Herbal Antivirals: Natural Remedies for Emerging & Resistant Viral Infections
review by Gregory Luckman
Buhner has written several books on ecological medicine and on the art of writing nonfiction, and one book categorized as poetry. From his earliest youth, he was no stranger to the medical establishment. His grandfather David Cox was president of the Kentucky Medical Association. His great-uncle Lee Burney was surgeon general of the United States during the latter part of the Eisenhower administration. Yet Buhner has taken a different route, regarding mainstream medicine’s hubris over its paradigm for dealing with infectious diseases as ultimately a fool’s errand. This does not mean that Buhner is anti-vaccination: he regards the smallpox and polio vaccines as successes. He just believes that only herbal remedies can avoid the microbial resistance problems that plague modern medicine’s tools.
I first encountered Herbal Antivirals and a parallel book, Herbal Antibiotics (Storey Publishing, 2012), at the NOFA summer conference in 2018. I sort of read through them; they are extremely dense, fact-filled reading. I mentioned them to Jack Kittredge in late 2018 and he suggested that I write a review for The Natural Farmer, but I elected instead to review Anthony Jay’s Estrogeneration. Partly my hesitation was that I felt myself to be too much of a beginner in herbal medicine.
Today, my self-assessment of my knowledge of herbal medicine has not changed. If I were to go to an herbal conference, I would sign up for as many herbal walks as possible so that I could learn to identify some of the herbs I read about: I don’t even know what a lot of the most important medicinal herbs look like.
So, what has changed that I am willing to write this review now? In short, on Thursday, January 30, 2020, the World Health Organization in Geneva, Switzerland declared the new outbreak of coronavirus originating in Wuhan, China to be an international public health emergency. Just in the past two weeks the death toll from the outbreak has doubled and doubled again and doubled again and doubled again. Perhaps the outbreak will recede as quickly as it started, but no one knows as I write this. As it happens, Buhner discusses the coronavirus family, especially SARS, in Herbal Antivirals, so a review now is timely.
To start, note first that the presence of a section on coronavirus illustrates how Herbal Antivirals (and Herbal Antibiotics) differ from many other books on herbal healing, for example, Guido Masé’s The Wild Medicine Solution or Rosemary Gladstar’s several books on herbs for health. Herbal Antivirals and Herbal Antibiotics are much less focused on the big picture of herbal support for all aspects of general health issues, including the modern ‘plague’ of non-infectious diseases.. Instead, they are much more oriented towards crisis management of past and once again deadly infectious diseases.
Note also that these two books by Buhner are so filled with details and so comprehensive that they might be considered as desk references for holistic medical practitioners rather than as guides for the average person whose interactions with the health care system are in the capacity of being a patient.
Chapter 1, ‘Emerging Viruses: What We Are Facing,’ serves as an introduction to Herbal Antivirals. It is a seventeen-page essay covering just what the title suggests. Buhner provides a few examples of outbreaks of viral illnesses around the world in the twenty-first century, then recounts some of the great successes of modern medicine in the second half of the twentieth century. He refers to the triumph over smallpox as “the apex of success of the medical assault on microbial disease pathogens.” He then examines in an almost philosophical way the inadequacies of the paradigm that modern medicine thought that it could use to follow its success with smallpox by similar successes with all other infectious diseases.
The next three chapters could be considered as Part One of the book. Viral illnesses are discussed individually, grouped into three categories: Chapter 2 is titled ‘Viral Respiratory Infections and Their Treatment’; Chapter 3 is titled ‘Viral Encephalitis Infections and Their Treatment’; Chapter 4 is titled ‘A Brief Look at Some Other Viruses,’ the inevitable ‘miscellaneous’ chapter that covers emergent infections that don’t fit in any other category.
In chapter 2 on viral respiratory infections, by far the most thoroughly discussed infection is influenza. Following a four-page introduction discussing the history of influenza, especially the 1918 world influenza pandemic, the chapter proceeds to a three-page discussion of the various forms of the influenza virus. The discussion describes the rearrangements and mutations that make the infection sufficiently different from those of previous years that the mutated form evades recognition by the immune system’s memory of previous encounters. As a result, infection can repeatedly recur year after year and occasionally turn into a new and deadly form.
The chapter then turns to infection dynamics and the ‘cytokine cascade.’ Cytokines are small proteins secreted by cells of the immune system to communicate with and regulate other cells. The discussion, extending over seven pages, describes step by step how the virus enters the body, gains entry to cells in the lungs, subverts their function, and then repeats the process. It is here that Buhner begins mentioning various herbs that are effective in inhibiting the individual steps of the virus’s actions. At times the discussion becomes very technical. As one extreme example, in describing the secondary infection of immune system cells, the following sentence occurs:
“In response to being infected those cells also begin releasing cytokines and chemokines: INFs, IL-1α and IL-1β, IL-6, TNF-α, CXCL8, CCL2 (MPC-1), CCL3 (a.k.a. macrophage inflammatory protein-1 alpha, or MIP-1α), CCL4, CXCL9, and CXCL10 through the ERK-1, ERK-2 (extracellular-signal-regulated kinase 1 and 2), p38 MAPK (p38 mitogen-activated protein kinase), and JNK (c-Jun N terminal kinase) pathways.”
OK, read that quotation out loud three times very fast.
Seriously, one does at times get the impression that he is telling the reader more about penguins than the reader might want to know. But he is not making any of the technical parts up. The book is heavy on references, mostly to peer-reviewed scientific studies. Many of the references are from outside of the western world. One thing is clear. Buhner comes across as a person with a deep knowledge of the subject of viral illnesses and of their herbal treatments.
Following the section on infection dynamics and the cytokine cascade, the chapter turns to the phenomenon believed to have made the 1918 influenza pandemic so deadly: cytokine storms. These are positive feedback loops. (Very bad: in living systems one wants negative, or self-limiting, feedback loops.) In cytokine storms, tissue damage leads to more cytokine release, which leads to more tissue damage, which leads to more cytokine release, etcetera, until the lungs fill with fluid and the patient dies from suffocation. There are further mentions of herbs that are most useful in dealing with this stage of an influenza infection.
Buhner devotes two pages to describing mainstream medical interventions, then over eleven pages to natural treatment protocols for influenza. Here he gets very specific on doses and frequencies for various herbal tincture combinations and herbal teas.
All in all, Buhner devotes thirty-two pages of chapter 2 to influenza. And then . . .
still in chapter 2, he turns to SARS and other coronaviruses. He states, “Of the dozen or so coronaviruses only three infect people.” Presumably, the new virus, now labeled 2019-nCoV, is a fourth. Buhner devotes only five pages to this class of viruses, including one page to his suggested protocol for SARS. But this does not mean that he is giving short shrift to coronaviruses. His discussion of SARS leans heavily on the prior discussion of influenza. Many of the fancy words and acronyms introduced in the influenza discussion and typified in the quotation above recur, this time (with the assumption?) that the reader is a bit familiar with them. Emphasis is placed on the differences from influenza, both in the mechanisms of disease progression and in the corresponding choice of herbs.
This means, of course, that one cannot necessarily turn directly to the section on SARS and coronaviruses and understand it fully without having spent the time to follow the influenza discussion– time well spent, by the way: As of January 31, 2020 an Internet source indicated that 10,000 had died in the US of influenza, including 68 children – far more than have died of 2019-nCoV.
Chapter 2 concludes with a two-page discussion of a few other viruses that cause respiratory infections: adenoviruses, parainfluenza viruses, respiratory syncytial viruses, and rhinoviruses.
Chapter 3, ‘Viral Encephalitis Infections and Their Treatment,’ covers for such infections the same kind of information as chapter 2 covers for respiratory infections. However, the organization is slightly different. Six pages of general introduction include a categorization of virus types, symptoms, and mainstream medical treatments. Then, in a section on mechanisms of viral infection, the discussion breaks out Japanese encephalitis virus, West Nile encephalitis, tick-borne encephalitis, and La Crosse encephalitis. For each virus type, Buhner mentions herbs that are effective for inhibiting specific steps of the infection progression. As with the discussion of SARS and coronaviruses, there are numerous acronyms, many familiar from the discussion of influenza.
There follows a section on natural treatments for encephalitis, three pages of protocol common to all forms, then an additional page of specifics for the different viruses. Finally, the discussion turns to herbs specific for protecting and regenerating neurons: Chinese senega root, Japanese knotweed, kudzu root, lion’s mane, and pink-striped trumpet lily.
Chapter 4, ‘A brief Look at Some Other Viruses,’ covers cytomegalovirus, dengue fever, enteroviruses 71 and D68 (whatever that means), Epstein-Barr, herpes simplex 1 and 2, varicella zoster virus (chicken pox/shingles), and the gastrointestinal viruses rotavirus and norovirus. (Hopefully, no one will have to deal with all of these at once. The range of viruses considered is part of what creates the perception that Herbal Antivirals is intended as a desk reference for holistic medical practitioners rather than as a book for home use.) Mention of useful herbs is postponed until the section on treatment protocols, seventeen pages that conclude the chapter.
Chapters 5 and 6 could be considered as part 2 of Herbal Antivirals, although they are not broken out as such. Chapters 2 through 4 were organized around specific classes of infections. Chapter 5 and 6 are organized around specific herbs. Chapter 5 is called the “Materia Medica.” Buhner offers his list of “the top seven antiviral herbs.” They are Chinese skullcap, Elder, Ginger, Houttuynia, Isatis, Licorice, and Lomatium. Speaking of isatis, a member of the Brassicaceae family, he states, “The Chinese used the leaf decoction to good effectiveness in treating the SARS outbreak there several years ago.” But he also notes that isatis is very invasive and damaging to other vegetation, stating as an example, “It reduces cattle grazing capacity by about 40 percent on infested range.” According to Buhner, Houttuynia is also very invasive.
Buhner also mentions several ‘honorable mentions,’ of which he discusses only Boneset and Red root in detail. He does indicate that there are many other antiviral herbs and invites the reader to please try those others as well.
The discussion of each of the nine named herbs is extensive, including sections on which parts of the plant are used, preparation and dosage, side effects, herb-herb and herb-drug interactions, habitat and appearance, cultivation and collection, medical properties, commercial sources, plant chemistry, traditional uses, and finally, in smaller type font, a description of studies that Buhner found in the worldwide scientific literature. All told, the discussions of the named herbs run to thirty-eight pages. Again, the reader might feel overwhelmed by the detail for each herb, but again, there is a clear impression that Buhner has provided nearly encyclopedic information.
Chapter 6, ‘Strengthening the Immune System,’ comes closest to resembling other books on herbal healing. The format is similar to that of chapter 5. There are only three herbs mentioned, however: Astragalus, Cordyceps, and Rhodiola. This contrasts with the corresponding discussion in Herbal Antibiotics, in which Buhner includes eight herbs (including Boneset and Red root, which are covered in chapter 5 of Herbal Antivirals).
The book includes an appendix on herbal medicine making for the do-it-yourselfers and another appendix on sources of supply for those who would prefer to buy rather than make their own. (There are now additional suppliers, some of whom have recently been appearing as vendors at NOFA summer and winter conferences over the past year and a half. Some of the latter have specifically described their products as being those of the “Buhner protocol.”) In general, the “Buhner protocol” refers not only to the protocols in Herbal Antivirals and Herbal Antibiotics, but also to Buhner’s protocols for Lyme disease described in yet another book, Healing Lyme, that I haven’t even read yet.
I have three concerns about the book. First, one cannot decide on a detailed herbal protocol until one knows what infection one has. But only mainstream scientific medicine is very good at diagnosis, even if it is locked into a treatment paradigm that leads inevitably to viral or bacterial resistance. So, in a sense, one is still dependent on the mainstream medical system before one can optimize herbal remedies for an infection. But what happens if one is quarantined in an isolation ward for fourteen days while the herbal remedies are sitting at home?
Second, I have mixed feeling about Buhner’s advocacy of planting invasive species, even if they have strong antiviral properties. His advocacy is usually presented with humor, as in saying something akin to: “Plant it. You won’t regret it. Just don’t tell the neighbors.” But what if the neighbor is an organic farmer struggling to keep invasive species out of vegetable beds without chemical herbicides? Buhner is clearly writing for readers as patients, not as farmers. More dialogue on the proper stewardship of land dedicated to invasive antivirals is needed.
Third, in my opinion, the primary shortcoming of Herbal Antivirals for many readers is in its very comprehensiveness. It behooves people to plan ahead and have selected herbal tinctures and powders in a home medicine cabinet before illness strikes. No one wants to have to order from a supplier or make one’s own when already sick in bed. But many readers are on a budget. Acquisition of many eight-ounce bottles of tinctures can be quite expensive. But which herbs and what size bottles are most important to have prophylactically as a first line of defense? Clearly, one wants to make choices that are broad-spectrum. This would cover the largest number of contingencies at the least cost. But, given the desire to have both prophylactic herbal antivirals and herbal antibiotics, it is not clear how to select the most important.
Perhaps 2019-cCoV will simplify the choice in the short run. If infection due to that virus becomes a worldwide pandemic, then one wants to have on hand the constituents for Buhner’s coronavirus protocol. But in the longer term more dialogue on the construction of an appropriate medicine cabinet, with Buhner’s books as one possible knowledge foundation, is still needed.