Learning Herbal Medicine During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Before we dive into this topic, let’s be clear about a couple of important details.

  • There is NO CURE for COVID-19. We hope that there will be one someday, but there isn’t now. Anyone who promises they can cure it is lying or deranged and shouldn’t be listened to for medical advice.
  • Your doctor is the most important resource you have. Go to your doctor (telehealth is wonderful these days) before you start treating yourself and to get an accurate diagnosis.
  • To repeat: When in doubt, ask your doctor. There is no harm in checking with your doctor before doing any treatment, and it could save your life.
  • We do NOT make any representations about curing diseases with herbs. We think herbalism is a useful field of study, especially if there are medication shortages during the pandemic. For more information on herbalism, we highly recommend taking a course with a certified instructor.

With those very, very important caveats out of the way, it is time to look at some of the COVID-19 symptoms herbal medicine can potentially treat as well as where you can go to learn herbalism online since it is impossible in many areas to study in person because of the coronavirus pandemic. Right now, the North American Institute of Medical Herbalism suggests treating COVID-19 like a similar respiratory infection or flu because practitioners still do not know specific treatments for this disease. However, some herbs have side effects that can worsen COVID-19 symptoms, so you should only use herbs under the guidance of your doctor.

Once doctors have had a few years of research on the topic, there will likely be better and more accurate treatments. For now, the main way to treat COVID-19 is by working to alleviate and relieve the symptoms. If you experience problems breathing, signs of a stroke or other severe symptoms, you should get medical treatment right away.

Making Herbal Preparations During the COVID-19 Pandemic

If you are already an experienced herbalist, wonderful! You have finally found your moment to shine. Like most healthcare practitioners, there are a few extra precautions you need to take during this pandemic. The American Herbalists Guild recently published a list of recommendations for herbalists who make preparations and treat their family, friends or clients. The full guide is on their website, but some key points are included below.

  • You may shed the virus without ever having symptoms. Because of this, consider implementing a three-day window between creating preparations and delivering them.
  • A cloth face mask and gloves are recommended at all times in public areas.
  • Self-monitor for fever and signs of a respiratory infection to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
  • Use your judgment to decide if a patient needs in-person treatment or not.
  • When making products, routinely disinfect your workspace.

What Herbal Remedies Can You Use to Alleviate COVID-19 Symptoms?

According to Jeffrey Langland, Ph.D., research is still underway to determine what herbal remedies could be used to treat symptoms of the coronavirus. Each virus is different, so its response to herbal remedies can vary. Because this virus is more dangerous, it is important to make sure we don’t have the opposite effect. For example, some immune-boosting herbs could potentially trigger a cytokine storm, which is a life-threatening immune response that happens because the immune system is actually in overdrive.

In the United States, a lot of research money goes toward studying pharmaceutical drugs instead of plant-based medicine. Right now, Langland is working with a team of researchers to look at how 30 herbs respond to COVID-19. While he hopes for a treatment right away, there will still need to be clinical trials to look at toxicity and side effects.

Like pharmaceutical drugs, herbal medicine has to undergo rigorous trials to make sure it doesn’t have the opposite effect or unwanted side effects. For example, China has been pushing licorice as a treatment for COVID-19 since it is effective at stopping virus replication with the herpes virus. Unfortunately, licorice can lead to hypertension, which is a risk factor and potential complication of the coronavirus.

There is also a problem with the quality of herbal medicine you find in the store. Because herbs and supplements are not stringently regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), some products contain a fraction of the active ingredient they are supposed to. In addition, some products are even spiked with other botanicals.

If you plan on using botanicals during the COVID-19 crisis, it is important to buy from a trusted, third-party tested brand or create your own herbal remedies. Because of the dearth of research right now, the best option is to save herbal remedies for other ailments and stick to standard treatments for COVID-19.

Where Can I Learn More About Herbal Remedies and COVID-19?

Watching or reading the news can be scary right now. In Italy, we watched as doctors had to pick which patients lived or died because they lacked the resources necessary to treat people. In Russia, we are currently seeing ambulances lining up for 15 hours as they wait to drop off patients at hospitals. Unfortunately, these kinds of news stories are unlikely to stop until a true cure or vaccine is available for the coronavirus.

While you shouldn’t use herbal remedies for COVID-19 until there is more research, right now is an excellent time to become educated as an herbalist. Hopefully, there will not be shortages of antibiotics or cold medicines in the upcoming year or two. It seems unlikely that there won’t be at least a few shortages over the next few years because of a number of factors.

For example, meat shortages are already expected because meatpacking workers are too sick to work. At some factories, hundreds of workers have had to call in as the coronavirus spread from worker to worker. We also get many of our antibiotics from China, so new steps in the trade war (Trump recently announced that he wanted to add new tariffs and reinvigorate the trade war with China, despite the United States beginning a deep recession.) could impact whether we have access to medications. Most of our antibiotics and face masks are made abroad, so a trade war could end up harming our access to these vital, life-saving products.

All of these reasons are why my family and I are learning more about herbal remedies and growing a Victory garden. The worst-case scenario is that we gained a new hobby during quarantine that helps us live healthier, more fulfilling lives. If there are shortages during the upcoming year or two, we will have plant knowledge, herbal remedies and homegrown food to support ourselves.

Personally, my favorite place to go for herbal wisdom and training is the Herbal Academy. They have an Introductory Herbal Course that is an informative, interesting way to get started in the field. If you want to learn about harvesting herbs in the wild and identifying plants, the Botany & Wildcrafting Course is another good choice. Once you sign up for the course, you also get The Herbarium Membership for Herbalists, so you can access a wealth of articles, videos and other resources. During difficult times like today, these kinds of resources are more important than ever before.