Maybe it’s the undecided weather, but there sure seem to be a lot of head colds going around, colds that linger for weeks. So to kick off my first blog I thought I’d talk about and get really specific about some of the herbs used to treat colds. A lot of the herbal formulas in the store are too general; when I get sick (sorry, herbalists don’t get sick, we just have “cleansing reactions”!), I change my formula every few days, changing herbs as the illness changes.
Different herbs are good for different stages of the viral infection we call the common cold. Understanding what each herb is especially good for will help you figure out what a formula on the shelf is best used for. Or you can call your local herbalist to put together a custom formula for where you’re at.
First Stage – Catching It Early
Do I really need to tell anyone about Echinacea? All I need to tell you is that it works, and it works best at the very first stage of an illness, either before you feel sick or at the first sign of scratchy or sore throat. Echinacea is an immune stimulant; it sounds the alarm for the white blood cells. Once you have had symptoms more than a couple of days, your immune system should be plenty stimulated and more Echinacea won’t help.
Here’s a helpful tip on dosage – when I use Echinacea at the start of an illness, I’ll easily go through a one ounce bottle in a day or two because it works best at higher doses. I recommend using 3-5 dropperfuls 5 times a day, or even every 2 hours. Colds can linger once they take hold, so its best to use most of these herbs in high doses to hit it hard. Take your Echinacea early, take it often and take lots of it. Not a big fan of Echinacea/Goldenseal combination though. I feel like Echinacea works best at the start of an illness and Goldenseal works best for damp phlegm conditions that have really set in.
My other favorite immune stimulant is Elderberry. The fun thing about Elderberry is that it actually tastes pretty good, and can be used as a syrup to make it taste even better. A friend of mine even uses the syrup she makes on her pancakes as an immune tonic/preventative! Elderberry is an immune stimulant and anti-viral which has always been thought of as a folk herb, but recent scientific research has proven what many herbalists already knew – this plant is a great anti-viral.
Second Stage – Congestion
Now when the cold starts going deeper in the body, we often react by producing an excessive amount of protective mucous. Mucous serves a purpose – it protects and coats the surface of the respiratory tract and captures microbes like fly paper – but sometimes there is too much mucous being produced. That’s a good time to add in herbs to help clear congestion, or as they say in England, “catarrh.” In Chinese medicine, we would call these “herbs to disperse dampness.”
My favorite herbs for this stage are Osha, Bayberry, Prickly Ash, and Red root. Osha is a powerful herb from the Rocky Mountains that is a great anti-viral, expectorant, decongestant and anti-histamine. I would use it more, frankly, if it weren’t so hard to get. I’m afraid if it got too mainstream that it would get overpicked from the wild, so I don’t talk about it as much. But you can make sure to only get Osha from reliable sources.
Osha tastes like spicy celery, and it breaks up phlegm and helps clear mucous from the nose, sinuses and upper lungs. It is very warming and drying, so would not be appropriate if you are already feeling hot and dry.
Bayberry and Prickly Ash I use similarly. Both are heating herbs used as circulatory stimulants, and both will help clear a cold congested feeling from the head. I lean towards Bayberry for any kind of nasal or sinus congestion because it is both stimulating and astringent (drying). It is not antimicrobial, so you still need to add in other herbs, but Bayberry treats the environment which allows the bugs to grow by eliminating excess mucous.
While Bayberry is more for nasal congestion, Prickly Ash goes straight to the throat and treats feeling of congestion there. If you know the tongue-tingling taste of Echinacea, you’ll recognize the taste of Prickly Ash except that it’s about 10 times stronger!! In both herbs, it is the immune-stimulating alkylamides that create the sensation, which says a lot about Prickly Ash.
Red root is good for any kind of lymphatic stagnation and I add it to any formula where there are swollen lymph glands or sore throat. It is under-rated because it doesn’t treat any specific condition but can be used as a supportive herb for almost any kind of sore throat.
Third Stage – Deeper Infections
As infections go deeper, I usually throw in one of the strong antimicrobial “clear heat” herbs such as Oregon Grape, Barberry or Goldenseal. All contain berberine and can be used similarly. I tend to reserve Goldenseal for nasty infections with a lot of congestion since it is very drying to the mucous membranes in addition to being antimicrobial. Any of these herbs are antimicrobial, antiviral and antifungal. The difference is that Goldenseal is getting picked out of the wild because it is better known and also stronger. But this also makes it more expensive. I say save a few bucks and help save the environment by using one of the other berberine herbs – which also include our local Yellowroot and the Chinese herb Coptis.
And finally when the cold starts winding down, keep hitting it hard with herbs – the viruses this winter seem to linger. Take an extra day to rest and nurture yourself to avoid a recurrence in a few days. You can also start using Spikenard, Astragalus and Mullein. Spikenard is a great local root that helps strengthen the lungs, clear phlegm and build immunity, whereas Astragalus is a Chinese herb used as a lung tonic as well as a deep immune tonic. Mullein can help keep the lungs clear and make sure the infection doesn’t drop down into the lungs.
In the end though, its important to remember that the same illness can manifest differently for different people. Find the herbs that work best for you and for the way you find yourself getting sick. When in doubt, there are many great herbalists out there who can help you focus your formula with the herbs that you need, or even show you which of these herbs grow locally and can be easily harvested and made into medicine.
Director, Blue Ridge School of Herbal Medicine
That Darn Cold!
Posted on March 2nd, 2009
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