The Place of Herbal and Supplemental Remedies in COVID-19 Prevention

Boosting Immune System and Avoiding Misinformation Helpful, but No Replacement for Vaccine

By Theresa Ho

For over 20 years Teresa Vigil has volunteered at Sangre de Cristo Church by running the gift shop next to it. The shop offers standard religious items like statues and rosaries, and it is also filled with dream pillows filled with calming herbs meant to help people sleep at night, tinctures tucked into the desk, and dried herbs on shelves in the wintertime.

With the current pandemic, Vigil believes that it is more important than ever to use herbal medicine to help combat the virus. Vigil is 89 years old with seven children, 14 grandchildren and 28 great-grandchildren. Still, she finds time to give presentations on herbal remedies to medical professionals, students and anyone else interested in herbal medicine around Colorado. She sometimes takes people up to the mountains and shows them how to find herbs in nature, what local herbs are growing, and how to use them. Herbal medicine helps Vigil stay close to nature. She believes that people should protect the earth, appreciate it, and use its resources.

Vigil was born in Alamosa and regularly visited her grandmother in San Luis. After Vigil’s mother passed away, she moved to San Francisco with her father. Still, she continued visiting her grandmother in San Luis during the summer. She was inspired to learn about herbal medicine during her visits because access to healthcare was difficult in San Luis.

“There was a need,” Vigil said. “Money-wise we couldn’t get a lot of medical care. There was a flu at my school that was really bad, and I remember looking around my grandmother’s backyard and seeing something that she used for colds and flus.”

Vigil started learning about herbal remedies from her grandmother and one of their neighbors, a woman of Spanish and Native American heritage who knew about herbology. Vigil read books and interviewed people she knew about old-world knowledge. She took some university classes about herbology, and she eventually became a Licensed Vocational Nurse while living in California.

For her, giving presentations about her herbal knowledge is a way to reteach old-world knowledge in a society that has forgotten it so that people can stay connected to the earth.

“Everything is wild,” Vigil said. “If we step out the door, immediately I’ll point out the dandelion. We use everything – the root, the leaves, the flower. If we go to the other side of the church, you’ll see elderberry, which is used for the jelly but also for the medicine. If we see the cottonwood tree, there is sap that was used on boils while the bark was used for broken arms. There are things all around us that we can use.”

One herb that Vigil says people especially know about in San Luis is oshá. She explained that there are two local kinds of oshá: oshá del campo and oshá del sierra. The latter grows in the mountains, and in her opinion, is better and stronger than oshá del campo. She believes that oshá boosts the immune system, calms the body, and kills germs. She makes tinctures for people to use on cuts and sores. She said that people can also add some drops of the tincture to water to fight off cold and flu symptoms. She also believes that individuals with COVID-19 should drink lemon balm tea to ease coughing and calm the body. However, she also emphasized that she believes it is important for people to get the COVID-19 vaccine as soon as possible to further be protected from the virus.

Herbal Remedies during COVID-19

When COVID-19 first began spreading across the United States, Meredith Apodaca knew that as someone over 60 years old, she was considered high risk and made sure to social distance and limit seeing people. But, being away from people was difficult on her mental state.

“As soon as I was able to get the vaccine I took it because I think it’s one of those things that you need to trust,” Apodaca said. “I couldn’t see my grandkids. I decided that it was safer to take it and hope. I might not trust the government, but I don’t think that there’s a chip or alien DNA or something like that. I don’t buy into it.”

Still, when possible, she believes in using natural remedies for health issues. Apodaca grew up on the Navajo reservation in Arizona, where she spent time with medicine people and began developing an interest in herbal medicine. She has invited Vigil to give several presentations about herbal remedies in her coffee shop.

“I have learned from other old people like my mom that when you start taking a lot of medication, you take a lot of medicine for side effects to the original medication … I believe it creates more health problems,” Apodaca said.

She regularly uses the information she learned from Vigil’s presentations in her daily life. Apodaca sniffs eucalyptus oil to clear her sinuses and drinks oshá on a daily basis –  by either using tinctures or boiling the root in water to make a tea – to keep her immune system strong. Sometimes, she gets tinctures with oshá and echinacea in it as well.

She has had many injuries: she tore her meniscus in her right knee, sprained her back, and broke her kneecap. She was in pain and bedridden for several months after breaking her kneecap. At one point, she needed her daughter and granddaughter to help her even be able to do things like roll on the bed and lie down. The experience of being bedridden deteriorated Apodaca’s mental health, but she refused surgery and pain medication. Instead, she used lotions with shea butter and mixed essential oils to rub into her skin: peppermint, lavender and lemon.

For her, there is an emotional, psychological and spiritual aspect to healing physical pain and preventing sickness. She relied on that belief when she was healing from her broken kneecap. She stated that she often tries to turn to meditation and prayer. She also takes several online classes, such as one about ancient Japanese history, and writes stories to keep her mind active.

“If I’m in pain and I can embrace it, love it, and find the beauty in it, I don’t have it,” she said.

Medical Perspective on Herbal Remedies

“There’s no clear evidence for herbal remedies for COVID,” said Dr. Charlotte Brigham, a family medicine doctor in Golden, Colo. “There’s no research out because of how new COVID is.”

Brigham personally believes that boosting one’s immune system should be helpful, and even if there is no definite research on certain remedies, they can’t hurt with proper research and consultation with a healthcare provider before use.

“If you look on the internet and look at other options, you need to know your source because some sources have no medical background,” she said. “When my daughter was in middle school, they were not allowed to use Wikipedia because of the amount of inaccurate information on Wikipedia. If you wouldn’t use it in middle school, why would you use it for medical research? If you’re gonna do it, be informed.”

Before the COVID-19 vaccines were released, Brigham and her family would try to help boost their immune systems by taking Vitamin C and Irwin Naturals Immuno Shield. They were also already taking Vitamin D, of which some reports note it is helpful against COVID-19. She explained that African Americans tend to be Vitamin D deficient due to the melanin pigmentation of their skin.

“Melanin protects us from skin cancer but also means that we can be Vitamin D deficient,” Brigham said.

While some people take zinc lozenges to try and prevent getting COVID-19, Brigham explained that she didn’t have her family take them because of reports about people having loss of sense of smell and taste, which is similar to symptoms of COVID-19. Therefore, she personally felt that zinc lozenges wouldn’t help prevent COVID-19 symptoms from occurring.

Brigham warned against harmful misinformation regarding alternative remedies in treating or preventing COVID-19, such as when former President Trump suggested injecting Clorox to treat the virus. She also warned against taking hydroxychloroquine, which can cause dangerous side effects such as cardiac issues. Taking too many vitamins can also cause health problems, she said.

“Some people double their Vitamin C amount,” she said. “You probably shouldn’t do that because you can get kidney stones. Also, drink lots of water.”

She works hard to provide her patients the information they need about COVID-19 and the vaccines, so that they can understand the virus more. And when she has patients that are worried about the long-term side effects of the vaccine, she reminds them that getting sick from COVID-19, which is much more likely without vaccination, can have life-threatening repercussions.

“We know what bad side effects there are with COVID-19,” Brigham said.

Brigham is a board member of the Colorado Association of Black Professionals, Engineers, and Scientists (CABPES). The nonprofit’s mission is to encourage and assist African American and other underrepresented minority youth in the pursuit and attainment of career choices in engineering, science and technology professions. Last summer, CABPES offered an eight-week program for kids from 5th graders to high school students about how COVID-19 worked and what the vaccines were for. The program encouraged kids to think scientifically and ask questions.

It was also a space where Black professionals like Brigham could talk about their community’s fear and distrust towards the government given the government’s long history of discrimination towards the Black community.

“What I do in my community is I literally used to go to churches and have conferences about medical issues. Now it was somebody that looked like them. In the Black community there’s a lot of past distrust because of what the government has done to them,” she said. “I’m trying to be someone in the medical community that they know practices good medicine and can relate to their concerns.”

She is able to tell them that she had no side effects getting the vaccine and can say that she’s comfortable giving the vaccine. It took her weeks to convince her 90-year-old mother to get the vaccine due to her mother’s lack of trust towards the government and fear of going somewhere and catching the virus. Then accessing the vaccine was difficult at first. When they tried to get it through Kaiser, her mother was somewhere around number 15,000 on the list. But, when Brigham reached out to a Black church providing vaccines where she knew the pastor, her mom was able to get the vaccine in less than a week.

“In the African American community, a lot of Black people got them at churches,” Brigham said. “They weren’t going to go to a drive-through where they felt like a number. There was a sense of community and trust.”