Fighting the Virus With Folk Remedies

By Petar Stoyanov

Petar Stoyanov is a Bulgarian journalist and video producer with 15 years of experience in a number of print and television media outlets. Over the years, Petar has covered topics related to science, technology, business, culture, and the environment. He is the managing editor of HiComm magazine.

Many people see SARS-CoV-2 as just another virus. And if it’s just another virus, then grandma’s classic remedies should work, right?

In theory, folk medicine might include substances that may be useful in fighting viral diseases. Classic cold treatments often feature honey, lemon, and more recently, ginger. Colds are sometimes caused by long-known human pathogens from the coronavirus family. These, however, should not be confused with SARS-CoV-2. Still, many are convinced that similar remedies can be used during the current pandemic. In the first weeks of the lockdown, this led to a short-term shortage of these products and a serious inflation in their prices in Bulgaria.

Because self-proclaimed “healers” were telling people to strengthen their immune systems, their advice contributed significantly to this market fever. Meanwhile, some websites didn’t hesitate to spread rumours that a “mixture of ginger and turmeric” cures COVID-19 — the disease caused by the new coronavirus.

But what makes these ingredients so special? For millennia, honey has been hailed as a natural remedy with antimicrobial and antiviral properties. Lemon is the most recognizable source of vitamin C, and ginger is presumed to have immune-boosting properties. At least according to popular beliefs.

In terms of their effectiveness against SARS-CoV-2, we can immediately rule out ginger. Consuming the plant — eating its root, drinking it in the form of tea or capsules,  sniffing it, or adding it as a spice to food — won’t protect you or help you treat COVID-19, according to the American Academy of Sciences. Also, it won’t work any better if you mix it with honey, tea, garlic or vinegar, the organization said. Viral infections spread in our body by penetrating cells and replicating themselves. Ginger cannot stop this process at any stage.

Undoubtedly, vitamin C is important for human health. Since it’s not produced by our body, we need a proper diet to supply it. But there are serious myths surrounding vitamin C’s effect against various infections. Many of the claims about the vitamin’s antiviral properties, such as those by the American chemist Linus Pauling, have been debunked after long and thorough research.

In terms of prevention, experiments have been carried out in the last decade with high doses of the vitamin, equivalent to eating about 15 kg of lemons per day (100 g of lemon contains about 53 mg of vitamin C), an amount impossible for the human body to digest. But would it be useful? Even if there are benefits, they would be minimal, doctors believe.

Honey may help relieve coughs and sore throats due to colds. But recent studies of the impact of SARS-CoV-2 on the bodies of critically ill patients do not suggest that mitigating these symptoms is particularly important for the outcome of the disease. However, at the beginning of the pandemic, as scientists were struggling to find a vaccine or a definite cure for COVID-19, people in despair resorted to many things. Researchers have conducted some exotic clinical studies on honey. Yet even they do not claim that it cures the virus. In fact, the website of the American Academy of Sciences directly states that “there are no foods, beverages, or supplements that will protect you from COVID-19.”

Their statement included garlic — another popular folk remedy. The World Health Organization (WHO) states that while garlic is a healthy food with some antimicrobial properties, there is still no evidence whatsoever that it is useful against the new virus.

Between the meaningless and the dangerous

The first weeks of the epidemic in Bulgaria were saturated with unconventional tips on how to fight the infection with folk medicine. Among the most common misconceptions was that Japanese scientists were advising people to keep their throats moist and drink water every 15 minutes. The theory was that this would allow the virus to enter the stomach, where stomach acid would eventually destroy it. These claims are made up. No Japanese authorities have ever given such health advice. However, this didn’t stop some of the largest Bulgarian media such as Nova Television from spreading the rumour through one of their information campaigns.

The same happened with a similar tip supposedly given out by Italian doctor Lidia Rota Vender, which also became popular in Bulgaria. According to the rumour, based on claims by an unnamed “young Chinese researcher”, the virus can’t withstand temperatures higher than 26-27°C. Therefore, people should drink hot beverages. This is, of course, a falsehood. SARS-CoV-2 has been shown to survive for up to 15 minutes at temperatures of 65°C, so hot it could actually damage both your throat and skin (WHO has debunked a related myth about the benefits of taking a hot shower).

The advice to soak up the sun to treat COVID-19 also turned out to be misleading. Although scientists are still investigating whether ultraviolet rays could kill the virus, a number of Bulgarian sites didn’t hesitate to spread the speculation with click-bait headlines as if it were a known fact. Indeed, in theory, lower humidity and high temperatures could limit the spread of virus particles in the air. However, the development of the global pandemic so far has shown that climate, humidity, and sunlight are generally not decisive factors in determining how well a country would deal with COVID-19.

Laughter through tears

“When you rearrange the letters of COVID-19, you get 19 vodkas.” In early spring this anecdote made the rounds online after the realization that Bulgaria won’t be spared by the epidemic. The initial remoteness (before the crisis hit Italy) and the uncertainty regarding the actual scale of the danger made people greet it with cynicism and ridicule. Around the same time, someone created a meme with rakia, one of Bulgaria’s signature drinks, depicted as a muscular supervillain welcoming with outstretched arms the new coronavirus dressed like a man in a pink leotard.

Machismo and alcohol-themed jokes (like this, this and this ones) hardly surprised anyone in the Balkans. In fact, similar humorous reactions were seen all across Eastern Europe. Apart from the fact that rakia is among the region’s favourite drinks, there is a certain scientific explanation behind its reputation as a type of medication. It contains ethanol, which — according to the traditions of folk remedies — immediately makes it a natural disinfectant. As a result, many people consider rakia and alcohol to be interchangeable when it comes to disinfection.

Probably due to the lack of access to real health care in the past, homemade high-alcohol beverages have been used for rinsing, rubbing, and, in some cases, for throat disinfection. This belief has somehow translated to any other type of alcoholic compound. Needless to say, drinking spirits or alcohol won’t kill a virus that has already entered your body. A key detail is usually overlooked: a mixture must contain at least 60 percent ethanol to destroy SARS-CoV-2, even when used externally.

At the same time, science has shown that, when consumed excessively, alcohol is anything but good for you. Drinking will not only fail to destroy the virus but will actually pose additional health risks if the person is sick. Alcohol (at a concentration of at least 60 percent by volume) works as a disinfectant on your skin, but it has no such effect within your system when ingested,” reads the official WHO guidelines on the subject. “Consumption of alcohol will not kill the virus in the inhaled air; it will not disinfect your mouth and throat; and it will not give you any kind of protection against COVID-19”.

In addition, WHO points out that alcohol has both a short-term and a long-term negative impact on almost every human organ and system, and the risk of damaging one’s health increases with each glass. Most importantly, alcohol, especially alcohol abuse, has been shown to weaken the immune system and limit your body’s ability to combat infectious diseases.

The time of healers

During a pandemic, especially in its early stage, when the lack of sufficient information about the new coronavirus intensifies the sense of fear and insecurity, folk medicine seems to gain new admirers.

“There is a general feeling that more and more of our fellow Bulgarians are looking for miraculous cures and relief by experimenting with therapies that were almost forgotten thanks to the boom of modern medicine,” said Dr Stefan Markov of the Institute of Philosophy and Sociology at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences. “Here, traditional medicine is firmly entrenched in our lives.”

Bulgaria is by no means the only country with a strong affinity for folk remedies and esoterics. In April the president of Madagascar promoted an unproven herbal drink to fight the coronavirus. In early July, the capital, Antananarivo, was placed under lockdown again and two of at least 25 infected lawmakers died.

The once popular Russian psychic Anatoly Kashpirovsky appeared in an online “healing” session. Still, Russia became one of the countries with the highest number of confirmed COVID-19 cases.

Popular vlogger Jordan Sather, who has a habit of spreading conspiracy theories and contradictory rumours, claimed that the Miracle Mineral Supplement (MMS) can cure cancer and coronavirus. The magic compound turned out to be nothing more than poisonous chlorine dioxide used for disinfection, and several countries had to issue official warnings about the harm of consuming it.

Still, many people not only believe in such pseudo-drugs, but also experiment with them personally instead of trusting doctors or the voice of reason. Dr Markov believes that the “war on science” and “anti-intellectualism” are among the important factors driving people away from classical medical methods. “Most people prefer alternative healing methods precisely because the intellectual elite and experts recommend otherwise. With this act of rebellion, they seem to be sending a message to us. That message is: Everything is better than what you are promoting.”

In practice, many modern medicines are derived from nature. Even with the increasing popularity of synthetic drugs due to their lower production cost, shorter extraction time, better quality control, etc., 80 percent of people in the developing world still rely on natural remedies. Even at the beginning of the 21st century ,11 percent of the so-called major WHO drugs are plant-based.

Nature will continue to be an important source of inspiration for new medicines. WHO has officially announced that it supports scientifically proven traditional treatments for the current pandemic. “The key here is the definition of scientifically proven,” Dr Markov says.

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