By Kamna Shastri
REPRINTED WITH PERMISSION
Traditional and natural healing systems have knowledge to boost immunity and empower wellness
Through every winter, my mother reminds me to drink warm water, yellowed with turmeric, infused with ginger. While it was forced on me as a child, it has become a habit. When COVID broke out in Washington state in February, my mother reminded me again to drink this daily, encouraging me to keep up my immune system. While COVID-19 has no cure, is freakishly contagious and has caused hundreds of thousands of deaths and plenty of fear worldwide, the disease brings up important questions about health, wellness, medicine and the institutions that regulate our relationships with our bodies.
Traditional healing systems the world over emphasize preventative measures to safeguard immunity against infection. These healing systems span everything from acupuncture, East Asian medicine, and ayurveda (Indian medicine) to naturopathy and herbal medicines and more. A common thread through these practices is a focus on prevention, viewing health as a relationship between the natural world and humanity.
The recipes my mother uses with herbs and spices to ward away illness are not arbitrary but informed by hundreds of years of knowledge accumulated by the Indian ayurvedic system of medicine. Dr. Virender Sodhi, a leading, Bellevue-based holistic practitioner who established the Ayurvedic and Naturopathic Clinic in 1989, says the science of ayurveda is the oldest healing system in the world. Dating back more than 3,000 years, ayurveda, like many other traditional and alternative medicines, considers the mind, body and spirit in understanding wellness.
“We had a full system of medicine, but this was not only medicine. It was lifestyle, it was spirituality, it was how we lived in harmony with nature,” Dr. Sodhi said.
Though yoga and meditation, as well as the use of spices and herbs like ashwagandha, have become “New Age” fads in the U.S. and Europe, they were integral to the concept of wellness in the ayurvedic system and are considered legitimate healing treatments in India today.
“Whenever we live in harmony with the environment, the body is naturally healthy,” Dr. Sodhi said, pointing to a variety of Indian and Hindu rituals that seamlessly blend wellness practices into a lifestyle; leaves from the neem tree, endemic to the South Asian subcontinent, are known to be a natural bug repellent. Many people string a garland of neem leaves above their door or have a neem tree in their homes, the presence of which keeps away disease-spreading insects.
Dr. Sodhi grew up in the northern mountain state of Himachal Pradesh, the son of a school principal father. When the two went on walks, his father would stop every so often to show him a plant and explain its medicinal properties. One plant helped cure jaundice, for example, and was easy to identify by its yellow leaves.
Dr. Sodhi’s curiosity was piqued at a young age and arose again when he began pre-med studies in India. Dr. Sodhi wanted to immerse himself in the generations-old science of ayurveda; he pursued a combined training that included conventional medicine and ayurveda.
Dr. Sodhi says a holistic, preventative approach to health applies at any time, including in these worrying times of COVID. “Our immune system is amazing. … We need to believe that our immune system is capable,” he said. In bolstering health against COVID, immunity is key, because the severity of COVID is not caused by the virus itself but by the body’s immune response to it.
He says exercise and fresh air are important, pointing to studies that show walking in green spaces can increase your immune health by 40 percent. Dr. Sodhi also suggests meditation and yoga; both foster a calmer state of mind to battle lowered immunity due to stress.
Certain herbs and spices are helpful, too; turmeric is anti-inflammatory, cumin and coriander aid in digestion and ashwagandha is useful to help relax anxiety. He says vitamin D is important, and so is a healthy diet with 4-5 servings of veggies, 2-3 fruits a day, nuts and seeds. Eating more beans, fish and chicken but cutting out red meats as well as carbs and sugars and getting enough sleep—all Dr. Sodhi says are practical, “common sense” approaches.
Dr. Sodhi says everything has a side effect when used in excess, including herbs and allopathic drugs. “Balance is the key. That is the first principle of ayurvedic medicine,” he said. “Being a physician, my goal is to create health without the side effects, which we cannot say in modern medicine at all.”
Conventional medicine’s use of pharmaceutical drugs has high financial and health costs. One drug will be prescribed to manage a condition, and then other drugs are added to a regimen to mitigate the side-effects. According to Georgetown University’s Health Policy Institute, 75 percent of 50-65-year-olds take an average of 13 prescriptions a year. 91 percent of 80 year-olds are on an average of 22 prescriptions a year.
Jon-Paul Boisvert is a licensed practitioner of East Asian medicine and acupuncture with a masters degree from Bastyr University. When he is practicing East Asian medicine—also called Traditional Chinese Medicine—he can take someone’s pulse, look at their tongue and get a good sense of their health and bodily constitution.
“You can tell what this person’s diet is like—do they drink a lot of alcohol? It’s kind of a whole systems approach, instead of a pointed symptomatic approach,” he said. “Western medicine is irreplaceable as far as acute trauma. But is it helping people in terms of preventative medicine and taking care of themselves?”
East Asian medicine, ayurveda and naturopathy look at root causes rather than only managing symptoms. From Boisvert’s perspective, conventional medicine isolates systems in the body, rather than focusing on how those systems—say, the digestive system or the nervous system—are tightly intertwined and respond to one another.
“What really attracted me to Chinese medicine [is] there was an herbal component, a huge lifestyle component and a dietary component,” Boisvert said.
Together, these aspects conceptualize health as an individual’s unique constitution and their relationship with the natural environment through shifting seasons and diet, blurring the lines between health and lifestyle.
In mainstream health marketing and media, wellness is habits siloed to parts of the day: going to the gym, doing yoga, juicing in the morning and going for a run. But in East Asian medicine, wellness is synonymous with lifestyle, part of every meal, mindset and activity.
There are two terms in Chinese medicine that exemplify this. Boisvert explains yin and yang first—the Daoist symbol for balance. “You can bring it to the atomic level, the sun and the moon, shadow and light, water and fire. To one side, there is always another. When the body goes out of balance, it is either going too much yin or too much yang. Nature has that balance,” he said.
Then there is the often-simplified term “Qi,” which translates to “energy.” Boisvert says there are many kinds of Qi. Zong Qi is the energy we get through breathing.
Wei Qi is the energy received through immune functions, and nutritional Gul Qi is extracted from a nourishing diet. There is also an ancestral Yuan Qi that comes from one’s parents—Bosivert calls it the “hand you were dealt”—that aligns with scientific principles of genetics.
Put together, this becomes something far more than medicine to cure an immediate ailment. “[It’s a] life philosophy. How do you live your life, and live our life to the fullest and maintain balance?” Boisvert said.
COVID and natural medicine
At a time when COVID panic has crept into all aspects of life, balance and prevention is empowering in the face of an unknown. The current public health crisis of COVID has put in plain view that even modern, leading scientific methods and approaches to medicine are not all powerful or guaranteed to heal.
Tamika Mosely knows this well. In 2008, Moseley’s newborn son was diagnosed with sickle cell disease, a disease of the blood that affects hemoglobin in red blood cells and reduces the body’s ability to absorb oxygen. It is painful and disproportionately affects Africans and Black Americans at a rate of 1 in 500 people.
Moseley was worried for her son’s life; it was heart wrenching to take her less than one-year-old son to the doctor every couple months, where he would be in the ICU for weeks at a time. “I wasn’t leaving my child by himself. It was so emotional.
I was angry, I was frustrated, I was crying. It was horrible,” Moseley said. “That’s when I really saw that doctors were not healing people, because I had to watch my son suffer an entire year.”
Eventually, Moseley had to decide whether or not to put her son on Hydroxyurea, a cancer drug. She couldn’t do it—it was hard to trust a system that was unable to keep her son out of the hospital. “And when I started looking at the side effects, I started seeing how horrible it is. … How could I give this to my child? So I started soul searching, reading scriptures and praying and just looking for answers.”
A Bible verse inspired her: “the herbs are for the healing of the nation.” Moseley found other excerpts from the scripture that strengthened her faith in what she calls “God’s medicine cabinet.”
“It didn’t take me long to realize what he is saying is, ‘I put medicinal properties in these plants, so this is what you eat.’ So if we just stick with that, we will be healed. But we can’t stick to that because they messed it up and people don’t know how to get back to that,” Moseley said.
She researched the cause of sickle cell and learned about herbs that could boost red blood cells and increase oxygen. Moseley wrote a book called “Sickle Cell Natural Healing” and gained a following in the sickle cell community. Now, she runs Everything Health and operates as an herbalist in Seattle.
Most of Mosely’s clients are African American, though she is open to helping anyone and everyone and for anything. “I definitely want to educate my people because we take the lead, triple the lead in everything, so that is definitely my focus on educating my own people on what to do.” Indeed, African and Black Americans are disproportionately affected by COVID-19 and have higher mortality rates due to compounding factors, such as pre-existing conditions that are, again, affected by whether someone might live in a food desert, have access to greenspace and face daily stress as well as environmental and racial injustice.
“We need to learn these remedies, because what happens when you can’t go anywhere?” Moseley asked at a Zoom webinar she conducted in early May. Over 100 people from around the country attended, their “thank yous” and friendly “hellos” echoing across cyberspace. While some people—mostly high-income earners—might have the means to buy organic every day, juice regularly and afford the high cost of eating “healthy,” Moseley says that isn’t the case for her clients. Moseley works with herbs and supplements and says the reason we need to take so many vitamin supplements today is because there is an abundance of toxins in our environment and food. She emphasizes that her clients stay on their medication while they also work on integrating herbal and natural remedies to manage their health.
For general preventative health and boosting immunity when COVID is wreaking havoc on immune systems, Mosely had a couple basics, backed by science and echoed by both Boisvert and Dr. Sodhi. Vitamin D3 is important, especially for people who are more melanated and for all of us who live in the Pacific Northwest, where we are sun-free often. Vitamin D is necessary to help the body absorb calcium for bone strength. It also impacts the immune system, muscles and nervous system. A severe deficiency could lead to a plethora of medical problems.
But Moseley says vitamin D isn’t enough; we also need magnesium and potassium to ensure vitamin D and the calcium it helps absorb are dispersed throughout the body. The complex interplay of elements in the human body requires, once again, a balance of nutrients and minerals.
Moseley also underscores the importance of gut health and probiotics that create helpful bacteria in the digestive system. She suggests herbs: oregano, Reishi mushrooms, mullein and cordyceps to boost immunity. Bentonite clay is one of Moseley’s go-tos. It’s a clay that has been used for thousands of years both topically and as a digestive. The clay is often used for skin infections, but when ingested, studies show it has anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial properties that pull toxins from the gut. Some research also suggests that the clay might remove traces of pesticides and metal poisoning.
Boisvert says natural and alternative medicine has a role to play against COVID, especially in boosting immunity. Practitioners of natural medicine have been advised to provide evidence-based information about COVID and not to claim misleading therapies for the disease. At the same time, a statement from the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians reads “naturopathic medicine is particularly well poised to provide supportive care to patients with mild to moderate symptoms of COVID-19 to help them recuperate at home, to free up hospital resources needed for the most critically ill.”
Naturopaths have an ND—a credential equivalent to an MD, but for natural medicine—and can be primary care physicians in Washington state. But herbalists are not legally recognized in the U.S., bringing up questions around what is legitimate medicine and who determines parameters of legitimacy. The politics of access, affordability, insurance and licensure play into who gets access and exposure to natural medicine’s preventative values as well.
To better understand and document traditional, complementary and alternative medicine (termed “TCAM”) uses around the world, the World Health Organization has collected data on how countries interact with TCAM. While the U.S. does have regulations and educational credentials for the practice of TCAM, there are no national policies in place, only legislation. In comparison, parts of East Africa, Europe, South America and a majority of Asia have national policies for regulating and practicing traditional medicine. The U.S. does not legally recognize herbalists, ayurvedic practitioners, spiritual healers or other faith-based therapists.
When looking into the National Library of Medicine’s extensive archive of studies and research, much underscores the value of further in-depth testing and research into herbal medicines and practices, many of which predate Western scientific systems. There hasn’t been enough research investment in the fields of natural medicine, especially not at the scale afforded to pharmaceutical companies and medical institutions researching synthetic drugs. Without investment and the certification that comes out of accreditation processes, herbalism, ayurveda and other traditional forms of medicine struggle to gain the same power of persuasion and credibility as modern scientific medicine, even if they have a generational universe of healing knowledge to offer.