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Treating Viral Pneumonia and Other Infections


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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.

Revolution Health Radio podcast, Chris Kresser

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.

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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.

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