Coronavirus - a pandemic or simply pandemonium?
by Ian Craig
in Blogs

I’m sitting here in my Johannesburg clinic, watching hordes of people walk past my window wearing masks, as they head for the pathology lab around the corner. The sci-fi sensation that I am feeling simply reflects the current world mayhem, a week after the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the coronavirus COVID-19 outbreak a global pandemic, and a few days after our president, Cyril Ramaphosa, outlined our country’s aggressive steps to suppress its spread.

Knowing what I know about our extremely resourceful immune system, I feel compelled to share my thoughts about how you can keep yourself healthy at this time.

My first message is: DON’T PANIC….! There is no need to buy 100 rolls of toilet paper and 10 litres of hand sanitiser and then hide away from life! One of the images in the UK Times newspaper last week was a caricature of Boris Johnson wheeling two supermarket trolleys into Number 10 – one of them contained toilet paper and the other was full to the brim with brown trousers – that image made me smile! Instead of stockpiling loo roll, you’d be better advised to spend your money on lots of fresh fruit and vegetables, to get into the sun more often (a significant source of immune-supporting vitamin D) and still see your friends – although perhaps refrain from shaking hands and giving slobbery kisses (one of the rumours why the virus spread so quickly in Italy)!

According to data from WHO, the new COVID-19 strain of Coronavirus produces the symptoms of a dry cough and fever in most recipients, and fatigue and/or sputum production in around a third of cases, plus a number of less common symptoms. The incubation period, based on the studied patients in China, can vary between 1 and 14 days, and the period from onset until clinical recovery is about two weeks in mild cases, and three to six weeks in critical cases. Again, according to WHO, about 80 per cent of all reported cases have been mild in physical impact and 2.3 per cent have died from the infection. However, they also acknowledged that the true total number of cases is likely much higher than the number of confirmed cases, which would dilute the mortality rate substantially.

So, based on averaged-out statistics, you probably have less than a 1 in 100 chance of dying if you contract the virus. But, looking again at the WHO statistics, there are two main factors that predispose you to a fatal outcome from COVID-19:

  • - Being over 70 in age, which is why the UK may soon be imposing self-isolation rules on over 70’s: however, based on the WHO data, it is actually the over 80’s who are more at risk.
    - Having an underlying health condition: i.e. already being immune-compromised. From the WHO data, people who already had cardiovascular disease, diabetes, chronic respiratory disease, hypertension and cancer were substantially more at risk.

In summary, almost all people who have contracted COVID-19 have successfully recovered without any vaccinations being developed yet – in other words, the patients’ immune systems have done what is necessary to get better.

Control measures

So, compared to the fears of all these masked worriers outside my window, the risks are actually quite low if you are otherwise in a reasonably healthy state. Why then is the world in such a panic? One point that has been made is that compared to previous viral outbreaks, such as SARS in 2003 (also a coronavirus originating from China) and swine flu in 2009/2010 (an influenza viral strain, first detected in the US), social media is now a commonplace communication method, meaning an extremely rapid spread of fear among the masses. Incidentally, the severity and incidence (to-date) of swine flu was much worse than COVID-19, but I certainly don’t remember such mass hysteria.

Second, in addition to being seen to do the “right thing”, governments are imposing restrictive actions to try and reduce the infection rate so that health departments don’t become overloaded all in one go – since COVID-19 is a respiratory-based infection, people who become extremely sick may require specialised equipment, such as ventilators, which are obviously in finite supply.

The germ versus the terrain

Now, let’s move on to a class 101 understanding of our immune system. In addition to avoiding contact with anybody whose cousin’s uncle might have been near somebody who has flown overseas recently, it is a good idea to look after yourself. I’m sorry to say this, but only you can do that…

The immune system is an incredibly complex system, something that only nature could come up with, but thankfully it is fairly easy to simplify the most important messages. Our immune system represents a two-way street between the microorganisms (the ‘germ’) and our body (the ‘terrain’) – no matter how much we research and understand a specific bug, we are unable to determine the effect that it will have on one particular person. That would depend on the person’s genetics, food quality, exercise patterns, sleep sufficiency, stress levels and response to it, plus environmental factors such as daily exposure to pollution and toxicity. In other words; their big picture of health.

If we backtrack 200 years, as discussed in Robin Needes’s excellent book You Don’t Have to Feel Unwell!, we had two prominent French medical scientists, named Pierre Béchamp and Louis Pasteur around this time. Béchamp was actually the first person to discover airborne microbes and he went on to understand that healthy cells contained living organisms, that could evolve into bacteria, but only under unhealthy conditions. He therefore considered these organisms (in each and every one of our cells) to be a basic requirement of life, noting that disruption of them could lead to disease. Later on, another medical personality from the time, Bernard, described the actual environment that affected these changes in health, including how the nature of the microorganisms change as the body moves from an alkaline to an acidic pH.

As the story goes, Louis Pasteur stole Béchamp’s work, and to this day the common belief is that he was the person to discover airborne microbes. He is also often wrongly credited as the person who identified penicillin as an effective antibiotic treatment. Also, unlike Béchamp, he did not proceed further to try and understand the relationship between the bug and the body (which they called the ‘terrain’), and theorised that all disease was caused by these microbes. Because he was a better marketer than Béchamp and Bernard, his viewpoint prevailed during these times, and unfortunately still does to this day within standard medical practices – obviously this belief has been propagated by the pharmaceutical industry, who sell an awful lot of antibiotics every year. To finish this story of historical rivalry, which is very much mirrored by what is happening in orthodox medicine today, apparently Louis Pasteur said on his death bed: “Bernard was right; the terrain is everything, the germ is nothing.”

Within my field of nutritional therapy, plus complimentary practices such as naturopathy, functional and integrative medicine, homeopathy, plus many others, we focus on the body’s own immune system as absolute priority in any case. We are all exposed to numerous infectious microbes on a daily basis – it is just not practical to avoid touching door handles and other shared surfaces, and we will offend people by not shaking their hand or giving them a hug or kiss when we greet them… in the long term. But this COVID-19 virus is not just going to sweep through our world and then die – it will be in circulation for a long time, just as swine flu was and still is. I have met several people who contracted swine flu several years after it hit pandemic levels. Predictably, those individuals who were otherwise reasonably healthy at the time sailed through unscathed, and those who were immune-compromised due to life stresses and poor personal care experienced a tough ride.

How do we support our immune system?

If you’ve followed me so far, you’ll not be able to hide from the fact that you need to look after your own immune health at this time – then hopefully you can relax a bit, knowing that you’re not going to be unduly affected by this virus (even if you do contract it).

First and foremost, our immune system is dependent on many nutrients, which are best found in our food, although supplementation is also a sensible step. Here is a list of some important ones and where to find them:

  • - Vitamin C – one of the most important immune-system boosters. It is found in good quantities in oranges, grapefruits, tangerines, strawberries, bell peppers, spinach, kale and broccoli.
    - Vitamin D – vitally important for regulation and balance of the immune system. It is found in fish, dairy, eggs, shiitake mushrooms and, of course, sun exposure.
    - Vitamin E – an antioxidant that protects the immune system. It is found in seeds, nuts, avocado, spinach, and other leafy greens.
    - Selenium – plays a vital role in the glutathione antioxidant system in our body. It is found in good quantities in fish, poultry, red meat and Brazil nuts.
    - Zinc – important for enzymes within the immune system for biochemical processes to proceed. It is found in nuts, seeds, quinoa, lentils, fish, poultry and red meat.

Herbs can also have a very powerful effect on our immune system. For example, my ‘go-to’ concoction for immune support is vitamin C, zinc and echinacea. In terms of viral protection, I would also strongly recommend andrographis and cat’s claw. If you are concerned about your own immune strength, one of the best things you can do is to consult a herbalist or homeopath who can put together a bespoke blend of herbs and/or homeopathic remedies for you.

These are some more general tips for immune support:

  • - Avoid excessive sugar, caffeine and alcohol in your diet
    - Minimise your chemical exposure, including toiletries and cleaning products. Ironically, the harsh sanitisers now in use can negatively influence our mucosal membranes (including our lungs), so use at your own discretion
    - Avoid excessive volumes and intensities of exercise, which is understood to create immune suppression
    - Likewise, don’t work too hard at this time (a good excuse to give your boss!)
    - Minimise processed foods – stay as fresh as possible, so if you’ve stockpiled tins, leave them in the cupboard until you absolutely need to rely on them
    - Breathe well – this is a great time for yoga, Tai Chi, meditation and mindfulness

Now, with so much commotion at the moment, many of us are extremely worried about our own health and that of our nations. Stress is associated with the hormones adrenaline and cortisol. In the short term, stress hormones can actually prop up our immune response (think of the overworked executive who fights off a cold until he goes on holiday, where he spends a few days in bed). However, over the long term, stress can be highly destructive to our immune response and that is one key reason, in my mind, for the massive increase in the incidence of autoimmune conditions nowadays.

According to Dr. Patricia Worby from Alchemy Therapies in the UK; “stress and unresolved emotions can totally hijack your immunity by triggering a chronic stress response in the survival part of your brain and this can get stuck in your body.” She advocated that we avoid dramatic newsfeeds and look to credible sources of information, including WHO and the Harvard Medical School.

And that is how I would like to end this rather long blog post. My intention of writing it was to give you better perspective about what is happening in the world right now and to encourage you to focus inwardly on how to help your own immunity. Then, even if you do become exposed to the virus, which many of us likely will be by the time it has done its rounds, our bodies will either kick it straight into touch before symptoms appear, or we will simply feel like we’ve had a regular seasonal flu.

For more information on COVID-19 view: Our World in Data