Enhancing immune activity
Why: Herbal allies to combat respiratory infection as it begins.
Echinacea, Andrographis, Elderberry, Hyssop, Garlic, Osha
These agents provide an immediate “boost” to immune function, particularly the body’s ability to produce antibodies against viral infections. Will shorten the duration of common winter infections, and can also be used longer-term as preventative agents particularly for those more at risk.
How to take: most acute-use antiviral herbs can be taken whole, or with minimal processing. I often will simply nibble on a small (1”) piece of Echinacea root, or an even smaller piece of Osha root, when the first warning signs of illness begin. Stored in a glass mason jar in a cool cabinet, they will keep at least a year.
Elderberry seems best taken as a syrup. These preparations are pretty widely available, or you can make your own by mixing an equal volume of fresh berry juice with raw honey, and storing in the fridge. The honey is really medicinal too! 2 TBS three to five times daily is typical.
Andrographis is extremely bitter and hard to take straight. Often, we recommend a tablet or capsule of this plant, at a dose of 400mg three times a day, again at the first signs of trouble.
Hyssop makes an excellent though somewhat biting tea, and Garlic can be included with food (though the more raw, the better).
Why: Enhancement of our own immune function, to clear infection more quickly if it does begin, and help get rid of lingering problems or break the pattern of repeated illnesses.
Astragalus, Medicinal mushrooms, Spikenard, Tulsi
Good policy for anyone, these tonics are most indicated in conditions of convalescence, to rebuild strength, or in cases of repeated infection every season. Taken consistently, they will also improve immune activity, helping to shorten lingering colds and flus, and prevent them to begin with.
How to take: these herbs are an easy addition to your regular stock-making routine. If you’re not making stock regularly (once a week or so), consider doing it! Save your vegetable scraps and peels and any animal bones, and simmer them with Astragalus root ( ½ cup per gallon), dried mushrooms (Reishi, Turkey Tail, about ½ cup total per gallon) and some spikenard root (Aralia racemosa, about 2 TBS per gallon). This last one is especially indicated to help bring up vitality and kick out lingering congestion. Also, see a specific recipe variant in the “recipes” below.
Tulsi (aka Holy Basil) is a wonderful tea herb. Start it up in September if there are concerns about the coming season.
Adjusting mucous membrane function
Why: Our respiratory mucosa is our first line of defense. Ensuring it is not swollen, stuck, and/or inflamed not only improves symptoms immediately, but also improves defense.
Reducing swelling: Goldenseal, Barberry, Osha
Reducing thick secretions: Echinacea, Horseradish
Reducing dryness and irritation: Propolis, Licorice
How to take: These strong herbs usually don’t require a high dosage to accomplish their goals. Part of this may be due to the fact that reflex action mediates their effects – horseradish makes your eyes water, for instance, even though none is ever put in your eyes. So I usually suggest tinctures, good to have on hand and already picked out depending on what your respiratory passages tend to feel like when you get sick. Of these liquid extracts, try taking 15 drops or so every couple of hours and seeing how it makes you feel.
Protecting and toning the respiratory tract
Why: If lungs are consistently affected. This isn’t an issue for everyone, but if it tends to be, best to include these herbs right away before the illness gets there.
Thyme, Garlic, Usnea
These herbs are especially useful for those whose lungs are prone to weakness (history of pneumonia, repeated bouts of bronchitis or bacterial infection, or smokers).
How to take: Thyme can be inhaled as a steam by brewing strong tea and breathing deeply. After that, go ahead and drink the tea too! With a little raw honey. Usnea lichen is eaten whole, or taken as a capsule – though I really like the effect of the raw herb as it goes down the throat. It kills viruses and bacteria that contribute to sore throat, and enhances lung immunity once you absorb it internally. 1-2 grams of Usnea twice daily is usually plenty.
Encouraging lymphatic activity
Useful in the latter phases of an illness, after the fever or acute symptoms have abated, to clear lingering inflammation and hasten recovery. Can also be used right at first if there is a history of lymph node (gland) tenderness.
How to take: Most often as teas. The extra fluid is really helpful too. 4-6 TBS per quart of water.
Encouraging circulatory activity
Ginger, Garlic, Cayenne
This often is all you’ll need for a common cold in those of strong constitution. Helpful for all to stimulate warmth, encourage perspiration and speed recovery, but particularly indicated in a colder person.
How to take: Special hot sauce? Or a home-made version thereof where the above three herbs are blended, to taste, with apple cider vinegar. Try ½ teaspoon twice a day to start.
Herbal Recipes for Winter Health
Remember that, when using herbs for healing and wellness, it is important to bring their powers into your life from many different angles – use a tea, tincture, and/or an aromatherapy steam to reinvigorate a weak constitution, and think preventatively to strengthen immunity during times of good health.
This simple blend can serve as a base for any soup, or can be taken ‘as is’. It strengtens the immune system and can help prevent weakness during the winter months. It is quite powerful, but as with any herbal tonics (blends designed to strengthen over the long term) it is best used on a regular, daily basis.
Astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus) root 1 cup of dry root
Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) root ½ cup dry root
Red Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum) mushroom ½ cup dry mushrooms
Burdock (Actium lappa) root ½ cup dry or fresh root
Garlic (Allium sativum) bulb 4 minced cloves
Take the above ingredients, and simmer them, covered, in a pot with 2 quarts of spring or well water (this process is called a decoction). Simmer on very, very low heat for at least one hour (in China, these types of tonics are often simmered for a whole day – a crock pot can be helpful. Be sure to keep an eye on the soup, and add water as needed. Don’t scorch the pot!). Strain and serve, perhaps with a little honey, or freeze for storage. The daily dose is 8 fluid ounces (1 cup).
Get creative with this soup! Add onions, carrots, seaweed (dulse, arame for example) and salt to taste. You can also add cabbage, potatoes, and cooked beans to make it more of a hearty meal. Or herbs and spices like Cayenne, Thyme, and Parsley. These soups remind us that our daily food is our best medicine!
Tea #1 – For lung congestion
Sometimes a cold can ‘go down’ into the lungs, making it difficult to breathe and producing a deep and sometimes painful cough. In these cases, this blend can help.
Mullein (Verbascum thapsus) leaves 3 Tablespoons dry leaves
Thyme (Thymus vulgaris) leaves 1 Tablespoon dry leaves
Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra) root 1 Tablespoon dry root
Ginger (Zingiber officinalis) root powder 2 Teaspoons dry powder
Place all the ingredients in a teapot or mason jar, add 1 Quart of boiling-hot water, cover, and steep for 15 to 20 minutes (this process is called an infusion), then strain. Drink the whole quart over the course of a day. You can prepare this tea the night before, and let it steep all night if you’d like, but I have found that teas for colds and flus work better if you drink them hot.
Add honey to taste.
Tea #2 – For nose and sinus congestion
Often times the worst part of a cold is a stuffy nose. This blend can help relieve that congestion, drying up the nasal passages a bit. It is also useful, I’ve found, after the worst of a cold or flu is done, to help relieve lingering symptoms of congestion.
Elder (Sambucus nigra) flowers 2 Tablespoons dry flowers
Red Clover (Trifolium praetense) flowers 2 Tablespoons dry flowers
Catnip (Nepeta cataria) leaves 1 Tablespoon dry leaves
Ginger (Zingiber officinalis) dry root powder 1 Teaspoon dry powder
Place all the ingredients in a teapot or mason jar, add 1 Quart of boiling-hot water, cover, and steep for 15 to 20 minutes (this process is called an infusion), then strain. Drink this quart of tea over the course of 4 hours, then repeat if necessary. You can add a little honey to taste if desired, although I’ve found too much sweetness can make nasal congestion worse.
Tincture – Echinacea purpurea
Tinctures are alcohol-based extracts of herbs. Usually quite potent and concentrated, they require a solvent such as Vodka to create. The dose is usually much, much smaller than that of a tea.
Echinacea (Echinacea purpurea) root 2 or 3 Tablespoons fresh or dry
Vodka (100 proof) 8 fluid ounces (1 cup)
Chop the root as finely as is possible, and place it in a jar you can close securely (mason jars work well, I’ve found). Pour the vodka over the chopped root, close the jar, and shake it really well for at least 30 seconds. Label your tincture (name of herb and date are the mimimum requirements) and put it in a cool, dark place. Shake it well at least every other day.
After two weeks (better yet, wait four weeks if you can), strain your tincture, discard the spent roots, wash out the jar, and put the tincture back in. It should have turned a nice reddish-brown color, and is ready to use!
Echinacea tincture is taken 1 teaspoon at a time, in a little water, once every hour when you feel the first signs of a cold or a sore throat.
This process is very useful to help relieve congestion in the nose and lungs. Usually best to do at night, before bed, to clear the breathing passages and encourage restful sleep.
Boil a pot of water. When the water is hot, remove from heat and place it on a safe surface (a stone or trivet works well).
Add 2 drops each of these essential oils (highly concentrated plant essences – use only a few drops, never internally, and be careful because, undiluted, they can irritate the skin):
Cover your head with a towel and breathe in the steam for 5-10 minutes.
1 ounce is almost 30 grams
extract in a pint / quart jar with about 15 ounces of alcohol
Dandelion root 30g
Burdock root 30g
Gentle revitalizer, especially if the skin gets dry and bothersome by the end of Winter
Spikendard root 15g
Echinacea root 40g
Enhance immunity and protect/reawaken the respiratory system
Dandelion root 30g
Yellowdock root 30g
Goldthread root and leaf 7g
Enhance liver function and correct feelings of being “swollen”, sluggish
Wild Sarsaparilla 30g
Dwarf Ginseng (fresh) 30g
Dandelion root 30g
Overall hormone and adrenal tonic; reawakens, counteracts fatigue
There are specific herbal allies that have gained a deserved reputation for aiding in this transition, and each has its own peculiar “virtues” and affinities. All, however, rely somewhat on two basic strategies: either enhancing digestive and eliminative function, or bolstering the power of the body’s immune and hormonal systems. Some do both! And generally, it was (and still is) considered a good idea to start with enhancing absorption and elimination, and then proceed with strengthening the underlying physiology.
The old recipes for “root beers” can be somewhat instructive in this regard: they often feature a combination of bitter roots (which enhance elimination) coupled with aromatic, sometimes pungent ingredients (which improve digestion) and hormonal tonics (to enhance energy and vitality). Many of the herbs and botanicals listed below can be combined along these lines to make a customized spring tonic for yourself or your friends and family, helping to ride along the tides of Spring and get ready for Summer.
The last detail in the herbalists’ crafting of vernal concoctions is an attention to the constitution and physiological peculiarities of the individual using the tonic. Generally, these are pretty obvious considerations – but one point to remember is to try to add “cooling” herbs for those expressing signs of overactivity, heat, and inflammation; and “warming” herbs for those showing signs of sluggishness, depression, chill, and frequent infections. Often eliminative herbs are more cooling, and tonic herbs more warm. Botanicals listed below have their traditional energetic value added as a start in this process.
Often from maples (Acer saccharum, and other species), the sap of Birches (Betula spp.) can also be used. I like to use the unheated, unfiltered sap as a tonic all by itself: this “tree juice” provides unaltered enzymes as well as sugars and minerals ready for optimal absorption. It can also be used as a base for decocting (simmering) some of the roots and barks described below. Usually, a pint to a quart daily is consumed – though more is not necessarily a bad thing! Alternatively, you can reconstitute a similar liquid by using about a tablespoon of maple syrup per pint of spring water.
Burdock (Arctium lappa)
This root, generally cooling in energy though somewhat tonic too, can be eaten as one would a carrot, or simmered into a tonic brew. It is best suited for those with dryer skin, and perhaps an underactive appetite. Its chief traditional use is for acne and other skin complaints. Use about 2 TBS per pint of water, along with other herbs.
Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)
A true remedy that synergizes well with herbs for almost any ailment, Dandelion is a catalyst for change that gently and safely enhances digestive and eliminative function. When in doubt, this is the root to pick! Its yellow flowers remind us early on that it’s time to pay a little attention to our bodies this time of year. The root’s energy is somewhat cooling, and it enhances detoxification through the liver, helping to resolve gassiness and sluggishness that may have accumulated after a winter of congestive, thick foods. Use about 2 TBS of chopped root per pint of water.
Yellowdock (Rumex crispus)
These roots are more bitter, and are best for those who might have a tendency toward constipation. They combine well with any of the other cooling, bitter roots and improve liver function and elimination. Generally, I suggest using Yellowdock for shorter (1-2 weeks) periods than Dandelion or Burdock, but it is still quite a safe plant. 1 TBS of chopped root per pint is usually adequate to relieve somewhat sluggish digestion.
Echinacea (E. purpurea, E. angustifolia, and others)
This is a cooling, dispersive root that posesses a good degree of pungency as well. Its chief use as a springtime tonic is to help boost immunity, especially if there are or have been any swollen glands or recurrent respiratory infections associated with winter illness. It can also help dry, scratchy throats that sometimes linger into spring. While I often recommend an extract, the roots are excellent too provided they are simmered for a little while (10-15 minutes). This time of year the plants are just starting to poke up from the soil, making it easy to find and dig out of the garden. Use 2 TBS of chopped root per pint of water.
Wild Sarsaparilla (Aralia nudicaulis)
An abundant relative of Ginseng, this plant posesses starches and bitter saponins that counteract fatigue and gently warm the system to enhance vitality and elimination at the same time. It also has hormone-balancing effects, especially in relation to stress hormones, making it a good adjunct for those who have intense work or personal lives, or who rely heavily on stimulants. It is a little difficult to recognize and find early in the season, before the greens emerge, so marking it out in the fall can help with digging the long rhizomes in the spring. Use a piece or pieces of rhizome about the length of your index finger in a pint of water.
Spikenard (Aralia racemosa)
Another Ginseng relative, this is a sweet, spicy and warming root that is most indicated as a tonic for hormonal and respiratory function, particularly for those with chronic lung congestion. Use only 1 TBS per pint – it is a potent ally.
Dwarf Ginseng (Panax trifolius)
Also called groundnut, this is a nourishing and rebuilding tonic that is somewhat rare in the wild, so it should be used judiciously. It flowers early in the spring, and though only a few inches tall, packs a flavor and power that is quite excellent for warming deficient constitutions that have become sluggish and undernourished over winter. If you find a good stand of it (make sure you have the correct plant ID!), you can have one corymb (a round, underground “bulb” attached to a delicate white root) two or three times a week eaten raw, straight from the forest floor, or simmered into your tonic brew.
Goldthread (Coptis canadensis)
This is a very bitter, cooling, detoxifying and anti-inflammatory plant that you really don’t need a lot of. It chief indication is chronic inflammation, perhaps also involving the skin, and a more “oily” skin pattern that could benefit from drying. It enhances digestive function when taken before meals, improves sluggish bowels, and clears heat that settled into joints and muscles over the winter months. Some have reported an improvement in allergies and sensitivities. It is also evergreen, which makes it easy to find even under a little snow cover! Its thin rhizome is bright yellow, and the above-ground greens are useful too. Use one to two plants (4-5 inches of root total) per pint of tonic brew.
Sarsaparilla (various Smilax species)
Not a local Vermont plant, the root bark from this vine is still such a classic spring tonic that it bears mention. It has a distinctive, warming and spicy flavor that, while enhancing digestion, is most powerful at adjusting hormonal balance (thyroid, adrenal, and reproductive hormones) and I have always found it useful for stubborn skin conditions such as eczema and psoriasis (often worse after the dry indoor heat of winter). Sarsaparilla has a strong flavor, so experiment with taste until you find what you like. It is usually available at the herbs store; start with ½ to 1 TBS per pint.
Sassafrass (S. albidum)
The FDA doesn’t appreciate the use of this bark anymore, due to its safrole content, which is considered carcinogenic. Its distinctive spicy/sweet and warming flavor and energy make it perhaps the most classic “root beer” ingredient, evoking memories of times when there brews were actually made from plants… And, for a few weeks each spring, consuming sassafrass provides such a negligible amount of safrole that, truly, doesn’t compare to pumping gasoline in terms of cancer risk. I would use about 2 TBS of dry bark per pint of brew, but I really like the flavor. Experiment and add to taste.
Cleavers (Galium aparine)
This green, as well as its cousin sweet woodruff, comes out a bit later in the spring but makes an invaluable cooling tonic for folks who are prone to swelling from chronic inflammation, edema, or water retention. They can be juiced and an ounce of juice taken as a daily tonic, or steeped into a more complex tonic after roots have been taken off the fire. Use about 2 TBS of chopped herb.
Nettles (Urtica dioica)
Though green, this herb is actually a bit warming and drying. It is great for those who show signs of water retention (sometimes evidenced by a swollen, “scalloped” tongue), or those in need of iron and other nutritive minerals. Finally, its mildly detoxifying qualities can help in seasonal allergies. Herbalists use the young, fresh leaves in soups or steeped into an herbal brew after the roots are done simmering – about 2 TBS or more of chopped leaves per day.
Dandelion greens (Taraxacum officinale)
We would walk through the meadows, before they fully became green with grass, looking for the young rosettes of dandelions and collecting them whole, along with the crown of the root. Back home, my aunt would dress them with olive oil and wine vinegar, for an abundant (though bitter) spring salad. These greens improve digestion, enhance elimination through the kidneys, and are loaded with important minerals. Their reputation for cooling overheated constitutions extends to the cardiovascular system. They are excellent eaten fresh as part of salads or wilted in soups or stir-fry; alternatively, steep 2 TBS of chopped leaves into an herbal brew after the roots are done simmering.
Mustard greens (Brassica species)
There are a wide range of mustards that come up quick in springtime, since they are so tolerant of late frosts. They are warm and spicy, wake up the digestion and liver, and additionally contain compounds that show much promise in preventing and treating cancer. Of course, they are best as part of a wild food salad, or cooked in soups (though they lose a lot of pungency if cooked). I don’t normally brew these into tea.
Wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens)
This is a very aromatic and cooling plant, rich in anti-inflammatory salicylates and endowed with wonderful flavor, another aroma often found in classic root beer preparations. It is a good digestive normalizer, especially if there is a lot of gas, bloating, and irritation; it can also help with chronic inflammatory conditions of the joints and back especially if these get worse over the more sedentary winter months. Steep 5 or 6 fresh leaves in 8oz of herbal brew, covered so as to not lose the volatile aroma, and do not boil!
Birch bark (Betula species)
The black birch is perhaps the most flavorful, but the bark of any species yields a wintergreen-like essence that is similarly cooling, and much more readily available. Use a good handful of crushed bark (perhaps a cupful) per pint of water, and add it to your brew for the last two or three minutes of simmering.
A note on preparation
Many of the plants mentioned above release their medicinal constituents during a process of light simmering, known as “decocting”. The resulting brew is often called a “decoction”. It is best accomplished by simmering the herbs in a stainless steel container, covered, for 15 minutes or so on low heat. Afterwards, the brew can be removed from the heat and more delicate greens added and left in the pot, covered, for another 10-15 minutes or so. Finally, strain the brew and drink immediately, or bottle for 1-2 days.
90 volunteers received 3 caps pf Echinacea purpurea tops twice a day for 8 weeks, and reported 8 sick days vs. 12 for placebo. This is an 'insignificant' result. I'm not sure when the research community will figure out that this is a) an inappropriate dose and delivery system and that b) it is an inappropriate application of the herbal remedy.
Perhaps that's not the point. Perhaps media articles that say "Echinacea fails" are more enticing than actual helpful research. I just wish someone would send me the funding that researchers get for conducting these trials so I could buy more compost for my garden...
As far as the new meta-analysis goes, HerbalGram wrote a review, and USA Today gave mass media's take.