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How Not to Go Viral: An Integrative Medicine Approach to COVID-19.

Updated: Jun 6, 2020

Behavioral, Nutritional and Herbal strategies for maximizing safety and minimizing infection.

Sarah Cohen MD

March 13 2020

Right now, at the advent of a pandemic threat, there is an alarm that is sounding globally. As I consider my elderly and otherwise vulnerable loved ones, I choose to contribute to the chorus of international concern.

While I offer my voice of concern, I also come bearing tools for maximizing safety and minimizing viral transmission. Additionally, I offer speculative natural medicines for reducing disease burden of COVID19..

In the spirit of “First, Do no harm”, I have composed this material with my beloveds in mind, with the intention of keeping people safe. Here I present an Integrative anti-COVID-19 protocol. By virtue of being Integrative, the suggestions include behavioral modifications, medicinal foods/micronutrients, and herbal medicine.

Before I proceed, I will declare my grand appreciation and respect for “cutting edge”, modern medical interventions when they are appropriate and available. But we face a current dire reality wherein no known pharmaceuticals, vaccines, or empirical protocols are available to counteract this public health emergency.

Enter Medicinal Botanicals and Fungi

A scientist by nature, I offer treatments that have emerged from empirical evidence, be it information deemed viable by the scientific method, or wisdom that has survived the test of time. The more quality clinical science, the better! But when the first human case of COVID-19 is identified in Wuhan, China in December 2019, and 3 months later the virus has spread to over 167 countries and left 16,300 human fatalities in its wake, there frankly has not been enough time for clinical trials to answer the questions that this pandemic pleads.

Enter botanicals and medicinal fungi. These are the well-adjusted parents of many of our pharmaceuticals used widely in hospitals today. The Atropine we administer during Advanced Cardiac Life Support, Penicillins, and Aspirin are the first few to come to mind; but that is a topic for another day.

Today’s features are purported anti-viral and immuno-regulatory herbs and fungi, many of which have been tested against the COVID-19 relatives, SARS- and MERS-type Coronavidae. Much of the data we have on these botanical and myco- medicines has emerged from test-tubes and animals, rather than clinical trials in humans. Nonetheless, reduction of coronavirus replication by herbal preparations is demonstrable in the lab. Targeted Coronavirus inhibition is possible with herbs.

Before addressing treatment, let us back up and talk prevention.

Changing Social norms in Pandemic times

Social distancing is the single most effective intervention to stop the spread of infection. This is not about evoking fear. It is about eliciting intelligent action. Changing social norms in pandemic times is a temporary, informed effort to contain this virus.

It is possible to love your neigbors from a 6 foot distance.

COVID-19 is transmitted by way of respiratory droplets. Breathing disperses respiratory droplets. An infected sneeze or cough propels respiratory droplets up to 6 feet, after which point, the viral particles land on surfaces. Unless disinfected, Coronavirus can stay viable on objects for up to 72 hours. Being in the path of respiratory droplets by way of direct contact with saliva, sharing infected air, getting caught in the trajectory of a cough or a sneeze, or touching a surface inhabited by viral particles, then touching one’s face are dangers for contracting the Coronavirus. Epidemiological data demonstrates that every 1 infected person transmits COVID19 to 2 additional people.

Out of reverence (not fear) of each other, may we all declare some personal space? Everyone can hug one another when this is over.

For now, best outbreak prevention practices are as follows:

  • Frequently and at least daily, disinfect high-touch surfaces such as phones, touchscreens, doorknobs, bathroom fixtures, keyboards, and countertops. The virus can be effectively inactivated from surfaces by wipe-down with a solution of ethanol (62-71% alcohol), hydrogen peroxide (0.5% hydrogen peroxide) or sodium hypochlorite (0.1% bleach)

  • If greeting someone, opt out of handshakes and fistbumps. Consider instead: waving, bowing, or placing hands to your chest in prayer position.

  • Avoid touching your face.

  • RSVP with a "No" to gatherings large and small.

  • If your job allows it, work from home.

  • Now is a time to rest well by night and circulate blood with exercise by day.

  • If you are feeling ill, self quarantine. Stay home and restrict contact with others. The most common symptoms of COVID-19 are fever, dry cough, fatigue, body aches and shortness of breath. Note that these can be symptoms of other respiratory illnesses besides COVID-19. Cough or sneeze into a tissue (not into your hands!) and dispose of the tissue, preferably in a lined, covered container. Then wash hands thoroughly. Unless medical attention is needed, opt out of in-person contact with other people until at least 72 hours after symptoms have completely resolved.

  • If you develop fever and dry cough or shortness of breath, call your Health Care Provider. Before visiting a clinical site, phone in advance (!) to inform that you are experiencing symptoms of COVID-19.

  • In preparation for possible quarantine, maintain a 2-4 week supply of necessary pharmaceuticals and non-perishable, nutrient dense foods. Do not panic buy. Hoarding causes supply strain, especially for folks who don’t have the financial means for stockpiling necessities.

  • If you are having a medical emergency, call 911. Notify dispatch if you have symptoms or suspected exposure to COVID-19.

Food Be Thy Medicine

Humans are innately equipped with mechanisms for self repair. Highly coordinated modes of immunity are but one of the body’s many systems for upholding health. We are resilient by design. While life can take it’s toll, and at times there are disruptive circumstances beyond our control, I avow that there are ways to optimize the body’s methods for guarding vitality.

It boils down to food. Nutrition is the reservoir that feeds good health. There are some fundamental principles in using the power of food in our favor. On the contrary, there are definitive ways to sabotage the body with poison that is disguised as food.

Dietary Adjustments to Prime the System:

While studies of vitamins and minerals against Coronavirus have not been completed, it is known that Vitamin C, Zinc and Vitamin D are vital to immune system function.

There is currently a clinical trial underway using high dose Vitamin C to treat COVID-19:

Viral Behavior, Meet Herbal Action.

An enormous amount of data has emerged on COVID19 since its frightening debut merely 3 months ago. As a global community, we have learned tremendously about the behavior of this virus. The international conglomerate of shared knowledge serves us well.

It is not all bad news. Freshly published clinical trials demonstrate success in treating COVID19 using drugs (Chloroquine and Remdesivir) historically prescribed for Malaria and Ebola, respectively. There is ample information at our cleanly washed fingertips. We are in a better state of preparedness with every passing day.

Information on the Clinical course of COVID-19:

  • Several strains of Coronavirus exist, and predate the identification of COVID-19. The Coronavirus family of infections have historically caused illness ranging from the common cold to fatal disease such as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome (MERS). COVID-19 is a newly identified strain of Coronavirus as of December 2019.

  • 80% of COVID19 cases are mild.

  • Kids appear to be protected. No fatalities have been reported in children under 9 years old.

  • 97.9% of cases reported in China were in people over 19 years of age.

  • Respiratory failure is more likely to develop in men, people over the age of 65, and individuals with underlying disease.

  • Conditions that render people more vulnerable to COVID-19 complications include, but are not limited to: diabetes (uncontrolled), organ transplant status on immunosuppressive therapy, malignancy, cardiovascular disease, or chronic lung compromise such as COPD.

  • Dry cough is typically the first symptom. (this is NOT a high phlegm- illness). Fatigue, muscle pain, fever and shortness of breath are common but not always present. Worsening shortness of breath is a sign of advancing disease.

  • Time from infection with COVID-19 to development of symptoms is estimated to be 4-10 days

  • An individual who is infected with COVID-19, who has not yet developed symptoms, is contagious.

  • COVID-19 virus is spread in respiratory droplets. When the virus gains access to the respiratory tract, it hooks itself into receptors called ACE2 in the lungs.

  • COVID19 attaches to the the ACE2 receptors, and proceeds to hijack the genetic material of human cells. The Virus then uses host DNA to make more virus.

  • Cascading viral replication causes extreme stimulation of the immune system. The most common mechanism of organ failure and death is essentially “immune system gone haywire”. It is called Cytokine Storm. In the case of COVID-19, the storm begins with inflammatory pooling in the lungs, and if unchecked, ends with multi-system organ failure.

  • Mortality rate of people with confirmed COVID-19 is reported to be between 2-3 % worldwide. The actual mortality rate of COVID-19 infection is unknown and could be orders of magnitude lower, due to disproportionate testing of sickly individuals.

The clinical course of COVID-19 has been substantially described. The mechanisms of specific herbal preparations are considerably characterized. Indeed, there are unknowns when matching viral behavior with herbal action. But there is a mountain of research which, if approached with open eyes and extrapolating minds, offers possibilities for reduction of COVID-19 disease burden.

Herbal Preparations

The following regimen is derived from laboratory studies using simulated viral models (in vitro), research in animals, case reports in humans and few randomized controlled clinical trials. The featured plants and fungi have been ingested safely as food and medicine for centuries upon centuries. Nonetheless, large scale, high quality clinical research has not been completed for most plants. Natural medicine is not without adverse reactions, risks, and contraindications. This plan is formulated from conjecture, not from “gold standard” clinical research. I am not making any claims about therapeutic efficacy. Rather, I am suggesting that the botanicals and mushrooms listed could theoretically constitute an intervention to minimize transmission and severity of COVID-19.

*Optimal herbal extraction necessitates proper technique and high quality starting materials. Herbal formulas (which include more than one Phyto- or Myco- ingredient) require knowledge of how to dose each component. Herbal apothecaries are typically equipped for this work.

Phase 1. The shield.
The time for Phase 1 is now. Prime the physical and mental defense.

A. Tincture # 1:

3/4 teaspoon (3ml) three times per day

1 part Elder (Sambucus Canadensis) berry and flower

1 part Astragalus (Astragalus Propinquus) root

1 part Holy Basil (Ocimum tenuifolium) leaf (*caution in thyroid disease. can interact with thyroid hormone)

B. Survival Broth Recipe with Shiitake, allium, and Thyme (yields 8 cups)

1 cup, 2-3 times per day or more


80 dried shiitake mushrooms

2 medium yellow onions, peeled and quartered

2 heads garlic, split crosswise

8 sprigs thyme

8 sprigs parsley

2 bay leaf

2-inch strip of lemon, peeled using a vegetable peeler

2 teaspoons black peppercorns


  1. In a large bowl, cover the shiitake mushrooms with 16 cups cold water. Place in the refrigerator for at least 4 hours or (preferably) overnight, making sure the mushrooms are completely submerged in the water.

  2. Over a saucepan, strain the shiitake mushrooms, reserving the liquid. Gently squeeze the mushrooms to drain any excess water. Remove the stems and thinly slice the shiitake caps.

  3. Add the onions, garlic, thyme, parsley, bay leaf, lemon and peppercorns to the mushroom liquid and bring to a boil

  4. Reduce the heat to medium and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the broth is reduced by half, about 2 hours. Strain.

  5. If desired, Add shiitake caps back to simmer for 10 minutes. Otherwise Shiitakes can be used for another dish. Enjoy warm or cover and chill until ready to use.

C. Fresh Ginger Root tea (yields 2 cups)

1 cup, 1-3 times per day.


2 inches fresh Ginger rhizome (root), cut into slices (or 1 tsp dried Ginger)

2 tsp honey (raw and local if possible)

1 tsp lemon juice

3 cups water


In a saucepan combine water and sliced ginger. Gently bring to a boil. Cover and simmer on low heat for 15-20 minutes. Strain and add honey and lemon juice.

Phase 2: Viral Inhibition
To be implemented If COVID19 is reported in local community, or exposure is suspected. Combine with tincture # 1

A. Tincture #2:

3/4 teaspoon (3 ml), three times per day

4 parts Thyme (thymus Vulgaris) herb

4 parts Honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica) unopened flower buds

4 parts Cryptolepis (Cryptolepis sanguinolenta) root

3 parts Astragalus (Astragalus Propinquus) root

3 parts Isatis (Isatis Indigotica) root

3 parts Houttuynia (Houttuynia cordata) leaf and root

1 part Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra) rhizome (*Caution: can increase blood pressure)

*Additional herbs with reported evidence of anti-viral activity (can sub if above ingredients not available):

Angelica (Angelica Archangelica) root and seeds

Elecampane (Inula helenium) root

B. Steam inhalation with antiseptic herbs.

Repeat 2 - 3 times daily.


1/2 cup fresh thyme (fresh preferred, can substitute 1/4 cup dried Thyme) 1 pint water optional 1-2 drops Tea Tree and/or Eucalyptus essential oil. Large, heat-safe bowl or pot with a fitted lid


1. Place herbs in a large, heat-safe bowl or pot.

2. In a saucepan, Heat water to boil. Remove from heat for 10 seconds.

3. On a sturdy surface, pour hot water over herbs

4. Cover mixture with lid. Allow to stand for up to 5 minutes.

5. Add optional essential oil

6. CAREFULLY and SLOWLY lower your face over the bowl. Close eyes. Do not burn yourself.

7. Place towel over head to create a steam tent.

8. Breathe deeply over steam for 15-20 minutes.

Phase 3: Immune system regulation. Cytokine balance.
Upon presentation of COVID19 symptoms (Fever, Dry cough, body aches, Shortness of breath), combine Phase 3 with tincture #2. Stop tincture #1. 
***This is the time to call your health care provider or State Department of Health to inquire about getting tested for COVID-19

A. Tincture #3

3/4 teaspoon (3ml), three times per day

3 parts Baikal skullcap (Scutellaria baicalensis) root

3 parts Rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea) root

3 parts Chaga (Inonotus obliquus) Sclerotium

3 parts Turmeric (Curcuma longa) rhizome

2 parts Japanese Knotweed (Fallopia japonica) root and rhizome

1 part Horse chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum) seed

1 part Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra) rhizome (Caution: can increase blood pressure)

B. Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) and Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum) infusion. Sweat it out.

Boneset tea:

Drink 2 oz. 2-3 times per day


1/2 tsp. dried Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum) leaf and flower

8 oz. hot water (just below boiling temperature)


Place dried leaf and flower in hot water. Steep covered for 40 minutes, preferably in thermos to retain heat. Strain.

Yarrow tea:

Drink 2-4 cups/day


1 tsp. dried yarrow leaf and flower

8 oz. hot water


Place dried leaf and flower in hot water. Steep covered for 40 minutes, preferably in thermos to retain heat. Strain.

A rash of disclaimers:

***Reliance on herbal medicine for prevention or treatment of COVID19 is NOT a substitute for seeking medical attention in the setting of illness.

*** Nothing I have written here is a substitute for recommendations from public health officials and your health care provider.

**There is no evidence that herbal medicine or supplements improve clinical outcomes of COVID19 infection

**It is possible to mount an allergy (a severe one, even) to any of these herbs. Some of the herbs included above (Yarrow, elecampane) cross-react with ragweed allergy.

**Tincture formulations above are NOT for use during pregnancy or in children unless cleared by your midwife or physician.

**Dangerous Herb-drug interactions can and do occur


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