Herbs and virology: A primer on Viruses and Herbal Medicine


Viruses are generally accepted as infective agents compiled of a bunch of bits and parts which are able to utilize living cells to reproduce. As such, they are ultimately considered non-living because of their inability to reproduce without using a host. To understand how herbal medicines can be helpful to people with viral infections (or in prevention), it's important to understand what makes them so persistent and "successful".

Viruses are highly specialized. They have an affinity to a specific tissue type, but it is their lack of specificity in reproducing which make them so successful. Lacking the biological need for reproducing a "likeness", viruses reproduce willy-nilly, rife with mutations of one sort of another. These mutations, while often fruitless, can also be the source of evolutionarily beneficial traits which can give rise to increased virulence and pathological nimbleness. Think of a slew of random changes and imagine that once and a while there is a genetic jackpot of sorts, offering up new traits or other advantages. The mistakes in reproduction, coined "low-fidelity", are a fundamental trait in many of viruses which wreak the most havoc as it aides their ability to hide, to morph, and to fool our biological memory. These evasive traits also make the case for our complex, biologically designed medicines to be central in the mitigation of pathology from viruses.

As herbal medicines come from the earth, they are also subjected to the pressures of viruses and have developed the appropriately complex immune response needed to deal with the relentless assault of various pathogens which is inherent to life itself. Herbs, quite simply, are a medicine sufficiently complex to counter the multi-faceted dynamic nature of pathology and infection.

But it isn't because herbs are especially able to target the virus. They can, and appears to be happy to demonstrate their talents in vitro at times, but for the most part herbs have the same challenge which plague drug development -- viruses are often within our own cells and like to hide and morph.There are the more simple viruses which we can get rid of readily, but many of them are far more capricious. Some viruses fall prey to plant-derived volative oils in the bloodstream, or our healthy bodies can spot them and eliminate them quickly. Herbs can, at least in vitro, reduce the integrity of the viral capsid, or prevent viral budding, or even promote internal surveillance within cells.  All of this said, the best way to approach viral infections is to bolster the innate (and adaptive) immune response, to enhance tissue integrity, to foster healthy circulation, detoxification, and elimination. All things we know herbs (and herbalists!) do well, and in comparison actions which are generally a challenge for pharmaceuticals to perform. Yay herbs.

The impact of herbs in pathogenicity goes beyond a boost to the terrain, it goes to the core of the way viruses cause the most harm in the body. When we think of infectious diseases we generally picture the many ways the pathogen harms us -- be it toxoids or blood poisoning, inflammation or sepsis, or any other number of ways infection manifests. However, in many cases the virulence of a virus is caused more by the hunt and chase of the body than of the action of the virus itself. In fact, many viruses which can hide successfully live within us, typically without causing any cause for attention, unless something perturbs the balance. We learned a lot more about this in the past few decades as previously healthy people lost their immune systems to AIDS and the generally benign viruses we carry throughout our lives became cause for alarm.

This hunt and chase and the pursuant cytokine storm is sometime akin to our body using heavy artillery to get a puppy to come out of hiding. Still, our immune system has a job and tends to be fairly single-minded about doingit. And that is to find the virus and get rid of it. sometimes at all cost. The virus which causes hepatitis C is a great example as on it's own it is relatively benign, but your body spends a great deal of energy on the inflammation and tissue damage needed to attempt to get rid of it and you end up with severe inflammation and possibly worse. We are inflammatory beings and primed for a good cytokine fight when we see a virus rear it's little amino acid head.

And this is where herbs really do their magic.

These powerful inflammatory responses aren't something you want to stop altogether as they are effective and important. But they often need to be modulated. Easier said than done with a powerful and autonomous immune system and a whole slew of cytokines, each effecting each other and causing a veritable hive of activity. The only thing which could work is something so complex, so diverse, and so perfectly in balance with the evolved complexity of our immune system that it can modulate the body's own responses to be effective, yet a bit more controlled. And this is where our herbal medicines come in. Many of our herbal medicines used traditionally, and contemporarily, to modulate immunity do just this. Herbs, regardless of the virus at hand, stand a chance in mitigating immunopathologic harm and doing it in a way which won't stifle an effective immune response or decrease your chances of fighting something off for good.

So, herbal medicines can be used in viral infections to not just bolster the system but to modulate the response your body is having to the pathogen and to make your reaction less innately damaging and more effective. A bit like calming down the buzz of that loud hive to a more steady, effective state.

The trick here is to trust a bit in the co-evolutionary magic of these plants. Our models of understanding how they work in complex systems isn't adequate for a true comprehension of their role in virology, so we have to believe more in the ability of a plant to speak the biological language needed in the moment.  And in the case of viruses, these plants carry the phytochemical wisdom we may not find anywhere else.

Bevin Clare