If the nightmare of COVID-19 has illustrated anything we can all agree upon, it is that we in the twenty-first century are still very fearful of viruses and other unseen vectors of disease.
The unparalleled pandemic media coverage of tens of thousands of deaths worldwide from coronavirus infection this year has stoked our panic like nothing before; the resulting lockdowns have changed our lives in ways that would have seemed like science fiction just months ago.
Yet most of us encounter these same killers, including COVID-19, and experience only a mild illness lasting a few days. Many don't have symptoms at all; they don't even know a virus has hitched along for the ride. What is it that makes the difference between catching a light cold from a virus and dying of pneumonia?
A cutting-edge field of research called "neo-virology" is beginning to understand the 1031 viruses (that's 10 followed by 31 zeros) that inhabit our world in a completely different light.1
This study of the human "virome" is finding that trillions of viruses exist in and on just about every surface of healthy human bodies: in our saliva and intestines, on our skin and in our lungs. They even multiply in our blood, which scientists long presumed to be sterile.2
Though they are 10 to 100 times smaller than bacteria, viruses outnumber the bacteria in our bodies by a factor of 10, and those bacteria in turn outnumber our own cells.3
Rather than considering them just innocuous travelers along for the ride or deadly killers lying in wait to attack, neo-virology considers the critical influences these viruses have on our microbiome dynamics that may promote or prevent other pathogens from rising.
A delicate balance
In a 2020 review paper titled, "Villains or heroes? The raison d'être of viruses," renowned virologist Yoshihiro Kawaoka of the University of Wisconsin makes the case that viruses offer unappreciated and essential benefits to their human hosts. "Infection with one virus may protect the host from a superinfection with another pathogen," he writes.4
Like parasites of their bacterial hosts, some viruses burst open and kill the bacteria they occupy, and thus keep them from damaging their larger human host. They also appear to transfer helpful gene functions involved in immune responses and platelet formation. It's true that viruses spread quickly between household contacts, but this can confer their benefits as well.5
Some viral infections are believed to predispose us to other diseases later in life. This is the premise of vaccination against human papilloma virus (HPV) to prevent cervical cancer, for example, although HPV is actually widespread and rarely progresses to cancer.6
Other viral infections clearly have beneficial effects down the road, says Kawaoka. "For example, the risk of chronic lymphoid leukemia in subjects who had measles in childhood is relatively low, and mumps infection in childhood might protect against the development of ovarian cancer in adults."
Not only are our bodies teeming with viruses, but the air we breathe is chock full of microbial life, too—some 1,800 microbes were found in air samples taken from American cities in one study, for example, including some potentially
The background level of microbes in the air we breathe is as rich and diverse as that of our soils, the researchers found, and it varies with the time of the year and the weather, among other factors.
Like the microbes in our soil, the ones our respiratory systems are exposed to daily, even when potentially hazardous, are most often harmless and may also play roles in beefing up rather than depleting our defenses.
We have lived most of modern medical history in fear of bacteria, blasting our "germs" with antibiotics. In the past decade, research has shown us that this global overuse of antibiotics has not only given rise to "superbugs" far deadlier than the ones we began with, but it's also been like napalm on the villages of our "friendly" bacteria that regulate the immune system, leaving us with a host of chronic diseases tied to microbial imbalance.
Sterilizing our air and surroundings of viruses (or wearing masks and isolating ourselves indefinitely, if this could even begin to keep the viruses away), would be no more help to us than blasting the microbes in our gut with antibiotics. It might actually prove deadly.
The crucial role of pollution—inside and out
Researchers who looked at the microbiomes of severe COVID-19 patients in China in March found serious imbalances in their gut microbial ecology. They proposed it's the state of gut microbial balance that determines whether or not an infected person launches a healthy immune response that doesn't do damage to their lungs.
"The vicious circle between immune disorder and gut microbiota imbalance may be a high risk of fatal pneumonia," they concluded. In other words, imbalances in gut microbes may make the difference between those who show no symptoms, those who get very sick and those who die.8
All of this supports the idea that it's not the bugs but the landscape of the bodies they land in that determines how severe viral infections become. Many factors can worsen or alleviate a viral infection, and the major ones attributed to pneumonia deaths have been well studied.
Malnutrition ("child wasting") accounts for more than half (57 percent) of all pneumonia deaths among children under five years old worldwide. But indoor and outdoor pollution come in second and third. Among adults over age 70, who are the second most at risk of pneumonia after young children and first in line for COVID-19 deaths, a 2018 Global Burden of Disease Study cites the most important risk factors as outdoor air pollution and smoking.
In 2017, outdoor air pollution led to more than 300,000 deaths from pneumonia among older people, and smoking contributed to 223,000 deaths from pneumonia in that age group.9
The high death rate from coronavirus reported in Italy is in line with this data. Northern Italy's aging population has a high proportion of smokers, and the region is notorious for having the worst air pollution in Europe, which has damaged people's lungs over decades and has been a documented factor in high winter mortality for years. Air pollution is one reason why respiratory illness kills a full 13 percent of people over age 65 in the region.10
From this perspective—that it is environmental factors and our own internal ecology which determine whether pathogens affect us seriously—we can take courage in knowing that there are many easy ways to improve our immune system landscape.
Here's a rundown of the most potent virus killers and how to prevent or treat infection.
1. Boost your immune system
Nothing has been associated with bolstering the immune system as much as vitamin C. An essential micronutrient for humans that works as a potent antioxidant, vitamin C shores up immune defenses by supporting numerous functions of both the innate and adaptive arms of the immune system.
Air pollution and smoking exposure rapidly deplete antioxidants, which can lead to vitamin C deficiency.11 When viruses attack, they cause inflammation and increase metabolism, and these deplete vitamin C too, resulting in damaged immunity and, in turn, higher susceptibility to new infections.12
Supplementing with vitamin C has repeatedly been shown to both prevent and treat respiratory infections including pneumonia. In fact, the most frequent cause of death among people with scurvy was pneumonia. After vitamin C deficiency was identified as the cause of scurvy, the compound was isolated in the 1920s, and medical pioneers, including Dr Claus Washington Jungeblut and Dr Frederick Klenner, began using it in high doses to prevent and treat pneumonia.13 It worked.
Klenner, an American specialist in diseases of the chest, reported on 41 cases of viral pneumonia he had cured using vitamin C in the 1940s.14 Dr Robert F. Cathcart, a protégé of Linus Pauling, went on to use large doses of vitamin C in the 1960s to treat pneumonia, hepatitis and immune deficiency.
Since then, thousands of studies of vitamin C have been published in the medical literature, including research showing how it reverses oxidation damage in smokers,15 its extraordinary usefulness treating patients suffering from deadly sepsis,16 its ability to lower markers of inflammation in these patients,17 and its effectiveness in the treatment of viruses such as Epstein-Barr and shingles.18
"There isn't a virus for which vitamin C hasn't worked," says leading integrative physician Damien Downing, president of the British Society of Ecological Medicine. Dr Downing points to trials of high-dose intravenous (IV) vitamin C underway in hotspots of this year's pandemic coronavirus, including Italy and Wuhan, China.19
Dr Enqian Mao, chief of emergency medicine at Ruijin Hospital in Shanghai, saw 359 COVID-19 patients in critical care units given high-dose vitamin C, from 10,000 to 20,000 mg (10-20 grams)per day, for a week to 10 days. None of these patients died.
The results have been so promising in China that doctors at a group of hospitals in New York are trialing vitamin C for critical coronavirus patients as well, albeit with lower doses.
The initial reports in March said 700 patients have been given IV vitamin C doses of 1,500 mg three to four times a day, which is 16 times the recommended daily allowance of 90 mg for men and 75 mg for women, although a far lower dose than those used by doctors such as Klenner and Cathcart for viral infections.20
"It helps a tremendous amount, but it is not highlighted because it's not a sexy drug," said Dr Andrew G Weber, a pulmonologist and critical care specialist with Northwell Health, which runs 23 hospitals in New York.
A recent review identified eight clinical trials of vitamin C use in ventilator patients, which found it shortened the length of mechanical ventilation by an average of 14 percent for patients in intensive care units.
Among the 685 patients included in the meta-analysis, by Dr Harri Hemilä of the University of Helsinki and Elizabeth Chalker from the University of Sydney, vitamin C was the most helpful for those who were the most critically ill. Among the 471 patients who had been ventilated for more than 10 hours, administration of 1,000 to 6,000 mg of vitamin C per day shortened the ventilation treatment time by an average of 25 percent.21
"Given the strong evidence of benefit for more severely ill critical care patients along with the evidence of very low vitamin C levels in such patients, intensive care unit patients may benefit from the administration of vitamin C," Hemilä said in a statement.
"If you do nothing else, take vitamin C," Downing said about fighting off COVID-19. "Take at least three grams a day and spread the doses throughout the day." (See the box on page 34 for Dr Downing's full anti-COVID-19 cocktail.)
Vitamin C has been used to fight colds and flus by "millions, probably even billions, of people worldwide," said Andrew Saul, author of Vitamin C: The Real Story (Basic Health Publications, 2015) and editor of Orthomolecular News.
For serious viral infections, Saul refers to Dr Klenner's published treatments of patients who were given injections of vitamin C, ranging from 350 to 1,200 mg per kg body weight, which is about 20 to 120 grams per day for an adult. "This is not a maintenance dose. This is a therapeutic dose for serious vital illness, such as pneumonia."
"Vitamin C can be used right along with medicines when they are indicated," Saul said. "It is not an either/or choice. It is very important to maximize the body's antioxidative capacity and natural immunity to prevent and minimize symptoms when a virus attacks."
2. Lower your viral load
British doctor Sarah Myhill, author of The Infection Game: Life Is an Arms Race (Hammersmith Health Books, 2018), adds that the severity of infections including coronavirus depends on the "loading dose" of the pathogen.
Our immune systems are designed to handle low doses of even potent foreign pathogens, but not with overwhelming concentrations. "Take action to keep this loading dose low so that it takes longer for the number of viral particles to build up in the body," advises Dr Myhill. "This gives the immune system time to generate an effective response."
Iodine, the yellowish fluid wiped on skin before surgeries, has been used as a disinfectant for nearly 200 years. "There is no virus that is resistant to iodine," says Myhill. "It kills everything on contact."
She recommends making a mixture of 10 parts coconut oil (also antiviral) to one part Lugol's iodine (15 percent preferably). She keeps a pot of this available to rub a dab onto her hands and around her nose and mouth after coming in contact with people or things that may be carrying viruses.
The iodine mixture does stain the skin yellow temporarily, but over time it evaporates and eventually disappears, releasing antiviral vapors as it goes.
To treat respiratory infections, Myhill also recommends adding 1-4 drops (or whatever is tolerated) of Lugol's iodine of any strength into a salt pipe, inhaling through the nose and exhaling through the mouth up to 20 times until the smell is gone, and repeating this process two or three times a day.
If you don't have a salt pipe, Myhill suggests putting Lugol's iodine onto cotton balls in an empty jar and opening it to whiff a few times a day, or drizzling 2-4 drops of Lugol's iodine onto the lining of a face mask.
3. Combat stress
It's been well documented that chronic stress—defined as anything longer than a couple of hours—suppresses protective immune responses and induces low-grade chronic inflammation, which is associated with just about every disease from cancer to pneumonia.22
Stress triggers a "fight or flight" response that releases cortisol in our bodies, which allows us to spring into action. High levels of stress hormones deplete our nutritional resources, impair learning and memory, affect our mood and may make us prone to depression.
Ironically, the lockdowns imposed by public health agencies and governments around the world to protect people from the new coronavirus unleashed a global tidal wave of lethal chronic stress.
Apart from the unparalleled economic collapse, with tens of millions of people plunged into huge financial loss or uncertainty, the nonstop barrage of fearmongering media has whipped up a prolonged sense of danger.
Add to that the fact millions are still deprived of many things that bring them joy and purpose and give them relief from stress—their occupations, education, visits to clubs, friends and grandchildren, their hobbies, churches, holidays and all kinds of daily social interactions.
"Loneliness and weak social connections are associated with a reduction in lifespan similar to that caused by smoking 15 cigarettes a day and even greater than that associated with obesity," former US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy said about a large 2018 survey on the impact of social isolation on health and mortality.23
Many studies also link unemployment to increased rates of premature death. Life expectancy was shorter, by between 3.8 and 4.7 years, in regions of the US with high unemployment compared to regions with low unemployment in one study of data from 1990 to 2010.
Cardiovascular diseases, cancer, homicide, unintentional injuries, and diabetes explained 71 percent of the gap in life expectancy overall, and women in unemployed areas also had higher death rates due to infectious disease and pneumonia/influenza.24
Individually, however, we can take steps to reduce stress as much as possible via regular exercise, meditation, positive visualization, enjoying music and art, and reaching out to friends, family and faith.
Again, large doses of vitamin C can mitigate stress damage to the immune system. According to research conducted at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, when stressed rats were given vitamin C, it improved their levels of stress hormones and other typical indicators of physical and emotional stress, such as weight loss, enlargement of the adrenal glands, and shrinkage of the thymus gland and spleen.
Vitamin C treatment also elevated the levels of circulating IgG antibody, the body's principal defense against systemic infection.25
Another study found that vitamin C reduces physical and psychological stress in people. Researchers subjected a group of 120 people to a "sure-fire stressor"—a public speaking task combined with math problems.
Half of the subjects were given 1,000 mg of vitamin C, and half were not. The control group that did not receive vitamin C had three times higher levels of the stress hormones and higher blood pressure than the vitamin C group. They also reported that they felt less stressed by the experience.26
How does a virus become a killer?
SARS and MERS coronaviruses, Ebola, Zika, H1N1, H5N1, HIV, HPV—these viruses have all become modern-day specters of the plagues of history: polio, smallpox and the Black Death of the Middle Ages.
The word "virus" comes from the Latin word "venom," because when viruses were first discovered at the beginning of the twentieth century, they were known for their deadliness.
COVID-19 kills by causing an overreaction by the immune system. When the coronavirus enters the lungs, the body sends immune system cells there to attack it.
But in some people, particularly the immunocompromised, the immune system goes into hyperdrive.
It releases a "cytokine storm"—excessive levels of inflammatory molecules—setting off a chain reaction of more immune cells, which in turn cause hyperinflammation, pneumonia and severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS).
The potential deadliness of these pathogens is nothing new. Viruses including coronaviruses—which account for about 20 percent of colds—have claimed hundreds of thousands of lives every year for as long as records go back.
In 2017, 2.56 million people around the world died from pneumonia caused by microbes including bacteria, fungi and viruses.
At the first sign of viral infection...
Dr Sarah Myhill's advice:
- Take 10 grams of vitamin C (as ascorbic acid powder) in 17 ounces (500 mL) of water hourly until you get diarrhea—this is called "bowel tolerance."
- Inhale Lugol's iodine every two hours.
- Isolate and go to bed to let your body fight it.
Holistic physician David Brownstein's advice:
- Take 100,000 units of vitamin A daily for four days. Thereafter, or if you're not ill, 5,000 units a day (note: take vitamin A, not beta carotene). However, pregnant women should avoid such high doses, says Dr Brownstein, and talk to an experienced practitioner to find the right dosage for them.
- Take 50,000 IU of vitamin D3 daily for four days.
- Eliminate refined sugar. "Refined sugar has been shown to negatively alter the functioning of the white blood cells for hours after ingestion," says Brownstein.
- Hydrate. Dehydration will impair the body's infection elimination processes. "Take your body weight in pounds, divide by two, and the resultant number is the amount of water to drink per day in ounces," says Brownstein. For example, if you weigh 200 pounds (90 kg), aim to drink 100 ounces of water (3 liters) each day.
Linus Pauling Institute (vitamin C resource):
Dr Sarah Myhill: www.drmyhill.co.uk
Dr Damien Downing: www.drdamiendowning.com
Dr David Brownstein: www.drbrownstein.com
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