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by David Osborn, MH, L.Ac
Monday, April 20, 2020

This article introduces my readers to what natural healing and holistic medicine have to offer in the fight against the novel Coronavirus, or COVID-19.

My previous Coronavirus blog postings have mostly been from a more conventional, modern medical viewpoint.  The question you may be asking is, “What do medicinal herbs and other holistic healing modalities have to contribute in fighting the current Coronavirus pandemic?  The short answer is, quite a lot.  At the outset here, I would like to reiterate a basic disclaimer that I have made in my previous Coronavirus blog postings:  At the moment, there is no specific cure or guaranteed successful treatment for COVID-19, or the novel Coronavirus.  That, however, does not mean that there are not tools or weapons, both natural as well as synthetic, that can be used effectively to manage the infection and its various signs and symptoms.  In this fourth installment, we will be taking a look at diet, herbs, nutritional supplements and other holistic healing modalities and what they have to offer in the fight against COVID-19.

When I was in college, I majored in music, and my major was voice.  My voice teacher was an interesting character; he told me that, in singing, my body was my instrument, and that I had to keep it clean and healthy.  He was the one who first got me interested in herbs, nutrition and natural healing.  The first herb he introduced me to was Fenugreek seed (Tirgonella foenum-graecum), and the first nutritional supplement he introduced me to was vitamin C, both of which can provide valuable therapeutic support in fighting colds, flu and other respiratory infections.  As we practiced our scales, we would take vitamin C and sip Fenugreek tea; my voice teacher would always keep a large box of Kleenex on the piano, because with the expectorant effect of the Fenugreek tea and the vibrations of the high notes, phlegm would be loosened and expelled from our sinuses.  Fenugreek, or Greek hay seed, was even used by Hippocrates in the management of respiratory infections, and to facilitate recovery from them.

One motto that my voice teacher used, both to describe his method of voice teaching as well as the herbs and nutritional supplements he recommended was, We work with Nature, and not against it.  I’m sure that Hippocrates himself would have given that motto a hearty approval.  And that is the whole secret of Greek Medicine, and all forms of natural healing in the fight against colds, flu and other respiratory infections, even COVID-19.  The various symptoms associated with COVID-19 – fever, chills, coughing, sore throat, phlegm congestion, and so on – are seen by natural healers to be caused by the immune system and the respiratory tract’s own efforts to neutralize and/or expel the pathogenic invader.  And the goal of natural treatments to manage these symptoms and facilitate recovery is to support the eliminatory and detoxification functions of the organism as it works to expel the invader.  From a broader perspective, some epidemiologists have stated that the emergence of new virus strains and their spread to pandemic proportions can be seen as the result of human disruption of the balance between man and his natural environment.  If that is so, then what better time could there be to work with Nature?

A Matter of Timing: The Four Stages of the COVID-19 Infection, and How to Treat Them

The novel Coronavirus, or COVID-19, is an acute respiratory infectious disease of viral origin; and this viral infection has developed a nasty reputation for being able to penetrate right down to the core vital organs of the organism – the lungs and the heart – with alarming stealth and speed in many of its victims.  You may literally be feeling pretty good at sunrise, but be dead by sundown of the same day.  Therefore, when it comes to treating or managing this infection, one must always be mindful of which stage it is at in its progression, and treat it accordingly.  And intensive care and medical crisis intervention should always be within reach, should it suddenly become necessary to enlist their services.  With that in mind, let’s take a closer look at the four stages regarding COVID-19, and how each should be addressed or treated:

The Pre-Stage: Preventive Measures – In the initial pre-stage of the infection, the basic strategy is prevention – and in addition to the outer preventive measures of social distancing, wearing a face mask, and the like, there are internal preventive measures that can be taken as well.  These preventive measures can range from working with your physician or holistic healthcare provider to reduce, mitigate or bring under better control any pre-existing conditions you might have that would make you more vulnerable to the ravages of Coronavirus, to taking herbs and nutritional supplements to boost your immune resistance to viruses and respiratory tract infections as well.  Diet must be a major part, if not the major consideration in prevention.  There are no quick fixes here, and good, solid prevention takes time and effort.

The Latent Stage: Mitigation – This is the stage following initial exposure to the virus, where one is infected, but has not yet started to manifest any overt symptoms.  Medical professionals tell us that initial symptoms start to manifest within two days to two weeks after initial exposure.  Here, herbs and supplements can be taken to boost one’s immunity in general, as well as to boost one’s non-specific immune resistance to viruses.  This may – and I repeat here, may – prove to be valuable in mitigating the strength and power of the infection when it manifests.  As medical data and case histories continue to accumulate, new light will be shed on exactly which mitigation measures are most effective.

The Initial or Outer Stage: Symptom Management and Support – In this stage, the patient begins to manifest overt symptoms such as fever, chills, coughing, inflammation, phlegm congestion, etc… as the host organism mounts an active fight against the invading virus.  The core therapeutic strategy here is to address and manage the patient’s symptoms as they arise.  Fevers should be broken and brought down with diaphoretics (sweating herbs) and febrifuges, inflammation should be treated with herbal anti-inflammatories and inflammo-modulatories (herbs that bring about healthy, beneficial changes in the inflammatory response), coughs should be eased with antitussive herbs, and phlegm congestion should be cleared with expectorant and mucolytic herbs.  Most patients – about 4 out of 5 – will be able to fight the Coronavirus off and recover from this stage.

The Final or Inner Stage: Intensive Care, Life Support and Medical Supervision – In this stage, serious lower respiratory symptoms begin to manifest, like coughing blood, shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, and the like, as the virus moves from the upper respiratory tract to the lungs and lower respiratory tract.  And honestly, many patients may experience a sudden or unexpected transition to this stage from the previous one, so intensive care and medical support and supervision should always be kept available should it become necessary to enlist their services.  About six of every hundred who initially become infected with COVID-19 will wind up needing to be put on a breathing machine or ventilator, and of these, about half, or three in one hundred, will wind up dying.  In previous flu pandemics, like the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918, Eclectic physicians, who were highly trained specialists in the clinical use of medicinal herbs, could handle or manage patients who were in this last, critical phase of infection and save the vast majority of them, but nowadays, those specialists are extremely rare.  And so, critical stage life support is best left to conventional physicians in the current medical environment.

The Original, Hidden Pandemic: The Standard American Diet (SAD)

When I first moved to Pasadena, California, my roommate there was named Al, and he was very much into herbs and natural healing.  One of the gems of advice he gave me was to never forget fresh fruits and vegetables, which he called the protective foods.  Why are they the protective foods?  Because they protect the body against a whole host of chronic and degenerative diseases, like cancer, heart disease, diabetes and so on.  Not only are they rich in many vitamins and minerals, , but they are also rich in vitamin C, flavonoid compounds and many other chemicals called antioxidants, which help to keep inflammatory processes under control, as well as to protect cells against oxidative stress and damage from free radicals.  Many holistic doctors and medical researchers tell us that so many of the chronic diseases we suffer from have hidden chronic inflammation as an underlying condition.

Why am I bringing this up here?  Because medical researchers tell us that COVID-19, as well as other severe forms of the flu, have an out of control cascade of immunologically mediated inflammatory responses to the virus, what is often called the Cytokine Storm, as the most critical consequence of COVID-19 infection, particularly in its final stage, as the thing that really kills.  And doesn’t it really make sense that, if one’s dietary intake of vitamin C and other antioxidants is low, and one is harboring other chronic inflammatory conditions as a result, that the inflammatory Cytokine Storm might be more severe if one were hit by a severe case of COVID-19?  It just so happens that fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as herbal superfoods and “superberries” are our main sources of protective antioxidants, if not the only source.  Yet the Standard American Diet (SAD) is woefully lacking in protective fresh fruits and vegetables as millions head down to McDonald’s for their Big Mac and fries.  Fried foods, like French fries, are actually loaded with free radicals, which cause and aggravate chronic inflammation in the body.

Other foods that may be problematic when it comes to the body’s immunity and ability to fight off colds, flu and other respiratory infections are the following: refined white sugar, which depresses the immune response – even if you don’t have diabetes; excessive dairy products, which tend to generate excess phlegm; excessive meat consumption, which makes the blood too acidic, which drives down the function and effectiveness of oxygen, thus blunting the immune response; and overly processed or devitalized foods, which have been robbed of their vital nutrients.  Yet these are mainstays of the Standard American Diet (SAD).  Antioxidant rich foods, on the other hand, are fresh berries, like blackberries and blueberries; pomegranates and other citrus fruits; kale, chard and other dark green leafy vegetables; and many other fresh fruits and vegetables.  It’s time to return to a plant based diet.

You might think that my touting of vitamin C and other antioxidants here is just so much wishful thinking, but seriously, vitamin C is being considered for clinical trials in the treatment of COVID-19 – 1.  To be clinically effective in handling severe COVID-19 infections, the treatment protocol would involve the intravenous administration of 24 grams – almost a whole ounce – of pure vitamin C per day, the equivalent of hundreds of oranges, if not thousands, but the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory power of vitamin C when administered in such megadoses is extremely powerful.  Other herbs and superberries that are rich in potent antioxidants include Noni, Sea Buckthorn berries, Acerola cherries, Rose Hips, Olive Leaf extract, Pycnogenol, and many more.  Many medicinal herbs, such as Andrographis (Andrographis paniculata) and Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis) are very effective anti-inflammatories; in fact, there are so many wonderful anti-inflammatory herbs that pharmaceutical anti-inflammatories pale by comparison – and they have negative side effects that the anti-inflammatory herbs do not have.

Besides containing an abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables for plenty of vitamins A and C, and plenty of antioxidants, the ideal diet to boost immunity against flu and other respiratory infections should be sufficiently broad and full to offer a full range of protein, good fats and other vital nutrients, because a diet that is too limited and restricted can also compromise overall energy, vitality and immunity in general.  Protein should be sufficient but not excessive, and certain proteins, like dairy products, should be limited and not excessive, because this could lead to excess phlegm generation.  This is true especially in winter, the Phlegmatic season, and for those of a Phlegmatic constitution.  Those of a fiery, Choleric constitution, on the other hand, should be more concerned about getting a full, robust supply of antioxidants and other anti-inflammatory nutrients, and cutting down on pro-inflammatory foods, since aggravated or overblown inflammatory reactions are more of a concern for them.

The Eclectic Physicians and the 1918 Spanish Flu Epidemic: The Power of Medicinal Herbs

About a century ago, at the end of World War I, there was a massive epidemic of the Spanish Flu, which seems to be pretty similar to the Swine Flu of more recent history.  Millions of people died, and the mortality statistics were just horrid.  One particular school of physicians, known as the Eclectics, was particularly successful in treating patients who had the Spanish Flu, and they used medicinal herbs in their treatment.  The Eclectics were consummate masters of herbal medicine, and applied the latest advances in medical knowledge to the study and clinical use of medicinal herbs.  While the usual mortality rate from the Spanish Flu was around three percent of all who became infected, the Eclectics were pleased to report a mortality rate of only 0.6 percent of the patients they treated with medicinal herbs.  Those who want to use medicinal herbs in the treatment of COVID-19 should study the medicinal herbs and treatment protocols used by the Eclectic physicians and learn what they can from their methods and results.

The most famous and well-known of the herbs the Eclectics used to treat the Spanish Flu was Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum).  Unlike some of the other herbs the Eclectics used, Boneset is quite mild and gentle in nature; nevertheless, it is effective.  The name “Boneset” comes from the herb’s use to treat fevers that were so high and severe that the patient felt as if their bones were breaking; and yes, it has been used in more recent years against Dengue fever.  The Native Americans used Boneset to treat colds, fevers, sore throats, chills, influenza, pneumonia and pleurisy.  One Eclectic physician noted that, although the remedies used to treat influenza varied from patient to patient, Boneset proved to be the most popular, fitting more cases than any other remedy.  Another Eclectic physician gave Boneset “from start to finish”, even giving the herb as a tonic after the acute phase was over, to aid in recovery from the disease.  Another physician reported giving Boneset very often, starting with the first symptoms, when aches and pains made their initial appearance; this early and intensive use of Boneset, he said, nipped many incipient cases of the flu in the bud. – 2.

One of the key active constituents of Boneset is Eupatorin, an inflammation modulating flavone.  – 2.  Although Boneset was one of the main herbs used by the Eclectics in treating the Spanish Flu, with great success, it has somehow fallen into relative obscurity and disuse in recent years.  I have used it in my practice for treating severe respiratory conditions, including walking pneumonia, and it has always given me good results.  Another possible reason for Boneset’s falling into disfavor in recent years is the presence of Pyrrolizidine Alkaloids (PA’s) in the herb.  It just so happens that the PA’s in Boneset are of a relatively mild and nontoxic variety.  The fact is that there have been no fatalities from the use of Boneset, which is basically a mild and gentle yet effective herb, in contrast to the well known hepatotoxicity of Acetaminophen, or Tylenol, a pharmaceutical drug used to treat colds and flu, which causes some 500 deaths per year.  Lisa Ganora, the founder of the Colorado School of Clinical Herbalism, recently wrote:

There are something like 660 different kinds of PAs, some absolutely harmless, only a few that are toxic / hepatocarcinogenic. It is not sufficient to simply ban an herb that contains PAs without knowing which PA subtypes a plant contains. Some are indeed very toxic to both animals and humans but others have either low toxic potential or no toxicity whatsoever.

Boneset belongs to the PA group known as retronecine monoesters, lycosamine and intermedine, their N-oxides and acetylated derivatives,[2] of all the potentially toxic kinds, these are the least. No case reports of HSOS (the new name for VOD (veno-occlusive disease), which is what an excess of a toxic PA can cause) from use of boneset. Given its awesome bitterness (which is part of its power as a profound relaxant), it would be hard if not impossible to reach toxic levels with traditional use, IMO. – 3.

Lisa writes about Boneset’s “awesome bitterness” in the above excerpt, but in my experience, Boneset tea has quite a pleasant flavor, being only slightly to moderately bitter.  But, as they say – each one according to his own taste.  If you are concerned about the bitterness, you can put a little Peppermint or Spearmint in the pot with it to neutralize the bitter taste – or grated fresh Ginger, sweetened with a little honey and lemon if you prefer.

Another favorite herb of the Eclectics for treating the Spanish Flu, as well as other types of colds and flu, was Pleurisy Root (Asclepias tuberosa) which is another Native American herb that has long been used for treating pneumonia, influenza and other respiratory ailments.  True to its name, the American herbalist Michael Moore has observed that the herb is beneficial for treating pleurisy and mild pulmonary edema because it improves pulmonary fluid circulation, lymphatic drainage and cilia function.  It also has a beneficial effect on the cardio-pulmonary circulation, which can also relieve fluid buildup in the lungs and respiratory tract.  I have found in my practice that it works very well in combination with Wild Cherry Bark (Prunus serotina). – 2.

For patients whose chief complaint was a high, raging hectic fever, the herb of choice that the Eclectics used was Gelsemium, or Yellow Jasmine root (Gelsemium sempervirens).  Gelsemium was considered to be the specific remedy for the high fevers accompanying pandemic flu, which were characterized by tremulous, jerky muscles, nervous excitation, spasms and pain.  Gelsemium was therefore considered to primarily be a sedative, and one that would reduce hyperemia, or an excessive blood flow to the brain and spinal cord, although it was contraindicated where blood congestion to these parts was present; it was also contraindicated for depressed states of the central nervous system.  Gelsemium should only be used by medical specialists who are trained in its use, since it is only used in small, carefully controlled doses.  A safer herb that was also a diaphoretic, febrifuge, sedative and antispasmodic was Black Cohosh (Actea racemosa / Cimicifuga racemosa), an herb that has recently gained great favor in the treatment of female menopause and perimenopausal symptoms, due to the presence of phyto- or plant estrogens in the root.  – 2.

Modern physicians are rather wary of the use of immune boosting herbs to prevent, and to treat severe respiratory tract infections like Spanish Flu or the Coronavirus, because they see the critical Cytokine Storm as the misguided action of an overactive immune response trying to defend the organism against the Coronavirus as what brings about the demise and death of the patient – so why up-regulate the immune system under such conditions?  This is a carryover of the conventional pharmacological concept of “dumb medicines” like pharmaceutical drugs, which only work in one direction.  Herbs, as smart, living medicines, are endowed with what my Ayurvedic medicine teacher, Dr. Vasant Lad, used to call “biological intelligence”.  In other words, medicinal herbs, when they work to boost or stimulate immunity, actually exert a kind of immunomodulatory or regulating action on immunity that changes or moderates the natural immune and inflammatory reactions of the organism for the better, in a biologically friendly manner.  This beneficial immunomodulatory action of medicinal herbs is also noted in the above cited article on the Eclectics’ use of medicinal herbs in the Spanish Flu epidemic. – 2.

If you liked what you read here, or if you have any questions, comments or feedback, please address your inquiries to my email inbox:


  1. Treating patients with vitamin C
  2. Herbal Treatments for Pandemic Influenza: Learning from the Eclectics’ Experience
  3. Rediscovering Boneset for Influenza


DISCLAIMER:  The information in this article is for educational purposes only, for general health maintenance and prevention, and is not intended to diagnose or treat any medical disease or condition. The reader assumes all personal responsibility and liability for the application of the information contained in this article, and is advised to seek the services of a physician or licensed healthcare practitioner should his or her symptoms or condition persist or worsen.