The Coronavirus and Traditional Chinese Medicine

It is strange days we live in. This is the most common sentence you hear these days. Strange indeed, no one has experienced anything like this before. To add to the confusion, things are changing fast. I actually wrote this blog two weeks ago ( can you remember these innocent days before the shutdown?). Its publication has been delayed as the person who proofreads my posts (English not being my first language) was not available. Reading it again last night, I had to re-write the introduction. It seemed dated and slightly light hearted. When this is all over, and clever epidemiologists study all the figures of this epidemic carefully and thoroughly, I think that they will come to us with some interesting conclusions. However, it is probably not the time to pretend we know what is right and what is wrong regarding the reaction to the virus (government, media and people), since it is quite clear that nobody really knows. The only thing we can do is watch it unfold (and follow government instructions of course). 

In any case, it is here:  it has to take its course and complete its cycle. This is always the case with viral epidemics. They have a start, a peak and then an end. The honest truth is that there is not much we can do to affect this cycle; however we can probably have some effect on the scale of the cycle. Viruses are a strange phenomenon. A virus consists only of one small strand of DNA or RNA surrounded by a protein capsule, that’s it. I am not sure you can say it is even alive. It does not breathe or eat or perform any other biochemical processes. The only two things it does is multiply, and interfere with normal human bodily functions, and as a result causes illness. It is because of this extremely simple way of operating that it is so hard for modern medicine to find a medicine to tackle viruses. How do you poison a thing that does not breathe or eat or do anything else for that matter? Over the years, scientists have invented a few antiviral medicines, but their effectiveness is very limited (to put it gently). This inefficiency has been demonstrated in the last viral outbreak, the swine flu. During the outbreak, the government was under pressure to do something positive to help the people. The government then paid the pharmaceutical company £120 million to purchase an antiviral medicine called oseltamivir, known more commonly as Tamiflu. The effectiveness of this medicine was always in doubt, but since there was nothing else on offer, the government spent this colossal sum of taxpayer’s money on Tamiflu. An official report examining the use of this medicine during the swine flu epidemic has stated that the use of Tamiflu by patients caused more harm than good! 

So, it seems easy to point out the limitation of modern medicine in coping with this type of outbreak. But what about Chinese medicine- can it do any better? Chinese medicine’s approach is a bit different. It understands that the most effective weapon available to fight the viral infection is the body’s immune system. It is also accepted that we do not have an effective medicine which will directly attack the virus. The treatment with Chinese herbal medicine and acupuncture of various viral infections is mainly focused on two areas. A) strengthening the bodies immune system and B) healing the damage caused by the virus. A) will be a fairly standard treatment for everyone. However, B) will be different for different viruses and different individual responses of patients. The virus, when already in the body, will stay there for a period of time. There is not much which we can do about that. What we can do is limit the virus’s spread within the body by strengthening the immune system and treating the damage caused by the virus. Let’s look at the SARS virus as an example. The SARS virus epidemic of 2008 was very serious. The problem was a very high mortality rate of 20%, and this includes young healthy individuals. The main damage caused by the virus from a Chinese Medicine point of view was dryness. Lung tissues became so dry that they stopped functioning. By applying Chinese Herbs and acupuncture to encourage and help the body produce more fluids, and keep the tissues moist, the mortality rate among those who were treated with TCM was significantly lower. The same goes for much simpler viral infections like the common cold. The old saying that a cold will clear in 7 days without a treatment, or within 1 week with a treatment, is not applicable to TCM treatments. As many of my patients know from personal experience, with Chinese Herbs and /or acupuncture, we can make the cold disappear much quicker. A different remedy for different cases, but always based on these two basic principles: treat the viruses effect/damage on the body, and strengthen the immune system. 

Can all of this be applied to the current Coronavirus crisis? Certainly! Particularly in the case of this virus, we can see the connection between the strength of the individual immune system and the severity of the disease caused by the virus. Chinese medicine has a few very effective herbs which strengthen the immune system, like Huang Qi (Astragalus) Lingzhi (Reishi) or combinations like Yu Ping Fen San (jade screen formula). These will be very good as a prevention. If you are already infected by the virus, the situation is a bit more complicated, and you better consult your TCM practitioner. For example, I have composed a combination of Chinese Herbs based on classic formula for the treatment of respiratory system infections, with modifications to make it more specifically effective to help with the effects of Covid-19 virus. I hope we are all going to get through this crisis in good health. 

Stay safe, 

Dr Ilan Shahor