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Can Plants Be Antiviral?

Seasonality is an attribute of many viral infections in humans.  Winter is often regarded as a viral season.  Studies show that seasonal respiratory viral pathogens, such as the flu, may result from enhanced survival of such pathogens, along with an increase in human immune suppression in the wintertime.  Luckily, there are antiviral plants that we can turn to as allies, to help support our immune systems and prevent the flu and other viral infections.  In fact, one estimate found that about 25% of commonly used medicines contain constituents derived from plants. Antiviral plants offer natural prevention, which is often safe, effective, and with fewer side-effects than conventional treatments. One powerful aspect of using whole plants for antivirals, as opposed to a single or few phytochemicals (which is often the case in pharmaceutical drugs), is that the diversity of phytochemicals promotes broad spectrum antiviral effects. 

While plants are helpful in treating acute conditions, they really shine when it comes to prevention.  Eating a whole foods diet, low in dairy and sugar, is foundational when it comes to preventing illness.  Include the following plants in your cooking: onions, garlic, turmeric and ginger. All these plants have been used traditionally to help treat and prevent infection, and modern science also shows that they have anti-viral and anti-inflammatory effects. 

Let’s take a look at some plants that have antiviral qualities: 

Garlic: The compounds in garlic have been shown to increase the disease-fighting response of white blood cells, when viruses are present in the body.  Garlic not only helps prevent illness; it can actually shorten the duration of colds and flus, as well as diminish the symptoms associated with these illnesses.  Raw garlic is always best.  After chopping garlic, allow it to sit for 10-15 minutes; this is because exposure to oxygen results in enzyme reactions in which beneficial compounds are released. If cooking with garlic, it is best to add the garlic during the last few minutes of cooking to help preserve the allicin (one of the active compounds).  Especially during the winter months, aim to consume 2-3 cloves a day. 

Echinacea: Echinacea is another popular antiviral herb. Studies show that echinacea contains constituents that can reduce viral infections. One constituent, echinacein, has been shown to inhibit bacteria and viruses from penetrating healthy cells. Echinacea is also known as an immune-boosting herb.  You can look for powdered echinacea or take it in tincture form.  As a powder, 300-500 mg 3 times per day is recommended.  As a tincture, it is recommended to take 2.5 ml 3 times per day.  

Elderberry: You may be familiar with elderberry syrup, which has been traditionally taken during the winter months.  Elderberry has immune-boosting and antiviral properties, making it a great preventative herb.  Studies show that taking elderberry can help shorten the duration of colds and flus.  Nowadays you can find many different types of elderberry products at the health food store.  Elderberry syrup, which is made by making a strong decoction of the berries and preserving it with honey, is a delicious way to incorporate elderberry into your preventative daily routine.  Take ½ to 1 tablespoon of elderberry syrup as a preventative.  If you are sick, you can take this same dose every few hours until your symptoms reside. 

Medicinal Mushrooms: Medicinal mushrooms are another category of natural antivirals.  Turkey-tail mushroom is well-regarded for its immune boosting effects.  Turkey-tail has been shown to have immune-modulating effects and increase viral-fighting cytokines (protein molecules released by immune cells to fight invaders).  In fact, a handful of studies show that constituents in turkey-tail can block viruses from invading cells.  Turkey-tail can be taken as a tea, tincture, or powder.  Another medicinal mushroom worth mentioning when it comes to immune support is reishi.  Reishi is considered an adaptogen- it can help regulate the body’s homeostasis and regulate immune function.  Reishi can also be taken as a tea, tincture, or powder. 

As we get closer to the heart of winter, it is not too late to begin a daily routine in which you incorporate antiviral and immune supporting plants.  Remember to always start with a healthy, whole-foods diet.  From there, you can try incorporating antiviral herbs and seeing which ones resonate with you.  As always, be sure to check in with a qualified health practitioner to determine your individual needs.

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