It’s Winter and with that comes scintillating snow, scarves and, well, colds.
Both colds and flus are common viruses that affect our health. A brief differentiation between the two: colds tend to come on slower and are often shorter lived. They don’t tend to cause systemic reactions such as fevers or aching muscles, rather they are more superficial affecting only the upper respiratory tract. Flus or influenza virus tends to hit hard and fast and have the added loveliness of lasting longer. They are more likely to cause that aching feeling in muscles and are often accompanied by high fevers. Conventional medical treatment is OTC decongestants and antibiotics. Antibiotics are given not for the actual infection (antibiotics don’t treat viruses) but to prevent secondary bacterial infections such as pneumonia. While antibiotics do sometimes have a place this laissez-faire attitude seems largely unnecessary.
Colds and flus have long been associated with the cold weather season. In fact, colds and flus are around all year long but it is my (and others) hypothesis that the shifting in temperature from outside to inside during winter months makes us more prone to getting sick. Regardless, people do seem more prone to illness this time of year. So what can you do?
For starters it should be remembered that getting sick is a natural part of life and that it is often beneficial for us, building up our long term immunity and serving as a gentle (or not so gentle) reminder that we need to slow down. That said, there is a lot that can be done to boost one’s immunity, especially if you are prone to being sick every other week. First things first eating healthy, nutrient dense foods are chief in the prevention category. Bone broths with lots of garlic and aromatic herbs are a great way to boost ones immunity. Tonics are a wonderful category of herbs that serve to boost whatever body system they have an affinity for. In regards to immunity, one of the most commonly thought of herbs is astragalus, a member of the pea family or Fabaceae. Slightly warm and moist in energy, Astragalus is a wonderful building tonic for those who find themselves always tired, constantly depleted and catching every single bug that comes their way. Try decocting a teaspoon in 10 oz of water. Astragalus often comes in tongue-depressor shaped cuts, these can be decocted, just a few to a cup or two of water, simmered 20 minutes or alternatively may be added to soups and stews. It has a slightly sweet and neutral taste, adding just a touch of flavor and a whole lot of immunity to winter bone broths.
So you did what you needed to and you got sick anyway, what now? There are as many cold/flu remedies as there are herbalists, if not more, so the following are just a few of my favorites. To start, at the first sign of a cold/flu you can often sweat it out by making really strong ginger tea (simmer a good amount of fresh root for 10-20 minutes), get into a really hot bath and sip the tea until you are sweating profusely. Then get out of the bath, wrap yourself up in a big robe or towel and get into bed with as many blankets as you can. Go to sleep. If you don’t have a bathtub simply skip that step and get wrapped up in bed. You will often wake up feeling like a million bucks with no trace of sickness. Some people use Elder berry at the first sign of sickness and I have seen this work numerous times, try 1-2 dropperfulls of tincture every couple of hours. Most famous is probably Echinacea, well known to boost the immune system. Take 2-3 dropperfulls every couple of hours.
You eat well, took the herbs and your still sick, what now? It happens. But there are still things you can do to alleviate some of the symptoms. Since you are already sick, the goal here is to boost your natural defenses, such as the fever response. The use of diaphoretics (herbs that induce sweating) is often useful here as can be immune stimulants like Osha, Lomatium and Echinacea. For general congestion I have found herbal steams to be of particular use. Boil a pot of water and add a handful of any highly aromatic herb. I like Bee Balm but more common Thyme or even Basil can help. Throw a towel over your head and bend over the pot, breathe the steam in deeply for ten-15 minutes. The aromatic oils from the plants will be carried by the steam into your nasal and respiratory passage way, clearing out the stuck mucous and helping you to breathe, at least for a while. This can be repeated as often as necessary and don’t forget to drink the tea too for added benefit.
Everybody reacts to colds and flus differently and consequently will have different symptoms that are best addressed by different herbs. Below is a small list of herbs I use most frequently and who they would fit best based on energetic and constitution.
Marshmallow-(Althea/Mallow sp.)-Given for signs of dryness: dry hot fevers without perspiration; dry throats; difficult to expectorate mucous; dry inflamed nasal/sinus passages. I use powdered roots stirred into water or a cold infusion of the leaves. Equally useful but somewhat less cooling is Slippery Elm (Ulmus fulva)
Boneset-(Eupatorium perfoliatum)-When muscles ache and there is fever alternating with chills, Boneset is my herb of choice. Frighteningly bitter this herb can stimulate immunity, help a fever along and alleviate some of the restlessness often associated with flus.
Osha-(Ligusticum porter)-While I continue my life-long search for something comparable on the East, this Western plant is fantastically useful. Warm to hot and dry it can help loosen stuck mucous (combine with Marshmallow or Slippery Elm) or can help dry out boggy, mucous filled lungs. I use Osha mostly when the infection has moved from nose and pharynx down to the lungs.
Yarrow-(Achillea millefolium)- Yarrow is an eccentric and versatile herb useful as an antiseptic agent as well as a fairly effective diaphoretic. Yarrow is rich in microbe killing volatile oils and its influence over blood can move heat from the inside out, helping along a natural fever. For diaphoresis it is best drunk as hot as possible while in a hot bath or wrapped up tight under a warm wool blanket. It combines well with Elder flowers, Peppermint and Spearmint and for further stimulation with more warming aromatic mints such as Thyme and Monarda.
Oregon Grape/Barberry-(Mahonia/Berberis sp.)- I am still working out the differences between Western and Eastern Berberis but there is no doubt in my mind that both make a wonderfully antimicrobial tincture and decoction. I use more tincture, chiefly because I have yet to convince anyone to drink that golden yellow potion known as Barberry decoction. Containing one of the same infamous components of the often over-used Goldenseal, Barberry is an especially useful herb when flus present with signs of heat. Think thick, yellow-green mucous; hot fevers and subjective sensations of heat. Try half a squirt of tincture every few hours.
Bayberry-(Myrica cerifera)- Bayberry is one of my favorite plants for congestion. Warming and stimulating it seems to have a special affinity for the sinus cavity. When mucous is just stuck and the pressure behind the eyes and in the ears is threatening to make you explode, try a bit of bayberry. Also a warming lymphatic, Bayberry can be useful after an illness when the lymph nodes seem a bit clogged and refuse to go back down to a normal size.
Wild Cherry-(Prunus serotina)- Wild cherry is a member of the Rose family and like most of the plants in this family is cooling and mildly sedating. A cold infusion of the bark or a couple of drops of tincture can help quiet an overactive but underproductive cough. Unlike the modern medical approach, herbalists (including myself) often discourage the suppression of coughs, at least initially. Coughing is a natural reflex to remove bacteria, irritants and dead cells from our lungs and body. That said, sometimes coughing is unproductive and can keep us up all night. When your lungs feel as though they are burning, your chest is tight and you just want to stop for five minutes, try some Cherry. It has an added benefit of tasting pretty good and combining well with honey (though really, what doesn’t?).