Herbs for Colds and Flus

Change can be hard. It’s hard on our minds, and hard on our bodies. Autumn is the transition between the green fullness of summer and the stark cold of winter. It’s this transition time when many of us come down with a colds or a flu as our body deals with the stress of change.

When we think about how to treat colds and flus, we should also consider everything we can do to prevent them from happening. Think about getting enough rest, eating well and managing stress levels. In addition there are many herbal tonics to keep our health consistently at its best.

Our diet plays a major role in our daily health and how we feel. Many people have unrecognized allergies or intolerances to such foods as dairy and wheat, which cause thick mucous to be secreted. Anyone who is coming down with an illness should avoid all dairy and sweets. This is particularly true of sinus and ear infections, which have in common the secretion of thick mucous blocking small spaces, which can then be colonized by opportunistic bacteria. I can’t tell you how many ear infections I’ve seen resolve just by working on diet!

If you’re someone who gets sick often, consider immune tonics like the Chinese herb Astragalus, and the mushrooms Reishi and Shiitake. Since the liver is so involved with the immune system, liver tonics like Burdock and Milk Thistle may also prove helpful.

As we treat ourselves, we should be careful about suppressing our symptoms, unless the symptoms are overwhelming or potentially dangerous in themselves. Many of our symptoms are our body’s attempt to heal itself. Mucous, for instance, helps trap bacteria and viruses, creating a physical barrier as well as containing antibodies to fight the infection.

Coughs helping to clear mucous should be encouraged with expectorants, such as Elecampane, Ginger or Osha. Only when coughs are simply the body reacting to irritation (the dry irritated cough) do we use anti-tussives like Wild Cherry bark and Coltsfoot. Coughing helps us eliminate our body’s waste products from the immune fight going on within.

Fever is another positive sign, it’s our body’s way of heating us up to battle the infection by increasing circulation, bringing more oxygen and food to our cells as well as making the environment unpleasant for the bacteria. The best way to break a fever is with the traditional sweat bath. Of course, if a fever starts running too high, then use herbs or drugs to bring the fever down.

To break a fever, make a cup of hot tea with diaphoretic (sweating) herbs, a traditional tea being equal parts of Yarrow, Peppermint and Elder flower. For more intense flus, replace Yarrow with Boneset, a stronger herb that also has anti-viral properties. Fix yourself a bath as hot as you can take it, then sit yourself down with your mug of hot tea and start sweating. When you’re ready, get up, wrap yourself in towels, then blankets and lie down in bed under lots of covers. When you wake up, you’ll most likely be fever-free.

Steams are also a nice way to combat stuffy noses and chests. Boil a pot of water and put a drop or 2 of essential oil in, like Eucalyptus, Tea tree or Thyme. Put a towel over your head, and create a tent in which to breathe in the steam. Not only is it soothing, but it’s antiseptic also.

And now some herbs for the cold itself. Echinacea of course is the king of the cold/flu herbs, and deservedly so. Besides stimulating many aspects of the immune system, it also helps stop the infiltration of germs deeper into the body by inhibiting the enzyme hyaluronidase. This is what bacteria like Staph and Strep use to break down the body’s lining and penetrate deeper.

One of my favorite anti-viral herbs is Boneset. It’s part of a trio of sweat-inducing, cooling and anti-viral herbs that also includes Elder flower and Yarrow. All can be found locally. What sets Boneset aside, besides its bitter taste, is that it is particularly good for flu accompanied by muscle aches, which seems to be a lot of what’s going aroun this season. In the old days, it was common for local folks to gather Boneset and keep it hanging from the rafters all winter long in case of illness.

For colds with congestion, lethargy and feeling cold, my favorite warming herbs are Ginger and Osha. Ginger is an old-time folk remedy in Asia, whereas Osha is a potent herb coming out of the Rocky Mountain Native American tradition, where it was considered Bear Medicine. Of the two, Osha (or its relative, Medicine Root) is the more warming and anti-viral herb. Osha also helps open up the bronchioles, making labored breathing easier.

Always keep some demulcents around also. Demulcents are “slippery” herbs that coat and protect the lining of the throat. Whenever you have a sore irritated throat that feels red and raw, think of herbs like Slippery Elm and Licorice. These herbs heal as they soothe. Slippery Elm is chewed as is, or by mixing the powder into a glass of water and letting it stand for 6 – 12 hours (a cold infusion). Made this way, it won’t “goo up” like it does when hot water is added.

You may notice I haven’t mentioned Goldenseal yet. That’s because I hardly ever use it for colds or flus. Many think of Goldenseal as an antibiotic, which is partially true. Berberine, one of the constituents of Goldenseal, is topically antibacterial, which means it could work when applied to wounds, or to infections of the mouth, stomach or urinary tract (where it is excreted by the body). But why not use other berberine-containing herbs that are not endangered in the wild (and, by the way, are far less expensive). You can also find the antibiotic berberine in Barberry, Oregon Grape, Coptis, and our local Shrub Yellowroot.

The thing that makes Goldenseal special is that it is a stimulant to the mucous membranes, which is an important part of our body’s defenses. It is best used not at the beginning of a cold, when there is plenty of mucous flow full of antibodies, but for when an infection drags on and there is a need to restimulate the mucous flow. Using it too early in an infection can leave the mucosa worn out and dry and even more susceptible to infections.

So don’t forget the power of preventative medicine -- the best time to treat a cold is before it happens. And it’s a good idea to keep a few of these herbs on hand just in case. Be Well!