Plant allies for winter health

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).

“Deep” immunity

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

Calendula, Cleavers

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.

Immune ‘soup’:

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.

Aromatherapy steam

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.