How does Ayurveda think about viruses?
According to Ayurveda, viruses fall into the category of krimi. Krimi are further categorized as raktaja krimi, which are carried in the circulatory system (lymph, veins, arteries), and purisaja krimi, which reside in the lower gut.1
So how did Ayurveda deal with krimi? Strategies aimed at addressing infestations of krimi were three-fold:3
1. Physical removal of krimi.
2. Elimination of the cause of infestation.
3. Modification of the prakriti (constitution or environment) of the krimi (microbes) and the human host.
In Ayurveda, we not only deal with the infestation, but with the terrain accommodating that infestation. According to Ayurveda, the prakriti (environment) of the microbe and the human host can be modified! How do we do this? With the help of dietary habits, herbs, and lifestyle management.3
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How Does Viral Krimi Work?
When we are exposed to a viral krimi, the virus must penetrate a cell wall and occupy a cell in order to survive. In fact, a virus is arguably not alive until it finds its way into a cell, where it can reproduce. Outside of a cell, a virus is just a fatty sac around some genetic material and proteins, which cannot survive until it penetrates a cell.
Epithelial cells (or protective border cells) lining the lungs and intestines are most vulnerable, as these are the first cells the virus will come in contact with, primarily through the air we breathe and things we swallow, like food and saliva. A strong digestive agni (or stomach acid) normally destroys viruses on contact, but weak digestion breeds vulnerability.
Once the virus attaches to a receptor on the surface of an epithelial cell, it injects genetic material so the cell unknowingly follows the viral genetic instructions to replicate the virus. In short order, the cell is overwrought with new viral cells, until the cell wall fails and the viral cells are freed into the extracellular lymphatic fluid, always looking for another cell to attach to and inject its genetic material in.
Once the virus enters the extracellular lymphatic fluid, an immune response is triggered. Pro-inflammatory cytokines are the first responders. They dictate immune response, sending killer T cells and neutrophils to the site. If the lymphatic and immune response is healthy, the virus can be arrested in short order and few symptoms are experienced.
If the protective epithelial border cells in the lungs and gut are unhealthy and the lymphatic system has been chronically congested, the viral load can quickly surge, causing the immune system to send more cytokines, who call for more neutrophils and killer T cells to mount a larger immune response.
In the viral battle, neutrophils and killer T cells can be infected by viral cells, causing cytokines to surge, leading to an overzealous immune reaction. This is called a cytokine storm: rapidly increasing numbers of cytokines cause hyper-inflammation and massive numbers of killer T cells and neutrophils, which not only attack and destroy viral cells, but healthy cells, too—thus the name killer T cells.4
Ayurveda Addresses the Environment, Not the Virus
Ayurveda supports a healthy immune response by changing the environment of both the epithelial border cells (lining the gut and respiratory tract), as well as supporting healthy flow of extracellular lymphatic fluid, which transports the immune system.
Healthy Epithelial Border Cells
Cells that line the respiratory and digestive tracts are the real first responders responsible for healthy immune response. These epithelial cells, which are basically skin cells, are lined with beneficial bacteria. While the lungs were once thought to be sterile, they are now known to harbor beneficial bacteria critical to a healthy respiratory immune response.5
Maintaining balance in the environments of both the digestive and respiratory tracts is required in order to maintain a healthy immune response, according to Ayurveda. I have written many articles on how to support the health and integrity of the intestinal skin lining.
Neem to the Rescue
The leaf of the neem tree (Azadirachta indica) has been used for thousands of years to support a healthy epithelial (skin) barrier in both the gut and respiratory tracts. Its nicknames, village pharmacy’ and queen of the skin, describe its role in supporting the immune system by maintaining healthy skin quite perfectly.
Neem plays an important role in keeping the body’s microbiomes in balance. Neem has been found to create an environment detrimental to bad bacteria, while supporting good bacteria.
The newest science is beginning to understand one of the mechanisms of how this works. It turns out neem is antagonistic to biofilms. Biofilms create safe havens for bacteria to flourish, take root on the intestinal wall, and negatively impact gut microbiology.4-6
Inhibiting unwanted biofilm accumulation allows natural gut immunity, driven by beneficial bacteria, to maintain a healthy balance of good and bad intestinal bacteria.9-11
Neem is well-documented to be unsupportive to the proliferation of undesirable bacteria.6-8 In one study, neem supported the body’s natural antiviral response by supporting the intestinal lining to block entry of certain viruses into the cell.12
Neem leaf has also been shown to support the body’s (aka the host’s) natural and healthy regulation of cytokines during an immune event.13 In another study, neem leaf extract was shown to support cytokine-driven pro-inflammatory immune cell signaling response and the immune system’s natural programmed cell death of undesirable cells.14
For immune support and to maintain healthy epithelial borders and associated microbiomes, it was traditional to harvest and regularly eat leaves of the neem tree, brush teeth with neem sticks, and drink neem tea. It is said that eating leaves just before spring (January and February) jumpstarts immunity and offers benefits for a full year.
To learn more about the lymphatic system’s role in a healthy immune response, please read my many lymphatic articles here.
Also download my free comprehensive eBook on the lymphatic system here.