Of course the best course of action when dealing with a cold or flu is to prevent it from happening in the first place. (See part one). When this fails our second course of action is to use herbs aggressively as the very first symptoms develop.
But in all honesty, our best defense against a cold or flu running its full course is not an herbal magic bullet pill, but instead rest. Go to bed. Sleep. Read. Stay in bed as much as possible. I know some of you out there are saying, "But I have to go to work/school/party." Truly, this is the best medicine I know of. Going to bed and resting can keep your symptoms at bay. Toughing it out can lead to more severe and prolonged symptoms.
Another highly effective approach is sweating therapy. If you don't have easy access to a sauna, this can be done by putting your feet in a tub of water while sitting in a chair. The water should be as hot as possible without causing discomfort. Then, wrap a sheet and then a thick blanket around yourself, covering your body, the steaming water and chair. Leave your head poking out. The steam will heat up your tent giving you a DIY sauna. Keep up the sauna, changing out the water as necessary, for as long as it feels good to you.
And of course herbs can also be a powerful tool in preventing the onset of illness. I generally dose to maximum tolerance, so frequent small doses, backing off if nausea or other mild unwanted effects occur.
Ginger (Zingiber officinale)
Ginger is a fabulous warming herb that is a medicine chest in itself. It is a stimulating diaphoretic that warms the core and drives heat out of the body and a stimulating expectorant helping to promote and move mucous from the sinuses and lungs.
As an anti-microbial herbs it has been shown to be effective against Escherichia coli, Staphylococcus, Streptococcus spp., and Salmonella spp. If that’s not impressive enough it also aids upper respiratory infections and abates nausea. The list of medicinal benefits goes on and on, including it being a circulatory stimulant and an anti-inflammatory – whole books can be written about ginger.
I love ginger tea and drink it often whether sick or not. To make ginger tea I grate fresh ginger root with a cheese grater and then simmer gently (covered) for at least twenty minutes. How much ginger to water? Depends on how strong you want it, when using it to abate a cold or flu use as much as you can stomach. When it is through simmering I leave the ginger in the tea and drink it as well. Some people add lemon and honey to this mixture. You can also use dried ginger in the same way. Dried ginger is much hotter than fresh, great for when the person feels cold.
Lately, for that extra kick, I've been adding cayenne powder to the tea as well. Spicy and very effective for helping the body overcome a viral infection.
Ginger is a great spice to be regularly added to meats and vegetables. I’ve used the tincture with success when traveling, but since this root is easily found year round in grocery stores I like to make it as a decoction as described above. You can store your ginger in the freezer for longer keeping and there’s no need to peel the root when making the tea.
You can also make a delicious ginger honey simply by filling a jar with grated ginger and then covering the ginger with honey. Stir well. I set my honey on the counter for a few days and turn it upside down every couple of days. You can immediately eat ginger honey, but after a few days it will transform into a syrupy consistency that is oh so good and wonderfully soothing to sore throats. Store in the fridge for long-term use.
Garlic (Allium sativum)
For thousands of years, garlic has been used to maintain and restore health. This is due to a plethora of constituents that are antiviral, antibiotic, and antiseptic. According to herbalist Stephen Buhner it is effective against:
- Escherichia coli
- Shigella dysenteriae, which causes bacillus dysentery
- Staphylococcus and streptococcus
- Diverse types of fungi, yeasts, and many viruses, such as herpes and influenza
In order to enjoy the anti-viral activities of garlic many recommend that you eat it raw and a lot of it. Please be warned that large amounts of raw garlic can be a great way to induce vomiting. Some people effectively work up a tolerance to garlic over time in order to take larger quantities. When using raw garlic as an anti-viral just take it slowly and listen to your stomach.
Garlic is not only anti-viral but is also immune stimulating. In my mind garlic is a fabulous medicine to take as a preventive as well as during a cold or flu.
One important consideration when ingesting garlic (besides its ability to make you nauseous) is the heating and drying properties inherent to garlic. Take one bit of raw garlic and you know that this is hot stuff. This spicy hot quality of garlic can exacerbate already hot conditions. If you find that you are always warmer than those around you, have a red face and perhaps a faster pulse, you may not be able to tolerate large amounts of garlic.
One way to enjoy fresh garlic is by infusing it in vinegar.
Fill a jar ¾ full of minced garlic, and continue to fill the jar to the top with organic unfiltered apple cider vinegar, cover with a plastic lid and let sit for a minimum of 4 to 6 weeks.
You can eat the garlic right along with the vinegar. I like to take this when I feel a cold coming on by taking 1 tablespoon every half hour or as tolerated.
Garlic with Olive Oil
To utilize garlic at its strongest simply mince some cloves and then let stand for three minutes. Allowing oxygen to come in contact with the garlic activates this powerful medicine. You can then combine it with olive oil. The olive oil can help to counteract the spiciness of the garlic, which can be irritating. When I make this I consume it within the same day to avoid possible bacterial growth within the olive oil. Longterm storage of fresh garlic with olive oil has been implicated in botchulism poisonings.
To make this sweet and spicy treat, fill a jar with freshly minced garlic, add honey to fill the jar and stir well. To ensure the honey and garlic are mixed well you can turn the jar upside down a couple times a day. You can consume garlic and honey immediately and after a couple of days the mixture will transform into a more syrupy consistency. Honey also helps to relieve some of the hot and drying tendencies of garlic. A similar honey can be made with white onions and is especially nice for wet coughs.
Again, too much garlic can make you nauseous (or even puke!), so be sure to listen to your stomach and don’t over do it.
Besides being a powerful herb of choice for the cold and flu season garlic is also an effective blood thinner. If you are already on blood thinning medications or are scheduled for surgery garlic is probably not a good choice for you.
Fire Cider Vinegar
This is a great herbal kick for keeping bugs at bay or for lessening symptoms once ill. I especially like fire cider for nasal congestion. You’ve probably heard the saying that wood can warm you twice, once when you gather and chop it and then again when you burn it. Well, the same stands true for fire cider. It’ll clear congestion once when you chop it and again when you drink it. You may find that you want to make this potent sinus clearing vinegar outdoors or where there is good ventilation – the horseradish can be especially powerful.
Fill a mason jar with
1 part minced garlic
1 part grated horseradish (let it sit for three minutes in a bowl before adding it to the mix.)
1 part grated ginger (no need to peel)
1 part minced onion
1 dried cayenne pepper
Cover with organic apple cider vinegar and let sit for 4-6 weeks. Strain off and take by the tablespoon full as a daily tonic or when you feel a cold coming on. Some people take more of this at one time but take it slowly, as it can be quite potent.
Potent Bone Broth Soup
Lastly, one of my favorite things to do at the beginning of a cold or flu is to drink bone broth soup laden with garlic, onions, ginger and cayenne. This can certainly taste yummy, but there should be enough spices in there to bring circulation to the periphery (ie make you sweat!) Drink it up, then crawl into bed for a good long rest.
Elder Berries and Flowers
(Sambucas nigra, S. canadensis)
This can be one of the tastiest remedies for colds and the flu as well as one of the most effective.
Paul Bergner reports:
“Recent research from Israel and Panama has demonstrated that elderberry juice (Sambucus nigra) not only stimulates the immune system, but also directly inhibits the influenza virus (Zakay-Rones et al 1995; Mumcuoglu 1995).
In clinical trials, patients who took the elderberry juice syrup reported fast termination of symptoms. Twenty percent reported significant improvement within 24 hours, 70% by 48 hours, and 90% claimed a complete cure after three days. Patients receiving the placebo required six days for recovery. As proof that elder has more to it than the enzyme neutralizing constituents, researchers found that the patients who took it also had higher levels of antibodies against the flu virus.
Elderberry has been proven effective against eight different influenza viruses."
Herbalist Kiva Rose first taught me the following delicious elderberry elixir.
Fill a mason jar half way with dried elderberries, cover the elderberries with honey, and stir well. After it is well mixed fill the remainder of the jar with brandy. Stir well and let sit for six weeks. After six weeks, strain off the berries.
I take this frequently by the tablespoon full at the onset of illness and continue this regiment until I feel better. Don't wait to try this while you are sick however, use it all year round to prevent illness as well.
Elderberry syrup may not have as long a shelf life as the elderberry elixir given above but it is delicious and can be enjoyed copiously by the whole family.
To make elderberry syrup I gently heat fresh elderberries on the stove and mash them to help extract the juice. Once it seems that the berries are sufficiently mashed I strain off the seeds and add an equal amount of honey. I often like to add ginger, cinnamon, clove and cardamom to this mix as well. The syrup will keep well in the fridge.
The seeds of elderberries are slightly toxic when eaten raw in large amounts. Drying elderberries or preparing mixtures with heat helps if you are planning on eating large amounts of your concoctions at a time.
Elderberry and elder flower can be taken as a preventive as well. The following is a great way to use elder flowers.
Cold and Flu Tea
This recipe goes back centuries. Drink as necessary at the first sign of a cold/flu and continuing throughout the sickness. I like to let my brew infuse for at least a half hour before drinking.
1 part elder flower
1 part yarrow leaf and flower
½ part peppermint
½ part rose hips
Rose Hips (Rosa spp.)
Another very tasty way to maintain health by supplying your body with vitamin C and bio-flavonoids is to eat rose hips. Rose hips are the red fruit found in rose bushes in the fall after rose petals have fallen off. The vitamin C content varies with each bush, but rose hips have been repeatedly proven to contain more vitamin C than oranges. Any rose hips can be used, just be sure to harvest them in an area that has not been sprayed. Also be wary of commercially grown roses because these are often sprayed with pesticides.
We gather rose hips after a couple of frosts but when they are still red and plump. I recommend initially storing these harvested hips in the freezer. Once they are completely frozen we remove the inner hairs and seeds from the hips and either eat them fresh or dry or freeze them for later use.
Rose hips on their own probably won't stop a cold or flu from developing, but it can be an important part of the regimen.
Rose Hip Syrup
To make rose hip syrup you can simmer two cups of whole hips (no need to de-seed) in 6 cups of water for twenty minutes, strain and then add raw honey to taste. This syrup can be preserved in the fridge for about a month – if by some miracle it lasts that long. This is a traditional preparation of rose hips, but keep in mind that the simmering of the rose hips can decrease the vitamin C content and the bio-flavonoids. For the highest amounts of these nutrients try making the honey or alcohol extract. You can even combine the two preparations to make a yummy elixir.
Rose Hip Honey
Rose hip honey takes some time to prepare, but it is well worth the effort. To make this delicious treat fill a jar with fresh deseeded rose hips. Be sure to remove as many of the hairs that cover the seeds as possible. Once your jar is packed lightly with rose hips continue to fill the jar with local raw honey. You will need to stir the rose hip honey to get all the air pockets out and then add more honey to ensure the rose hips are covered. I leave mine on the counter, turning it upside down a couple times a day. After three days you’ll be enjoying a delicious treat high in vitamin C along with the many health benefits of honey. This is a fabulous remedy for sore throats.
Rose Hip Conserve
Another tasty way to prepare rose hips is by making a dried rose hip conserve. To do this fill a jar most of the way with a desired amount of dried rose hips. Then cover the hips with apple cider – about an inch above the hips. I also like to throw in a cinnamon stick or a couple of cloves with this mixture. Let this sit overnight and the next morning enjoy wonderfully re-hydrated rose hips. These can be eaten by the spoonful, spread on toast and added to oatmeal.
Echinacea (Echinacea spp.)
Echinacea is a powerful ally at the first sign of a cold. Echinacea works by boosting the white blood cell count and thereby supporting the immune system to better fight off an infection. It’s been scientifically proven to be effective against Staphylococcus aureus and Streptococcus spp..
Many people know echinacea’s affinity for combating sickness, but seldom is it taken appropriately. You can take Echinacea as a tincture or a tea frequently at the onset of a cold or flu. I'll take a dropperful of tincture every half hour.
Echinacea can combat strep throat by applying the tincture directly to the throat. You can do this by letting it drizzle down the back of the throat or applying it a spray bottle. Strep throat is a potentially serious infection and should be monitored by a doctor so that it doesn't progress into rheumatic fever.
When I take Echinacea tincture for a cold or flu I like to mix it with a warming herb like ginger.
This plant has received such high publicity lately that it is disappearing from the wild, so when buying the dried plant for tea or tincture be sure that it was organically and sustainably grown on a farm rather than taken from the wild. There are two species of Echinacea that are commonly used, Echinacea purpurea and Echinacea angustifolia. It seems that each herbalist has their favorite. I suggest trying the Echinacea purpurea first as it is easier to find and significantly cheaper. The root and aerial portions can all be used.
Although Echinacea is one of the most popular cold and flu remedies on the market, there are some cautions often not considered when using this herb. Since it is an immune stimulant it should not be used with those who have a compromised immune system (rheumatoid arthritis, Lyme’s, Lupus, etc.). It’s also inappropriate to use Echinacea as a desperate means of not getting sick while foregoing other common sense such as rest and nourishment through food. It is possible to stimulate your immune system too much, creating even more problems in the long run. Imagine your immune system is like a bank account: if you are continually withdrawing funds, but are never depositing any, you will eventually run into problems.
So many options...
This is just a small smattering of herbal options for the onset of a cold or flu.
This summer I was traveling in France when I came down with cold symptoms. Being in France I didn't have access to my own extensive apothecary and I wasn't able to find what I wanted at local stores. We were staying with my husband's uncle who took us on a tour of his garden. There I found sage, rosemary, peppermint and thyme growing in profusion. I gathered up a little of all of these and made a tea with them throughout the day. All of my cold symptoms were gone within 24 hours and my relatives were amazed at the power of the herbs growing in their garden.
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Many of the herbs listed in this article can be found at your local herb store or grocery store. If you don't have access to local sources you can also find them at Mountain Rose Herbs.