Centuries before the first caveman, viruses existed on earth. In their earliest forms, viruses were harmless messengers delivering hereditary information from newly developed life to its offspring in plants, fungi, protozoa, animals and eventually people.

As viruses evolved and adapted to environmental changes around them, they ceded their messenger roles to cells and took on a more sinister role of infecting genes. In fact, virus is the Latin word for poison.

Some viral infections are short-lived, like colds, the flu and sore throats. Others are lifelong: hepatitis and AIDS (which many people believe is caused by the Human Immunodeficiency Virus). Collectively, viral infections represent the prime reason people visit doctors for medical care.

Throughout history, viral epidemics have plagued mankind and proven more powerful than the mightiest of armies. A flu epidemic wiped out Charlemagne’s army in 876 AD. Thousands of American colonists in the 1720s died after being exposed to a flu virus. The Spanish Flu of 1918 killed more than 22 million people worldwide. The Hong Kong flu killed more than 70,000 Americans in the late 1960s. In the early 1980s, a new viral disease surfaced that still plagues us today: AIDS. In the late 1990s, a lethal, fast-killing virus garnered headlines: ebola. Like AIDS, there is still no cure for ebola.

Power in Simplicity

A virus is really little more than a clump of genetic material (DNA or RNA) bunched inside a protein packet. It needs a host cell to survive. Without one, it lies dormant. However, once it infiltrates a living cell within a person, plant, or animal, it taps into that cell’s reproductive equipment to duplicate itself. It makes thousands of copies of itself and in the process, damages or destroys the host cells.

All this cellular debris and loose viral particles signal your immune system to fight back. White blood cells zoom to the infected scene, releasing chemical toxins, fever stimulators and other agents built to fight invading viruses. Viruses test your body’s infection-fighting capacity. As a consequence, symptoms including pain, redness, swelling, heat, fever, and rash often result. Because a virus is essentially composed only of genetic material, you can see how the destruction of it can be so challenging.

Viruses are stubborn and sneaky and possess a keen sense of survival. A virus attempts to bypass your body’s built-in alarm system–the immune system–by growing in areas where the immune system has no access. Viruses also use mutation–altering their identity–resulting in a delayed response by the immune system. They can also cause suppression of the immune system: examples would be HIV and Epstein-Barr virus (EBV).

Fear not. Natural medicine features an arsenal of many solutions.

Know Your Viruses

Viral infections range from the common cold to the nearly always fatal ebola.

Some of the prevalent viruses we face today are as follows:

Rhinovirus (common cold): The rhinoviruses (over 100 strains) consist of a single-stranded RNA nucleic acid molecule and are not surrounded by an envelope. This virus is responsible for approximately 50 per cent of common colds and only infects the upper respiratory tract. Once infected, our bodies make a specific antibody to avoid re-infection to this strain.

Influenza (Flu): There are three classifications of the influenza virus: A,B and C. The most common cause of the flu is Influenza A. It often occurs in epidemics during the late fall or early winter. The highest incidence of the flu is in school children. The incubation period is 48 hours. Acute symptoms usually subside in two to three days. Chills, fever, headache and muscular aches and pains are the most common initial symptoms followed by a severe cough. Persons at risk for serious complications include those with chronic pulmonary disease, valvular heart disease or heart disease.

Hepatitis viruses (cause inflammation of the liver): The incubation period of hepatitis A is about 30 (15-50) days and is a self-limiting infection. Acute symptoms are usually mild to moderate. It is spread by fecal-oral contamination and close personal contact.

The incubation period of hepatitis B is approximately 90 (21-180) days. The severity of the chronic symptoms range from moderate to severe. It is commonly transferred through blood (the virus can live up to two weeks outside of the body), blood products, sexual intercourse or close personal contact. About 10 percent of those infected are carriers with no symptoms. About five to 10 percent of those infected suffer from chronic hepatitis development.

The incubation period of hepatitis C is 20-90 days. The symptoms are moderate to severe and become chronic in more than 50 percent of those infected. It is transmitted the same way as hepatitis B. Infected persons may not show symptoms.

Hepatitis D only occurs along with hepatitis B co-infection and has an incubation period of 30-50 days and the symptoms range from moderate to severe. Because it is linked to hepatitis B, it can become chronic. See hepatitis B for transmission.

Epstein-Barr virus (EBV): EBV is responsible for infectious mononucleosis (IM). The virus has an affinity for the B-lymphocytes of the immune system. In IM, the infected individual has a fever, sore throat, enlarged lymph nodes throughout the body, enlargement of the spleen and some liver impairment.

Human Immunodeficiency virus (HIV): HIV specifically attacks the immune system (CD4+ T-helper cells) and allows other infections and/or diseases to develop (like fungal infections and pneumonia).

Herbal Allies

Antibiotics are ineffective for viral infections since they work by destroying the specialized structures of bacteria.

Fortunately, Mother Nature provides an arsenal of medicinal herbs to assist your immune system in its fight against viruses. Echinacea, astragalus, reishi, lomatium and licorice root head my list of the most powerful viral-fighting herbs. In addition, maitake (and other medicinal mushrooms), elderberry, olive leaf, and St John’s wort exhibit strong antiviral actions. They also work wonderfully against flu viruses.

I often recommend my patients use a blend of echinacea, astragalus, reishi, lomatium and licorice root.

Echinacea (also known as purple coneflower) is one of the most widely studied herbs. Tests have repeatedly demonstrated that one of its key ingredients, alkylamides, reduces inflammation and fevers plus boosts white cell production. White blood cells, as we mentioned in the beginning of this book, are part of your body’s infantry that surround and eat foreign invaders such as bacteria and viruses. Another active ingredient in echinacea–polysaccharides–speeds production of a natural protein called interferon. This special protein is secreted by infected host cells to stop the viral invader from spreading to adjacent cells.

Astragalus, a mighty member of the bean family, has been shown to boost the immune system and inhibit certain viruses, such as the Cocksackie B virus. It enjoys a long history of preventing and treating colds and various other respiratory-related conditions.

If you love mushrooms, reishi offers an added medicinal bonus. The reddish-orange type is the best choice because its polysaccharides contain the highest levels of immune-stimulating properties. Studies confirm reishi’s good results, especially in treating hepatitis and bronchitis.

Lomatium, a member of the parsley family, is a potent modulator of the immune system. It is a favorite amongst herbalists for colds, flus, and other viral infections.

Genuine licorice root, not that red candy that shares the same name, has been a key ingredient in most Chinese herbal formulas for more than 3,000 years. Research indicates that licorice’s two primary ingredients-glycyrrhizin and glycyrrhetinic acid–boost production of interferon. Active ingredients- hypericin and pseudohypericin, are phytochemicals that display strong antiviral properties enough to overpower herpes simplex viruses type 1 and 2, certain flu viruses (influenza A and B), and EBV.

About the Author

Excerpted with permission from Dr Stengler's book Nature's Virus Killers.