Mother Earth Living

Best Herbs for the Common Cold

Herbs to the rescue
By Linda B. White, M.D.
September/October 1998
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A potent echinacea extract will make your tongue tingle.
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As we head into the cold and flu season, a song from the musical Guys and Dolls plays in my head. A woman with a nasal voice and Brooklyn accent laments, “La grippe, la grippe, la post-nasal drip. With the wheezes and the sneezes and a sinus that’s really a pip.”

La grippe is French for influenza. And when we have a bad cold or the flu, it often feels like being in the grip of something, and relief can’t come fast enough.

Cold and flu viruses each cause upper respiratory congestion—a runny nose, sneezing, sinus congestion, a scratchy throat. Both can produce a cough, but flus tend to linger in the lower respira­tory tract.

Colds typically come on gradually, and their symptoms concentrate in the upper respiratory tract. Not influenza—it ambushes you. In addition to attacking the upper respiratory tract and mi­grating down, flu brings on malaise, headache, muscle aches, fever, chills, exhaustion, and loss of appetite. You generally feel awful.

Symptoms start to wane after two to five days, although weakness and fatigue may linger for a couple of weeks.

Many viruses, all of them highly contagious, cause cold and flu symptoms. Each virus can undergo subtle changes to outwit our immune defenses, so colds and flus keep returning. Because no one has found a cure for these viruses, most doctors treat them with medicines designed to relieve symptoms. In some cases, these medicines may either interfere with the healing process or be inappropriate for the condition.

However, a growing body of research shows that herbs can help us during the cold and flu season. These herbal remedies can boost immunity to prevent illness or support the body’s natural fighting tendencies, shortening the time we spend suffering. Choose from the following herbs to create your own blend that will enhance immunity, combat viruses, and/ or reduce symptoms.

First line of defense: Immune-enhancing herbs

The most thoroughly researched herb for fending off colds and flus is echinacea (Echinacea angustifolia, E. pallida, and E. purpurea). This herb’s main claim to fame is its ability to enhance general immunity: It stimulates white blood cells, one of the body’s first lines of defense against illness; increases production of interferon and other virus-fighting substances; and increases immune cells’ ability to engulf and destroy invading microbes.

Test-tube studies show that echinacea directly fights influenza, although these effects have yet to be demonstrated in humans, says A. Francis Brinker, a naturopathic doctor, instructor at the Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine, and author of Herb Contraindications and Drug Interactions (Eclectic, 1995). But, Brinker says, echinacea fights microbes when directly applied to the area of infection, such as gargling with a mixture of 1 cup water and 30 drops of echinacea tincture.

Some clinical trials have focused on the effects of using echinacea on colds and flus. Six studies show that taking echinacea significantly reduces the risk of viral respiratory infection compared with a placebo. Another six studies show that echinacea shortens the duration of colds and flus and reduces symptom severity compared with a placebo.

Varro Tyler, Ph.D., distinguished professor emeritus of pharmacognosy at Purdue University, says these results suggest that taking an echinacea preparation when symptoms first appear can shorten the length of colds and flus by about one-fourth to one-third of their normal duration, or from ten days to about seven days. Tyler adds that the time to start taking echinacea is anytime between exposure to someone with a cold or the flu or at the onset of symptoms.

In terms of dose, Rob McCaleb, president and founder of the Herb Research Foundation in Boulder, Colorado, says taking 900 mg (four to five droppersful of most extracts) of echinacea a day is most effective. Brinker says that, for acute infection, the key is frequent dosing. He recommends one-half to one dropperful every one to two hours. As you begin to feel better, lengthen the interval between doses.

Astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus) is well-known in China as a tonic and adaptogen. Many studies, most of them conducted in the lab, show that it boosts the immune system and fights viruses, bacteria, and inflammation. Taken regu­larly over time, it can provide ongoing ­immune-system support.

Beating flu viruses

Compounds found in elderberry (Sambucus nigra) can inhibit the enzyme that flu viruses use to penetrate cell membranes. In one test-tube study, a syrup made from elderberry juice, raspberry extract, glucose, citric acid, and honey inhibited a variety of both type A and type B ­influenza viruses. The study’s researchers also gave the syrup daily for three days to children (two tablespoons) and adults (four tablespoons) who had just come down with the flu. A complete cure occurred in nearly 90 percent of people within two to three days for the elderberry group versus at least six days for those taking a placebo.

The researchers noted that no conventional drugs effectively treat both influenza A and B but that elderberry does at low cost and with no known side effects. Some manufacturers make syrups and lozenges that contain elderberry extract.

Researchers are finding other herbs that may be effective virus fighters, at least in test tubes. Although these herbs have yet to be tested in people, any one of them would make a worthy addition to a cold or flu medicine kit.

Garlic (Allium sativum) benefits health in many ways, including its ability to boost immune function and inhibit or kill a broad range of microbes. Test-tube studies show that garlic is active against viruses that cause colds and flus. Some of garlic’s active ingredients are eliminated through our lungs, right where you want them to target infections. Garlic also promotes expectoration, to help you cough up mucus. During cold and flu season, you may want to take garlic supplements and/or eat plenty of garlic. I blend raw garlic into foods or add it to dishes just before serving to preserve its active ingredients.

Licorice root (Glycyrrhiza glabra) contains glycyrrhizin, which in test-tube studies inactivates and inhibits the growth of a range of viruses, including influenza viruses. Somewhat like echinacea, licorice contains polysaccharide ingredients that can spark the body’s production of interferon (proteins released by virus-infected cells to prevent the virus from multiplying) and activate various white blood cells.

St.-John’s-wort (Hypericum perforatum), according to test-tube studies, can inhibit influenza A viruses and parainflu­enza virus (which produces flulike symptoms), but not rhinovirus (a prominent cold virus). In mice it has fought para­influenza infection, but researchers have yet to study the effects of St.-John’s-wort on people with the flu.

Lomatium (Lomatium dissectum) has a long history of use by Native Americans for bacterial and viral infections, particularly of the respiratory tract. Laboratory tests show that it is a potent fighter of many viruses and bacteria.

According to Ed Alstat, a naturopathic doctor and president and owner of the Eclectic Institute, a company that researches, develops, and manufactures botanical medicines, a doctor named Ernest Krebbs observed that Native Americans of the Southwest recovered rapidly from the influenza epidemic of 1917. He attributed their recovery to the use of lomatium root and began using the herb in his practice with great success. Because use of lomatium root has been associated with a full-body rash, Alstat recommends taking a lomatium isolate—a specially processed extract—to eliminate rash-causing resins.

Stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) inhibits influenza A virus in test-tube studies. This herb is also packed with nutrients, including lots of carotenoids and flavonoids, and helps ease seasonal allergies.

Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) shows some antiviral effects in test-tube studies against parainfluenza and many other bacteria.

Ephedra (Ephedra sinica) contains ephedrine, a chemical related to the hormone epinephrine, also known as adren­aline, and the synthetic decongestant ­pseudoephedrine.

Ephedrine clears up respiratory congestion and relaxes the airways. At the same time, though, ephedra stimulates the cardiovascular and central nervous systems. Large doses can raise blood pressure and cause palpitations, nervousness, insomnia, nausea, flushing, and headaches.

According to Mindy Green, director of educational services for the Herb Research Foundation, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has proposed restrictions on ephedrine, recommending that individuals take no more than 8 mg of ephedrine alkaloids in a six-hour period and no more than 24 mg in a twenty-four-hour period and for no more than seven days.

Peppermint (Mentha ¥piperita) oil and pure menthol are often included in commercial products such as nasal decongestants, throat lozenges, cough drops, chest rubs, and inhalants. The same goes for oil of eucalyptus (Eucalyptus globulus). Each herb contains compounds that relax the airways and open congested sinuses and nasal passages.

In one study, people who inhaled menthol indicated that it relieved their respiratory discomfort, maybe because menthol stimulates cold receptors. For example, just stepping into the cold outdoors can relieve stuffiness. You may try putting a few drops of peppermint or eucalyptus oil onto a cotton ball and setting it on your nightstand to breathe in the vapors as you sleep. Make sure that you don’t get the oil in your eyes or rub it on mucus membranes, and never apply essential oils in or near the noses of infants or small children, because this has been reported to cause respiratory arrest.

Herbs for aches and pains

The essential oil of peppermint can be applied externally to stimulate nerves that perceive cold and decrease pain-transmission signals. Rub peppermint oil on your temples to reduce a headache (but don’t get any in your eyes), or add two drops of peppermint oil to your bath. Peppermint oil combines nicely with essential oils of lavender (Lavandula spp.), an herb often praised for the relaxing effects of its scent, and eucalyptus. Taken internally, a peppermint tea made from one teaspoon of dried peppermint leaves and flowers for each cup of boiled water promotes sweating, which can help modulate fever.

Feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium) is currently popular for its ability to ease migraines, but it has an even longer history of use for relieving fever, arthritis, and other inflammatory diseases.

Ginger (Zingiber officinale) can fight inflammation and pain. It can also act as an expectorant and has a warming effect that may help if you’re chilled. McCaleb says ginger is his favorite herb for treating colds and flus, and he prefers the powdered form to the fresh. To make a tea, he adds one-half teaspoon of the powder or two droppersful of an alcohol extract to a cup of hot water. Don’t worry about straining the ginger, he says; it will just settle on the bottom of the cup. Add honey and lemon to taste.

The flowers of yarrow (Achillea millefolium) fight inflammation and muscle spasms and promote sweating. Herbalists have long included them in cold and flu remedies.

Herbs to soothe sore throats and coughs

Known as demulcents, these herbs contain thick substances that coat and soothe irritated respiratory linings. A commonly recommended demulcent, mullein (Verbascum thapsus), also can help loosen a cough and fight viruses. Lab tests show that its leaves and flowers possess potent activity against the herpes virus, but do not completely inactivate flu viruses.

Other demulcents include the root of marshmallow (Althaea officinalis), the bark of slippery elm (Ulmus rubra), and the leaves of plantain (Plantago spp.).

Expectorants, which help loosen res­piratory secretions so that they can be coughed up, include horehound (Mar­rubium vulgare), eucalyptus, and thyme (Thymus vulgaris). Thyme fights microbes, and its flavonoids help decrease smooth muscle spasms to open tight ­airways.

Osha (Ligusticum porteri) was one of the most popular herbs among the Native Americans of the West and Southwest. Feather Jones, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Center for Botanical Studies and president of Turtle Island Herbs in Boulder, Colorado, says osha fights viruses and is an expectorant. Herbalists use decoctions, tinctures, or syrups made from the root to treat coughs and sore throats (it has a nice numbing effect). However, Jones notes that osha is in danger of overcollection, and McCaleb says that no commercial cultivated sources exist. Only use osha if your supplier swears that his or her supply has been ethically wildcrafted.


Linda B. White, M.D., is a freelance editor and writer with a focus on herbal healing. 


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