RHR: Treating Viral Pneumonia and Other Infections

RHR: Treating Viral Pneumonia and Other Infections

by Chris Kresser

Published on

revolution health radio

Pneumonia is a difficult illness at best—and it’s a frightening one when it strikes an elderly family member. This hit close to home with me recently after my father developed pneumonia during a hospital stay. In today’s podcast, I discuss the botanical treatments I used to get him back to health quickly.

In this episode we cover:

  • Botanical treatments for acute viral infections
  • Protocol for less severe infections
  • Immune-boosting ginger juice recipe
  • Restoring the gut after antibiotics

Chris Kresser: Hey, everybody. Welcome to another episode of Revolution Health Radio. I’m Chris Kresser. Today, we have a question from Brandon from East Troy, Wisconsin.

Brandon: Hi, Chris. This is Brandon from East Troy, Wisconsin, with a question about antibiotics. Recently I contracted pneumonia and had to go on two different courses of antibiotics of three different varieties. And being a practitioner, I quickly went on multiple different strains of probiotics focused on fermented foods, more so than I already do, and prebiotic fibers. But I’m curious what your rescue plan would be for someone in a similar situation. As a corollary question, I’m curious if there’s any evidence suggesting that someone who receives intravenous antibiotics accrues less damage to their gut microbiome. Thanks, Chris, I enjoy your show.

Chris Kresser: Hey, Brandon, sorry to hear about the pneumonia, and this question is actually right at the top of my mind because my father, over Thanksgiving, had a pretty bad accident. He fell while he was carrying some luggage up the stairs and he severed the quadriceps tendon in both knees, which is an extremely rare and a pretty brutal injury. So his legs had to be completely immobilized in straight leg braces and he ended up being in the hospital for about 10 days. While he was in the hospital, after the second or third day, he developed hospital-acquired viral pneumonia, which you’re at increased risk for if you have an immobilizing injury. If you’re lying down like that, the fluid can pool in your lungs and you’re just at higher risk for developing an infection like that. In fact, there is a saying in medicine, “Break your hip, die of pneumonia.”

This was a pretty serious thing, and we were having a family reunion for Thanksgiving, so I was fortunately there, as were a lot of my family members, and I was able to play a direct role in his care while I was there, which I felt strongly about because the hospital, in many ways, is a pretty scary place to be when you’re sick, ironically. Certainly, conventional medicine is amazing in a lot of different ways, and trauma and acute care is pretty spectacular in certain ways. But as I’m sure many of the listeners know, the real risk of being in a hospital developing a pneumonia, for example, as my father did, or C. difficile—Clostridium difficile, which is a dangerous and potentially fatal gut infection that you can get in the hospital—so we were really watching him like a hawk, particularly because early on with the pneumonia, it wasn’t clear whether it was viral or bacterial. They put him on three different antibiotics, and that, of course, raises the risk of C. diff, and we were uncertain about whether that was the best course of action because the testing was inconclusive. Once it became clear that it wasn’t a bacterial pneumonia, I lobbied to get him off antibiotics as soon as possible.

Can herbs be used to treat hospital-acquired pneumonia?

What the hospital does with viral pneumonia is they use Tamiflu, which is antiviral, and not much else, but the key in addressing viral pneumonia or other viral infections—there are two parts: one is antiviral treatment and two is boosting immune function. I think botanical medicine has a lot more to offer in both of those areas than the conventional allopathic model. Don’t tell anyone I did this, but I was basically smuggling herbs into the hospital room that he could take throughout his stay there because you’re not really supposed to do that, but I felt strongly that this would help him recover more quickly, and it certainly did. Within two days, he was through the worst part of it, to the surprise of the entire medical staff at the hospital. Since he is 74 years old, they were expecting a more protracted episode, but I’m going to tell you roughly what I did. I’m going to also suggest that you don’t necessarily try this in that same setting unless you know what you’re doing because you have to be careful about interactions between these botanicals and drugs, and there can be some interactions in some cases. But for the most part, these botanicals are safe and don’t interact with most of the drugs that would be used in that situation. Because I’m trained as an herbalist and was there and had many of these medicines at my house, I was able to have my wife bring them down and we were able to do this and it was really successful.

Botanical treatments for acute viral infections

You can think about this, again, in two different parts. One is the antiviral component and two is the immune support component. In terms of the antivirals, the best combination of the botanicals to use would be Chinese skull cap, isatis, licorice, houttuynia, lomatium, red root, yerba santa, elephant tree, osha, pleurisy root.

Now, that’s a lot of herbs, of course, and they all have different functions. That formula can be broken down into two parts. One part is the antiviral component, and that would be Chinese skull cap, isatis, licorice, houttuynia, and lomatium. And then the other part would be more for working as an expectorant and a decongestant, thinning the mucus, protecting the cilia of the lungs, and draining the lymph from the lungs. Those botanicals are red root, yerba santa, elephant tree, and pleurisy root. Those particular medicines also taste a lot better than isatis, lomatium, and Chinese skull cap and the antiviral herbs, which are pretty nasty. In fact, isatis is one of the most bitter medicines in the entire traditional Chinese pharmacopeia. It’s a pretty intense taste, but of course, if you’re dealing with pneumonia, you got to just suck it up and take this stuff. It doesn’t taste good but it’s remarkably effective.

In terms of dosage, for an acute episode of pneumonia, you would be taking one to two teaspoons of this every hour. What I did is I just mixed equal parts of these medicines together and then I added enough to last for a day along with water in a water bottle, brought that to my dad and just had him drink a little bit of it every hour. He complained, but it had, like I said, a pretty substantial effect on his infection and his cough symptoms and was really helpful in kicking that out, so he did it.

The other part of it is the immune support. The botanicals that are really helpful for immune support include astragalus, cordyceps, eleuthero, which is Siberian ginseng, and rhodiola. All of those are great immune support herbs, and they can also be mixed in equal parts, and you could take that if it was a really acute episode—maybe a teaspoon four to five times a day. In addition to those herbs, I also gave him elderberry syrup two teaspoons three times a day, which is a high dose. I gave him 50 mg of zinc once a day and 200 mcg of selenium once a day.

Protocol for less severe viral infections

If you’re addressing a viral infection that is less severe, you can really ratchet those doses back quite a bit, something like 30 to 60 drops every hour or two until the condition improves would be suitable. When you put all of the antivirals and the expectorant and decongestant herbs that we’ve talked about and the immune support herbs together, you’re going to see an inhibition of viral penetration of host cells; an inhibition of replication of the viral host cells; reduction in cytokine levels, which inhibits tissue damage; thinning of the mucus; and promotion of fluid drainage from the lungs; normalization of immune response; and a repair of damaged tissues, particularly in the lungs. These medicines are remarkably effective for all of these purposes. In addition to the botanicals that we just mentioned and also the nutrients like zinc and selenium, if this is possible (it wasn’t really as easy to do given the hospital setting), making a very, very strong ginger juice tea can be a really helpful adjunct to this whole healing process.

All of these botanical combinations, by the way, as well as this ginger juice tea recipe I am about to give you, come from Stephen Buhner, who I’ve talked about before who, I think, is one of the best herbalists that I’m aware of in the world, and I’ve definitely learned a tremendous amount from his books and other resources. He has a book called Herbal Antivirals, which is fantastic. I highly recommend it. He has another book called Herbal Antibiotics, and then he has books on herbal treatment of Lyme disease and Lyme coinfections like Bartonella and Babesia. If you’re interested in botanical medicine or alternatives to antibiotics, I would highly recommend these books, especially if you’re a practitioner.

Immune-boosting ginger juice recipe

The ginger juice tea is a combination of:

  • ginger
  • honey
  • lime or lemon
  • honey
  • cayenne pepper
  • hot water

It is really intense. This is not the kind of tea that you buy in the store that has a mild ginger flavor.

  1. This is juicing one to two pounds of fresh ginger. There are a couple of different ways to do this. If you have a juicer, that’s certainly the easiest way to do it because you’re talking about one or two pounds. If you don’t have a juicer and you’re up for up for making smaller batches, you can just get a grater and you can peel the ginger and then grate it on the finest setting into kind of like a pulp. Then you either pour three to four ounces of the juice (if you have a juicer), or you squeeze the pulp so that you generate three to four ounces of juice into a mug.
  2. You add one quarter of lime and squeeze that.
  3. A large tablespoon of honey, which has antiviral and antimicrobial properties, and is also an expectorant and decongestant and really soothing for cough and the lungs.
  4. One-eighth teaspoon of cayenne pepper and six ounces of hot water.
  5. You stir that really well and then you just sip that throughout the day.

I’m telling you, it’s really intense. It’s really hard to get down for many people, but it can have a profound effect on stopping viruses. In fact, I use this with many of my patients and we use it at home, and I just don’t really get sick anymore. If I start to feel sick and I start drinking this tea and take some of these herbs, it’s typically gone within 24 hours, or I make just a very, very mild version of it where I feel a little bit tired but I don’t develop the full symptom picture that I used to get with colds and flus. It’s a really powerful and potent mixture.

Restoring the gut after antibiotics

I think that’s how I would approach the viral infection piece of this, but the other part of Brandon’s question was around probiotics and how to restore proper gut microbiota function after taking antibiotics.

Certainly, probiotics are important. I think prebiotics are also important. I think bone broth is important. For my dad, what we did is we had him drinking a cup of bone broth three times a day. We also had him doing Saccharomyces boulardii, which I think is one of the most important probiotics you can take when you’re taking antibiotics because it’s a beneficial fungus, actually, not a bacteria, and so it’s not susceptible to the action of the antibiotics, and it’s one of the probiotics that has the most research behind it in terms of protecting the gut microbiota from antibiotics.

Then, another very broad spectrum, very high-dose probiotic that can be helpful during antibiotic use is something like VSL#3. It’s a powder. I think it’s 400 or 500 billion CFU per packet, and that is just a really therapeutic dose to use in a situation like this to quickly restore the gut microbiome. And then I would have the patient consume plenty of fermentable fibers, but if that’s not possible, I might use a prebiotic supplement, some soluble fibers, like glucomannan or partially hydrolyzed guar gum are two of my favorites, or something like BiotaGen or Prebiogen (which are non-starch polysaccharides like FOS and inulin), or some resistant starch like green banana or green plantain flour are good options. Those, together with the probiotics and the bone broth, can be really helpful in restoring the gut microbiome after antibiotic use.

Okay, I hope that was helpful, Brandon. Thanks for sending in your question, and if you have a question you’d like me to answer, you can send it to chriskresser.com/podcastquestion. Take care, everybody.

31 Comments

Join the conversation

  1. I have a head cold nose running and up and in my chest and sneezing can’t take antibiotics what can I take naturally please

  2. Would freezing affect the drink’s potency? Particularly for the ginger juice since that takes a bit of effort without a juicer.

  3. Chris, I really appreciate your work. Thank you for writing about a topic that has consumed my thoughts for years.

    I’ve studied the metabolic-immune connection and have come to many conclusions along with many more questions. Lyme Disease and other persistent infections are bacterial, yet I’ve talked to many – maybe hundreds – of people who have failed to get better treating bacterial infections with long term antibiotics. So my question for you is a spin on the classic “is there such thing as Chronic Lyme Disease?”: Do you think that if antibiotics are not working an antiviral approach is a good plan B? We are ALL still confused about what exactly is going on with an infection’s status day by day and I’m wondering if antibiotics just can’t keep up with the infection due to a lousy immune system, or if infections are really that pesty and antibiotics/antimicrobials are “the only way” to keep them at bay for complicated cases.

    • Hello! I have learned that while antibiotics may help acute Lyme infections, antibiotics will have no effect on chronic Lyme. In chronic Lyme, the bacteria themselves have died off, but their toxic DNA and by-products remain in the bloodstream and migrate in and out unpredictably, creating havoc and avoiding detection through conventional means, especially present ranges in tests determined by the CDC. Yet the patient will suffer a lifetime of cyclical symptoms of various degrees of intensity, which may become more and more debilitating over the years. Easily implemented improvements of flawed testing protocol would be invaluable to recently infected patients. Early detection through better testing would dramatically improve the quality of life of an alarmingly increasing number of patients. An article in the Journal of Spirochetal and Tick-Borne Diseases, Vol.5, Spring/Summer 1998, explains testing and offers recommendations. As a chronic Lyme sufferer, I sincerely hope keen and devoted physicians such as yourself not give up, and keep searching for solutions to help in this ongoing battle.

  4. I have written in the past about our experience with treating pneumonia but here it is again:

    “My daughter at age 1.5 came down with a severe case of pneumonia. My holistic paediatrician and we, her parents, decided not to use antibiotics although it was agonizing seeing my baby perishing.
    The paediatrician prescribed black mustard compresses which apparently are very potent in treating chest infections, along with a couple of anthroposophic tinctures. The result was miraculous!
    I was later very happy to see that Dr. Cowan also prescribes mustard compresses for chest infections in his book with Sally Fallon, The Nourishing Traditions Book of Baby & Child Care.
    I had my daughter on the GAPS diet for a about a year after the pneumonia, and now she is 5.5 and thriving, she rarely gets sick any more except for the occasional sniffles.
    Perhaps I should add that she was never vaccinated so her immune system was in a pretty good shape to handle the infection”.

  5. Hey there. As a clinical herbalist trained mainly in Western medicine, my approach to tackling viruses is a bit different in terms of herb choice. We use antiviral herbs that are much easier to get ahold of in the US and that grow locally (so you can grow them yourself or harvest wild). Primary herbs for acute viral infections are garlic (crush and chop and let sit for 5-10 minutes before swallowing raw) as it’s one of the strongest antivirals we know of, fire cider (a home-made remedy of garlic, ginger, horseradish, cayenne, elecampane, and/or other spices steeped in apple cider vinegar and honey), elderberry syrup (not for use in high fevers – ramps up the immune system too much), and andrographis (an Ayurvedic herb that can be grown locally). All of these herbs have a good amount of clinical research to back up their efficacy, especially garlic and elderberry. Andrographis is my go-to for viral treatment and prevention (when my housemates have colds). I also recommend astragalus be taken long term during cold/flu season for those people who are particularly vulnerable to catching things. I am one of those people, historically, although since using the above herbs regularly I have not caught a cold since last spring – almost a year (the first time in my life).

  6. I am an RN with extensive acute care experience on Medical-Surgical units. I think your sharing that you gave your father many different herbs without telling the hospital docs who were treating him is the height of irresponsibility. They are responsible and even liable for the treatment of their patients in the hospital and they NEED TO KNOW what their patients are taking.

    Here are just a couple of ways that combining herbal medicine and “western” medicine may have potentially seriously bad outcomes that you didn’t even mention:

    Many, many herbs “thin” the blood – they interfere with clotting. Most patients who are immobilized in the hospital are put on blood thinners, such as sub-cutaneous heparin, to prevent developing blood clots while being immobile. Adding a cornucopia of herbs could further impair blood clotting, to the degree that he could have easily developed a hemorrhage with movement of injured tissues or a medical procedure (even a blood draw). Did you check out this property of every herb you gave? Your story did not mention this potential action of many herbs and the need to be prudent with them in a hospital setting.

    Another problem could develop with the liver. The liver works hard to detoxify and eliminate medications, including herbal ones. If the liver can’t do its job, compounds build up to a toxic level, and possibly the liver itself can get injured. Some herbs can injure the liver in this way and may make it harder for the body to eliminate the drugs that are being carefully dosed in the hospital. Suddenly liver enzymes spike and the doctors don’t know why. They may think they can’t tolerate a needed medication when in fact it is the herb they can’t tolerate (or at least not in combination).

    This is very, very dangerous. Do not try this with your loved one. Patients who have been hospitalized may need to have a procedure, be anesthetized, be cut open, have CPR, be put on powerful cardiac drugs if their condition worsens (ie develop sepsis) and for the docs to undertake any of these things without knowing what the patient has been taking could lead to some very serious adverse reactions. Things can and do go sideways in the hospital and new procedures, drugs, and treatments are suddenly required.

    If you want to help a hospitalized loved one with herbal support, do your research on each and every thing you want to give. And then tell the doctors what you want to give and ASK PERMISSION. Don’t ever give anything in the hospital that would interfere with clotting time in any way. Don’t ever give anything that has even the slightest history of liver toxicity. If the doctors are OK with it, the herbs given will be listed on the patients medical record so that all other treating doctors, such as an anesthesiologist or surgeon, will all have the information so they can make good treatment decisions.

    • I’m an herbalist, and I agree with you 100%. Mixing herbal remedies and pharmaceuticals can be a recipe for disaster.

      I’m especially shocked that Chris would have done this without consulting with the medical team.

    • Most doctors will not give permission, and know next to nothing about herbs.
      You can stand by and watch the doctor use drugs that are less effective and more harmful than the herbs, or you can do something about it. The herbs could save their life. As long as you are knowledgeable enough, and research any possible interactions or other negative effects.
      Chris mentions interactions in the article.

      • Herbs are excellent for nipping problems in the bud; they should be the first line of approach – for example, using mullein to keep the lungs clear during a respiratory flu can prevent pneumonia from setting in. Used correctly, yes they’re safer and yes they can be lifesaving. Correctly = proactively.

        But if someone is already so critically ill as to be hospitalized, throwing a bunch of Big Guns herbs at them while they’re weak AND already trying to process drugs through their body isn’t going to be the wisest approach. There isn’t always time to do the research on drug/herb interactions, and let’s be realistic, there isn’t enough research available in that field to ever be completely sure.

        Herbs first, *before* the problem becomes acute; if that doesn’t work, then drugs. Then, afterward, herbs again to support recovery from the illness and after-effects of drug treatment.

        I think most people are so accustomed to the “heroic” approach to illness, where we rush in to do great battle with an enemy invader, that they’ve lost sight of the fact that herbs are best used to support health and help us to avoid acute (or chronic) illness in the first place.

    • i respect chris and i love your posts on nutrition, but this post is a bit dangerous. Im all about immune boosters, but “bacterial” infections are different. Before we invented antibiotics, people died of pneumonia very frequently. Please don’t put your child at risk experimenting with herbs, especially for serious infections like pneumonia or whooping cough. The gut microbiota can be restored after antibiotics.

  7. I’ve been using the ginger tea recipe for a few years, since the first time Chris first mentioned it. I developed quite a tolerance for ginger, to the point where even drinking the concoction straight (I didn’t know about the water), I find it taste good. However I haven’t found it helpful in reducing the length of the cold. It does seems to be pretty effective as a decongestant.

    I don’t know if my experience is typical or not. I’d like to know other people experience with this.

    • I have found the most effective cold/flu remedy and prevention is to do no fructose (no fruit or fruit sugar) and elderberry tea every 2 hours. Barry Groves (Trick and Treat) teaches all the research that shows that fructose is the worst sugar for your immune system. My daughter was able to heal pink eye without a prescription with this.

      • Interesting. I’ll try to locate some elderberry tea. I have some syrup, but didn’t find it to be especially effective.

        Every time I get a cold, I cough for 2 months solid. Every single time. So, I’m always willing to try pretty much anything that would help. I have yet to find the perfect remedy however, or even something that is every effective.

    • Antibiotics kills most of gut bacteria and affect microbiome as well. after a course of antibiotic The minimum time to recuperate the natural flora or gut bacteria is THREE months. With probiotic unlikely to fix over 160 species, among them Oxalobacter that is very sensitive and lives close to rectum. Unless a disease is an acute one and time is of special importance, almost all diseases can be treated by herbal medicine.

  8. I did EXACTLY the same thing, when my sister was admitted to hospital and diagnosed with Pneumonia, I took some herbal medicine there and when she left, she only took all herbal and did NOT take antibiotics. a year and half passed and she NEVER had recurrence.

  9. You don’t mention whether you using herbal extract or tinctures or infusions. Are they 1:1 alcohol extractions? You don’t really mention amounts. That would be helpful.
    That is a very potent regimen.

  10. Can you speak to whether iv antibiotics has less (any) impact on gut biome compared with oral administration.

    Thank you

    Kelda

  11. Thank you so much Chris for this information and your interview. So good to know. My 2 boys had pneumonia and was given antibiotics. THe other one oral and my down sundrome sweet boy was given IV antibiotics. They both had chest x rays. How would you determine if the cause is viral or baterial? Both had negative blood cultures.
    After the course of antibiotics, I gave them probiotics ( Kyolic brand).

    • The only way to know what is causing the pneumonia is to do sputum cultures. Blood cultures only determine if their is an infection that has gotten into the bloodstream. Most infections remain localized to the site of infection and must be tested from that specific site.

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