Natural antivirals as herbs, foods, and nutrients are tools that you can use to help keep healthy. At the root of almost all immune function is gut health, and because of this, what you eat and what you put in our body has a tremendous potential to help or hurt your immune health.
In other words, your immune system is more within your control than you think. Antiviral foods and herbs play a big role in how your body responds to any infection, including viral ones.
For this post, I will give you research-backed tools to help your body fight seasonal viruses and also give you sound advice from dietitian experts in the field of immune nutrition.
What is a Virus?
A virus is a tiny microbe that invades cells and acts as a parasite within our cells by using up its resources to make more viruses.
Much smaller than bacteria, viruses greatly outnumber the bacteria in our body as well. Some types of viruses are healthy too. They can be part of our healthy immune system as part of the healthy microbes in the gut called the microbiome.
The healthy viruses in the gut are called the virome.
By now everyone knows that not all viruses are friendly in the body, however. They can be particularly challenging because they don’t always respond to conventional medications well.
Researchers do know that if you are able to reduce the replication of viruses early on, you can reduce the severity of the viral infection within the body.
This is probably why some people seem to suffer greatly from a viral infection, while others remain asymptomatic even after exposure to a harmful virus.
Types of Viruses
In humans, common types of viruses that we host include:
- Hepatitis C
- Herpes simplex virus
- Common cold
- Dengue fever
- West Nile virus
- Chicken pox
With such a vast amount of viruses out there, treatment of viruses is a daunting task, and very few conventional medicines can effectively address their complications at this time.
That is why you need to keep you, the host, ready for anything by eating a healthy diet and optimizing your nutrition and antioxidant levels.
Viruses Mutate in a Stressed Host
In a nutrient-deficient host, viruses mutate. By mutating, they become extra challenging to treat.
This message gets lost in the press these days.
According to a journal article in Trends in Microbiology, a person’s nutritional status is an often neglected cause of a virus’s virulence, or a virus’s potency.
This means that if you eat a poor diet full of processed foods and junk foods, or restrict your diet for various reasons, your body won’t be able to fight off viruses quickly or effectively.
Other factors that cause a virus to rage within the body is lack of sleep and stress. The circadian clock can have direct effects on virus reproduction in the body and also has effects on your body’s ability to fight infection with both innate and adaptive immunity
Stress robs the body’s resources and causes poor sleep, and so stress indirectly causes the immune response to be dampened too.
History of Natural Antivirals
For thousands of years, people have used the tools that the earth gives us to fight off illnesses. In traditional Chinese medicine, antiviral herbs and foods have provided relief from viruses since the dawn of written history.
Other cultures have long used food as medicine as well, with a deep appreciation of natural healing for viral infection symptoms.
The best way to help reduce or prevent viral infections is to optimize your immune system with a good diet. By including antiviral herbs and spices and healthy foods in your cooking, you can safely enhance your immunity.
If you are looking for a comprehensive immune food guide, check out the completely free version of Nutrition for Optimal Immunity collection in the Living Plate Rx courtesy of Jeanne Petrucci, RD. You can download the whole guide here.
Natural antivirals can include foods, herbs, spices, vitamins, and minerals. Keep in mind, some antiviral compounds have a lot of research to back them up for health, while others are still emerging as beneficial.
In this post, if I mention a cell study or cell culture, this means that the research is very preliminary and more research is needed.
Eating a variety of whole foods is a cornerstone of a nutrient-rich diet. These nutrients help your body’s immune defenses to be as strong as possible against invading viruses.
Dr. Lisa Young, RD offers that people should choose foods rich in antioxidant vitamins C and A, and get ample zinc and protein for a strong immune system.
The following foods have these nutrients and also have the most research behind them in terms of their antiviral potential. Regardless of virus type, eating whole foods and avoiding high sugar and processed foods as much as possible helps immunity.
Edible mushrooms, including Lion’s mane mushrooms, Reishi mushrooms, Turkey tails, Button mushrooms, Shiitake mushrooms, and Chaga mushrooms all help the body’s immune response against viruses.
Mushrooms also support a healthy microbiome, which helps control immune responses as well. They do this by enriching the healthy bacteria by serving as prebiotic fibers.
According to Kasey Hutchinson, RD, owner of Vibrant Nutrition, a great food to eat for immune health are broccoli sprouts. The sulforaphane and nutrients in broccoli sprouts and other crucifers help to increase memory T-cell formation by increasing a type of fuel for the gut cells called short chain fatty acids.
Kasey also adds that eating anything that helps with the gut is great, since the gut is our immune system epicenter.
You can buy broccoli sprouts at most markets or sprout your own. Learn more about sprouting at broccoli sprout benefits.
Garlic, Apples, and Onions
Eating garlic, especially when they are raw, increases your ability to fight infections like viruses by increasing natural killer cells and all-around stimulating innate immunity. They do all of this while still keeping inflammation in check.
Apples are also a good source of quercetin, especially if you eat the skin. Quercetin is available in supplement form as well and is a helpful way to reduce allergy symptoms too.
By eating some garlic, apples, and onions every day, you are helping your body’s natural immune defenses.
Elderberries are a popular natural antiviral remedy with some clinical research to support its benefits in reducing symptoms of influenza. A study of 60 people with influenza were given elderberry extract or placebo. Those receiving the elderberry extract had 4 less sick days than those on placebo.
Another clinical trial of 312 air travelers given elderberry syrup found that using elderberry syrup reduced cold symptom duration and less severe symptoms more than placebo These berries are a natural source of vitamin C and antioxidants as well.
Tips for using elderberries: Make sure to use cooked forms of elderberries or prepared elderberry syrups. Do not eat elderberries raw.
Liver is full of immune-enhancing nutrients and is by far the most concentrated form of nutrition out there. To get liver superfood benefits, make sure to choose liver from sustainably raised animals and farmers who use regenerative practices.
Containing high amounts of protein, glutamine, vitamin A, vitamin B12, folate and vitamin K2, liver is helpful in mounting a good immune response to viruses. All of these nutrients are required for proper immune function.
Can’t stomach the idea of eating liver? Consider trying desiccated liver.
If you have a disorder called hemochromatosis, avoid eating liver.
Eating fish helps the immune system by delivering protein, omega-3 fats, antioxidant minerals like selenium and zinc, and glutamine.
Glutamine helps fuel the intestinal lining, which is your barrier of defense against harmful viruses.
Tip for eating fish: Choose fish that are known to be low in mercury, such as wild salmon, wild cod, shrimp, wild sardines, and herring.
Eat more fruits and vegetables
According to Ginger Hultin, MS, RDN, CSO of Chamgagne Nutrition, focusing on increasing your fruit and veggie intake helps ensure you’re meeting vitamins and minerals required to support your immune system to work optimally but also can help create a healthy microbiome.
Eating a variety of fruits and vegetables, such as carotenoid-rich carrots, pumpkin, and squash, and vitamin C-rich citrus, peppers, kiwi, rose hips, and berries is a great bet. In addition, choosing a lot of leafy greens gives the body lots of anti-inflammatory antioxidants and fibers to support a healthy microbiome.
How to eat more fruits and vegetables: focus on eating a variety of vegetables with all meals and a couple of servings of whole fruits every day.
Teas and Infusions
Green tea contains an antioxidant called epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG) that also increases the effectiveness of zinc in the body as a zinc ionophore.
Drinking green tea reduces viral effects on the cell membrane when it invades a cell. By doing so, it reduces both the risk of getting influenza, it also reduces the symptoms and duration of influenza symptoms in large population studies.
Other types of tea that support immune function include Puerh tea and black teas.
Herbal teas are called infusions and they often contain beneficial blends of spices and herbs that help immunity.
Tips for drinking tea: drink some green tea in the morning and have herbal teas that contain natural antiviral herbs for the rest of the day to help support a healthy body and immunity.
Natural Antiviral Herbs
Many culinary herbs and medicinal herbs have the ability to support a healthy gut immune response and also can have antiviral activities.
Using organic herbs is helpful because they often have potent antimicrobial, antifungal, and antiviral properties. If you have fresh herbs, all the better. Keep in mind, some herbs have more human studies than others to support their use in immune function.
A rigorous Cochrane review of 34 clinical research trials concluded that there is strong evidence that the herbal preparations, andrographis and ivy/primrose/thyme-based combination preparations reduce the frequency and severity of cough related to respiratory infections including bronchitis and moderate evidence for Umckaloabo being effective.
The best antiviral herbs include:
- Lemon balm
- Astragalus root
- Licorice root
- Olive leaf extract
- Tea tree oil
Tips for using herbs
Adding these herbs to cooking, teas, mouth gargles, or in supplements can be helpful to your immune system in many ways.
Important notes: To have the strongest natural antiviral effects, start early. At the first signs of a scratchy throat, congestion or malaise, begin using the herbal therapies. If you wait, your chance of nipping it in the bud is gone.
Make sure to also find these herbs in supplement form with good manufacturing practices certification (GMP). This will be signified on labels to assure purity and safety.
Herbal preparations almost always combine thyme with other herbs for antiviral effects to boost their effectiveness. Thyme is in the German Commission E. as a remedy for whooping cough, bronchitis, and colds.
Tips for using thyme: You can make fresh thyme tea by simply steeping the leaves in water or buy Ivy/Thyme drops as a tincture.
Diffuse thyme essential oil or you can use a drop or two of therapeutic food grade thyme essential oil in your tea.
Oregano is a popular natural antiviral remedy based on anecdotal evidence, but also has some preliminary research results showing its effectiveness against viruses too. For example, Mexican oregano essential oil reduces respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and acyclovir-resistant herpes simplex virus in cell studies.
The carvacrol and ursolic antioxidants within oregano have broad spectrum antiviral activity and early work shows that oregano oil may help with numerous viruses, including SARS.
Tips for using oregano: use oregano liberally in cooking or as a tea infusion. You can also eat a few drops of food grade oregano oil mixed in olive oil or water.
Astragalus root is a type of legume that has been researched for its immune benefits. It may help regulate immune response by increasing the balancing type of T-cells called T regulatory cells.
One study of 639 participants examined astragalus effects on a viral condition that affects the heart called viral myocarditis. When astragalus root was given alongside conventional medicine, the effectiveness of treatment was improved compared to standard conventional medicine alone.
In a cell study, astragalus root has antiviral effects against herpes simplex virus, the cause of cold sores.
Tips for using astragalus: Using astragalus root appears to be most effective as a preventive, so using it before illness is probably the best bet. You can buy astragalus teas or supplements for this purpose.
Sage is used in cooking and in teas for its delicious taste, but did you know that research shows that sage has antiviral properties too?
This impressive herb contains ursolic acid and oleanolic acid, both of which have antiviral effects in cell culture Sage also reduces inflammation too. By reducing viral replication of several viruses, even HIV, sage may help protect the body from infection, although more human studies are needed.
Approved for use by the German Commission E for dyspepsia and also inflammation, sage is a safe and delicious herb to use in teas and in cooking.
Lemon balm may reduce replication of viruses as shown in a study that lemon balm essential oil had antiviral activity against avian influenza A virus (H9N2) especially when combined with the antiviral called oseltamivir.
This tasty lemon-flavored herb also appears to reduce cold sores too when used topically as a salve.
By helping to calm the nerves, lemon balm also may help benefit the immune system too.
Tips for using lemon balm: Simply make a tea out of the lemon balm leaves. These are hardy perennial plants that grow in cold climates very easily. You can dry the leaves for teas or use lemon balm leaves in salads, dressings, and sauces.
Andrographis, also known as the king of bitters or Indian echinacea, is a traditional herb used to prevent and treat respiratory illnesses like influenza and the common cold. Research shows that andrographis may indeed reduce the influenza A virus by decreasing viral load and also by decreasing inflammation.
In a small clinical study, andrographis also reduced the duration and the severity of the common cold when given as a standardized extract called Kanjang(®).
How to use andrographis: Andrographis is available in capsules as a supplement or in tincture form.
Licorice root has long been used for its sweet flavor in foods and also has a history of use in many traditional medicine preparations. Containing over 300 types of flavonoids, licorice has a lot of potential health benefits. Research shows that licorice antiviral activities against many viruses.
According to Botanical Medicine.org, the following types of viruses are reduced by licorice: “herpes simplex type 1 (HSV-1), the “cold sore” virus; varicella-zoster virus (VZV), the cause of shingles; hepatitis A virus (HAV); hepatitis B virus (HBV); human immunodeficiency virus (HIV); severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), coronavirus; Epstein–Barr virus (EBV), human cytomegalovirus (CMV) and influenza virus.”
Tips for using licorice: Licorice is available in teas, supplements, and foods. If you have hypertension, you should avoid licorice. A little goes a long way with licorice, but you can safely use small amounts of licorice regularly. Avoid eating a large amount of licorice over extended periods.
Olive Leaf Extract
Olive leaf is a traditional medicine that comes from the olive tree, which helps with lowering blood pressure and supports immune function as well.
For example, olive leaf extract reduces upper respiratory infection duration by about a third compared to placebo in healthy athletes.
The leaves of olives contain an antioxidant called oleuropein, which has potent anti-inflammatory effects in the body by decreasing a compound called TNFɑ.
Tips for using olive leaf: You can make tea from olive leaves or you can buy olive leaves in supplement form.
Echinacea is a beautiful flowering plant with a long history of immune benefits with many research papers backing its immune effects.
A review of 10 clinical trials concluded that taking echinacea at the first sign of viral infection reduces symptoms of acute respiratory infections.
Rich in antioxidants, echinacea is also very useful for skin conditions like eczema and even may reduce the risk of cancer, according to Healthline.com.
How to use echinacea: You can use the flowers, roots, and leaves to make a tea or buy echinacea in supplement form or tincture.
Tea tree, also known as melaleuca, is a long-revered plant that has immune benefits.
Research also finds that it is helpful in fighting viruses. For example, tea tree oil reduces viruses by inactivating viral infection of herpes simplex virus according to a cell study.
The leaves of the tea tree are great as an antiseptic and can even be used as an ingredient in all-natural mouthwashes or gargles.
Swish and gargle with tea tree oil at the first sign of a sore throat. Keep in mind, only use food grade, therapeutic forms of tea tree oil.
You may not have heard of umckaloabo, but this flowering plant from South Africa has some pretty impressive research showing its benefits in viral infections. For example, using umckaloabo reduces the duration and the severity of the common cold in clinical studies.
A review of 8 clinical trials in children concluded that the use of umckaloabo reduces respiratory tract infections and is also safe to use.
Tips for using umckaloabo: You can find umckaloabo in tincture form or in supplements.
Peppermint is used in many cold and flu preparations, but the mistake people make is to use it too late after symptoms have set in.
Using peppermint essential oil may reduce some types of viral activity. For example, it reduces growth of herpes simplex virus in cell study.
This refreshing plant, when used as essential oil, may also reduce the growth of some times of influenza like influenza A.
Tips for using peppermint: You can make peppermint teas or include fresh mint in salads or soups. By using a concentrated food grade peppermint oil, you can also use peppermint essential oil as a mouth gargle. Peppermint is also great for reducing symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome.
Other plants, called adaptogens, support immune health and resilience. By dampening the stress response, these plants help immune function in a more indirect, but very important way.
These anti-stress herbs for immunity include:
- Holy basil
- Medicinal mushrooms like reishi (Ganoderma lucidum)
Holy basil, also known as tulsi and the Queen of Herbs, is a nutritious plant that has many health benefits, including its stress-relieving effects. Like many herbs, holy basil also has a beneficial effect on immune response in the body.
A review study of 24 human studies with over 1100 people concluded that holy basil is safe and effective for immunological stress and psychological stress.
How to use holy basil: You can make a tea with holy basil leaves, use a holy basil tincture, or supplement it in capsule form. Not to be confused with sweet basil, which is a popular culinary herb, holy basil is used as a medicinal herb.
The anti-stress herb, ashwagandha, works in so many ways to help the body manage daily stressors, but also has natural antiviral activities too. For example, one cell study found that ashwagandha reduced H1N1 influenza strain by binding to a viral antigen called neuraminidase.
Ashwagandha is a safe herb to take that has also been clinically shown to reduce symptoms of stress and anxiety.
This impressive herb may even reduce insomnia according to clinical research and reduces stress symptoms by over 80 percent
How to use ashwagandha: This herb is available in capsule form or in tea combinations like this one:
Medicinal mushrooms like reishi are calming for the body and they also are rich in nutrients, which may help reduce viral infections.
A combination of Reishi, Sophora flavescens,and licorice improved lung capacity and reduced asthma symptoms in a randomized, placebo-controlled clinical trial. This combination also resulted in improved immune markers such as TH1/TH2 ratio.
How to use Reishi: Reishi mushrooms are available in capsule forms or in powder forms that you can mix to make Reishi tea or mushroom coffee.
Like herbs, spices can support your body by helping to improve antioxidant levels and nutrient absorption, as is the case with ginger for gut health. These spices also can have some direct antiviral effects.
While these spices are definitely healthy, a little can go a long way for health. Try to have at least one of these spices every day to help improve immune function.
Cloves are a warming spice that may help immunity by serving as a natural antibacterial that also may have antiviral properties against norovirus as shown in cell culture
Using cloves is also good for digestive function and may reduce the risk of cancer as well.
How to use cloves: You can make tea with cloves, add it to savory dishes like curries, or supplement cloves as well.
Cinnamon may reduce HIV infection by reducing its ability to reproduce this virus within the body. This warming spice is a popular way to reduce inflammation and get more antioxidants into the diet too. If you use cinnamon frequently, it is best to choose Ceylon cinnamon, as cassia cinnamon has coumarin in it, which can be toxic over time.
How to use cinnamon: Add Ceylon cinnamon to tea or coffee. You can also add cinnamon to many dishes, such as soups, curries, chicken, or berry desserts. Mix some cinnamon into yogurt as well.
Used to help fight harmful bacteria and harmful fungi too, anise supports the immune system in many ways.
You can add star anise to teas, coffee, savory dishes, and fresh fruit combinations for an extra flavor kick.
Hot peppers, also known as capsicum, have many health benefits, including the ability to reduce inflammation.
The capsaicin within hot chili peppers may reduce viral activity of herpes simplex virus according to early research.
How to use chilis: Add hot peppers to any savory dish to give them a flavor boost. Slowly add more chilis into your diet so that you have time to adapt to the capsaicin, or heat factor.
Ginger and Turmeric
Ginger and turmeric both belong to the ginger family of plants and have some similar actions in the body. Both are common spices that bring a natural warmness to foods and both also dampen down inflammation compounds, including cytokines.
Both spices’ antiviral activities are impressive too. Turmeric reduces respiratory syndrome virus (RSV) in cell cultures and ginger helps reduce inflammation associated with viruses too. For example, one study found that ginger reduced ICU days and need for respirator days in people with acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS).
Ginger reduces influenza, particularly avian influenza H9N2 in a cell culture study as well.
How to use ginger and turmeric: Add both spices to teas, soups, or any dish where you want some extra flavor and antioxidants. You can also eat crystallized ginger or buy turmeric in capsule form. Piperine or black pepper helps improve the absorption of the active compound in turmeric called curcumin.
Fight viruses with probiotic foods
Healthy bacteria that live in our gut are called probiotics. These healthy bacteria are also found in probiotic foods like fermented foods and are a cornerstone to a healthy immune response.
As an example of this, Lactic acid bacteria help to prevent numerous viral infections, including influenza and even help treat another viral infection called H.Pylori.
Probiotic foods support both innate and acquired immune systems in the body. By doing this, they have the potential to reduce severity of all infections as described in research by Min-Kyung Park published in PLoS One.
Foods with antiviral properties that are rich in probiotic are:
- some yogurts
- cultured sour cream
- aged cheeses
- fermented rice
- fermented carrots
- fermented flaxseed
- other fermented vegetables like fermented salsa
You should eat fermented foods every day to get the best immune benefits.
I repeat. Eat them every day for best immune health.
Perhaps my favorite quote of all time, by Kasey Huthinson RDN, is a good reminder of the effects of probiotics:
“The gut is our immune system epicenter.”
Antiviral vitamins and minerals
Natural antiviral remedies and preventive nutrients can be helpful for many to reduce the severity of viral infections.
Use of zinc is a common practice to fight viral infections, especially the common cold.
According to Melissa Nieves, RD with Fad Free Nutrition, zinc is known to be an important micronutrient for the immune system. Even a mild zinc deficiency has been associated with defects in immune response.
The antioxidant mineral zinc is also required to ensure the structural and functional integrity of the skin and all mucus membranes, which form physical and chemical barriers that represent a first line of defense against germs.
Many people don’t get enough of zinc in their diets and many medications deplete zinc. Make sure to choose zinc-rich foods like oysters, grass-fed meats, eggs, fish, and sprouted legumes, or even better, fermented legumes. By sprouting and fermenting, you are making the zinc more absorbable by the body.
Zinc is one of the most popular antiviral home remedies. If you do supplement zinc, choose a moderate dose, or contact your healthcare provider to help determine your unique requirements.
Without a doubt, one of the most recognized nutrients that has a ton of research to back it is as an immune powerhouse is called vitamin D3.
This nutrient primarily comes from the sun and this is why vitamin D is a very common deficiency.
Deficiencies of nutrients are bad for immunity.
Lacking nutrients is not good for the best immune function, and vitamin D is no exception to this rule. Vitamin D has proven to be one of the best antiviral supplements because it acts as a nutrient in the body, but also helps the body make its own antimicrobials called cathelicidin and defensins.
Mounting research supports the fact that vitamin D may reduce the risk of serious infections, including SARS CoV2 (COVID-19). While association does not equal causation, many health expert publications, including the Journal of the American Medical Association, now recommend checking and treating vitamin D deficiency.
Make sure to check with your doctor to see what your vitamin D level is. If it is low, I recommend following the dosing guidelines developed by Grassroots Health.
You can also check vitamin D levels at home. Find out about vitamin D test costs too.
Selenium is an essential mineral that acts as an antioxidant in the body. Using selenium as a supplement can be beneficial because in many parts of the world, selenium content of soils is quite low.
If a person is selenium deficient, research shows that viruses can mutate and become more virulent. Selenium exerts activity against viruses by also supporting both innate and adaptive immunity.
According to Dr. Holger Steinbrenner as published in Advances in Nutrition journal, “The habitual diet is often not sufficient to meet the increased demands for micronutrients in infectious diseases.” This is especially true of selenium, which can be inherently low in soil.
Eating selenium-rich foods like liver, fish, and Brazil nuts helps, but again, there is no guarantee of various regions in the selenium content. Moderate doses of selenium supplementation that are within high-quality natural multivitamin and mineral supplements is probably prudent for people to support immunity.
Vitamin C is perhaps the most researched of all vitamins for immune function, but like vitamin D, it is important to prevent deficiency and optimize your vitamin C levels before you are sick. This antioxidant nutrient is important for immune function.
For examples of how vitamin C works, read more in my immune booster vitamins post.
Check with your doctor before using vitamin C if you have a history of kidney stones.
Vitamin A, originally referred to as the anti-inflammation in the 1920’s by Dr. Green and Dr. Mellandy, works to protect the structures of the body from foreign invaders.
How to get more vitamin A: Make sure to choose vitamin A-rich foods, including liver and eggs.
Pre-vitamin A comes from darkly pigmented vegetables, but is not as reliable of a vitamin A source due to differences in genes’ ability to convert carotenoid types of vitamin A into activated vitamin A.
If you don’t eat vitamin A-rich animal foods, consider a good vitamin A supplement. I like this one.
Stress can zap the immune responses in the body, so managing your stress effectively is so important for fighting infections. Music is a great way to help reduce stress in your daily life, according to Jeanette Kimszal RDN at Root Nutrition.
You can also take a few minutes each day to meditate and practice yoga for additional stress relief. Find things in your day that bring you happiness and appreciate the little things. Try to simplify your daily routine so that you have more time for self care.
Side Effects of Natural Antivirals and Cautions
Note: Be sure to discuss any change in your herbal, diet, or supplement routine with your health care practitioner if you are pregnant, on immunosuppressive medications, or have autoimmune conditions.
The information on this site is provided as a research resource for informational purposes only and is not intended to replace, diagnose, or treatment. Make sure to consult with a qualified health care practitioner any time you make changes to your health routine. Consult your medical care provider before using any herbal medicine.
Eating nutrient-rich foods supports a healthy immune response so make every bite count. By adding natural antivirals with herbs, spices, and nutrients, you help optimize your immune system for whatever virus comes your way.
While no single herb, food, or nutrient are considered cures for viruses, it is important to eat well, use culinary herbs, and supplements when needed to support a healthy line of defense against harmful viruses that you may encounter.