• Barbara Johnson, MD

Coronavirus: Staying Safe with a Natural Approach



Let me state this up front: there is no evidence that any natural medicines will cure the coronavirus. This is a new virus with few complete studies, and there is no research showing that herbs or supplements will prevent or cure this infection.

What we do know is that patients with a normal immune system can recover from the coronavirus in as little as three days after the immune system starts fighting the virus. We also know that if you are infected, your risk of complications are increased by any defect in your immune system, whether from cancer, obesity, diabetes, lung disease, kidney disease, chronic infection or any other serious illness. So achieving and maintaining a healthy immune system is absolutely key to avoiding coronavirus complications.

In addition, some herbal antivirals have helped prevent or reduced the impact of other upper respiratory viruses and retroviruses. These might have a similar effect with the coronavirus, so you might consider adopting some of the strategies described below. Worst case, you’ll be better prepared to prevent or recover more quickly from colds and other viruses; best case, you’ll improve your chances of avoiding the coronavirus altogether, or of quickly recovering from the coronavirus should you become infected.

Conceptually, the best way to combat this virus is with prevention and then support of the immune system. As I’ll describe below, this is best done with life-style factors, natural herbs and other supplements. I’ll start with life-style factors first and my next post in a couple of days will outline supplements and herbs that support your immune system.


Prevention First

Let’s start by getting specific with nomenclature. In February 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) designated this new coronavirus as severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2, or SARS-CoV-2. SARS-CoV -2 is responsible for coronavirus disease 2019 - termed COVID-19.

By whatever name, the best defense is prevention. You already know about social distancing and avoiding crowds. SARS-CoV-2 spreads primarily through respiratory droplets from breathing or coughing that enter your system via your nose, mouth, or eyes.

Some reports state that the virus can survive on plastics and metals for up to 72 hours, a concern for those pushing shopping carts at the supermarket, and why it’s essential to wash your hands after going out in public. Also be sure to wash your hands for 20 seconds with soap and water every evening before going to bed, as a recent sleep study showed that, on average, people touch their face 20 times a night.

Lifestyle Factors for Prevention

Diet and Nutrition. Now that most of us are working from home, it might be easier to cook and concentrate on eating nutrient dense and healthy foods. Processed foods contain damaging seed oils (vegetable oil, canola oil, sunflower seed oil, peanut oil, etc.), as well as preservatives, pesticides, herbicides, and other chemicals, and are usually high in sodium and sugars. These ingredients damage your microbiome which increases oxidative stress and challenges your immune system. It is hard to maintain a robust immune system when it is constantly being challenged.

Create a meal plan that’s primarily plant-based and high in vegetables, with some protein, and incorporate lots of fresh herbs, particularly cilantro, rosemary, thyme, and parsley, Avoid refined carbohydrates, sugars and grains. Most fruit is high in sugar so favor berries over other fruits.

As always, organic is best, though pasture-raised meat and eggs can be expensive. Before shopping for fruits and vegetables, check out the Dirty Dozen and Clean 15 lists recently updated for 2020 by the Environmental Working Group. The Dirty Dozen lists non-organic fruits and vegetables with the highest pesticide content, while the Clean 15 lists non-organic produce with the least pesticides. While organic is always preferred, you should prioritize buying organic versions of the Dirty Dozen over the Clean 15.

Exercise. Along with diet, exercise is also critical. Make sure that you are combining resistance training with aerobic and high intensity interval training. Since gyms and studios are closed, find a work-out that you like on YouTube or engage in outdoor activities and exercise. COVID-19 affects many organ systems but primarily the lungs so keeping your lungs healthy is very important. Aerobic activity may improve pulmonary health and possibly decrease your chances of needing significant medical intervention if you do contract the virus.

If you would like any tips for exercise or diet including recipes, please reach out to Kelsey Donley our health coach and sports medicine specialist.

Sleep. One of the most important lifestyle factors for disease prevention is getting 7-8 hours of deep restful sleep per night. Sleep is when your immune system regenerates as well as your brain. If you sleep less than six hours per night you struggle to make antibodies and natural killer cells. Studies show that natural killer cells are reduced by 72% with less than 6 hours of sleep and your natural killer cells are necessary to control viral infections.

Studies looking at melatonin and SARS-CoV2 are intriguing but not conclusive. Some researchers believe that it is the naturally high levels of melatonin in children and pregnant women that protect them from COVID-19. While no studies have shown that taking melatonin reduces the inflammatory response to prevent COVID-19, if you have trouble sleeping, I recommend 3 mg of professional grade melatonin (I will provide more information about supplements in my next post). Be careful with supplementing with melatonin as many supplements have impurities and less than the stated amounts of melatonin.

Of course, to promote good sleep you should also:

  • Stop eating at least three hours before bed.

  • Think about winding down about an hour before bedtime. Do not turn on the news which will raise your cortisol. Take a hot bath, read a book, relax and mediate.

  • Dim the lights in your home about 2 hours before bed and wear blue blocking glasses. Blue from computers and TV will disrupt melatonin production.

  • Keep your sleep environment clean, cool and dark.

Stress Reduction. COVD-19 is creating immense stress for everyone as an unfamiliar threat that is dramatically upsetting our daily habits, social interactions, and economic security. The empty grocery store shelves and grocery store runs are a sign of our concerns and heightened sense of worry. Unfortunately, this stress can lead to sleepless nights as well as gut issues, depression, anxiety, weight gain and lowered immunity. It’s natural to feel stress during times like this and beneficial to admit how you feel, but you should work on techniques to lower your stress and if necessary, consider cortisol reducing supplements.

One way to limit your stress is to limit the input of COVID-19 related news. Unfortunately, though news from China and South Korea is improving, all news from the US is likely to be negative for at least the next 2-4 weeks. Setting limits on these news inputs will decrease stress, increase productivity, and improve your chances of eating and sleeping well.

Other stress reduction techniques include meditation and mindfulness, deep breathing, and getting out in nature. Being present in the moment is very important. Thinking about the future and what could possibly happen increases stress while thinking about the past can cause depression. It’s best to try to engage in the ‘now’. One great book that many have gotten comfort from is the Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle.

Supplements to decrease stress include Ashwagandha and phosphatidylserine. I love both as they work via different pathways and have little to no side effects. I prefer taking 500mg of Ashwagandha in the day and Phosphatidylserine in the evening as this can help calm down an overactive brain at night. More about supplements and where to source them in my next post.

Indoor Air and Increasing Humidity. There is some hope and speculation that with warmer weather there may be a decline in the number of SARS CoV-2 cases. This is based on how other viruses dissipate in the spring and summer. In my opinion, increased temperature and humidity will not be a cure like with the flu but we may see a decline in cases.

We do know that humidity plays a key role in viral infections. Many human and animal studies show that optimal lung humidity of around 50% may protect against viral infection. If you wake with dry throat in the morning, or otherwise feel that your indoor air is dry, you may want to invest in a humidifier and maintain humidity at around 50-60%. Opening up your windows once the weather warms is also good practice.


Going Forward

In my next blog post, I’ll spend more time discussing the supplements that will help improve your immune system and may help prevent or reduce the severity of a COVID-19 infection.

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