• Amy Sumner

Getting To Know COVID-19

Updated: Mar 30, 2020

Though I normally like to focus on skin (and will be getting back to it soon) I always make a point to acknowledge all the factors contributing to my clients’ holistic health, and it’s safe to say that this spiky little virus is affecting everyone’s wellbeing in some way right now. There’s a lot of fear and anxiety over the unknown, but there are some things we are slowly starting to put together, and knowledge is power. I wanted to share with you some things I’ve learned about this little thing referred to as Coronavirus.

What is COVID-19?

Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) is a disease caused by an RNA virus with spikes around its inner membrane, protected by a second outer membrane. The spiky appearance is what gives it its name - a corona is something suggestive of a crown. There are a number of other coronaviruses that affect humans. This virus is officially named SARS-CoV-2, or severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2. The World Health Organisation is discouraging common use of the actual virus name due to the fear associated with the SARS outbreak of 2003.

The original vector of the virus is unknown, but is suspected to involve bats, or possibly a darling little creature called a pangolin. These armadillo-like mammals are illegally trafficked for their meat and scales and have been identified as carrying viruses very similar to SARS-CoV-2. One can only hope that this pandemic will lead to greater respect towards animals and a sharp decline in the barbaric practices endured by wildlife throughout the world.

What are the Signs and Symptoms?

Based on current data, it seems that fever is a key symptom in up to 90% of sufferers. Coughing and shortness of breath occur in about half of the identified cases, while fatigue, muscle aches, headaches, diarrhoea, nausea, vomiting and loss of smell are other common signs and symptoms.

How Harmful Is It?

SARS-CoV-2 is a highly virulent disease - that is, it has a high severity of harmfulness.

Based on the current evidence, all populations seem to be at risk. While the elderly and those with heart disease and diabetes have a higher death rate, deaths and severe infections have occurred across all age groups, and in persons with no known preexisting conditions. This does not mean that those people were in perfect health, and there may be some biochemical / genetic / nutritional flaw in common between them, however we should be cautious and assume that we are all vulnerable.

At this point in time there is no evidence suggesting that people with asthma, allergies or rheumatoid arthritis are at increased risk. Initial assessments coming out of Wuhan suggest that the virus is not transmitted in utero from pregnant women who become infected.

The R0 for this virus is between 2 and 2.5. This is a measure of the average number of people who will become infected from one contagious person. This is quite high and makes it challenging to control because of how quickly the number of infected people multiplies.

Another problem with this virus is that it has quite a high fatality rate. The numbers are currently unknowable, but have already soared above the death rates of seasonal flu and Spanish flu.

COVID-19 is insidious. Its incubation period is up to 14 days, during which time an infected person may show no symptoms at all. A large percentage of people remain asymptomatic (symptom-free) but can have the same viral load as symptomatic patients and are able to transmit the illness. While the death rate seems to be nowhere near as high as something like ebola, the delay in identifying the illness is allowing it to spread at a rapid rate.

The virus is understood to be mainly transmitted through droplets. You can inhale the virus from the air after an infected person has coughed or sneezed. You can pick it up from surfaces and enter it into the body by touching your nose, mouth or eyes. The virus seems to be stable on cardboard for 24 hours, and on plastic and stainless steel for up to 3 days. The viral load on the body however, seems to be much higher through droplet inhalation than touching surfaces. It can also be transmitted by a faecal-oral route, as it has been identified that the virus can be detected in stool samples, even after someone’s serum is cleared.

What Does The Virus Do?

On entry to the body, the virus encounters the mucous membranes lining the respiratory or digestive tract, where it might be trapped in mucus and expelled from the body. If it can breach this barrier it enters the system, stimulating our innate immune system to flock and try to gobble it up before it can do too much harm. If it survives this, the virus gains entry to cells via angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 receptors (ACE2 receptors). The cells that have these receptors are abundant throughout the respiratory and gastrointestinal tracts, the kidneys, cardiovascular system and testes. This partly explains why most signs and symptoms are afflictions of these tissues, and why people with certain pre-existing conditions may be more at risk. Once inside the cell, the virus can hijack cell functions and replicate - fast. Because it is a new virus that our immune cells cannot yet recognise, it takes time for our specific immune response to kick in.

Another reason why people with cardiovascular issues may be at risk is because of their medications. Blood pressure medications like ACE-inhibitors and angiotensin II receptor blockers (ARBs) upregulate the expression of ACE2 receptors. Since these receptors are the gateways for the virus to enter the cells, people on these medications may be more severely affected. This does not mean you should stop taking your prescribed medications - there is no benefit in driving up cardiovascular deaths on top of everything else. If you are concerned, you should discuss this with your doctor. If you are not currently taking blood pressure meds but are considering it, as always diet and lifestyle measures should be taken seriously as a first line treatment. Your individual risk-benefit ratio should be assessed by your doctor taking into account the current pandemic.

Interferon is a cytokine which needed in abundance at the start of the antiviral response due to its ability to interfere with viral replication and activity. It stimulates infected cells to produce proteins that inhibit viral replication within them. This specific virus triggers oxidative stress which not only damages cells, but delays interferon signalling. This allows viral replication to happen rapidly. Pro-inflammatory cytokines are eventually mustered to fight off the virus. This would initially be very helpful but the delay results in a very high viral load leading to an excess of cytokines. The result is lots of inflammation and severe respiratory symptoms. At the beginning of the illness immunity may be too low but towards the end it can go into overdrive, making management challenging.

What Can We Do?

Keep your distance. This is the best and most absolute way to avoid contracting or transmitting the virus.

Wash your hands with soap. The virus has a lipid membrane, which normally shields it from the immune system. This outer membrane is disrupted by the use of normal soap.

Don’t touch your face. Use other hygiene practices like a triclosan-free hand sanitiser if you’re unable to wash your hands.

If you experience symptoms, get tested.

Wash your fruits and vegies thoroughly.

Leave products sitting for 1-3 days after delivery or shopping, if you don’t need to open them straight away. This allows time for any virus on the surface to lose stability.

Get plenty of sleep - it helps your immune system make more antibodies in response to an infection.

Nurture your microbiome (gut bacteria) with probiotics and lots of vegies. 70% of your immune system resides in the gut.

Manage stress with meditation, music, relaxing activities and staying connected to loved ones. Stress increases your risk of acute infection.

Get some sunshine to increase your vitamin D levels, or take a supplement if you’re low.

Take immune supportive herbs like astragalus, cordyceps, reishi and ginger

Take vitamin C and zinc, or ideally get more of these nutrients from your diet. (fresh fruit and vegies, raw nuts and seeds, seafood)

Include plenty of healthy fats in your diet, like avocado, fish, raw nuts and seeds, flax oil and olive oil.

Book in with a naturopath if you’re feeling stressed or anxious and need herbal support to manage these conditions, or if you want to support your immune system but are confused about which herbs would support your needs best.

Consider working on your chronic health conditions and overall wellness to optimise your body’s ability to cope with the virus should it come your way.

Call 000 or go to the hospital if you or someone else is experiencing breathing difficulties.

What Are Some of the Specific Medical Treatments Being Trialled?

Many treatment protocols are currently being trialled on the basis of theoretical relevance and past use in similar viruses. It is impossible to be sure as yet what is working and what may have ongoing side effects when applied to this new virus. Nothing in this post should be considered as medical advice, and if you experience signs and symptoms you should seek medical attention.

Vaccine development is underway and normally takes 3 years to get through safety checks before release. There is discussion of fast-tracking the development and launch, but we would likely still have 2 winters to get through before it will be ready.

Antimalarials, antivirals and HIV drugs are currently being trialled with some promising outcomes. A combination of an antimalarial and antibiotic was found to have very good results in a small trial.

Ibuprofen has been identified to aggravate COVID-19 during acute infection, and seems to slow recovery. It is not recommended to use ibuprofen if you are infected, though other antiinflammatory drugs might be ok.

What Are Some of the Natural Medicines That Might Be Helpful?

Many treatment protocols are currently being trialled on the basis of theoretical relevance and past use in similar viruses. It is impossible to be sure as yet what is working and what may have ongoing side effects when applied to this new virus. Nothing in this post should be considered as medical advice, and if you experience signs and symptoms you should seek medical attention.

Intravenous vitamin C has been used in China with good results, at between 50-200mg/kg/day. Vitamin C is a strong antioxidant that can counteract oxidative stress from the virus.

Shiitake extract was used in similar viral infections from SARS and MERS with good results as an immune modulator.

Astragalus is antiviral, antiinflammatory, expectorant, antioxidant and boosts interferon synthesis. As a traditional Chinese medicine, it has been used effectively in past pandemics.

Vitamin D is essential for good immune function and can reduce the incidence of upper respiratory tract infections, so appropriate sun exposure should be prioritised for prevention and convalescence. Sunshine also has roles in the management of diabetes, cardiovascular disease and other chronic conditions. (read my article on this here)

Zinc and flavonoids may prevent virus entry to the cell.

Andrographis is directly antimicrobial to many viruses. It is also antiinflammatory, antioxidant and has a regulating effect on blood sugar and blood pressure.

Nitric oxide is used as an antiviral treatment. We can indirectly increase nitric oxide levels by eating nitrates - found in green leafy vegetables and beets - and having a healthy oral microbiome to allow the conversion of nitrates to nitric oxide.

The following medicines may be useful to inhibit the effects of the virus on interferon (thereby allowing it to do its job in fighting the infection): alpha-lipoic acid, N-acetylcysteine, resveratrol, spirulina, glucosamine, zinc, yeast beta-glucan and elderberry.

The following medicines inhibit inflammasomes forming, thereby inhibiting the excessive inflammation that can be harmful: Ginkgo biloba, green tea, resveratrol, N-acetylcysteine, glucosamine, apigenin and vitamin C.

EPA & DHA are essential fatty acids found in foods like fish, flax oil and raw nuts and seeds. They are precursors to Specialised Pro-resolving Mediators (SPMs), which can stop viral replication. Our bodies also make SPMs on exposure to a virus. Having good levels of essential fatty acids can give you additional protection against viruses like SAR-CoV-2. Unfortunately, as we get older, become overweight, take certain medications (such as ibuprofen) or develop metabolic syndrome, our ability to produce SPMs from essential fats is inhibited. So it's not only important to get lots of good fats in our diet, but we need to be taking care of our overall health too to allow the conversion. In cases where we can't control those chronic conditions, SPMs can also be given directly, if recommended by your natural health professional at a consultation.

In Conclusion

COVID-19 is a complex condition. As with any disease, it's not just about what the pathogen is doing to the body, but what the body is doing in response to the pathogen, how healthy our tissues are, what medications we take and many, many other factors. We are all so very unique, and our response to this virus, should we encounter it, will also be unique.

KEEP YOUR DISTANCE. We are still learning, but this is the one thing we are very sure of. We need to slow the spread. Prevention is ALWAYS better than a cure.

Keep up good hygiene practices.

Look after your immune system. As always, I recommend speaking to a qualified naturopath before taking herbal medicines or nutritional supplements. Speak to your doctor or pharmacist if you have questions about pharmaceutical treatments. If you take both, be aware that of these three professionals, only a naturopath is degree-trained in integrated pharmacology and will be able to tell you if any of your herbs, supplements or medications will interact.

We are all still learning. There are no experts in COVID-19. We will continue learning every day.

I hope this information helps you understand COVID-19 in some way, and may alleviate a little of the overwhelm. Please take care of yourself and your loved ones, and know that this too shall pass. If we stay calm and act on the best information, we may have some influence on the outcome.

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