SARS, the Flu and Other Epidemic Diseases: What You Can do to Support your Immune System

Thank goodness that Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) is finally on the wane. Since it began in November of last year, the barrage of media coverage incited mass fear among the American public, emptied Chinatowns all over North America and stopped much travel between U.S., Toronto, Canada, China, and its neighboring countries.

So far, people have been infected and have died. By comparison, the West Nile Virus infected U.S. people and killed them. While SARS is still a concern for the World Health Organization, which led the containment effort on SARS, a larger worry on the horizon for the world health agency is the flu – the long awaited influenza pandemic.

The flu pandemic has historically occurred at 25-30 year intervals but its destruction has been cataclysmic. The Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 killed more than 40 million people worldwide (670,000 Americans alone). More recently the flu pandemic which struck 35 years ago killed more than 4 million. SARS by comparison, has caused less than one thousand deaths and is much less infectious. Dr. Klaus Stohr, the head of the influenza program at the World Health Organization who also led the agency’s fight against SARS and in a Wall Street Journal interview, “We are not prepared for the devastation of a flu pandemic.” “SARS will be something to smile about”, he said.

Regarding the likelihood of a major flu pandemic striking in the near future, according to Albert Osterhaus, a Dutch scientist involved in pandemic preparedness in Europe is quoted in the same Wall Street article, (as sayings, “It is not a matter of it, but when this will happen. I am far more scared of a flu pandemic than I am of SARS.”

These and other communicable diseases such as malaria and tuberculosis are the twenty-first century's major challenges. Some of the problems are the result of increasing risks of disease transmission from global jet travel and overcrowding. However, a major problem lies in the ability of viruses, such as the flu virus, to undergo small changes or mutations that evade the immunity people have acquired from previous infections or from vaccinations. Similarly, bacteria have become stronger and more resistant as a result of the widespread use of antibiotics also used by poultry and meat producing industries. According to some critics, our current medical practice of over prescribed antibiotics which contribute to the rise of “super-bugs”!

When these “new” microbes strike they move quickly and wipe out their victims in their path of destruction. Take the example of the West Nile virus and the Ebola virus – both of which had 90% plus mortality rates! What then can you do to prevent or minimize your chance of contracting infectious diseases while at home or away? Some common sense recommendations:

  • Wash your hands frequently

  • Avoid touching your face

  • Eat well-cooked foods

  • Keep a distance from someone who is sick

  • Avoid crowded and poor ventilated places

But sometimes, you cannot help but travel on airplanes, meet with someone who may not appear to be sick but is, eat out at a restaurant, or be in crowded places. The only thing you can do then is to make sure your immune system is functioning at peak level. This involves avoiding activities and things that weaken or deplete your immune system, and engage in immune strengthening and supporting actions. Outlined below is a checklist of things to avoid:

  • Stress and negative emotions

  • Sleep deprivation

  • Overwork and over-exhaustion

  • Diet high in sugar, caffeine, refined products

  • Under or over-exercise

  • Frequent use of antibiotics, steroids or immuno-suppressant drugs

It is a fact that many people who were exposed to SARS, ebola, West Nile virus or the flu virus never came down with the infection. The reason is simple – their immune system is stronger and better equipped to fend off the viruses than those who came down with the illnesses. I have outlined actions to strengthen your immune system:

  • Reduce stress and maintain equanimity

  • Get plenty of rest and sleep

  • Pace yourself at work and in your personal life

  • Eat a healthy diet consisting of high fiber, low fat and at least 9 servings of vegetables and fruits each day

  • Moderate daily exercise including cardiovascular and light weight training

  • Avoid drugs and chemicals whenever possible

  • Take herbs and vitamins that have been shown to optimize the immune system

Extensive studies of ways to strengthen the human defenses have been carried out for centuries in China, producing a wealth of knowledge on Chinese herbal medicine and its effect on the immune system. While there is currently no cure for SARS, the Chinese Government Health Authority recently released its recommendations for prevention of SARS. These recommendations consist of Chinese herbal medicine formulations as prophylactic agents against SARS and are also effective against other contagions microbes. These are herbs that have been found to contain anti-viral and anti-bacterial properties that have immune boosting qualities. Some are effective in increasing the white blood cell production in your body (they are your defense troops) while others increase lymphocyte activities, such as killing foreign invaders, etc. This is consistent with the fundamental principles of Chinese Medicine, and of “Treating disease before its occurrence”, and “Strengthening defenses to prevent sickness.”

I have listed one of several recommendations below:

Guan Zhong (dryopteris root) Jin Yin Hua (honeysuckle flower) Lian Qiao (forsythia fruit) Da Qing Ye (Isatis leaf) Zi Su (perilla leaf) Ge gen (Kudzu root) Huo Xiang (patchouli) Cang Zhu (Chinese atractylodes rhizome) Pei Lan (ornamental orchid) Tai Zi Sheng (pseudostellaria root)

You can try to assemble the formula yourself or for the reader’s convenience, I have listed several formulas from our family medical tradition that contain herbs from the above list. These were designed as an immune support for everyday use.

Perpetual Shield

This formula contains Ligustri fruit, which along with Astragalus root have been studied extensively for their immune boosting actions. Cherokee rosehip contains large amounts of vitamin C and has been shown to be an anti-bacterial. Honeysuckle and mulberry are considered protectors of the immune system. Fo Ti (Shou Wu root), eucommia bark and dodder seed are major tonics for the immune system which also contain anti-aging properties.

Perpetual Shield should be used daily as a core program for immune enhancement and can be combined with the above mentioned formulas to build a strong fortress against invading pathogens in one’s daily encounters.

Cold/Flu Elixir

This formula contains forsythia fruit and isatis root which are major herbs that have anti-bacterial and anti-viral properties. Schizonepeta leaf and peppermint open and clear passageways and relieve sinus symptoms. Kudzu root and notopterygium rhizome help support muscle functions and relieve body ache. Apricot kernel and white mulberry bark clear the lungs and relieve cough. Siler root and Chinese angelica root relieve headaches. Fermented soybean supports normal digestive function and modulates body temperature. Figwort root helps reduce swelling and relieves pressure. Lastly, licorice root supports proper adrenal functions and harmonizes the body.

Cold/Flu elixir should be taken daily during cold and flu season, while traveling and immediately after exposure as a preventative step.

Internal Cleanse

This formula contains chrysanthemum flower and mulberry leaf which are the major contributing herbs to a famous respiratory remedy popular in China for over a thousand years. Dandelion and peppermint possess anti-bacterial and anti-viral properties. The above four herbs also support the liver’s ability to detoxify. Cocklebur fruit clears the sinuses and is effective against invading pathogen. Finally licorice root, (also an anti-bacterial), supports normal adrenal functions and harmonizes the body.

Internal Cleanse is appropriate for daily use alone or in conjunction with Cold/Flu Elixir for additional immune fighting/support and assists in liver detoxification. Can also be used for a whole body detoxification program.

Exquisite Skin

This formula contains astragalus root and Fo To (Shou Wu root) that are considered major herbal tonics for the immune system and helps to slow down the aging process. Angelica, Shu Di and peony roots are blood tonics that also help to increase immunity in the structure of the skin – strengthening one’s first line of defense. Siler and Jing Jie herb (Schizonepeta) act as diaphorectics, ensuring the normal detoxification function of the skin pores. Finally rhubarb cleanses the intestines and is a wide spectrum anti-microbial.

Exquisite Skin can be used daily both as a protector and rejuvenator of the skin since it increases the underlying immune function while nourishing the skin.

It is a fact that we cannot rely on government or a world health body to protect us from communicable diseases. In a world grown ever more connected, the risks of disease transmission is dangerously high.  However, each individual has the responsibility of self-protection and protecting our loved ones by being proactive in ensuring optimal health and immune function. As frightening as the prospects of SARS and the flu pandemic, we are far from being helpless. Using the steps that I outlined above, you can use them to help minimize weakening your immune system and increase your immune functions. No one needs to be a sitting duck waiting for the inevitable to happen.