by Dr. Bill Rawls
Posted 4/3/20

As coronavirus cases continue to climb, many people are turning to elderberry syrup for COVID-19 prevention or treatment. But some experts say it could actually make the illness worse. In this video, Dr. Bill Rawls explains the potential dangers and benefits, and discusses other natural remedies for immune and respiratory support. Learn more about who’s at risk for coronavirus here.

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Video Transcript

Hello, everyone. Dr. Rawls here. Just trying to clear up a controversy about the use of certain natural therapies for treatment of the COVID-19 infection.

The one in question is elderberry. There is a lot of talk out there that elderberry can aggravate cytokine storms associated with the COVID-19 infection, and therefore it shouldn’t be used at all. I think you have to put everything in perspective.

Elderberry juice has long been used in folk medicine to treat respiratory infections, all the way back to the fifth century B.C. through the time of Hippocrates. Elderberry is a shrub that’s native to Europe, but it’s been naturalized to America and other parts of the world. Technically, it’s black elderberry; the scientific name is Sambucus nigra, and it’s been well studied.

There have been a variety of clinical studies showing that it has significant value for decreasing the severity and duration of viral illnesses such as colds and influenza. It’s also been documented to have specific antibacterial and antiviral properties, and it’s known to inhibit viral replication for influenza and human coronavirus.

But elderberry, along with echinacea, and isolated medicinal mushroom polysaccharides can stimulate inflammatory cytokines. So what the heck is a cytokine?

A cytokine is a chemical messenger used by the immune system. There are lots of different kinds of cytokines. Some are anti-inflammatory, some are inflammatory. It’s for balance.

So you have to think about the fact that the immune system is really complicated, and when it has a threat like this that’s invading the lungs or wherever else in the body, it has to have a coordinated attack or coordinated response against that threat.

There are many different types of white blood cells, and the immune system is very complicated. It uses chemical messengers that we call cytokines for coordinating that effort. For the immune system to work properly, every immune cell must be in constant communication with all the other immune cells. And they do that with these chemical messengers, which are really important in that inflammatory response.

When you have an infection like influenza or coronavirus, the motive of the virus is actually to move from one host to another. So it invades the cells that line our lungs to reproduce, and uses those cells as a vehicle for reproducing to make more viruses. And then it makes us cough and sneeze, so we blow out the virus and we infect other people.

That’s what the virus wants: It wants to move from host to host to host, where it can use each different host for a mechanism of making more viruses. When that happens, you have this intense invasion of the virus attacking the cells of the lungs.

There are always white blood cells there that send out the alarm. They send out inflammatory cytokines to call in other white blood cells. And other white blood cells move into the area to mobilize a front to take care of that threat. So cytokines are a big part of that.

In the intense part of the infection, you’ve got an abundance of inflammatory cytokines that promote this inflammatory response to get rid of the virus. If that is not overwhelming, then the immune system is going to start winning out and everything is going to start clearing.

But if that infection is so bad that the immune system is being overwhelmed and the cells of the lungs are being attacked, then the response can become exaggerated and destructive with time. It’s like an immune system response that’s flaring out of control.

What happens in the lungs is, the cells are damaged so they can’t get rid of mucus. So you have mucus that starts collecting inside the lungs. And you’ve got an invasion of all these white blood cells that are creating a lot of fluid. That’s basically what pneumonia is. And when the lungs fill with fluid, you can’t move air and you become short of breath, and things can get very desperate.

When you look at different kinds of natural therapies for that situation, what we’re doing with natural therapies is inhibiting viral replication, so we’re actually helping the immune system work better. But herbs also have an effect on the cytokines, and that’s herbs like elderberry, but also echinacea and isolated medicinal mushroom polysaccharides.

Now this isn’t whole mushrooms; these are certain polysaccharides that have been isolated from the mushrooms. And other ones can intensify that cytokine reaction, or if it gets really bad, it becomes what we call a cytokine storm that is very destructive. So if things get really bad, these herbs can actually aggravate that response.

There are other herbs that we call immunomodulatory. They basically can tone down the immune response at the same time they are inhibiting viral replication or balancing immune system functions so the inflammation doesn’t get out of hand.

So some of my favorite herbs for that are Japanese knotweed, Chinese skullcap, andrographis. Garlic is a good one. Quercetin, licorice have some effects; astragalus. So they’re really good for inhibiting viral replication.

Herbs that are very good or medicinal mushrooms that are very good for balancing the immune response, are reishi and cordyceps. When you’re using the whole mushroom, you’re getting a different effect than the isolated polysaccharides.

And then one of the stars for this coronavirus infection is red sage, Salvia miltiorrhiza. In addition, zinc and vitamin C have a lot of value in this infection, so I think they are definitely things to put on the list.

So what’s the bottom line? Elderberry and some of these other herbs like echinacea and isolated medicinal mushroom polysaccharides can be valuable early on, especially in a moderate to mild infection. Elderberry’s especially good for children, and children are not being hit quite as hard as older individuals. It’s also safe in pregnancy. So elderberry is definitely not one to take off the table. And with anything less than a moderate infection, I think it can have a lot of value.

In someone who reaches a point though that they’re having shortness of breath to the point of needing medical care and possible hospitalization, that’s the time to discontinue use of some of the more stimulating herbs. They’re boosting those inflammatory cytokines and can aggravate the cytokine storm. Again, elderberry, echinacea, would be at the top of the discontinue list for most people.

The other herbs however, can be continued because they have more of a moderating effect, and could actually lessen the chances of someone actually needing to be ventilated.

In general, I think we would be doing a lot better with these infections, especially if people were using the herbs early on. When people first get symptoms, adding on the herbs that I mentioned; vitamin C in high levels, 1,000 milligrams an hour for several hours; the zinc of 20 to 40 milligrams a day. All of these things are important for getting control early on, helping the immune system out, helping the immune system not get to the point of ending up in a cytokine storm.

But once somebody crosses that line — and that’s going to be only about 20% of people — but once someone crosses the line of needing medical care, I think we have to be more careful with these stimulating herbs that could actually aggravate that cytokine storm. Again, the other herbs that I mentioned, I think they’re fine to use.

What it boils down to is, yes, I think that the herbal therapy could really be a big asset in this struggle that we’re all having to face.

That’s all I have for you right now. Please stay safe and take care of yourself, but take care of everyone around you too, it’s really important. The more you can protect yourself, the more you can prevent yourself from getting this infection, the better off that we all are. Take care.

Dr. Rawls is a physician who overcame Lyme disease through natural herbal therapy. You can learn more about Lyme disease in Dr. Rawls’ new best selling book, Unlocking Lyme.
You can also learn about Dr. Rawls’ personal journey in overcoming Lyme disease and fibromyalgia in his popular blog post, My Chronic Lyme Journey.