May 102009

Below is a guest post by Brooklyn Herbalist/Acupuncturist Karen Vaughan on two different kinds of flu and two different types of treatment. This was originally posted on Facebook by Karen and I found it so interesting I asked her for permission to reprint it here. There’s been a polarity in the reactions to the H1N1 flu, from hysteria to complete cynicism and denial. Personally, I don’t think either approach is useful at all. I am also of the opinion that cytokine storm and the different kinds of flu are certainly worth understanding (not to mention fascinating to anyone interested in health and the human body), if not for the present, then for the future. Wherever you stand on the issue, I hope you enjoy Karen’s intelligent exploration of the subject.


The H1N1 Swine Flu may operate in two ways, one of which acts like seasonal flu except is more widespread, and the other which causes the immune system to produce the most damage.  What is not clear is whether the current flu is a cytokine storm type flu where you are better off with a low immune response, or a more normal flu where you are better off with a strong immune system. According to Wikipedia:

“A cytokine storm, or hypercytokinemia is a potentially fatal immune reaction consisting of a positive feedback loop between cytokines and immune cells, with highly elevated levels of various cytokines.[1]..The primary symptoms of a cytokine storm are high fever, swelling and redness, extreme fatigue, and nausea….When the immune system is fighting pathogens, cytokines signal immune cells such as T-cells and macrophages to travel to the site of infection. In addition, cytokines activate those cells, stimulating them to produce more cytokines. Normally, this feedback loop is kept in check by the body. However, in some instances, the reaction becomes uncontrolled, and too many immune cells are activated in a single place. The precise reason for this is not entirely understood but may be caused by an exaggerated response when the immune system encounters a new and highly pathogenic invader. Cytokine storms have potential to do significant damage to body tissues and organs… If a cytokine storm occurs in the lungs, for example, fluids and immune cells such as macrophages may accumulate and eventually block off the airways, potentially resulting in death….

“It is believed that cytokine storms were responsible for many of the deaths during the 1918 influenza pandemic, which killed a disproportionate number of young adults.[1] In this case, a healthy immune system may have been a liability rather than an asset. Preliminary research results from Hong Kong also indicated this as the probable reason for many deaths during the SARS epidemic in 2003.[4] Human deaths from the bird flu H5N1 usually involve cytokine storms as well.[5] Recent reports of high mortality among healthy young adults in the 2009 swine flu outbreak has led to speculation that cytokine storms could be responsible for these deaths.[6] However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has indicated that symptoms reported from this strain so far are similar to those of normal seasonal flu,[7] with the CDC stating that there is “insufficient information to date about clinical complications of this variant of swine-origin influenza A (H1N1) virus infection.”[7]“

In the cytokine storm flu, which appeared to occur in Mexico, the healthy young adults are more likely to get sick than children or the elderly. Their strong immune system over-reacts, causing the fever to spike, interfere with opening the pores, heating them up and exhausting their ability to fight. Pain and spasm may block sweating, so relaxing herbs like black cohosh are useful. You do not want immune stimulating herbs like maitake or reishi which increase cytokines. You do want heat-clearing herbs like lomatium, isatis, coptis, scute and forsythia buds. Echinacea may possibly increase cytokines, although it works by several paths and the late great herbalist Michael Moore thought it should be given for epidemic flu when avian flu was considered possible.

However the CDC notes that the current Swine Flu may not be the cytokine storm variety, at least in the mutation we have currently. In these other types of flu, the elderly and young children are mostly at risk, and you ought to use immune stimulating as well as symptom alleviating herbs. If the fever is tolerable and helps induce sweat, it should not be suppressed as it usually shortens the course of the disease. If it progresses inward and gets hotter, with a rapid pulse, scarlet tongue, big sweat, make sure that the bowels are moving.

  2 Responses to “Guest Post by Karen Vaughan: Two Different Types of Flu”

  1. Good to know, this article sparked my interest for further research. Thanks!

  2. Great article by Karen Vaughan, thanks for reposting it. I’d like to add that since the recent U.S. cases have been relatively mild, it is now probable that a cytokine storm is less likely in the recent cases, and echinacea would probably be useful in defending the body from attack, at least in the last week or so for U.S. cases

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