This has been a rough year for the flu. And although prevention is key (see my last blog article) sometimes we just get sick. Herbalists usually begin treating people with gentle remedies first but what’s going around now is so strong that I recommend starting with some stronger remedies when you first start feeling a “big baddie” coming on. For more about this subject, I wrote an extensive article about general treatment for colds and flu back in March 2009, one of my first blogs (see “That Darn Cold!”).

Let’s start with the basics. Many of us love Echinacea (Echinacea purpurea) and Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis) as general anti-virals and immune stimulants, but for best results you can really up the dosage on both of these. When I’m sick, I will go through a one ounce bottle of Echinacea tincture almost daily in the early stages of a cold, taking 3-4 droppers every couple hours. Elderberry is a gentle remedy and also requires larger doses, but it is tastier!

When you have swollen glands or a sore throat, Red root (Ceanothus americanus) also known as New Jersey Tea, is super useful. It combines well with Echinacea for this purpose. I’ve even seen it help with pharyngitis and symptomatically with strep throat (which should be treated with antibiotics unless you really really know what you’re doing).

Circulatory stimulants are traditional across the world for the first stage of a cold. Which makes sense, to treat a “cold” with warmth – simple energetics. These warming herbs help stimulate our immune response in the same sense that fever stimulates immunity. My favorite herbs here are fresh Ginger root, and Prickly Ash, a tree that grows on the coastal plain.

You can also use a “sweat bath” to help break a fever. Taking “diaphoretic” herbs (sweat-inducing) like Yarrow, Peppermint, Boneset and Elder flower helps bring heat to the surface of the body. Make a hot cup of tea of some of these, then sit in a hot bath for 20 minutes or until you’re hot and drowzy, then sleep it off. Nine times out of ten, the fever will be gone when you wake up. Just don’t try this with a high fever.

Certain herbs help eliminate mucus. Osha (Ligusticum porterii), a plant in the carrot family native to the Rocky Mountains, is the one I use most often as both an anti-viral as well as to eliminate mucus. It is used for both head colds and chest colds, but I find it doesn’t go deep enough into the lungs to work for bronchitis, when I might go more for Elecampane (Inula helenium), Spikenard (Aralia racemosa), or Angelica (Angelica archangelica). [See also the blogs about Expectorants on 12-19-10 and 1-06-11.]

These herbs are the basis for my “Cold and Flu” blend that has been selling like crazy this winter. This is made from equal parts fresh Echinacea root, fresh Elderberries, and fresh Osha root, with some Red Root to address the lymph glands, and a touch of Prickly Ash to warm up the formula. You can find it online here.

To quote one of my clients: “The Cold and Flu blend has been a vital one to stop mucous flow and move my lymphs, which have seemed clogged due to detoxing, lack of movement, and mucous mucous mucous.”

If things are going downhill and these herbs aren’t cutting it, it might be time to use some of the heavy hitters. These herbs may be harder to find, and some taste bad or have minor side effects, so use with appropriate caution. But for a bad cold or flu, I might use Lomatium, Goldenseal, and Yerba Mansa.

Lomatium (Lomatium dissectum) is my anti-viral I use when everything else has failed. Initially used by the Ute Indians and brought back to the herbal practice by Michael Moore, it is an herb in the carrot family, same family as Osha. It is a stronger anti-viral than Osha but not as strong at clearing phlegm, so choose which one you need the most.

Some people get a minor skin rash the first time they take Lomatium, which goes away as soon as the herb is stopped. Nothing to be alarmed about, once you know what’s going on. This herb helped dramatically reduce mortality from the deadly 1919 Influenza epidemic among the Ute Indians, so we know it’s strong stuff.

Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis) has a reputation as an herbal anti-biotic, but it is so much more than that. The active consituent berberine that has the anti-microbial effect is also found in much more common (and way less expensive) plants like Barberry, Oregon Grape Root, and the Chinese herb Coptis.

The real gift of Goldenseal is its tonic effect on the mucous membranes. I start thinking of this herb when a head cold goes into a sinus infection, or any infection starts lingering and has thick colored phlegm. Not so great for the initial stage of infection, but after a cold has turned thick, it helps restart the response of the lining of the nose and throat to push out pathogens again, while at the same time strongly stimulating the liver to process those toxins.

Yerba Mansa (Anemopsis californica) is a fantastic herb from the American Southwest that might be hard to find in east coast herb stores or health food stores, but it is such a great herb I want to mention it anyway.

Many southwestern herbalists use Yerba Mansa as a substitute for Goldenseal for sinus infections, pharyngitis or urinary tract infections. It tastes a bit like Myrrh crossed with a pine tree due to its high resin content, and also has a drying quality that makes it very useful for mucusy conditions as well.

As my client above didn’t get better within a week, she started taking some of these stronger herbs and said, “Lomatium and Yerba Manza seemed extremely helpful in the critical part of the cold, where I felt the worst. They seemed to really kick the illness’ butt and help mine begin to feel better…these were really important.”

So now you have some tools, but always remember that prevention is easier than treatment. Eat lots of soup and broth, minimize foods that create mucus (dairy, wheat, and sugar are the tops), and get lots of rest. This is, after all, the time of year for it.

And most of all, Be Well.