Viral infections can sometimes be a difficult challenge for conventional medical care. After all, influenza still kills an approximate 650,000 people annually (beyond just the USA) according to the World Health Organization.
If the flu virus was an easy virus to eradicate, even with seasonal flu shots, why would it still be around?
Ancient doctors noted that even the same infection can sometimes produce different symptoms, and so herbal formulas were devised to treat the various presentations, while strengthening the host.
Through addressing the immune system, practitioners have utilized traditional Chinese medicines against similar previous viruses. These viruses include the SARS virus of 2002-2003 and the H1N1 influenza of 2009. Therefore, these therapies were considered against the COVID-19 outbreak as well.
How Chinese Herbs Are Being Used in the Fight Against COVID
Recently, on my instagram I highlighted an interview published in JAMA questioning how Chinese herbs can be used to treat viral infections. The study highlighted an herbal formula (dating back almost 2,000 years), still effective for viral infections, that is currently undergoing a clinical trial at UCLA.
One of the researchers commented:
“…Oseltamivir, sold as Tamiflu, which had its origins in Chinese medicine with star anise as an active ingredient. ‘There is plenty of potential there for various Chinese herbs to be useful in treating COVID,’ he said.” (Emphasis mine).
Another researcher, commented:
“Western medicine doesn’t generally need help treating infectious diseases until a pandemic like COVID hits,’ Shubov said. “That’s when we realize we don’t have good answers to treating viral respiratory diseases. We hope our trials will open the eyes of the western world to a rich pharmacopeia of natural substances that we can draw from for many diseases going forward.”
In addition to the UCLA study running, there are smaller studies that have been reported in China as well.
Three traditional Chinese medicine prescriptions that have been utilized against previous upper respiratory infections in addition to COVID-19 include Lianhua Qingwen capsules/granules, Jinhua (JH) granules, and XueBiJing (XBJ) injection
A review published in 2020 summarized these results, highlighting the molecular mechanisms of these traditional Chinese medicines and their potential to adjust overall immunity. The study notes that the mechanism of these medicines have been reported constantly and hold significant potential for further use.
Let’s Look at Some of These Herbal Medicines Individually
A systematic review and meta-analysis published in March of 2021 included 8 studies with a total of 924 patients that explored Lianhuaqingwen (LH) as a therapy for COVID-19. Three of the studies were randomized controlled studies, three were case-control studies, and two were case series.
All patients received conventional treatment and the LH was provided as an adjunct therapy. The analysis concluded that the therapeutic combination of both conventional care and Lianhuaqingwen (LH) was more effective.
The most statistically significant outcome was interestingly a lower incidence of diarrhea in the LH group than the group that solely received conventional care.
A meta-analysis of 154 COVID-19 patients further supported the above study’s findings. The analysis found that the reduction of clinical symptoms (fever, cough, fatigue) as well as the duration of fever, were reduced in the groups receiving the LH treatment compared to the conventional treatment controls.
Traditional Chinese herbs
How Do These Chinese Herbs Work?
These herbs have been shown to impair the viral life cycle and help regulate host anti-viral responses. Jinhuaqinggan is especially potent in these activities. A randomized-controlled study in 2020 compared 82 patients with mild COVID-19 who received Jinhua (JH) combined with standard treatment to 41 patients with mild COVID-19 who received only standard care.
The group receiving the Chinese herbal medicine had significantly higher reductions in symptoms compared with the control group. These symptoms included fever, cough, and fatigue.
An observation of 11 severe or critical COVID-19 patients in 2020 found XBJ treatment to reduce the expression of TNF-alpha and macrophage inflammatory protein-1-beta, two markers involved in the inflammatory cascade that COVID-19 provokes. This finding suggests the potential for XBJ to calm the body’s response to COVID-19, avoiding the damage that those pathways can produce.
To follow-up with the above observation, a randomized, double-blinded trial with 60 COVID-19 patients found reductions in markers including TNF-alpha, IL-6, IL-8, in the group receiving the XBJ injection in addition to conventional care. However, there was no difference between the 28-day mortality of the group. Therefore, further studies are necessary to connect the reductions in biomarkers to clinical outcomes.
China’s National Health Commission notably recommended XBJ as a therapy for severe and critical cases of COVID-19 during systematic inflammatory response syndrome and/or multi-organ failure.
Traditional Chinese herbs
Additional Support for Chinese Herbal Medicines
The Guangzhou University of Chinese Medicine published information earlier in 2021 revealing the potential therapeutic effects of a formula named Yinqiaosan for COVID-19. The researchers analyzed the effects of the powder’s active ingredients on COVID-19’s gene targets.
The identified active ingredients against COVID-19 included hesperetin, eriodictyol, luteolin, quercetin, and naringenin. While you might not be familiar with those names, quercetin is a flavonoid found in apples and hesperetin is a flavonoid found in citruses. Flavonoids are a group of plant chemicals (phytonutrients).
These compounds influenced proteins involved in the inflammatory cascade of damage that COVID-19 can illicit. For example, tumor necrosis factor (TNF).
An influence on this pathway, as well as mitogen-activated protein kinase 3 (MAPK3), and interleukin-6 (IL-6), hold potential for therapeutic benefit. This study was limited to in-lab assay and molecular docking analysis. In order to support clinical efficacy, human trials are necessary.
A systemic review and meta-analysis conducted in 2020 evaluated Chinese herbal medicine for COVID-19. The review included seven randomized controlled trials with 732 adults.
The analysis found that Chinese herbal medicine, as an adjunct treatment to standard conventional care, helped improve treatment outcomes in COVID-19.
These improved outcomes were reflected by symptom scores, inflammatory marker C-reactive protein markers, and lung CT scans. These data points are a variety of markers analyzing a patient’s condition.
University of California San Diego is now collecting participants for a study on Chinese herbal formulas for COVID-19 treatment. Stay tuned for those results!
Chinese herbal remedies for COVID-19
The Therapeutic Potential of Traditional Chinese Medicine in the Fight Against Covid
COVID-19 therapies include more than conventional pharmaceuticals, the above reviews and studies are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to support for traditional Chinese medicine as a therapy for COVID-19. These studies highlight Chinese herbs as a potentially useful adjunct to standard care.
It is exciting to see the potential for these remedies and hopefully, the collection of research will lead to increased awareness and use of these remedies.