There are lots of easy and safe ways to use herbs to help prevent and treat common colds and flu. But today, when we have so many herbal traditions and plant medicines to choose from, it can be overwhelming to figure out what to take, how to take it, and when to use it.
I recommend starting with a trusted resource (here are some of my favorite herb books), use your intuition, and experiment with different plants to see what works best for you under various circumstances. Each of us has unique relationships to every plant, and when we try things out and track our reactions, that’s when we begin to embody herbal know-how, and become more proficient at using herbs effectively at home.
Below are some of my favorite go-to remedies for preventing and treating winter colds and flu. I hope this inspires you to try out something new this season! Plan ahead, get something ready now so you will be prepared when you need it.
Lastly, before you read on, I just want to be clear – no amount of herbs are going to make up for poor health habits! Getting enough sleep, eating a lot of fresh, whole foods, and managing stress are all central to maintaining health and avoiding seasonal illnesses. Take care of yourself well, and herbs can help you along the way.
Keeping the Immune System Strong
No need to wait until you are sick – you can begin building your defenses now! There are a handful of herbs I regularly add to my broths, grains and teas over the winter months that are known to help the immune system do its job in clearing pathogens out of the body. While there are many to choose from, I like to use a combination of astragalus, reishi and shiitake to tonify and potentiate the immune system.1,3,4
Immune Supporting Herbal Broth
- A large handful of astraglus root (about 1 oz)
- a small handful of dried reishi, enough slices to cover your palm* (about .25 oz)
- 4 -5 dried shiitake mushrooms (about half ounce), or twice as many fresh
- 4 cups of water
*the taste of astragalus and shiitake are mild and flavor enhancing, while reishi is bitter (adjust as needed for palatability).
Put all ingredients in a pot and simmer for 2-3 hours. Strain herbs out, and drink warm as is, or add honey or miso. You can also add this broth to soups or use when cooking grain (you might want to reduce/eliminate the reishi if you need to make mild tasting food).
Alternatively, instead of making this broth, you can put the above herbs directly into your veggie broths, bone broths, or into your pots of grains while cooking and then remove the plant material before eating (again, start with smaller amounts of reishi to avoid bitter broth).
Note: while these herbs above have a very wide safety margin, and have been used for thousands of years, anyone taking immuno-suppressive drugs should consult a health professional before taking them.
Exposure & First Signs of Illness
If you know that you have been exposed to a cold or flu, get working right away on boosting your immune system. Likewise, if you are coming down with the very first signs of illness, act fast! Herbs work especially well when you can get them into your system at the start of an infection, and when you can take them several times a day during that early window. Here are some approaches that have worked well for me and my family:
Elderberry syrup: this a classic go-to herbal remedy works especially well against the flu virus (including H1N1 and many other strains) but it also has antibacterial properties and is a moderate immune stimulant3. You can find lots of varieties at your local herb store or natural food store, or make your own!
Immune Supporting & Antimicrobial Herbal Broth: see recipe above, and add 5 cloves of garlic.? Drink with honey or miso if desired, 2-3 cups per day.
Sinus Rinse: Okay, this option is not the most pleasant (and not herbal) but it’s a great DIY home remedy that can help kick out the beginnings of an infection that has landed in your upper respiratory tract! Dilute 2-3 teaspoons of iodized-free salt in 1 liter of water, and use neti pot or other nasal irrigation tool. Repeat 1-2 times a day.
Help When You Are Sick
Aside from keeping up with the herbal suggestions above, the choice of herbs for a full blown illness is really dependent on what kind of cold or flu you are dealing with, and where it is affecting you body. A good herbal resource book and help you find what’s right for you.
Here are a few of the herbal preps that I typically use every year, beyond what I listed above, for treating discomforts and supporting healing.
Lavender & Ylang Ylang Essential oil: When a cold or flu has you too tense, achy or cranky, put 3 drops of each essential oil into 1 ounce of carrier oil and massage it into shoulders, neck, chest, temples, feet, or wherever you need it. The lavender and ylang ylang will help relax muscle tension, reduce pain, and help bring on sleep. This combination has been a real heroine in my family for getting through nighttime cold and flu discomforts.
Herbal Steams: an herbal steam with dried chamomile is incredibly effective at reducing pain and discomfort for a clogged upper respiratory tract or sinus infections. Put a handful of dried chamomile in a bowl of boiling water, put a towel over your head, and breath in through your nose. For coughs and congestion, try putting in a few drops of eucalyptus oil or a handful of dry thyme or yerba santa leaves.
Cough Syrup: Chances are that you or someone in your family will get a sore throat or cough during the winter season, so it’s good to stock up and be ready, because herbal cough syrups are so healing and comforting. I like Stephen Buhner’s cough syrup recipe in his Herbal Antibiotics book, and have been recently experimenting with a oxymel (vinegar and honey) version that is really great! There are also many nice choices in the herbal marketplace – check out your local herb store or natural foods store.
If you want to learn more about how to use herbs for the cold and flu season, and make some of these herbal preparations together, join me on November 18th!
1Buhner, Stephen H. Herbal Antibiotics: Natural Alternatives for Treating Drug Resistant Bacteria. North Adams, MA: Storey Publishing, 2012.
2Hoffman, David.? Medical Herbalism: The Science and Practice of Herbal Medicine. Rochester, VT: Healing Arts Press, 2003.
3Buhner, Stephan H. Herbal Antivirals: Natural remedies for Emerging & Resistant Viral Infections. North Adams, MA: Storey Publishing, 2013.
4Tierra, Michael. The Way of Chinese Herbs. New York NY: Pocket Books, 1998.