I am watching with amazement how COVID-19 has developed into a contagion of fear. I last witnessed this in the early 1980’s when the first cases of HIV (also caused by a mutant RNA retrovirus) erupted, spreading panic and fear.
The current pandemic has sparked a powder keg around the world; who would have thought that we could halt commercial air travel or stop and attempt to restart the economy world-wide? Even vacations or trade shows seem preposterous at this moment. Everything seems to have changed in a flash, even if we all understand that this will soon pass.
Just like the early 1980’s the fear and uncertainty stems largely from misinformation, lack of information, and a lack of understanding that is accentuated in a world of ubiquitous internet and the 24/7 news cycle.
Even though this current infection involving a mutant retrovirus is less pathogenic than HIV, which has infected more than 75 million people and killed more than 30 million, or the 1918 influenza which infected 500 million and killed around 50 million, we should not understate the gravity of COVID-19 and its ability to overwhelm our medical system in ‘hot spots’. However, it is important to take a quick view from 30,000 feet up.
I would like to take you back to the two streams of thought that have agonized allopathic medicine since the 1800’s.
Louis Pasteur was a French biologist, microbiologist, and chemist who became renowned for his work with microbes and how they were involved with infectious disease, developing what became known as the germ theory -- that pathogens or ‘germs’ lead to disease. Pasteur’s friend and colleague Claude Bernard had an opposing theory: that the ‘terroir,’ or the overall health of a person, plays a vital role in whether that person gets sick from the pathogen.
Obviously there is truth to both observations, but I am afraid that today allopathic medicine practices from a purely germ theory of disease - only playing lip service to improving the ‘terroir’ of patients.
If we take more seriously the power that excellent health can have on the progression of disease, the frantic search and hope for the next ‘wonder’ pharmaceutical cocktail or vaccine becomes less urgent.
What exactly is the terroir and what can you do to make it less hospitable to infectious agents? The terroir is a complete multi-system synthesis that encompasses mind, body, and spirit. Your immune system is merely a component here, as wonderfully complex and intricate as it is.
How to impact terroir? First, reduce fear.
Fear, among other things, raises cortisol. This is good for addressing short term, emergency threats. In the long term, it's destructive. Cortisol can increase permeability of the gut up to five times, increasing reactivity to foods. Sugar fluctuations are induced, neurotransmitter levels and hormone levels are altered to be less than optimal and inflammation levels rise. These changes decrease overall health and vitality.
Remember, action is the antidote to fear! Action should include the ridding of misinformation, lack of information, or lack of understanding.
It is imperative that the information on the subject comes from a variety of sources. Look for information from across the political spectrum and across borders to get a balanced perspective. Science news is not objective news if it comes from a political or sponsored/lobbied source. I try to use science that has been corroborated elsewhere. Keep curating your sources; over time, you will develop an easy-to-follow system to obtain understanding and knowledge quickly.
Action should also include looking at your lifestyle and how it's affecting your terroir. Compare your lifestyle to that of a protective roof keeping a building safe and dry. How many holes do you have in the roof and what action steps are required to fix them? This checklist should include things that are obvious health markers such as sleep, water consumption, nutrient diversity (i.e. preparing vegetable heavy meals), exercise, optimal stress processing, spirituality, learning new skills, outside time, and so on. Fix the leaks in your ‘roof’!
Our society’s conversation about food has degraded to a focus on macronutrients. Most diet plans focus on simply changing ratios between fats, proteins, and carbohydrates, but the real deficit affecting most of the US, Canada, and Mexico (among other countries) is the fact that we are critically under-nourished when it comes to micronutrients and phytonutrients, while being over-nourished in overall calories and macronutrients. Some of the main risk factors for many viral diseases, including COVID-19, are obesity, diabetes, hypertension, and cardiovascular disease - all ailments modifiable and benefited by dietary and lifestyle changes.
Age is also a risk factor. I would argue that this, to some degree, is also modifiable by lifestyle. As age increases, exercise becomes more and more important; exercise is medicine! Also more antioxidant, phytonutrient dense foods are needed to maintain optimum health. Most of us have seen examples of a healthy 80-year-old who seems biologically younger than some 55-year-olds!
Fix the leaks…where are yours?
Another focus of control that can be part of your ‘roof’ are some botanical and nutraceutical recommendations that are pertinent in the world of virology. It is important to understand that, just as with pharmaceuticals, these recommendations have not yet been validated in human trials regarding COVID-19. However, using the in-vitro evidence we have, observational knowledge of COVID-19, as well as studies from similar viruses, we can offer commonsense recommendations for strengthening your ‘roof’.
First, what not to do when there is a positive case of COVID-19 (or when all symptoms point to it): avoid use of immune stimulators, agents which increase cytokines which can fuel the ‘cytokine storm’. Many of the most serious cases of COVID-19 involve this runaway immune reaction. So, caution on sambucus nigra (elderberry), polysaccharide extracts from medicinal mushrooms, echinacea, larch arabinogalactan, and Vitamin D. Note that all of these help to PREVENT initial viral attacks, but are not useful in later stages when the virus already has a strong foothold.
The Institute for Functional Medicine has released a list of botanical and nutraceutical agents that are beneficial, courtesy of a task force headed by Patrick Hanaway MD, who is the founding medical director of the Functional Medicine Center of Cleveland Clinic and now heads their research development. Click here to see their “COVID-19: Botanical and Nutraceutical Recommendations for Patients”.
Evidence in the world of virology has shown that curcumin (doses shown in above link), Quercetin, zinc, N-Acetylcysteine (NAC), Vitamins A, C, and D, melatonin, elderberry, Palmitoylethanolamide (PEA), green tea, and resveratrol to all be extremely protective and proactive in the world of optimizing immune health. Remember that certain of these, as explained above, should be discontinued if symptoms of an active infection do appear!
To be very technical for just a moment it is important to remind you that, to date, there are no proven, evidence-based prevention or treatment strategies for COVID-19 infections.
However - observationally, having treated many (via telemedicine conferencing) who have proven or suspected COVID-19 cases, I can confidently state that patients do very well on these protocols and that the functional medicine approach is very well equipped to handle the current outbreak and future outbreaks.
Health care should be all about optimizing health to equip you to resist calamities, preemptively. When calamity does strike regardless, then the standard medicine model needs to kick in.
Maybe your first defense is not so much the hospital but what happens every time you eat, relax, sleep, exercise, and live well.
Happy journeying towards excellent health!