The science is in: people with underlying health conditions like heart disease, cancer and type 2 diabetes are more vulnerable to viral illnesses such as the destructive COVID-19. The good news is that there are many natural remedies that will support our body’s natural inclination to return to optimal health, while supporting our immune and respiratory systems when we do get sick. Our choices have a direct impact on our resistance to disease, viruses, chronic illness and mental health problems. 

Nature’s own pharmacy

Well-researched plant medicine to prevent and treat symptoms of infections and help you cope with stress include herbs such as Echinacea purpurea, Astragalus, Ashwagandha, garlic, chickweed, licorice root and golden seal, which are all excellent immune system boosters. 

Ginseng improves general immunity against infections and as an adaptogen, also supports the body during stressful times.

Double-blind placebo controlled studies suggest that Echinacea purpurea not only shortens the duration of infections, but also reduces the severity and can actually stop a cold that is just starting. It is effective against viruses, bacteria, parasites and fungi.

Artemisia afra (African wormwood), is a South African indigenous healing plant. This well-known, effective herbal remedy is currently being researched in Madagascar for efficacy against the Coronavirus.

Antibiotics are not effective against viruses at all!

Use spices like ginger, turmeric and cinnamon (a pinch each dry, or 2ml fresh) with some raw honey to taste, to prepare your own hot toddy (taken 3 – 4 times a day) for inflammation, fever, thickened mucous, or sore muscles.

Ginger: has anti-viral properties for the effective treatment of symptoms of colds and flu, to reduce inflammation, aid digestion, improve blood flow, prevent nausea and strengthen the immune system.

Turmeric: anti-fungal, anti-viral, natural painkiller, blood sugar control, anti-inflammatory and immune booster.

Cinnamon: anti-viral, anti-fungal, anti-bacterial, anti-microbial, eases flu symptoms, blood sugar control.

Eucalyptus or peppermint oil: add a few drops to boiling water in a bowl, put a towel over your head and inhale the steam. This will loosen the phlegm and hydrate the mucosal lining of the airways, while disinfecting the environment. Other aromatherapy oils to try are lavender, grapefruit, rosemary and tea tree oil (put a few drops in a burner, or in the bath, or use in a carrier oil for a soothing back and shoulder massage).

Wild cherry bark: often used to treat an irritating, persistent cough that keeps you awake at night. It is also good for people who suffer from chronic bronchitis and for whooping cough. One of its ingredients is prunasin, a light cough suppressant and antispasmodic.

Pineapple extract: contains the enzyme bromelain, a potent anti-inflammatory with mucolytic (to break down mucus) and antibacterial properties. It also improves the efficacy of prescription antibiotics and reduces infection of the sinuses and bronchial tubes.

Quercetin: one of the bioflavonoids, it accelerates the recovery of the mucosa after infection. It also has an anti-inflammatory, antihistamine, decongestant and antiviral effect.

Zinc lozenges: to soothe a sore throat (and zinc nasal spray for a runny nose). Another remedy is to make tea with fresh or dried sage leaves and add a teaspoon of honey. The sage tea will soothe a sore throat and you can also gargle with it.

Managing stress

Stress is one of the leading causes of all illness and disease. A calm nervous system supports a strong immune system. Your body is resilient and has wonderful self-healing abilities. 

I teach patients to manage their stress levels with a daily relaxation practice, where you deliberately detach from fear, worry and panic. These emotions have the worst effect on immune system health! We can learn to stop or slow down highly contagious fear by reducing contact with our biggest enemy – our own thoughts. 

One of the most beneficial supports for our immune systems is to be outside, near trees and water, grounding with bare feet in sand or grass. Singing, dancing and laughter are also therapeutic – after all, your body’s natural state is to be healthy and happy!

Look after your heart

Not only are heart-healthy food choices, effective well-researched herbal remedies and heart-specific natural supplements, exercise and stress management beneficial for the heart, but also emotions of love and gratefulness, and peace from deep relaxation.

Just behind the heart lies the thymus gland, where T-cells (an important part of immune system health) mature. Studies show that practising heart-focused meditation can lead to improved immunity, better sleep, more energy, and so on. Heart disease was already the world’s no 1 killer, and in the time of COVID-19, it’s become even more significant. Along with other chronic lifestyle diseases such as diabetes and hypertension, heart disease puts patients at higher risk for viral infections.

The good news is that there’s a lot you can do to keep your heart in good shape. One of them is by simply connecting with positive emotions such as loving kindness, forgiveness, compassion, peace and deep inner joy. You might need some practice, but it can be done. Cardiovascular disease is a preventable and even reversible condition! 

I know there are many challenges during this stressful time – mentally, emotionally and physically – and that mood swings are par for the course right now.  However, there is much we can do, from deliberately learning to relax and destress, to using nature’s bountiful medicine, to support our health and wellbeing. 

Dr Arien van der Merwe is a medical doctor and author, specialising in natural and mind-body medicine, plant medicine (herbal remedies), stress management, workplace wellness and holistic health counselling.

Address: The Green Healing Space, 16 Hope St, Hermanus. Tel: 067 1166 111. Email: Website:

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