As infective entities viruses defy explanation and definition, as they straddle the space between the living and the non-living world. Minute in size and organization, it is not possible to view them using the resolving power of even the most powerful optical microscopes; they are much smaller than bacteria and the cells of the human body. To view viruses or to study them, it therefore becomes necessary to use very powerful electron microscopes.
Medications that are effective against most microorganisms and bacteria are ineffective in combating pathogenic forms of viruses. While scientific research has unearthed and developed a lot of antibiotics to deal with bacteria and other forms of microbes, starting with the discovery of penicillin-the first broad spectrum antibiotic, in 1928. Unfortunately as far as viruses are concerned, drugs development has not been rapid and even today, the number of antiviral drugs and medications are relatively few compared to the number of antibiotics. Some of the most successful and useful antiviral drugs in recent years have been acyclovir used in the treatment of herpes, AZT used to contain the ravages of AIDS and protein particles called interferon, manufactured by the human body, which have been used successfully against many viruses.
Supplements and herbs
There is some hope in that some scientific proof points to the antiviral benefits of certain types of herbs that have seen use as traditional herbal treatments against infections caused by viruses.
The several species of herbs of the Echinacea family, which are often used in a variety of roles in traditional medicine, is touted commonly as a potent antiviral herb, this ability may have a basis in fact. The antiviral properties of the Echinacea species of herbs and its action in the body can be explained in two different ways or modes of action. First, Echinacea is very rich in three compounds, which are chicoric acid, caffeic acid, and echinacin; these three compounds have specific antiviral properties that can resist viruses in the body. There are comparisons of the action of Echinacea's root extracts to the way interferon's behave in the body against viruses, the compounds in Echinacea resembling the action of interferon's in their antiviral action. Viral infection and attack is also thwarted by the use of Echinacea, because of its additional property as an effective stimulating agent of the immune system.
Unfortunately as far as strict scientific standards are concerned, the often quoted immune system benefits of Echinacea are still not fully verified by scientists, including the claim of it being an immune stimulant, even if herbalists seem quick in pointing out the immune system bolstering properties of Echinacea. The activation of a chemical pathway in the immune system may be one of its actions, which some researchers have suggested. They say the Echinacea may contain compounds that increase levels of another compound known as properdin in the body, this compound is responsible for activating a specific part of the immune system, known as the complementary pathway, that controls the immune systems decision in deputing the disease-fighting white blood cells, as a defense against invading bacteria and viruses in the body. While the immune stimulating property of the herb has been suggested by other groups of scientists to lie in different compounds contained in the herb, like the amides of the lipophilic variety and polar caffeic acid derivatives. Fingers have also been pointed at a single compound in the herb- chicoric acid, because it has been shown to inhibit the viral enzyme called integrase, this may be the clue as the enzyme is essential for viral multiplication in the body.
The German government has an established committee that verifies herbal medications for the German state, this group called the Commission E, has after review endorsed the utilization of the Echinacea herb towards the treatment of symptoms induced by viruses that bring on influenza in the body. Thus it can be said that the scientific community has validated this Native American herb in some respects.
Another herb from China, commonly called huang qi or the astragalus also boost the immune system, this herb has several species which all share this ability. A Chinese medical test used this herb as a trial on ten people wit Coxsackie B virus which infects and attacks the muscles of the heart. Thus causing an inflammation in the heart in a condition known as myocarditis, the study was over a period of two to three months and the test subjects received injections of the herb during this time. It was observed that in the patients under study, the activity levels of an immune system component called the natural killer cells, a type of WBC's, rose 11% to 45% during the treatment. The body's interferon levels also showed an increased production, especially the interferon's of the alpha- and gamma types. The condition of the patients in the study unsurprisingly showed a marked improvement during the treatment. The value of astragalus in this regard has been suggested by some European studies, that similar to Echinacea, an oral ingestion of the astragalus herb boost and activates many of the immune-stimulating compounds in astragalus and thus improves its effects.
The herb called the dragon's blood commonly (scientific name: Croton lechleri) is also known to have antiviral abilities. Other common names of the herb are sangre de drago or sangregrado and it is identified in this way as well. Viral sores caused during infection form the herpes virus can be specifically treated using this herb as several of the compounds present in it, including the compounds taspine and dimethylcedrusine, have the ability to heal wounds and possess antiviral properties as well. These compounds are more effective in a combined form than singly, natural combinations of the three compounds can heal wounds faster then single compounds acting alone, it may be more then four times faster. The common kitchen herb or garlic (scientific name: Allium sativum) is also used as an antiviral herbal prescription, it is also effective against bacteria. Compounds that are rich in their sulfur content and which are found in abundance in garlic are active against the virus responsible for flu; these sulfur-based compounds are of several types.
Common afflictions like colds, the flu and several other viral infections can be contained and treated by taking two capsules of garlic a day, this is the recommendation of physicians who endorse the utilization of herbs and herbal products. A similar but less effective antiviral action is also found in the common onion, which is a close relative of the garlic plant. The immune stimulating property of the goldenseal herb (scientific name: Hydrastis canadensis) has also been touted alongside that of Echinacea. The berberine content of the goldenseal plant is the active compound that stimulates the immune system. Many species of the juniper plant (genus and scientific name: Juniperus) can also be used as an antiviral agent. As this particular property of the plant is commonly quoted among herbalists themselves, that fact that juniper contains a potent antiviral compound called deoxypodophyllotoxin is not common knowledge. The herpes viruses and flu and many other types of viruses seem to be inhibited by extracts from the juniper. The antiviral properties of the lemon balm (scientific name Melissa officinalis) can also be made use of in treating people. It has a potent inhibitory effect on the herpes virus, among other viruses that lead to infection. Melissa as it is commonly called can be used to produce a delightful herbal tea, which can be drunk. Viral particles also seem to be affected by the licorice herb (scientific name: Glycyrrhiza glabra). While it has many other herbal and medicinal properties and effects among its important activities is its potent antiviral action against a wide range of viral agents. It attacks viral replication by interfering with a number of processes through one of its eight active antiviral compounds, called glycyrrhizin, these inhibitory actions are blocking the viral penetration of the body's cells and the multiplication of the genetic material of the viral particle. A few teaspoons of chopped dried root of licorice per cup of boiling water allowed to steep for about 10 minutes can produce a tea, which can be drunk for its benefits. Antiviral, immune system boosting, and anti tumor abilities are also observed in the shiitake mushroom (scientific name: Lentinus edodes). The active antiviral agent found in this tasty Asian mushroom is a compound called lentinan. Additionally in tests conducted to see its antiviral action on laboratory animals, the antiviral property has been verified. The onset of viral encephalitis was avoided using shiitake extract in laboratory mice. Anti viral properties are also seen exhibited in the eucalyptus (scientific name: Eucalyptus globulus). These compounds which include quercitrin, hyperoside, and tannic acid, help eliminate viruses. Other antiviral herbs are the forsythia ( scientific name: Forsythia suspensa) and the common honeysuckle (scientific name: Lonicera japonica). Ten antiviral compounds are found in the common ginger (scientific name: Zingiber officinale), while motion sickness and a stomach problem are usually cured using ginger, this is not its greatest benefit. In fact as an antiviral agent ginger is very effective, ginger added in large amounts to food and or drunk in tea form can help avoid viral infections. The turmeric herb also shares the same kind of antiviral compounds with the ginger and hence it too can be used as an antiviral herbal measure.
Other beneficial herbs