A virus is an infectious agent quite different from bacteria.
A virus cannot replicate and multiply without a host cell to do its bidding. It replicates by infecting a cell and high-jacking the cell’s genetic machinery to reproduce. New copies of the virus are assembled inside the cell which eventually burst out, destroying the host cell.
And then the replication process begins all over again.
There are many types of viruses that are associated with a wide range of diseases.
Viruses are classified as either ‘enveloped’ or ‘naked’, depending on whether the protein shell (called a ‘capsid’) is surrounded by an outer membrane.
The makeup of the virus affects its ability to spread.
Viruses can be transmitted via direct contact with an infected person (or animal), saliva via cough or sneeze propagating droplets into the air, sexual contact, contaminated food or water and in some cases via insects.
The effects of viruses vary; some can cause deadly disease while others do not produce any symptoms.
Immunity Against Viral Infection
When the body encounters a viral infection, the immune system launches a number of defense responses to eliminate the virus.
- Lymphocytes play an important role in these responses.
- B cells synthesize antibodies that bind and neutralize the virus while various types of T cells are produced to destroy the virus.
- Cytotoxic T cells, natural killer (NK) cells, and viral macrophages recognize and kill virus-infected cells.
- Helper T cells can recognize virus-infected cells and produce a number of important chemicals called cytokines which play important roles in fighting viral infections.
Conventional Treatment of Viral Infection
Conventional treatment for viruses offers two solutions:
- Vaccination (for prevention)
- Antiviral medication after infection
Antiviral drugs act by inhibiting viral replication, helping the body’s innate immune mechanisms to neutralize the virus.
Antiviral drugs are effective against some, but not all viral infections. Side effects of antivirals vary depending on the medication but can include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, headache, fatigue and muscle and joint pain.
Functional Medicine Management of Viral Infection
In Functional Medicine, we emphasize the importance of maintaining a healthy immune system to:
- Reduce risk of infection
- Minimize symptoms, promote immune defenses and prevent complications
Functional Medicine takes a comprehensive approach to the prevention and management of viral infections.
This includes addressing any current immune challenges or chronic inflammation which may inhibit a robust immune response to any new viral exposure. We address all aspects of a patient’s health and lifestyle that impacts risk of infection and ability to fend off a viral attack.
Gut Immune Defense
The first defense against viral infections is a healthy immune response.
Since about 70-80% of your immune system is located in your GI tract, a healthy gut lining where these immune cells reside and a well-balanced gut flora that interact with these immune cells and protect our GI tract against pathogens, play a critical role in immune defense.
Antibodies (called secretory IgA) are produced in the intestinal lining which protect the body from various pathogens and toxic compounds in the gut.
The health of the GI tract is critical to overall immune health.
Diet, Nutrition and Lifestyle
Diet plays an important role in immune health.
- A plant-based high-fiber diet rich in fruit, vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds together with fish and seafood, has been shown to improve both gut and immune health
- A processed food diet high in sugars and processed fats diminishes immune health.
The immune system, like any other system in the body, requires a wide variety of vitamins, minerals and other nutrients to function optimally. Vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin D, N-acetylcysteine or glutathione, zinc, selenium, and essential fatty acids appear to be the most important.
- Adequate sleep is crucial to allow our immune system to rejuvenate
- Regular physical exercise is essential to maintain immune health
- Stress management is important as chronic stress suppresses immune responses
- Minimizing exposure to environmental toxins, cigarette smoke and heavy metals also interfere with the immune system
There are a number of herbs and plant compounds that have been shown to have antiviral activity, which includes inhibiting viral replication, increasing innate and adaptive immune responses (ie: NK cells and cytotoxic T cells which help fight viruses) and protecting against oxidative stress and inflammation resulting in increased immune resistance and improved recovery from infection.
Effective antiviral herbs include echinacea, astragalus, eleuthero, cat’s claw, berberine, Chinese skullcap, Japanese honeysuckle, elderberry, olive leaf, andrographis, licorice, St. John’s wort and thuja occidentalis to name a few.
While most studies on these herbs have been in vitro or in vivo animal studies, there are human trials and a large body of empirical evidence supporting the use of these herbs in increased ability to fight viral infections.
Summary of the Functional Medicine Approach to Viral Infection
- Optimize intestinal lining health and gut flora balance
- Adopt a plant-based diet rich in fruits and vegetables and fish and seafood, avoiding meat and processed meat and all over processed foods
- Optimize intake of immune-support nutrients (vitamins A, C, E, zinc, selenium, NAC, etc.)
- Ensure adequate sleep and exercise
- Minimize stress
- Avoid environmental toxins, cigarettes and heavy metals (including dental amalgams)
- Consider antiviral herbs for prevention or management of viral infection (consult with herbalist for best results)