How Ayurveda and immunity boosters have joined the fight against COVID-19

The AYUSH Ministry is testing herbs such as Ashwagandha, or Indian ginseng, as potential medicines for treating COVID-19. Image credit: By Maša Sinreih in Valentina Vivod - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17815733


Patanjali Ayurved recently claimed that it has developed an Ayurvedic medicine for COVID-19, which will cure patients in 5-15 days. According to CEO Acharya Balkrishna, the company has also conducted trials on patients who have recovered and tested negative, since. This development comes at a time when companies around the world are racing against time to find a cure to halt the pandemic as numbers keep rising.

With total COVID-19 cases in the country crossing 4,25,000 and more people venturing out of their homes to resume their daily lives comes the acceptance that the virus is here to stay for at least a while and that a strong immune system would be needed to tackle it. Many Indians are, hence, turning to herbal remedies and ayurvedic concoctions to boost their immunity. Turmeric milk, kaada, a homemade drink for cold and cough, Chyawanprash, various spice combinations said to boost immunity and honey are slowly becoming a part of most pantries and diets.

AYUSH Ministry’s cure for COVID-19

Despite being home to traditional medicine systems such as Ayurveda, India has not conducted scientific trials on Ayurveda in a large scale and this has led to it being relegated to a secondary position. An exception has been the state of Kerala which has embraced Ayurveda and has promoted it aggressively. Kerala has also looked at Ayurveda to supplement its COVID-19 response and has set up Ayur Raksha clinics at district and taluk levels to provide preventive medicines, improve immunity and provide other health support.

However, the pandemic has brought renewed interest in researching and developing alternative medicines, at the national level as well. In March, as cases started to rise in the country, the AYUSH Ministry recommended that people follow natural immunity building procedures, listing tips on its website. The Government also set up a task force to oversee AYUSH research in the country.

In April, the AYUSH Ministry handed a herbal decoction recipe to promote the manufacturing of immunity boosters and to enable business activity to pick up across states and union territories. According to reports, around 20 companies that manufacture Ayurvedic, Homeopathy and Unani medicine have begun clinical trials for immunity boosting medicines based on guidelines issued by the Ministry.

In May, the AYUSH Ministry announced that India is working on four traditional formulations to treat the virus. These include:

Ashwagandha: Ashwagandha is known to be amongst the most powerful herbal medicines in Ayurveda. The ancient herb, also called Indian ginseng. has been used for centuries as a stress and anxiety reliever. A study conducted by DAILAB at Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Delhi and National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST), Japan, has found that that the natural compounds present in Ashwagandha and propolis, a compound found in bees, have the ability to be effective anti-COVID 19 drugs.

As per the researchers, ashwagandha has a natural compound called Withanone which has the potential to block the activity of Mprotease (MPro), a type of protein which is responsible for the replication of the virus.

In addition, Ashwagandha is also known to protect brain cells from degenerative conditions such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. Studies have also shown that the herb can produce immunoglobin and boost the body’s immune system.               

Yashtimadhu: Also known as mulethi, Yashtimadhu or liquorice in English, has been known to keep the respiratory tract healthy, hence, making it an important component in the fight against COVID-19. Further, enzymes present in the root plant produce lymphocytes and macrophages which help boost immunity. The sweet herb contains powerful phytochemicals namely flavonoids, chalcones, saponins and xenoestrogens which gives it its anti-oxidant, anti-inflammatory and anti-fungal properties.

Guduchi Peepli: Used in Ayurvedic medicines since ages, Giloy is a powerhouse of antioxidants that help fight free-radicals. It also removes toxins, fights bacteria and purifies the blood. Giloy is known to be helpful in treating cold, flu and allergies. While not scientifically proven, Giloy is also said to be useful in curing diseases such as malaria and dengue.  

Ayush 64: The AYUSH Ministry is also testing the efficacy of the poly-herbal anti-malarial formula, Ayush 64 on COVID patients. Clinical trials on health workers and those working in high-risk areas have already started.    

Companies join the immunity bandwagon

A Google India report titled Google India report, What is India searching for: Insights for Brand highlights, showed a 500 per cent jump for searches related to health, in particular those that claim to boost immunity. Companies have been thus, cashing in on this increased demand for immunity boosters and herbal remedies. According to a report by Nielsen, in March 2020, the demand for honey went up by 35 per cent, while that for Chyawanprash and turmeric went up by 81 per cent and 38 per cent, respectively, in shops.

In March, during the early stages of the pandemic in India, the Dalmia Group had launched a herbal composition, DHL CoronaVirus Preventive Capsules which the company claimed can act as a protection against the virus by boosting immunity. Earlier this month, AIMIL Pharma, a Delhi based company announced a herbal immunity-boosting concoction, which will be sold under the generic name Ayush Kwath, Ayush Kudineer or Ayush Joshanda. The concoction contains basil leaves, cinnamon bark, dry ginger powder and black pepper which can be mixed with water or with tea.

Dairy brands have also joined in the immunity bandwagon – Noida based Mother Dairy has launched haldi milk as part of its immunity-boosting range, while Amul has launched Haldi, Tulsi and ginger milk. The milk can be consumed by all age groups and will be available in cans and packets. Even coffee chains across the country including Café Coffee Day, Chaayos, Tata Starbucks are expanding their menu to include immunity-boosting items such as ajwain-saunf chai, lemongrass tea and turmeric tea.

However, a letter issued by the AYUSH Ministry to the Principal Secretary of AYUSH as well as to the Secretaries of States/Union Territories has warned manufacturers of alternate medicines against promoting their products as a cure.