There has been very little work in the popular press (especially in the West) on herbal antivirals — and most of what has occurred are embarrassingly inadequate. There are many reasons for this.
The field of antivirals itself, whether medical or herbal, is in relative infancy, which partly explains the problems in the literature. The general overemphasis on bacteria as disease-causing agents in the public (and medical) mind, irrespective of culture, also contributes to the problem. Then, there is the nature of viruses themselves and the difficulty of actually creating effective pharmaceutical antivirals.
There are, in fact, very few pharmaceutical antivirals compared to antibiotics — generally, people only hear of two: Ribavirin and Tamiflu (oseltamivir). It is a much reduced pharmaceutical armamentarium compared to the scores of antibiotics that are common in most people’s vocabularies; penicillin is, I guess, a word known to most of the world’s population.
Most of the scientific research (at least in the past and especially in the West) on viral treatment has been focused not so much on finding effective antivirals but on vaccines. And researchers have been pretty successful at this over the past 50 years — the eradication of smallpox is one of the great triumphs of technological medicine, as is the polio vaccine.
So, we have vaccines now for an increasing number of viral diseases: smallpox, polio, measles, hepatitis B, influenza strains, and so on.
Thus, the focus of most medical viral research, in contrast to bacterial research, has been on vaccines. In consequence, few people ever think of antivirals as a specific entity that might be useful in medicine; antibiotic is a word that everyone has heard of, has used, and knows.
The word antiviral is not. Nevertheless, antivirals do exist in high quantity in the world.
Viruses are an intimate part of life on this planet, and every life form, including plants, has experienced viral infections during the billions of years there has been living here. Plants, the most excellent chemists on Earth, have created, just as they have in their dealings with infective bacteria, a wide range of compounds in response to viral infection.
Similar to plant antibiotics and bacteria, while all plants have created a variety of compounds to protect them from viruses, some, when used as medicines, tend to be a great deal more effective than others.
The trick is to find which are the most effective, the most reliable, the most potent.
The most reliable herbal antivirals are more easily revealed if the medicinal plant world is examined through many lenses, and then, afterward, those findings are cross-correlated.
- The history of the plants’ uses in community medicine in whatever cultures have access to them — what some people call indigenous or traditional practice;
- The history of the plants’ uses in developed medical systems such as traditional Chinese medicine, Ayurveda, or Western botanic tradition;
- Contemporary uses of the plants among community herbalists;
- Outcome experiences among modern peoples who are using the plants for healing;
- A scientific study of the plants’ medicinal actions as viewed through in vitro, in vivo, and human clinical study1; and finally
- A factor that I have found a primary indicator of intense therapeutic activity — the invasive status of the plant. Interestingly enough, many of the most potent antibacterial and antiviral plants are invasives.
The plants that show intense activity when viewed through a majority of these lenses end up on the list. It is then the final factor that comes into play: access.
There are some genuinely great antiviral and antibacterial plants in Africa, South America, and China that simply is not to be had in the Western world, no matter how active they are sought — unless you travel to those places.
The plant medicines in this article tend to be somewhat easy to find, and that is important. It’s no good to know of a great antiviral if you can’t find any of it to use as medicine.
Many of the antiviral herbs are active against a wide range of viruses. And tend to think of these as the most potent antivirals in a general sense (e.g., Chinese skullcap).
There are others with a more narrow range, but that is very antiviral for specific viruses (e.g., ginger, elder). All of them have shown potent activity in historical use across long timelines. All of them have been found useful in contemporary usage. Nevertheless, these are not the only antiviral herbs there are.
Again, there are a lot of great herbal antivirals out there; over time, more will be understood and discussed, and used as medicine.
So, don’t think these are the only ones to use; they have the most in-depth historical use that has the most magnificent presence in the literature, and that have the best research on them.
Here are the top seven antiviral herbs, five honorable mentions, one essential supportive herb for nearly all viral infections, and two beneficial antiviral supplements.
Here they are: