healthy” fever, is to get into a hot bath tub, soak for 10 minutes and then take a very cold shower for 20 seconds. (If you don’t have a tub, just do a hot shower, with the water pouring down your spine for one minute at least and then switch to cold—as cold as your shower can get—and have the stream run down your back for 10 seconds.) Get out of the shower—if there’s a chance you’ll feel dizzy please have a loved one nearby to support you—and then wrap up in a sheet and wool blanket and get into bed. It’s a good idea to put on wool socks and a hat too. Most people will experience sweating once wrapped up in the blanket.
In the tub or hot-water shower, the hot water increases blood flow to the periphery of the body (vasodilation), causing an increase in body temperature. The cold-water shower pushes the blood into the interior of the body (vasoconstriction). Wrapping up in the wool blanket then allows for passive vasodilation again. Hydrotherapy can help your immune system by creating a “vascular pump,” increasing circulation of oxygen, blood and lymph.
Tapotement, a technique used in massage (include Swedish massage), is used in Traditional Chinese Medicine to loosen up mucus in the lungs. Involving a series of rhythmic, “percussion” strokes, it’s believed to increase blood circulation and improve respiration. (See this video for an instruction.) It’s ideal to first have a loved one apply peppermint or eucalyptus oil to your back, then do tapotement gently with their hands for five to 10 minutes. This is great to do after steaming (see below)!
To these strategies I added high doses of vitamin C. While Harvard Health notes that there is no evidence showing that Vitamin C can help prevent COVID-19, they point that a study is underway in China to determine if high doses of intravenous vitamin C is useful for severe cases of COVID-19 (results are expected this fall). In the meantime, I’m going by the Linus Pauling Institute’s validation of this key antioxidant. They are just one reputable source to show that vitamin C has the ability to stimulate the production and function of white blood cells, including neutrophils, which attack foreign bacteria and viruses. I suggested 1,000 mg to 2,000 mg, three times per day. Note that excessive vitamin C can cause diarrhea.
Chinese Camphor Oil and Steaming
Many of us may recall our grandmothers’ remedies for the common cold or the flu—rubbing camphor oil on our chests before bed and steaming with eucalyptus. I advocated for the same with my COVID-19 patients, hopeful that both would prompt relief from their symptoms. Why? Camphor, which can be found in Vicks VapoRub, is FDA-approved as a chest rub to alleviate coughing, while respiratory conditions, such as asthma, can be relieved by inhaling steam with eucalyptus, in that it loosens mucus that one can then cough up.
To steam, put one to two drops of eucalyptus or peppermint oil into a bowl then pour in four cups of boiling water, let the first waft of steam escape then place a towel over your head, close your eyes, and inhale the steam up into your sinuses and lungs. The water shouldn’t be so hot that it can burn your mucous membranes. Steam for five minutes a few times a day for congested sinuses and lungs.
In addition to a thermometer, it would be good to have a pulse oximeter at home. According to the CDC, “Most people with COVID-19 have mild illnesses and are able to recover at home without medical care.” Combined with this is the fact that numerous medical facilities are overwhelmed by the outbreak and may increase your risk of exposure. But when should you go to the hospital? When emergency warning signs emerge, including (but not limited to) “trouble breathing, persistent pain or pressure in the chest, new confusion or inability to arouse, and bluish lips or face,” the CDC also says.
For one patient—who wasn’t ill enough to go to the hospital but was also wracked with symptoms—I recommended getting a pulse oximeter to measure his oxygen saturation levels. (As Healthline frames it, a pulse oximeter “can rapidly detect even small changes in how efficiently oxygen is being carried to the extremities furthest from the heart.”) This not only gave him a sense of control but also allowed him to keep a careful eye on his symptoms.
Have I cured any of my patients of COVID-19? No—and I must reiterate here that our understanding of this novel virus changes daily, and at present, there are only theoretical preventative and treatment methods for it. This article from Consumerlab.com offers a good overview on how various natural substances might support a person through a viral infection.
What I do know is that these strategies have helped my patients feel better—and that my staying in close contact with each of them gave them the assurance they need to bravely manage their cases. As I write this, my first COVID-19-positive case is already in recovery. He said he has gone through “hell and back,” but is no longer in the acute phase of the illness. His temperature has returned to normal but he feels wiped out. He understands that he needs to continue to nurture his body with good food and rest in this last phase of healing.
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