In recent weeks, our lives have profoundly changed due to the coronavirus pandemic .
In this article we see what viruses are, why at this moment it is important to stay at home to prevent contagion and what we can do to improve our defenses against coronavirus infection, also thanks to plants.
- What are viruses and what does a viral infection involve
- The role of the immune system in viral infections
- Coronavirus: how it originated and spread and how the pandemic is being managed
- Why we need to stay at home and how to deal with isolation
- How to prevent viral infections
- Immunostimulating plants to prevent viral infections
What are viruses and what does a viral infection involve
Viruses are infectious agents without their own metabolism : they are defined as obligate intracellular pathogens and, for this reason, in order to replicate, they must infect a host cell and exploit its biochemical and biosynthetic structures.
A viral particle, or virion , is made up of the viral genome which can be made up of a DNA molecule or an RNA molecule. The genome is enclosed in a protein coat called a capsid and, in some viruses, a second outer coat called the envelope may be present .
In nature there are viruses capable of infecting any living being, including fungi and plants : as regards humans , viruses can enter our body through damaged skin , conjunctiva, mucous membranes, gastrointestinal or respiratory tract , via d favorite entrance of the coronavirus.
The infection process generally occurs through the recognition and subsequent binding between the receptors placed on the external envelope of the virus and the antireceptors located on the surface of the host cell.
The virus is then internalized into the host cell and exploits its structures to be able to replicate its genome and translate its genes. The new viral particle, once complete, exits the cell infecting another one .
Viral infection damages host cells by altering their normal functions : the disease caused by a virus depends on the type of cells infected and the duration of the infection. Replication of a virus may not cause symptoms if the cell damage is not significant, but in some cases it causes obvious cellular alterations or cell death .
A viral infection typically ends within two to three weeks with the virus clearing from the host, and the virus spreads its viral offspring through transmission to other individuals.
The role of the immune system in viral infections
When a virus interacts with a living organism, the latter activates a response thanks to non-specific and specific mechanisms of the immune system .
Non – specific mechanisms represent a primary defense against any external agent and include physical and chemical barriers including skin and mucous membranes, secretions and bacterial flora. To these barriers is added the activity of phagocytic cells and non-specific mediators which are activated when the organism comes into contact with any pathogen.
In addition to the non-specific response, there is also a specific immune response , which is mainly based on the action of T and B lymphocytes responsible for killing infected cells and producing antibodies.
Coronavirus: how it originated and spread and how the pandemic is being managed
The new coronavirus belongs to a family of RNA viruses capable of infecting various mammals, including humans, mainly attacking the epithelium cells of the gastrointestinal and respiratory tract .
Coronaviruses can cause conditions ranging from colds to more serious illnesses such as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, known as SARS and MERS respectively .
The new coronavirus was first reported in humans in December 2019 in Whuan, China, and it appears that the species leap – or spill over – that allowed the transition from a wild animal to a human being.
After the leap from animal to human, the new coronavirus has developed the ability to be transmitted from human to human : most infected people are asymptomatic or have mild or moderate flu -like symptoms.
In one in five people, however, the coronavirus causes severe breathing difficulties that require hospitalization in intensive care and in some cases, unfortunately, the disease leads to the death of the patient. These are often, but not always, elderly or immunosuppressed people or those suffering from diseases including hypertension , cardiovascular disease and diabetes .
Since its identification, the virus has spread widely in the global population due to the flow of people: in early March 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) assessed the spread of Covid-19 as a pandemic .
Since that moment, several countries with a high number of infections – including Italy – have begun to adopt containment measures similar to those undertaken in various areas of China as early as January, imposing social distancing , limiting the movement of people and closing non-essential commercial and manufacturing activities in order to prevent, limit and slow down infections.
Why we need to stay at home and how to deal with isolation
The new coronavirus has proven highly contagious and, being a new virus, few of us have currently developed antibodies . It is therefore essential to limit contacts with other people as much as possible, as they could be infected even if they have no obvious symptoms.
For this reason we are required to stay at home , avoiding crowds or crowded places: a large number of infections in a short time could determine the inability of the health system to be able to offer adequate care for all those who present serious symptoms.
The aim is to slow down the infection: having more time available will allow for staggering any hospitalizations while studying treatments, therapies and vaccines against the coronavirus. Herd immunity should also improve the situation , given by the infected and healed people.
However, forced isolation and often radical changes in one’s lifestyle can have important emotional and psychological repercussions. To better deal with the anxiety and stress deriving from this situation, plants and essential oils can come to our aid .
The essences of lavender and lemon balm , for example, help to relax and calm the agitation, while that of lemon is useful to find concentration for those who work from home: essential oils can be diffused in the environment , pouring 10-20 drops. in the diffuser and are also useful for purifying the air in domestic environments.
If anxiety causes sleep and rest disturbances, it is possible to resort to herbal teas based on lemon balm , lime , passion flower , hops , to be taken at least half an hour before going to bed.
How to prevent viral infections
To prevent viral infections , in addition to social distancing and improving our hygiene habits, it can be of great help to keep intact the body’s barriers that constitute the first non-specific defense against infections.
This translates into keeping skin, mucous membranes and bacterial flora intact and healthy: proper nutrition , avoiding cigarette smoke and maintaining a healthy lifestyle are therefore the first things to do to ensure that our body is able to defend itself from attack by pathogens.
Proper nutrition provides all the macronutrients and micronutrients – vitamins and minerals – essential for our body to be able to perform its functions. It is therefore very important in this period to take at least five portions of fruit and vegetables a day, to regularly consume legumes and whole grains and instead limit foods of animal origin, processed foods and alcohol .
A healthy body is not only less vulnerable to infection, it is also able to respond better if it comes into contact with pathogens.
We also remember to carry out regular and constant physical activity and to expose ourselves to the sun : in these weeks we are forced to stay at home, but those who have a balcony, a terrace or a garden at their disposal can use it for exercise.
Immunostimulating plants to prevent viral infections
Nature offers us numerous plants capable of stimulating the immune system, widely used to prevent uncomplicated infections of the upper respiratory tract.
Immunostimulating plants act through nonspecific mechanisms by activating cells and humoral factors of nonspecific immunity.
Among these we remember the echinacea ( Echinacea purpurea ), the astragalus ( Astragalus membranaceus ) and the andografis ( Andrographis paniculata ).
To these plants are added those defined adaptogens , i.e. capable of increasing the body’s resistance to harmful stimuli, also endowed with immunostimulating properties, such as eleutherococcus (Eleutherococcus senticosus), ginseng (Panax ginseng) and uncaria (Uncaria tormentosa) , plants useful to better deal with the stress that can derive from forced isolation.
These are plants whose extracts are easily available in herbal medicine and pharmacy in the form of herbal tea or dry, aqueous or hydroalcoholic extracts that may contain only one of these herbs or a synergistic blend.
Sources : General pathology and physiopathology, F. Celotti, Edises / Fitoterapia, F. Capasso, G. Grandolini, AA Izzo, Spinger / Ministry of Health.