Strengthening the Immune System With Traditional Chinese Medicine Amid Coronavirus Outbreak

March 13, 2020 Updated: March 17, 2020
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As the Wuhan coronavirus dominates the news cycle and doctors race to find a treatment for COVID-19, it may be worth investigating the role that Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) can play in helping to prevent the disease.

There are currently “no approved diagnostics, vaccines, or treatments for COVID-19,” the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services said in a press release on Friday. Avoiding exposure to the virus is the most effective way to prevent the illness.

Aside from following the government agencies’ recommendations to prevent COVID-19, TCM may be of benefit to help strengthen the immune system and better defend against the illness.

Chinese medicine gained attention in the United States in 1971 after New York Times columnist James B. Reston wrote about his experience of getting acupuncture in China. Since then, TCM has expanded across the country with about 50 schools teaching the practice and 18,000 licensed individuals.

TCM has evolved into one of the most utilized complementary medicines in the United States, with many hospitals offering acupuncture services.

This shift in the acceptance of TCM in the medical community “has been the research behind it,” Dr. Clasina Leslie Smith, Director of Integrative Medicine and Culinary Medicine at Southern Illinois University School of Medicine, said to The Epoch Times. “Last year alone, there were about 40,000 papers published on acupuncture and integrative techniques.”

Smith, who also practices Chinese medicine, said, “As the literature shifts, as people see what acupuncturists are actually doing and what they’re capable of, then people are building trust in seeing an integrative provider.”

The History of Chinese Medicine

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Medical workers prepare traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) at a TCM hospital as the country is hit by an outbreak of the new coronavirus, in Binzhou, Shandong province, China, on Feb. 5, 2020. (cnsphoto via Reuters)

Chinese medicine has been at the forefront of treating respiratory infections for over 2,000 years in China. It uses treatment modalities such as acupuncture, Chinese herbal medicine, and dietary therapy to bring balance to the body and restore health.

“Traditional Chinese medicine is not static, but rather is something that is alive and it continues to evolve over at least the last 2,000 years,” John K. Chen, Ph.D., Pharm.D., O.M.D., L.Ac., said to The Epoch Times. “Chinese medicine looks at the person from the outside in, so they look at how the whole body functions, how the body works or exists along with the environment, and how the disease may come out that way.”

TCM is based on the concept of qi, or vital energy. It can treat a variety of ailments such as pain, stress, infertility, and depression.

One of the most well-known clinical texts still studied today in the TCM community, Treatise on Febrile and Miscellaneous Disease, written during the Eastern Han Dynasty (25 AD-220 AD) is the first medical literature to discuss the stages that an infectious disease goes through and provides specific therapeutic treatments and herbal prescriptions for each condition.

The herbal formula prescriptions from the text are still as relevant and widely used today as they were in the second century.

“There are a lot of herbs that can be used for the patient, and it really depends on what stage of illness they are in,” Chen said. “The first stage is what we generally call the prevention stage. Those patients are healthy, but they are in contact with people that may have been infected. During this stage, the most important thing is to make sure their body stays healthy, their immune system stays strong.”

Unlike western herbology and medicine, Chinese herbs are less likely to be used in singularity, but more often in formulas to enhance their effectiveness and eliminate possible side effects if there are any at all. The formulas are tailored specifically to the patient’s condition to allow for a better effect and quicker result.

Some of the Chinese herbs used to treat respiratory infections have been researched and found to have anti-bacterial and anti-viral properties.

Viruses that cause the common cold and influenza are difficult to treat in western medicine. As of today, there is still no cure for both.

The Importance of the Immune System

A report by the World Health Organization-China Joint Mission (pdf) that came out in February found that children and teens were less likely to be infected by the Wuhan coronavirus. The 2.4 percent who were infected showed mild symptoms.

The low rate of infection among this age group of 18 and under could reflect a stronger immune system and better overall health.

Chen said, “The reason is the younger patients are generally healthy, their immune system is very active, so when the virus does infect them, the immune systems is able to recognize the virus and is able to produce antibodies specifically to neutralize and eliminate the virus.”

The immune system protects us against disease by combating and eliminating harmful substances that invade our body or fighting detrimental changes that happen inside our body.

It is comprised of two subsystems: the innate and adaptive immune system. Both of the two subsystems work closely together when the immune response is triggered.

The innate (or non-specific) immune system’s main task is to fight pathogens and other harmful substances that enter the body. It provides a general defense against viruses, bacteria, or other microorganisms that cause disease.

The adaptive (or specific) immune system is responsible for producing antibodies to fight specific pathogens that it had come into contact with before.

“Most of the immune system activity is concentrated at the interfaces with the environment and the gut is the biggest interface,” Dr. Alexander Khoruts, Professor of Medicine in the Division of Gastroenterology Hepatology and Nutrition at the University of Minnesota, wrote in an email to The Epoch Times.

Most of us don’t pay attention to how the immune system is functioning until we become sick. When it comes to being ill with influenza or other contagious respiratory illness, antibiotics should never be used as a treatment unless the respiratory disease is a bacterial infection.

Antibiotics do not work for a viral infection such as the flu or common cold. They have been found to cause bacteria to be resistant when used long-term and weaken the immune system. “It is well known that antibiotics (by killing normal intestinal bacteria) weaken the resistance to invasion by various pathogens,” Khoruts said.

A weakened immune system compromises our health and does not allow our body’s natural defense to do its job of fighting off germs.

“In western medicine, when they think a person has a weak immune system, they will just look at t-cells and b-cells,” Chen said. “Chinese medicine, on the other hand, would try to find out why is this person having a weak immune system.”

“We try to treat not just the immune system itself, but whatever that caused the weak immune system in the first place,” Chen said. “Once Chinese medicine is able to exam and treat both, generally speaking, you will have better immediate effect and also long term effect.”

Chen recommends visiting a licensed acupuncturist to help relieve anxiety, stress, and other ailments to help strengthen the immune system in conjunction with practicing clean hand hygiene and other recommendations by the CDC.