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The Power of Herbal Therapeutics During COVID-19

By Katherine Donnelly on

With some extra time on all of our hands these days, we've reached out to our athlete and ambassador team to see what they're up to while staying home and how they are staying healthy through COVID-19. In this article, we speak to stylish snowboarder and herbalist Shawna Paoli to see what she recommends for keeping healthy and sane during the pandemic. Enjoy!


I’m a certified herbalist and will dig into my basic herbal repertoire to give you a very brief rundown of our bodily systems involved in the illness and the times surrounding it and how we can support them.

I’ve tried to include herbs that support multiple systems involved. My intention in putting this piece together is to provide you with additions to your health quiver to help you feel more self sufficient and powerful in the coming weeks - knowledge is power! I feel that herbs have their time and place and right now is one of those instances.

Anytime an herb is marked with an asterisk, it means it or one of it’s constituents has been shown to be active against SARS-group coronaviruses. Obviously, if you think you need to go to the doctor please go, and always check with your primary care physician before taking supplements and herbs. Lots of herbs have contraindications.

None of this information is meant to diagnose or treat any disease. I am not a doctor, and I have never treated the disease COVID-19. Essential oils should never be taken internally and should always be diluted with a carrier oil.

COVID-19 facts that you should already know but maybe you don’t, and that’s okay:

  • COVID-19 is the disease caused by the “novel coronavirus” (novel means “new”) otherwise known as SARS-CoV-2
  • It originally came from a bat in China. Whether it was transferred from a bat to another animal before being transferred to a human is unknown.
  • Viruses are technically not living things, thus it cannot be killed with anti-bacterial agents alone, but with alcohol.
  • The best methods of prevention are behavioral and include: Social distancing (at least 6 feet), washing your hands, sanitizing like crazy, not touching your face, sanitizing surfaces you touch daily and yes- wearing a mask outside of the house (I see you and your hoard of ski masks over there). Here’s a link on turning your neck tubes into PPE from Avalon7
  • This virus is insanely mysterious and there’s tons of stuff we don’t know about it yet.
  • The CDC says it can survive on non-porous surfaces up to 72 hours and survive airborne for up to 3 hours.
  • It is spread by respiratory droplets from an infected person landing in the mucous membranes (mouth, eyes, nose) of another person or by touching a contaminated surface then touching our face.
  • A high percentage of confirmed COVID-19 cases are asymptomatic- which is why social distancing is so important and you should just do it
  • The list of symptoms of a COVID-19 infection is long, can vary in acuteness and include: fever, cough, fatigue, soreness, heaviness, bone pain, poor appetite, loose stools, tight chest, chest discomfort, lack of smell/taste, urgent breathing/panting and a greasy tongue coating.
  • The most severe cases of COVID-19 infections can progress to pneumonia, permanent lung damage and organ failure. Pneumonia is inflammation of the lung affecting the alveoli (the tiny airsacs in the lung responsible for gas exchange) and causes them to possibly fill with fluid
  • Safe grocery shopping, mailing and to go food practices are key in preventing the spread of the virus and safe step by step procedures are available online

Body systems most involved in the illness and current times (not in order of importance)

  1. Digestive System
  2. Lymphatic (Immune) System
  3. Nervous System
  4. Respiratory System

Okay, let's start looking at these individual systems and how we can support them...

1.) Digestive System

The digestive system includes every organ that food touches and a few other organs including the liver, gallbladder and pancreas. It’s responsible for breaking down food so that your body can use it. Digestion takes a lot of energy.

Diet and digestive considerations:

  • While we’re busy killing all of the bacteria around us with our newly adopted sanitation methods, lets not forget that all of those little guys aren’t our enemies! Good bacteria from fermented foods, probiotics and even dirt (yes dirt) play crucial roles in immune function, cognitive function and mood. Be sure you’re still getting the good bacteria in your diet by either supplementing with refrigerated probiotics from the vitamin section of your local health food store, or by eating fermented foods like kimchi, sourkraut, raw apple cider vinegar etc. While kombucha is a great fermented option, you might want to be weary of its sugar content. If you have problems with yeast in the body (candida) try to stray away from excess sugar as yeast feeds on it.  Also, sugar weakens the immune system and does a bunch of other horrible stuff, so just stay away from it in general actually. It's the devil.
  • Be sure to eat plenty of organic, nutrient dense fruits and vegetables, like kale, chard, seaweed, beets, leeks, garlic, carrots, onions, bell peppers, mushrooms etc. Fun fact: if you can get any vegetable in a red or purple variety, like red kale vs. green kale, it will be more nutrient dense. The less toxins and chemicals your lymphatic system has to deal with the higher its capacity for keeping you healthy, so really try to buy organic if you can. If you can’t afford to buy all organic, at least try to buy organic meats, as non organic meats have a higher concentration of nasty stuff you don’t want.
  • Nutritive herbs such as Nettle, Plantain (Plantago), Raspberry Leaf and Red Clover have a high vitamin and mineral content. Make a tasty, hearty tea and enjoy extra nutrition.
  • Inflammation is the precursor to all disease in the body. A little inflammation is good - its our bodies response to injury and protects from further cell damage. But, too much is bad news bears. Fried food, non grassfed beef, corn and alcohol are all inflammatory. Try to stick to healthy, non inflammatory foods and healthy fats like avocado, fatty fish, olive oil, nuts and fruits and veggies. You can also supplement with turmeric or its isolated active constituent, curcumin, to help support a healthy inflammatory response. When shopping, make sure that both of those supplements contain Piper Nigrum (black pepper) which enhances absorption.
  • Excess carbs create excess mucus in the body! If you’re congested or concerned about being too snotty, ditch carbs and other mucous producing foods like citrus fruits and dairy. YES oranges are mucous producing foods and contain significantly less vitamin C than red bell peppers.
  • While a lot of people think raw diets are the most nutritional way to go, all fruits and vegetables are different when it comes to maximum nutrients and preparation method. Raw diets can also wreak havoc on the digestive system, so be gentle with yourself. The energy it takes to digest food could otherwise be going to your immune system. Give your digestive system breaks from time to time by subbing in bone or dashi broth, low sugar veggie smoothies or blended soups for meals. You could even do small fasts to give it a break. Be weary of juicing, - as when you juice you remove all of the fiber from plants which helps to slow digestion so blood sugar levels don’t spike so drastically, which requires lots of energy. Nature creates the perfect package deals!
  • The bitter taste in foods stimulates digestion. Take herbal bitters, found in formulas at herb or health food stores, or any other bitter herb- maybe an herb you’re already planning on taking for other reasons, or even your own home made orange peel tincture, 15 minutes prior to eating to get the digestive juices flowing.
  • Chew your food as much as you can! The more you mechanically digest your food, the less work your body needs to do later.

2.) Lymphatic (Immune) System

Your lymphatic system is a whole other circulatory system in your body, but it doesn’t have a pump (i.e. heart) to move it around, so you need to pump it up yourself! The lymph, aka the fluid within the lymphatic system, along with your lymph nodes are responsible for filtering out and getting rid of all of the waste products and toxins in your body and the lymph contains white blood cells that help your body fight infection. So it literally is your immune system.

Immune system considerations:

  • The best way to move the lymph is through exercise, like riding a bike, walking or running. You can also move the lymph with massage or with a technique called brushing. You can buy a brush in a health food or herb store. When massaging or brushing for lymph movement, you always want to start away from the heart on your limbs and push towards the heart.
  • Stay hydrated - water is a primary component of lymph and is needed to prevent stagnation.
  • I know lots of us have been doing yoga - be sure to get upside down as inversions move the lymph!
  • Laughter and feelings of happiness and self expression all play important roles in immune health. Make sure you’re doing all of those things.
  • There are lots of lymphatic herbs out there that help to move the lymph. A few include: Red Root*, Calendula (gentle mover), Cleavers and Red clover. Drink them in a tea a few times per day or take in tincture form if you want to move that lymph around a little more. A good time to encourage lymphatic movement is when you’re sick and afterwards to help your body rid itself of waste products.
  • Be sure to get vitamins C and D and zinc. Rose hips contain the highest amount of vitamin C in nature - check out my rosehips article from a few years back on the Green Path Herb School blog If you have opportunities to be out in the sunshine, know that vitamin D is most absorbed through the face, neck and arms! Who doesn’t love free vitamins?

Herbs to support and strengthen the immune system include:

  • Echinacea*: antimicrobial, anti-viral. I like to dose Echinacea hard at the first signs of a cold and gently dose as a preventative when traveling. The ethyl alcohol tincture of Echinacea purpurea aerials has been shown to be active against coronaviruses. Echinacea is also an anti-microbial and the tincture is versatile and can be used in a Neti Pot!
  • Licorice* (Glycyrrhiza): respiratory tonic, demulcent, anti-viral, anti-inflammatory, can have steroid-like effect on the body
  • Garlic: anti-viral, anti-microbial, everyone can get their hands on garlic. Crushing it and let it sit for 10 minutes before consuming or exposing it to heat allows formation of the powerful anti-bacterial constituent, allicin
  • Astragalus: adaptogen with respiratory affinity. Can be used as a tonic and put in broths or soups.
  • Elderberry*: anti-viral, can be used as a preventative and taken when experiencing cold symptoms. There are lots of options out there- from palatable syrups to extracts and gummies
  • Rhodiola*: affinity to nervous system, can increase endurance and energy levels
  • Cordyceps mushroom*: affinity to nervous system,
  • Reishi mushroom: affinity to nervous system
  • Osha: antiviral, affinity to respiratory system
  • Arrowleaved Balsamroot: affinity to respiratory system, anti-microbial

Arrowleaved Balsamroot. Photo by Shawna.

Cordyceps, Reishi and Rhodiola can be used as daily adaptogenic tonics to support the immune system, stress response and help raise energy levels. You can put their powders in your smoothies, take extracts or take encapsulations. Arrowleaved Balsamroot and Osha pair with certain respiratory symptoms and will be more beneficial if experiencing symptoms.

3.) Nervous System

The nervous system is comprised of two systems, the central nervous system - your brain and spinal cord - and the peripheral nervous system - all of the other nerves throughout your body. The peripheral nervous system is sub divided into the autonomic nervous system- responsible for involuntary movement like digestion, breathing and your heartbeat -and the somatic nervous system - which is responsible for voluntary movements, like when you decide to make a sweet pow turn. The autonomic nervous system is further divided into two more nervous systems that include the parasympathetic nervous system and sympathetic nervous system. The parasympathetic is what you tap into when you’re maxing and relaxing. The sympathetic on the other hand, is responsible for the fight or flight response.

Nervous system considerations:

  • When you’re stressed, your body enters fight or flight. In fight or flight, your adrenal glands produce cortisol - the stress hormone. The adrenals are part of the endocrine system. Cortisol has lots of effects on your body. It puts you in a state of heightened awareness and has your body running at full speed. If we’re always stressed and producing cortisol, its not healthy and we’re running ourselves ramped.
  • Good news, we can use tools to relax ourselves and spend more time in the parasympathetic and less time stressing out! They include:
    • Meditation: There are many great apps out there right now with easy guided meditations. I prefer the Calm app. They currently have a free resource page tailored to the times. Meditating is a great thing to do when you are feeling overwhelmed and want to quiet the mind and you can do it for as long as you like. Even two minutes can make a big difference. An easy meditation exercise to practice when you’re feeling stressed or your mind is racing is to close your eyes, relax your face, sit up straight, take deep breaths and follow them intently in and out, recognizing where they are in your body. When other thoughts come to your mind, acknowledge them, dismiss them and go back to focusing on your breath. You can also repeat a mantra in your head rather than following your breath. A meaningful statement that moves you emotionally or makes you feel safe is a good bet. Another technique I’ve recently learned is to envision a ray of light coming down from the sky through the top of your skull out the bottom of your spine, back up to the sky and back down to you. After imagining that light and energy, you start to feel it as you envision it move through your body. Its pretty cool.
    • Yoga: Encourages us to use our breath and connects it to our movements. It can be a mellow and restorative stretch sesh, it can kick your butt or it can be anything in between. There are lots of really great online yoga resources out there. My favorite right now is YogaToday. They are doing a free 14 day free trial period and its only $16/month after that.
    • Self Expression: Expressing your emotions is healthy and just plain feels good. Some great ways to get them out are through music, art, writing, and dancing.
    • Practicing Gratitude: Looking at what we do have, rather than what we don’t is an insanely healthy practice. A great way to practice gratitude is with a gratitude journal. Every night or morning try to write down ten things you’re grateful for. It can even be the fact that you have the ability to be grateful for something! Even on the hardest days, you’ll find there’s an alarming amount of things you have to be grateful for.
    • Baths: If you have a bathtub, that’s something you can put in your gratitude journal! Drawing a bath is a great way to relax. You can add relaxing essential oils to epsom salts before adding them to your bath to enhance relaxation while the salts work to relax the musculoskeletal system. Some of my favorite relaxing essential oils are Ylang Ylang, Rose, Lavender and Chamomile. Light a candle or two while you’re at it.
    • Connecting with those you love: Honoring your relationships and staying in touch with your friends and family during these times is important. Checking in on one another and expressing your love and gratitude for each other makes everybody feel good.
    • Doing things that speak to your soul.

Nervines - herbs that help calm the nerves:

  • Skull Cap: reduces mind chatter, calming
  • Lemon Balm: gentle anti-viral, calming, tonic
  • Chamomile: gentle antibacterial, calming, slightly sedative
  • Passion flower: calming, anti-spasmodic
  • Hawthorne berry: affinity to cardiovascular system.
  • Valerian: sedative

You can take these in tincture form, or ritualistically enjoy the tasty ones like Lemon Balm, Hawthorne berry and Chamomile in a lovely tea a few times per day.

Adaptogens - herbs that help our body adapt to stress:

  • Rhodiola*- affinity to immune system, energizing
  • Panax Ginseng*- energizing
  • Astragalus- affinity to immune system
  • Cordyceps*- affinity to immune system
  • Reishi- affinity to immune system
  • Holy Basil (Tulsi)- affinity to immune system, very tasty tea

There are lots of ways to take these herbs. It's preferable to take adaptogens as tonics (everyday). You can take tinctures or add mushroom powders to smoothies. There are also some great mushroom encapsulations out there.

Astragalus can be added to your soups and broths.

4.) Respiratory System

Take a deep breath. There you have it - that's your respiratory system. Your sinuses to your lungs. The alveoli in your lungs are tiny airsacs which change incoming oxygen into carbon dioxide, which we breath out.

Respiratory system considerations:

  • If we do happen to become infected with COVID-19 and are symptomatic, most symptoms will show themselves in this system with a lack of smell, sniffly or congested nose and either a dry or wet cough, though a dry unproductive cough seems more common.
  • There are lots of different ways to approach respiratory health depending on where we are on an individual level and if we’re sick. I feel the need to address the importance of treating the tissues of the respiratory system topically. There are a few ways to do that, can be used as a preventative measures and include:
  • Neti Pot:

    • Can purchase at local herb or health food store
    • Cleanses sinuses, decongests sinuses, a good way to treat the tissues and prevent or treat sinus infections
    • Method: 
        1. Clean Neti Pot with soap and water before use.
        2. Boil water before use - you want to make sure its clean.
        3. Fill Neti Pot, let it cool.
        4. Add about 1 tsp sea or rock salt to the warm water - don’t use table salt. I like to add about 1/3 dropper of Echinacea* ethyl alcohol tincture to the Neti Pot. You can also use other antimicrobial herbal alcohol based tinctures, like Oregon Grape Root or Goldenseal, but I feel Echinacea has a special affinity to tissues of the mucosa and is an all around stand up herb for these times. As long as the alcohol percentage in the tincture is above 60% Echinacea can also make a potent but equally harsh emergency hand sanitizer.
        5. Once you have your Neti Pot ready to rip, tilt your head to one side over a sink, stick the Neti nose in the top nostril and let it drain out the bottom.
        6. Do half the pot in that nostril, gently blow your nose, then tilt your head in the other direction and switch nostrils, finishing the Neti and again gently blowing your nose.
        7. You can do this a couple times per day.
    • Steams:
      • Steams are virtually free and can treat the sinuses and lungs
      • Eucalyptus* is my go to essential oil to add to steams with its decongestant, expectorant, anti-tussive and anti-viral properties. A few other oils that have similar actions include: Thyme, Oregano, Peppermint and Rosemary
      • Method:
        1. Boil water, put in bowl on a table.
        2. Add 3 or 4 drops of essential oil to water.
        3. Sit on a chair with your head over the bowl.
        4. Put a towel over your head to create a space which traps the steam.
        5. Breath deeply through either your nose to treat your sinuses, or your mouth to treat your lungs.

    Herbs to the support the respiratory system internally:

    If you have a lot of congestion, you’re going to want to use expectorant herbs which help get the mucous up and out. If you have a persistent unproductive dry cough, you’re going to want to use anti-tussive (help to stop cough) and demulcent (soothe and lubricate) herbs.

    • Licorice*(Glycyrrhiza): respiratory tonic, protective demulcent, expectorant, anti-inflammatory
    • Yerba Santa*: anti-tussive, can sometimes be too drying
    • Elecampane: respiratory tonic, expectorant, anti-tussive
    • Astragalus: respiratory tonic with immune affinity
    • Pluerisy Root: anti-tussive, popular dry cough herb
    • Grindelia: expectorant
    • Osha: anti-viral, increases oxygen exchange rate in lungs, diaphoretic
    • Angelica sinensis: expectorant, diaphoretic
    • Marshmallow: demulcent

    Tinctures are the best way to administer these herbs. Cold tea infusions can be made with demulcent herbs and feel nice on an irritated throat. To make a cold infusion, put a few tea bags or loose herb in a jar with cold water overnight. Strain the next day and enjoy!

    Fever considerations:

    Fever is our body’s natural response to invading pathogens. In an attempt to create an inhospitable environment for the pathogen, our bodies turn up the heat. Its a healthy response, but too high of a fever can create permanent damage. Go see a doctor if your fever is dangerously high.

    When we have fevers, we want to focus on supporting our pathways of elimination- particularly sweating. We can do that by taking diaphoretic herbs and making sure to stay hydrated and get electrolytes. We don’t want to sweat too much and get dehydrated. Paul Bergner of the North American Institute for Medical Herbalism recommends fasting at the onset of a fever and keeping yourself warm with hot drinks, warm showers, covers and hot diaphoretic herbs like Cayenne, Ginger, Cinnamon*, Osha and Alliums (onion family plants) like garlic, onions and scallions.

    Then as the fever progresses, switching to cooling and mixed relaxing and stimulating herbs like the mints, Yarrow, Lemon balm and Catnip. As it progresses even more, he recommends switching to relaxing and sedative diaphoretics like Elderberry* (berry and flower), Wild Yam, Vervain, Boneset* and Lobelia. He recommends to take these herbs either in the form of hot teas or adding the tinctures to hot water and to rest until your temperature has gone back to normal.

    Secondary bacterial infection considerations:

    When we are infected by a virus, our body becomes compromised because its busy trying to fight off the virus. As a result, we are more prone to secondary bacterial infections. This is where the heavy hitting anti-bacterial herbs come in. When we’re sick, we should also focus on taking herbs with anti-viral actions.

    Here are some good herbs for this time:

    • Garlic: anti-viral, anti-bacterial
    • Licorice*(Glycyrrhiza): anti-viral
    • Oregano: anti-viral, anti-bacterial
    • Echinacea*: anti-bacterial, anti-viral
    • Boneset*: anti-viral
    • Cedar (Thuja): anti-viral, chew on the tips as you walk through the woods!
    • Osha: anti-viral
    • Elderberry* (Sambucus): anti-viral
    Elderberry. Photo by Shawna.

    In Conclusion. . .

    If I could only get a handful of stuff I would try to buy:

    • Echinacea* purpurea aerial parts ethyl alcohol tincture
    • A bunch of organic garlic and a garlic crusher
    • Some herbal teas- Lemon balm, Nettle, Red Clover, Mint. I believe Traditional Medicinals does most of these herbs in tea bags.
    • Astragalus for use in broths and soups
    • Some kimchi, sourkraut or other fermented food
    • Red Root* tincture
    • Elderberry* syrup, extract or gummies
    • Licorice*(Glycyrrhiza) for tea or tincture
    • Skullcap tincture
    • Rhodiola* tincture or encapsulated extract
    • Cordyceps* or an encapsulated mushroom immune complex containing cordyceps such as Host Defense My Community
    • Boneset* tincture
    • Eucalyptus* essential oil

    I hope this was informative and will help you and your loved ones stay well through the coming weeks. Thanks for reading this far, and remember we’re all in this together!

    Much love,




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    • Wendy on

      It worked! I’m one of your proofs. 60 yrs old. Elderberry daily (blueberries), spirilina. It went to my lung, I made the steam with pepperment tea, took echinacea herb… GONE at first steam! Thank you!

    • Stanley S Wong on

      I’m a DAOM practising in LA and I have seen these types of articles many times but nothing specific on the efficacy against covid-19. Do you have any specific studies that these measures actually affect the virus in anyway after infection? Even in China the supplemental TCM therapies yielded no solid proof. I am on the hunt for well done studies in hopes to help people during these crazy times.
      Thanks! Please stay safe and healthy.

    • Obadyah on

      Great job, very informative, continue to do the needful work you are doing.

    • Mary Kolbeck on

      Great job, very interesting read!

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