The original natural antiviral drugs were herbs. They have a long history in folk medicine and remain a hot topic of research today. Do they work? Absolutely.
Understanding Antiviral Drugs
Oh, man…this can be overwhelming. Narrowing down the focus will be super helpful here. Knowing a little about what it takes to fight a viral infection is a good starting point.
Viruses Are Tough Little Buggers
As of 2018, the most well-accepted classification of viruses put their number at nearly 5,000 species. All organisms on Earth host viral infections of one sort or another.
Although viruses vary based on many features, they all share one key trait:
That’s just a fancy way of saying that viruses require a living host.
Whether viruses are actually living organisms themselves is a disputed point among biologists. The simplicity of viruses puts them as as close to the edge of “life” as they can be. They are just a collection of genes – made up either of DNA or RNA – surrounded by a protein coat. Some types also have an outermost lipid (fatty) layer that makes them susceptible to alcohol-based disinfectants.
Note that the entire coronavirus family is comprised of viruses with lipid coats. That’s why alcohol-based sanitizers are so effective against them.
What Makes Them So Tough?
The only “purpose” in life for a virus is to induce its host to make more of the virus.
What makes viruses so tough to “kill” is their lack of easy internal targets. They don’t have all the moving parts that bacteria have, for example.
That’s why the usual mechanisms of antibiotics don’t work against viruses.
Instead, antiviral drugs often disrupt viral replication by inhibiting their DNA or RNA synthesis directly. Although this is a very effective strategy for stopping viral reproduction, it is a bit dicey for any host that also depends on DNA or RNA.
Oops…that includes all life. You, me, everybody.
One of the outcomes from inhibiting DNA or RNA synthesis is slowing down the formation of new immune cells. In other words, antivirals target some of the most important cells we need for resisting infection in the first place.
This is just one of the many negative effects from antiviral drugs.
With all that said, what does Mother Nature have for you for preventing or treating viral infections?
Ah, now we are getting somewhere.
Plant Kingdom to the Rescue
As a plant chemist, I can say unequivocally that ALL plants product antiviral substances. They have to. They are stationary sitting ducks for every virus that comes along. As a result, plants have evolved tens of thousands of natural products that inhibit viral replication directly.
Scientists have been exploring and documenting plant antivirals since the 19th century. The focus has often been on how plants defend themselves. One of the more practical goals of such research is the hunt for ways to boost resistance in crop plants.
For our benefit, though, another focus has been searching for antivirals that inhibit animal viruses. And there are plenty.
The foundation for this research is folk medicine. Science has a long list of herbs that have been used to combat viral infections since way before anyone even knew about viruses.
Every culture throughout human history has a set of antiviral herbs.
Some of these herbs are now at the forefront of developing natural antiviral drugs worldwide. This just means that antiviral herbs are either wild-harvested or cultivated for manufacturing herbal supplements.
Such developments make life a bit easier for folks in developed countries who don’t have the time or resources to grow their own herbs. Good thing that many antiviral herb supplements are already available at any local or online nutrition store.
There are still too many to know about, though. And good luck walking into a nutrition store asking for advice about antiviral herbs. (PERSONAL ADMISSION: I used to do that and report back the answers I got to my class in medical botany. Sometimes the advice was spot on. Other times it was so bad as to be hilarious.)
Stocking Your Antiviral Pantry
If you are fortunate to have access to a natural healer – naturopathic doctor, herbologist, shaman, etc. – start there. They are generally really good at being a sounding board, really listening to your health concerns. They may already have a list of recommended antiviral herbs on hand.
If you are super lucky, you may even have a “healing” school nearby. In my neighborhood here in central Arizona we have the Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine. SCNM has an excellent natural products formulary. It is a wonderful resource for all things herbal.
Naturopathic schools are rare in the U.S. – only three west of the Rockies. The other two are in Portland and Seattle. However, many other similar kinds of schools dot the landscape. You might have to hunt for one in your area. It’s worth it.
Besides visiting a natural health practitioner, you can also keep your own selection at home of the most common herbs known to provide excellent antiviral activities, based on plenty of research.
I’ve selected several of the easier to find ones here.
- ELDERBERRY (Sambucus nigra). The common black elderberry contains ingredients that bind to the tiny spikes of coronaviruses that are used for piercing and invading the host’s cells. It is best used as a syrup.
- GARLIC (Allium sativum). This well-known herb is a triple threat – i.e., antiviral, antibacterial, and antifungal. The good news is, if you love garlic, it works best when chewed raw. Supplements of garlic extracts are also available, although several of garlic’s active ingredients break down upon extraction.
- GREEN TEA (Camellia sinensis). Maybe I should have led with this one, since the active ingredients are flavonoids – my specialty in plant chemistry. These flavonoids, classified as catechins (e.g., EGCG), block enzymes that enable viral replication. As tasty as a cup of green tea might be, supplements with standardized amounts of catechins are probably a better choice.
- LICORICE ROOT (Glycyrrhiza glabra). Licorice produces a substance called glycyrrhizin, which inhibits viral replication. Heads up on licorice supplements, though. Glycyrrhizin may deplete potassium levels, potentially leading to higher blood pressure. Many licorice supplements are labeled ‘DGL’ or deglycyrrinated licorice because this substance has been removed from its extracts. Such preparations are not useful as antivirals.
- OLIVE LEAF (Olea europea). Leaves of the ordinary olive tree are a darling among herbalists for their many health benefits. Ingredients in these leaves inhibit enzymes involved in viral replication, similar to what green tea does. Leaf powders and extracts of olive leaves are widely available.
- PAU D’ARCO (Tabebuia impetiginosa). The inner bark of this herb contains quinoids that can damage the DNA and RNA of viruses before they can insert themselves into healthy human cells.
- ST JOHN’S WORT (Hypericum perforatum). This herb is better known as a treatment for mild depression. However, it also produces two substances that act by “de-cloaking” viruses. Viruses can masquerade as human cells. The activity of St. John’s Wort nixes the mechanism that viruses have for escaping recognition by our immune system.
- OREGANO (Origanum vulgare). The mint family in general is loaded with antiviral herbs. Oregano is at the top of the list. Oil of oregano is especially effective against respiratory viruses. WARNING: This is pretty hot stuff, so watch out for the burn when you put a few drops on your tongue.
Variety is the Key
Selecting from among these herbs gives you a variety of mechanisms of action against viruses. Since viruses evolve so fast, this is a key to maintaining broad effects against them no matter how quickly or how much they change.
Living in the Southwestern U.S.?
We have an extraordinary antiviral plant in this part of the world – the creosote bush, (Larrea tridentata).
This species is the most common shrub in three adjacent deserts – the Mojave (mostly southeastern California), the Sonoran (southern half of Arizona), and the Chihuahuan (New Mexico and west Texas). Its range extends southward, far into Mexico, from Arizona, New Mexico and west Texas.
Occasionally supplement stores will carry leaf powder of L. tridentata, under the misleading name, “chaparral” or “chaparral tea.” Leaf powders, however, have very low amounts of the active antiviral ingredients. These ingredients occur in the external leaf resin (“creosote”).
The properties of Larrea tridentata resin compounds form the basis for two antiviral patents. One is for HIV and the other, for which I am a co-holder, is for the entire family of the nine known human herpes viruses.
Larrea tridentata must be doing something right. Clones in the Mojave Desert have been successfully defending themselves against infectious microbes for nearly 12,000 years!
If you live anywhere in or near one of the deserts mentioned above, simply collect the leaves and small stems (away from any roadside), let them dry, and rinse the resin off either with boiling water or high-proof alcohol (vodka works). Note that either preparation will come off as a very foul tasting “tea.”
For anyone WAY south of the border, L. tridentata has a handful of chemically similar, closely related species native to Argentina.
Just Scratching the Surface
This is a very short post relative to the vast amount of information about natural antiviral “drugs” out there. Hopefully it will at least give you some simple and practical steps to take for arming yourself against viral infections, including the newest coronavirus.
You will be exposed to viruses. The action you take on being prepared for them will go a long way to determining how your body responds.
What Else Can You Do?
Taking actions based on good knowledge is your best bet. Herbal antivirals are just the beginning.
The best research that I could find on what to do next is not generally in any public discussion. I’ve put it all into a brief ebook, Surprising Truths Behind the Coronavirus Pandemic, which you can read about at that link.
As the title indicates, you’ll find some surprises about COVID-19 in it – some really big surprises.
Take a look now and see what I mean.
All the best in natural health,
Earlier Blog Posts at HerbScientist
United States Patent 5,837,252. Nontoxic extract of Larrea tridentata and method of making same.
United States Patent 5,663,209. Compounds for the suppression of HIV Tat transactivation.