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Q: What can I do to reduce my risk of getting ill with COVID, or any other viral infection for that matter?
A: The best approach to health, always, is to avoid getting sick. In case that sounds sassy, what I mean is that health is a force that requires tending. Don’t take it for granted! If you read my column you know I stress eating good food, practicing good sleep and hygiene habits, drinking water, getting exercise—the basics. Your body/mind/spirit require tender loving care and a good deal of maintenance. Invest in your self-care, and make good choices, as often as possible.
We do know that COVID-19 usually causes mild symptoms unless you have underlying health weaknesses. The more “co-morbidities,” the more vulnerable you are. Many of these health-slaying conditions are preventable (clogged arteries, chronic bronchial infections, diabetes). Making more informed choices now can help restore, and preserve, your precious health.
For one thing, make sure you’re getting adequate sleep, which can increase your resistance to all infections. Less than seven hours of sleep a night over time will inhibit your production of natural killer (NK) cells—potent white blood cells that fight disease. Sleep also allows melatonin to be released into the body, which supports immune function and helps control inflammation in viral infections via its antioxidant properties.
And wear a mask when you go out in public. Why should we still be wearing masks when in crowded spaces? Because of asymptomatic spreading of COVID-19 and many other viral illnesses. Seriously ill people are likely contagious for at least 10 days after symptoms appear. Even people with mild cases can be contagious for several days.
Viruses 101: They Don’t Like Heat
Viruses are tiny, as you know, and do their dirty work inside cells. As opposed to bacteria, which are much larger and infect the space outside our cells, viruses penetrate into our cells, co-opting replication machinery and multiplying like crazy. This stealth destruction can make us feel achy all over, as though we were hit by a proverbial bus.
Luckily, our bodies have a built-in natural antiviral mechanism. It’s called fever. In general a mild fever for a few days is the perfect solution for burning out a virus. I’ve often heard health professionals suggest Tylenol for fevers. I advise against that. Try to avoid suppressing a fever other than in a baby or frail elder, or if the fever lasts for more than 48 hours or goes over 104°F.
Instead, push the fever. This is your body trying to kill the virus. Heat stimulates the metabolism, increasing enzyme productivity and enhancing bone marrow release of new white blood cells. A fever means that your immune system is working to slay the virus.
To put it plainly, viruses dislike heat. In addition to frequently washing your hands and keeping your fingers away from the “danger triangle” of eyes, nose, and mouth, one of the best ways to ward off illness if you’re concerned about viral exposure is to sweat. Get in a sauna, bundle up and go for a brisk walk, or take a hot bath then cuddle up in bed with a heavy blanket.
Related: Top 7 Antiviral Foods
DIY Herbal Hacks
Studies of COVID-19 have given us some useful information about preventing and containing viral outbreaks. Suppose, for instance, we could kill the virus in the nose and throat before it became established? Maybe we can. Consider making an antiviral nose and throat spray using well-established herbs that have antiviral activity: astragalus, licorice, elderberry, and eupatorium. Mixing one or a few of these tinctures with a saline or xylitol spray (such as Xlear) is a convenient way to help keep viruses from becoming established in your body. Or you could enjoy steam inhalation with antimicrobial essential oils such as thyme, oregano, or eucalyptus.
Garlic is renowned for its antiviral properties. Because it’s pretty bitter raw, you can bake peeled garlic with a bunch of other robust roasting veggies, or pop cloves in the microwave for a few minutes, then peel and enjoy. Cooked garlic can be dipped in a bit of honey for children.
What More Can You Do?
Given the lack of proven therapies for many viral illnesses, including COVID-19, lifestyle and nutritional considerations are especially vital. Getting outdoors, for example, is very helpful for a healthy immune response, in part because sun exposure promotes vitamin D3 synthesis, another innate immune enhancer. It is well documented that patients exposed to direct sunlight and plenty of fresh air during the 1918 influenza pandemic had much lower rates of infection and less severity of infection.
Fruits and vegetables are naturally high in fiber and bioflavonoids. Fiber and fermented foods enhance the gut microbiome and improve its overall ability to fight viruses. Flavonoids (natural pigments found in brightly colored produce) help reduce inflammation and inhibit the viral enzyme 3CL protease, which slows viral replication.
Vitamin C is also a potent virus-fighter that works by helping increase NK cell production, decreasing inflammatory fallout from viral infections, and reducing penetration of inflammatory proteins into lung cells by nearly threefold. In fact, recent Chinese research details shortened hospital stays and zero mortality among hospitalized COVID-19 patients who received intravenous vitamin C. No adverse reactions were reported.
Other natural antivirals include:
Propolis is a substance produced by honeybees to seal gaps in their hives. Along with its high flavonoid content, propolis helps viral clearance by increasing apoptosis (death of cells that are sick).
Astragalus reduces inflammation, is a proven antiviral, and inhibits production of inflammatory cytokines.
Berberine, the active constituent in goldenseal, has antiviral and antibacterial properties.
Elderberry has been shown to reduce the severity and duration of colds and flu by blocking both viral uptake and the ability of viruses to infect host cells. (It has not been studied in relation to COVID-19.)
Vitamin A, up to 25,000 IUs daily, is a potent immune booster. Woman who are pregnant or could become pregnant should use with caution.
Zinc has been shown in preliminary studies to potentially reduce COVID severity. Use 5–50 mg daily.
Find a licensed naturopathic doctor for a virtual (telemedicine) or in-person consultation at Institute for Natural Medicine