If the 15 minute video is too long for you, here’s the text — although, as always, I think the pictures are worth watching. 🙂
Recently a few pediatricians posted a warning that elderberry should not be used in CoVid 19 because a study showed that it increased inflammatory cytokines in healthy people. The physicians reasoned that as a result, using elderberry might trigger
A dangerous cytokine storm, cytokine storms being the ultimate cause of death in CoVid-19 victims.
This warning created quite an uproar as elderberry as tea, syrup, or tincture has a long history of use to improve symptoms in influenza and has a rather good amount of research supporting that use. So, let’s talk about cytokines, cytokine storms, and the use of herbs in viral pandemics like the one SARS-CoV-2 is causing.
Our immune system uses a large variety of compounds called cytokines in a very complicated feedback system to protect us. These cytokines include include inflammatory compounds such as IL-6, IL-1, and TNF-a
But they also a group of cytokines called chemokines that attract and direct other cells. RANTES is a chemokine shown to be very important in in CoVid-1. RANTES = Regulated upon Activation, Normal T Cell Expressed and Secreted, also known as CCL5
Our immune systems are very adept at using these cytokines and chemokines to protect us to from foreign invaders, be they viruses, bacteria, etc.
They do this by mounting a quick inflammatory response using varying amounts of different cytokines for different invaders, amounts of which change over the course of the battle.
Cytokines are also used to quiet inflammation and restore balance once an invasion has been dealt with.
As in any battle, there is collateral damage from our inflammatory immune response. Thus, in a cold almost all of our cold symptoms, from the scratchy throat to the runny nose, are actually caused by the inflammatory cytokines released to fend off the cold.
In flu as well, virtually all of those very uncomfortable flu symptoms are triggered by the flood of cytokines released in our body.
So, during say a usual seasonal influenza, our body will quickly increase inflammatory cytokines that cause fever, aches, pains, and more; symptoms that dissipate once the flu virus yields to our immune system about a week later.
Occasionally, however, we encounter a new virus and that can trigger an overreaction by our immune system, which basically spins out of control producing huge amounts of these inflammatory cytokines. This can also happen to individuals who, due to chronic illness or a long life filled with inflammatory eating and inflammatory lifestyle habits, enter flu season already very inflamed. The strong reaction to the seasonal flu adds to their existing inflammation and puts them over the top, so to speak. These high levels of cytokines cause extreme fevers, damage tissue, shut down organs, and cause death.
The strong inflammatory reaction to bird flu compared to the reaction to a seasonal flu is what causes the big problem. In once, the immune reaction leads to death, in another simply uncomfortable but short-lived illness.
Drug companies working on developing antiviral drugs often target the inflammatory cytokines knowing that if they can be reduced, symptoms will lessen, the illness will pass more quickly, and deaths will be far less common. They know that the sharp rise in inflammatory cytokines is excessive and not helpful to the immune system’s ability to fight off the illness.
People working on avoiding colds, the flu, or a difficult virus like SARS-CoV-2, often choose herbs and products to “boost their immune system,” hoping they will help them fight off the virus. These herbs (that is elderberry, echinacea etc.) are marketed as immune system boosters. Fortunately, they do not boost the immune system in a sick person:
IF they did, their immune system would product more inflammatory cytokines triggering a higher fever, a scratchier throat, a worse cough . . . What we need is not an immune boost but something to moderate and tone down the immune system.
In fact, a recent study on patients with CoVid-19 noted that people overexpress many inflammatory cytokines in that illness. And the study concluded that the deaths seen in CoVid-19 are not due to a massive replication of the virus but instead due to the dysregulated, out of control immune response to the virus.
What is needed in CoVid-19 (and most viral infections) is a thoughtful toning down of the immune system’s overreaction.
And while herbs, unfortunately, are not well studied, we do have a study that shows that Echinacea reduces the production of inflammatory cytokines in a cell infected with a cold virus. The benefit people claim to gain when they take echinacea for a cold is not caused by an immune boost. Instead, cold symptoms are lessened as the production of inflammatory cytokines is toned down a bit.
Another study found that echinacea also reduces the production of the inflammatory cytokine tumor necrosis factor alpha in cells infected with a flu
Boneset, an herb with a documented historical use in influenza going back hundreds of years was shown not to boost or activate the immune system but to, instead, reduce the production of inflammatory cytokines.
A study on Traditional Chinese herbs on the chemokine RANTES in influenza showed some herbs dramatically reducing the production of RANTES down to levels found in healthy cells, but all reduced RANTES to some degree.
So, given the lack of good, well designed research on herbs and the complexity of the immune response to novel and very complex viruses, how do we decide what to do?
If we are wise, our first step should be prevention. If we consistently eat an anti-inflammatory diet, avoiding sugars, chemicals, refined grains, etc. our immune system will function better and we are more likely to be able to fight off the virus before we even know it was on its way into our body. We can wash our hands well and keep our hands away from our face. As well, many of us are deficient in vitamin D3 and we know that adequate vitamin D can help us avoid catching a virus.
And we quit reaching for supplements and herbs to “boost our immune system” and “prevent” illness unless specifically prescribed for our needs by a knowledgeable health care provider. These medicines should not be used as preventatives, they should be stored for use if we actually get sick.
Consider this: Echinacea quiets the production of inflammatory cytokines in cells infected with a cold or flu virus BUT in a healthy cell echinacea increases inflammatory cytokines. Why would you want to take an herb that will increase cytokines that cause symptoms like fever, aches, pains, etc?
Similarly, that nonsensical warning that elderberry syrup should not be used in cases of the corona virus was wrong. Their conclusion was based on the fact that elderberry increased the production of inflammatory cytokines in healthy people. Astragalus, an herb that reduced RANTES in cells infected with influenza, also increased the inflammatory cytokine TNF-a in health. Basically, medicinal herbs are meant to be used when we sick and should not be used to ward off an illness we don’t yet have.
Instead, of taking herbs to prevent an illness, prepare. If you get sick and medical care is not available, what will you do? Is there something that will ease a dry cough or reduce a fever? What if, as we are seeing in people getting CoVid-19, you experience other symptoms, what will you do? How will you help your immune system cope with a new virus?
First, work on getting some good advice.
Don’t listen to the ads for products or buy into the stories about the undocumented remedies used by someone somewhere or what someone just read somewhere . . .
Instead, if you are attracted to Eastern herbs, locate a well-trained TCM practitioner with a good education and lots of experience.
I personally am drawn to Western herbs and discovered that medical doctors had treated pandemic influenza with herbs and had explained the symptoms they used them for and how they dosed them.
That information is compiled in my book on pandemic herbs so if Western herbs appeal to as well, do take a look at that book.
Ultimately though, remember: It really is true that food is our best medicine. So do make the effort to quit eating inflammatory processed foods, your body will be so glad if you do!