There has been a lot of hype in recent years about the potential for a global viral pandemic. SARS, avian flu and West Nile virus are examples from the recent past that could have had far worse consequences than what actually occurred. Now its H1N1, the latest version of swine flu, that is the big concern.
Indeed, there is no doubt that sooner or later we may be facing a major epidemic similar to what occurred in 1918, or even worse. There are many environmental, social and economic factors that make such a possibility increasingly more likely with each passing year. However, there are solutions to this problem. Unfortunately, most of the approaches that have been adopted by mainstream medicine and governments around the world are only marginally effective and dont address the root causes of the problem.
A number of factors have led to the development of new strains of viruses. There is evidence that the overuse of some pharmaceutical drugs encourages the mutation of viruses. Increased global travel is an obvious avenue for microbes to spread into regions where they formerly did not exist. Global warming has resulted in milder winters in temperate regions. Colder winter temperatures tend to decrease the spread of infectious diseases, warmer winters less so.
Habitat destruction can create conditions which increase the likelihood that viruses jump from other species to humans. This can result from exposure of human populations to viruses that were formerly limited to remote regions. Viruses are also more likely to mutate and jump from one species to another when populations of their traditional host species are in decline, another result of habitat destruction.
Food markets in countries where there is a common practice of eating wild animals, such as in many parts of Africa and Asia, are areas where new strains of viruses often emerge. In these environments there are many species of animals that wouldnt normally come in contact with each other. The animals are caged in unhealthy and stressful conditions in close proximity to each other and other domestic species. Stressed animals are less likely to be able to resist infection when they are exposed to novel pathogens, making it easier for a virus to infect a new species. Any viruses that are able to survive in these immune compromised animals will rapidly mutate to become better adapted to infecting the new species.
Of course the most common animals in these markets are humans, many of whom may also be immune compromised from living in unhealthy or unsanitary conditions. They can easily become suitable hosts for pathogens to develop the capacity to infect humans.
The normal approach to treating these kinds of health concerns has been through the use of drugs, vaccines, and attempting to destroy intermediate host populations, such as mosquitoes. None of these approaches are very effective. There are few effective antiviral drugs and those that are available tend to be very expensive and associated with significant toxicity and side-effects. The more they are used, the more rapidly viruses develop a resistance to them, while new drugs takes years to develop and are very expensive. In addition, viral infections are often treated with antibiotics. Not only are antibiotics ineffective against viral infections, the misuse of these drugs promotes the development of antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria, organisms that traditionally are controlled by these drugs.
In my opinion, vaccination programs such as influenza shots are generally a waste of money. Most of these viruses mutate so fast that new strains can evolve within a couple of months, yet vaccines take many months to develop and produce. Usually by the time the vaccine is available, the virus has already mutated. Public health professionals tend to promote fear among the general population as a means of advocating their programs. They often portray the risks as being many times greater than they really are. This approach is counter-productive since fear is one of the most powerful immune suppressors. A fearful population will be more susceptible to illness.
In reality, the majority of people who are exposed to these viruses will not get sick. Most of those who do will only experience mild to moderate flu-like symptoms. Only an extremely small minority of the population is likely to develop serious complications. Rather than handing over billions of dollars to pharmaceutical companies to pay for flu shots, it makes more sense to identify the high risk populations and address the reasons why they are at risk.
Factors That Weaken the Immune System
The main reason for the variability in response to infection among the general population has to do with immune function. Individuals most likely to develop more severe symptoms are those with undeveloped or compromised immune function such as infants, seniors and the chronically ill. People who live in poverty are also at risk because they tend to be malnourished.
If we focus on identifying and remedying those factors that lead to compromised immune function, we can put together an action plan that will lead to an increased resistance to these viruses, both in the general population and in higher risk groups. There are also many herbs and other natural health products that, if used correctly, can help to optimize immune function.
The major factors that lead to compromised immune function primarily result from poor lifestyle choices and the kinds of environmental and psychological stress factors that are common in our society. Some of these include:
Poor diet especially if it over-emphasizes heavily processed, chemically laden foods and insufficient consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables.
Exposure to chemical pollutants in the environment, workplace and home, such as heavy metals, chemical solvents, air pollution, agricultural chemicals and household cleaning products.
Regular use of social and pharmaceutical drugs which include caffeine, cigarettes, alcohol, marijuana and all hard drugs, and pharmaceuticals.
Lack of exercise. Most people should get at least one hour of mild to moderate exercise per day (such as walking) and a minimum 20 to 30 minutes of aerobic workout three times per week.
Insufficient sleep. Most adults require eight to nine hours per day, teenagers and children need more.
Too much stress. Exercise and sleep can help reduce stress, but most people in our society are so overstressed that some kind of stress management program is necessary. Disciplines such as tai chi, yoga or meditation are helpful, as is spending time in nature. We also need to stop buying into the mindset that we have to be accessible 24/7. People in our society need to learn how to create boundaries and allow themselves some quality time to nurture themselves.
Negative emotions. These days anger, fear, frustration, envy and hatred are more common than happiness, contentment, compassion and love.
Vaccinations. This is a very controversial subject. Although childhood vaccinations may provide some protection from the viruses they are intended to treat, many are not as effective as the medical establishment would have us believe, and there is growing evidence that vaccinations may lead to depleted immune function. This can increase the likelihood of infection from other illnesses or the development of chronic and autoimmune conditions later in life. Part of the problem is that the immune system of infants and young children isnt developed enough to handle large amounts of viral antigen or the many chemicals included in vaccines injected directly into their blood. In my opinion, most vaccinations are unnecessary, however there are a few for which there may be a stronger case. Ultimately this is a personal choice. It is important to carefully weigh the pros and cons before making a decision. Let the facts guide your decision, not the hysteria that is propagated by extreme factions on either side of the argument.
One thing I do recommend, however, is that for those who do decide to vaccinate, put it off until your children are four or five years old. By that time their immune system will have developed a bit more. I also recommend utilizing immune enhancing protocols for some time prior to and after vaccinations.
Immune Strengthening Herbs and Nutrients
Now lets look at some of the protocols you can use to boost your immune response and increase your resistance to viral and other infectious diseases. The first thing to consider is that herbs and other natural health products are valuable health-promoting aids, but they are no substitute for a healthy diet and lifestyle. If we dont practice preventive medicine, and instead wait until the symptoms of illness have arrived, then the impact of these supplements will be limited and eventually they will become less effective.
There are many essential nutrients that are directly or indirectly important for proper immune function. B vitamins are especially important for helping us deal with stress. For maximum effectiveness they should be taken alongside a good mineral supplement. In the mineral department, of particular importance for the immune system are calcium, magnesium and zinc. Antioxidants are also very useful. They include vitamins A, C, D, E and the minerals selenium and manganese. There are also many other important antioxidant nutrients that support immune functioning. These include the carotenes, flavonoids and other polyphenols such as those found in green tea, grape seed, pine bark and various berry extracts. The best food sources of immune-enhancing nutrients are fresh fruits, vegetables, and mushrooms. There are also many herbs that can be helpful as well.
Immune stimulant herbs can boost immune functioning in the short term. They may also be used to treat infections in progress. Some of the most versatile immune stimulants include the various species of purple coneflower root and herb (Echinacea spp.), plantain herb (Plantago spp.), elecampane root (Inula helenium), pot marigold flowers (Calendula officinalis), boneset herb (Eupatorium perfoliatum), black elder flower (Sambucus nigra), stinging nettle herb (Urtica dioica) and goldenrod herb (Solidago spp.). To support immune function, combine three or four of these herbs and take them three to four times per day for one to two week intervals. For best results, this should be repeated once or twice, each time after a one to two week break. This protocol can be used to help boost your immune response, which can prevent illness or lessen the severity if you do get sick.
There are many herbs that attack viruses directly, which can be used together with immune stimulants by anyone who contracts the flu or some other viral infection. Some of the immune stimulants mentioned above are also antiviral, including purple coneflower, pot marigold and black elder. Other important antiviral herbs include yarrow herb (Achillea millefolium), hyssop herb (Hyssopus officinalis), lemon balm herb (Melissa officinalis), St. Johnswort (Hypericum perforatum) marjoram herb (Origanum majorana), oregano herb (Origanum vulgare), heal-all herb (Prunella vulgaris), rosemary herb (Rosmarinus officinalis) and blue vervain herb (Verbena hastata).
If you think you might have influenza, combine two to three herbs from among the immune stimulants with two to three herbs from the antivirals. It is important to begin taking the herbs as soon as you think you are getting sick. Take your formulation four to six times per day until you are better.
Deep Acting Immune Tonics
Another group of herbs that help to improve and optimize immune function are the immune tonics. These herbs are deeper acting than immune stimulants, but take longer to work. They include North American ginseng root (Panax quinquefolius), lacquered polypore or reishi mushroom (Ganoderma lucidum), artists conk (Ganoderma applanatum), Chinese milkvetch root (Astragalus membranaceus) and Siberian ginseng root (Eleutherococcus senticosus). Combine two or three immune tonics and take them three to four times per day for two to three months. Immune tonics are not suitable for treating infections in progress. They are used for preventive purposes or to optimize immune function and work best after first doing several cycles of immune stimulants.
Dosages and Recommendations
Vitamin and nutritional supplements should be taken with meals, whereas herbs should always be taken on an empty stomach, preferably 10 to 15 minutes before meals and 20 to 30 minutes before bed. Herbs are best taken in tincture form, especially tinctures made from fresh plants. However, some of these herbs are also fairly effective when taken as a tea.
The dosage of tinctures depends on their strength. Follow the directions of whatever products you are using. If you are combining single tinctures, the dosage of your whole formulation will be similar or slightly higher than the recommended dosage of your individual herb tinctures (i.e. if the recommended dosage for the individual tinctures is 25 drops, the dosage of your entire formulation should be about 25 to 30 drops, not 25 drops of each tincture). If you are making a tea, use two to three teaspoons of your combination of herbs (not each individual herb) for each cup of tea and steep it in a covered container for 10 to 15 minutes.
A Better Strategy for Public Health
If our health care system were to stop the fear mongering and invest a similar amount of money for proper health education and other appropriate preventive social and environmental measures, instead of what is wasted every year financing vaccinations for the flu, the result would be a significant decrease in the impact of influenza and other viral infections, and improvement in the overall health of all sectors of our population. This would lead to significant savings in health care costs and the quality of health care in Canada would increase with a net reduction in costs. When it comes to health care, its time that governments look at the big picture, instead of spending money on expensive band-aids while sweeping the real issues under the carpet.
Fortunately, to a large degree we have the ability to educate ourselves and take our health into our own hands, instead of waiting for someone else to solve our problems for us. It requires an acceptance of our personal responsibility to ourselves, our families and our environment. We are fortunate to live in a country where we have the freedom to make these choices and the resources to implement them. Use them wisely!
Michael Vertolli is a traditional clinical herbalist practising in Vaughan (just north of Toronto). He is the Director of Living Earth School of Herbalism which offers introductory classes, certificate and diploma programs. For more information contact: Living Earth, 10971 Jane Street, Maple, Ontario L6A 1S1, phone (905) 303-8723, website: www.livingearthschool.ca.
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