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Natural Remedies for the Flu

Discover these natural remedies for the flu. Boost immunity, nip illness in the bud, and relieve dreaded symptoms of fever, body aches, and coughs simply and naturally.
By Linda B. White, M.D.
November/December 2001

Find out what natural remedies work to relieve flu symptoms.
Photo By The Mother Earth Living staff


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Natural Remedies for the Flu

Pandemic. The word describes maladies that aren’t just regional in scope (epidemics) but those with a global impact. Of the great pandemic diseases of the Middle Ages, plague, St. Anthony’s fire, leprosy, and typhus are now uncommon. What survives? Influenza. Fortunately, it’s the mildest of these infectious diseases. Even so, during the flu outbreak of 1918, about 20 million people (including more than 500,000 Americans) died from the disease. Now, when influenza strikes, far fewer people die, largely because of modern medicine’s ability to control complications.

During the Middle Ages, people called the disease influenza coelestia, reflecting the belief that heavenly bodies and natural disasters strongly influenced the affairs of humankind. Now we know the enemy is an invisible one: the influenza virus. The most common types are A and B. This virus is transmitted through the air, such as when someone sick coughs or sneezes. Other respiratory viruses such as parainfluenza can produce flu-like symptoms. Those symptoms include teeth-rattling chills, headache, muscle aches, malaise, poor appetite, runny nose, sore throat, and cough. Because resistance is lowered, bacterial infections such as sinusitis, middle ear infection, and pneumonia may follow.

Prevention: Fending off the flu

How can you avoid getting the flu? You could scrupulously avoid contact with anyone who has it. But given how common and how highly contagious the virus is, such a strategy is impractical, unless you’d like to become a hermit during the winter months. The keystone of prevention is a healthy immune system. Francis Brinker, N.D., botanical medicine preceptor at the Program in Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona in Tucson and the author of Formulas for Healthful Living (Eclectic Medical, 1998) and Herb Contraindications and Drug Interactions (Eclectic, 1998), has several recommendations.

“To prevent flu, the focus should be on a balanced lifestyle: good nutrition—whole grains, beans, fruits and vegetables, and water—and elimination, plus ample exercise, sleep, relaxation, social interaction, private time, recreation, and spirituality,” he says.

Herbal Prevention: Building Immunity

If you have a weakened immune system, herbal immune tonics may help. These tonic herbs can be taken daily and at low doses during the flu season to support immune function and minimize your risk.

Astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus) has a 2,000-year track record in China. Studies have demonstrated the herb’s immune-boosting, antiviral, antibacterial, and anti-inflammatory effects. Root extracts even improve immune function among cancer patients whose immune systems are depressed by chemotherapy. Practitioners such as Christopher Hobbs, L.Ac., A.H.G., recommend it to people whose weakened immune system makes them prone to colds and flu.

“Astragalus is an immune-booster that is most often used in a traditional formula with similar herbs such as atractylodes, licorice, and privet berries to create a balanced effect,” he says. He recommends astragalus be taken as a preventive measure or after the illness has passed to help restore proper immune function.

“The traditional way of using this herb is in teas, powdered extracts in capsules and tablets, and in syrups,” Hobbs says. “The effectiveness of astragalus’ polysaccharides, the main immune-boosting constituents, is reduced by alcohol.”

Michael Castleman, author of The New Healing Herbs (Rodale, 2001) and many other books, likes to take this herb as a tea. To make the tea, finely chop four or five astragalus sticks and simmer them in 4 cups of boiling water for 1 hour. Drink 1 cup in the morning and afternoon. When making soup, place four sticks in a 1-quart pot and remove the sticks before serving. For the best effect, Hobbs advises taking about 6 to 12 g of this herb daily for one to three months.

Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus), also called eleuthero, and Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng)—though better known as herbs to help the body cope with stress—both have beneficial effects on the immune system. Hobbs finds eleuthero particularly helpful for people under stress, especially those whose stress leads to repeated bouts of cold and flu.

In a 1987 German study, healthy volunteers took 10 ml (2 teaspoons) of an alcohol extract of eleuthero three times daily for four weeks. Compared to the placebo group, those taking eleuthero had increases in immune cells, including the type of cell that goes after viral infections.

Daily consumption of ginseng is generally recommended only for people over the age of forty. “People under forty can use Asian ginseng if they have reduced digestive vitality and fatigue accompanied by coldness, not heat,” Hobbs says. In test-tube studies, Asian ginseng activates infection-fighting immune cells, including the types of cells essential in combating viral infections. One study found that Asian ginseng and Echinacea purpurea enhanced immune function in both normal people and in those with depressed immunity.

In a 1996 Italian study, researchers found that taking 100 mg of standardized ginseng extract daily for twelve weeks improved immune response to the flu vaccine. Compared to the placebo group, the ginseng group also had nearly two-thirds fewer attacks of both influenza and the common cold.

Shiitake mushroom (Lentinula edodes) is revered in China and Japan as both a culinary delicacy and a medicine. Its active ingredients have immune-enhancing and antiviral effects. Animal studies show protection against influenza infection. During the winter months, you can sauté this tasty mushroom and add it to all kinds of foods, including soups. Hobbs, author of Medicinal Mushrooms (Botanica, 1996), says, “One or two fresh shiitakes will confer a good immune-modulating effect, especially for prevention of disease, but the dried extract is often preferred by practitioners because it is much more concentrated and can offer additional immune effects, especially when taken daily over one to three months.” Follow the manufacturer’s dosage guidelines.

Nipping Flu Before it Starts

Conventional treatment for influenza is expensive and generally reserved for people at high risk for severe disease. The first anti- influenza drugs—amantadine (Symmetrel) and rimantadine (Flumadine)—hasten recovery from type A influenza. Side effects include anxiety, depression, and insomnia.

Newer drugs, such as oseltamivir (Tamiflu) and zanamivir (Relenza), inhibit both influenza A and B. The former is available in pill form; the latter is used as an inhaler. Oseltamivir’s side effects include nausea and vomiting. Side effects from zanamivir are minor and uncommon.

To be effective, all of these drugs must be taken within the first two days of symptom onset. Used in this way, the drugs tend to shorten the length of illness by one to one-and-a-half days. Among high-risk, unvaccinated people, especially those exposed to someone with influenza, these drugs can also be used to prevent illness. Antibiotic use is unwarranted because antibiotics kill bacteria, not viruses.

Herbal remedies, on the other hand, are safe and relatively inexpensive. Furthermore, scientific studies support the wisdom of centuries of traditional use.

Echinacea (Echinacea spp.) has become a popular remedy for nipping colds and flu in the bud. “I keep echinacea in the house at all times,” Castleman says. “When I think I have the flu, I start taking it immediately.” Research supports its use in reducing symptom severity and duration. Studies investigating its effectiveness in preventing respiratory illness have yielded mixed results. In a 1999 research review published in the Journal of Family Practice, eight of the nine clinical trials that used echinacea to treat upper-respiratory infections were deemed effective, whereas three of the four trials using echinacea to prevent infection showed only marginal benefit.

What’s confusing about echinacea is that there are three main species and several means of preparing the herb: alcohol tinctures of the root, fresh-expressed juice from the above-ground parts (leaves, stems, and flowers), teas of the root or above-ground parts, capsules and tablets of the dried above-ground parts, and standardized extracts. In 1996, one of the leading echinacea researchers, Rudi Bauer, Ph.D., of the Institute for Pharmaceutical Biology at Heinrich-Heine University in Düsseldorf, Germany, reviewed twenty-three studies and determined that two types of preparations have been shown effective in both test-tube and human studies. These were the juice of the above-ground parts of E. purpurea (marketed as Echinacin in Europe and Echinagard in the United States) and the alcoholic extracts of the roots of E. pallida, E. angustifolia, and E. purpurea. (See What You Need to Know About Standardized Echinacea for more information and echinacea dosage guidelines.)

Teas may also be effective. An American study published in the August 2000 issue of the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine found that ninety-five people with the beginnings of a cold or flu found significantly greater relief from drinking 5 to 6 cups a day of an echinacea tea called Echinacea Plus than from a placebo. (Echinacea Plus is a proprietary blend—made by Traditional Medicinals—of the above-ground parts of E. angustifolia and E. purpurea, a water-soluble dry extract of E. purpurea root, plus lemongrass and spearmint leaf.)

To see benefits from echinacea, you need to take an adequate dose. One study found that 900-mg daily doses (180 drops of root tincture) proved effective in treating flu-like infections; the 450-mg dose (90 drops) had the same effect as a placebo.

Both the flowers and berries of black elderberry (Sambucus nigra) are traditional flu remedies. This plant contains antiviral substances with activity against influenza. The berries contain anthocyanins, purple plant pigments that enhance immune function and have potent antioxidant activity. Theoretically, antioxidants may help control some of the tissue damage caused by the inflammation that accompanies flu.

Several studies have investigated the flu-fighting benefits of a proprietary extract of elderberries called Sambucol. In a 1995 Israeli study, researchers first demonstrated that this extract inhibited both type A and type B influenza viruses. The researchers then took forty people with new onset of flu and gave half of the group a placebo and the other half the elderberry syrup. For three days, children took 2 tablespoons and adults took 4 tablespoons of the syrup daily. Complete cure occurred in nearly 90 percent of people within two to three days for the elderberry group versus at least six days for the placebo group.

In a second clinical study conducted in Norway, sixty people with influenza took either Sambucol or a placebo, 1 tablespoon four times a day for five days. Again, the elderberry extract significantly reduced the duration of flu symptoms. The people taking elderberry required less analgesic medication and nasal spray to control symptoms.

Garlic (Allium sativum) stimulates the immune system and fights a broad range of microbes, including viruses. Test-tube studies show that garlic is active against some of the viruses that cause flu-like illnesses and colds. Garlic’s compound allicin has been credited with this antimicrobial power. Our bodies partially eliminate garlic across the lungs (hence the famous “garlic breath”), which is a boon when you’re suffering a respiratory infection. Plus, garlic promotes expectoration, to help get rid of excess mucus.

Castleman says that when it comes to fighting the flu, raw garlic is best. “The herb must be chewed, chopped, bruised, or crushed to transform its medicinally inert alliin into antibiotic allicin,” he says. Castleman recommends taking a couple of cloves two to three times a day. When I suspect I’m coming down with the flu, I blend two raw garlic cloves with a glass of orange juice and a pinch of cayenne and drink this concoction twice a day. You can also blend minced garlic into dips, dressings, sauces, and sandwich spreads.

Castleman also makes a tincture by soaking 1 cup of crushed garlic cloves in 1 quart of brandy. Shake daily for two weeks, strain, and take up to 3 tablespoons a day. If you don’t like the aftereffects of fresh garlic, try tablets of deodorized garlic instead—just follow the package instructions.

Licorice root (Glycyrrhiza glabra) stimulates the body’s production of interferon, an antiviral compound. Licorice’s glycyrrhizic acid fights a range of viruses, including influenza virus. The herb also has antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, demulcent, and expectorant properties. These combined properties make licorice a one-stop-shopping herb for illnesses marked by a sore throat and cough.

Licorice, unless you don’t care for its sweet taste, blends well with other respiratory herbs and can help mask bitter tastes. A little goes a long way, so simply add a pinch (1/8 teaspoon) of ground root to other herbs when you brew a cup of tea. If you prefer a licorice tincture, herbalist Steven Foster recommends 20 to 30 drops three times a day. Caution: Licorice is not recommended for pregnant women or people with high blood pressure, diabetes, or disease of the thyroid, kidney, liver, or heart. Because licorice prolongs the life of corticosteroid medications, consult with a doctor before using it medicinally. Because of the potential for elevated blood pressure and lowered potassium levels, other people (especially women taking oral contraceptives) should not take licorice continuously for more than four to six weeks, unless monitored by a health practitioner.

Symptom Relief if You Have the Flu

Conventional treatment consists chiefly of over-the-counter analgesics, antihistamines, decongestants, expectorants (to help expel mucus), and cough suppressants. Side effects include stomach irritation with many analgesics, drowsiness and dry mouth and nose with antihistamines, and jitteriness and insomnia with decongestants. Avoid cough suppressants (usually dextromethorphan) when a cough is productive (wet), because suppressants interfere with the body’s clearance of infected secretions.

Basic home care. Drink lots of warm liquids (to soothe a sore throat and loosen respiratory mucus), inhale steam (to help loosen and expel respiratory mucus), take warm herbal baths, bundle up in bed, and rest.

Herbal remedies. For body aches, boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum), according to Brinker, is one of the most useful herbs for reducing the achiness that accompanies the flu. Europeans, he says, often combine boneset with echinacea and baptisia (Baptisia tinctoria) in a tincture. A traditional flu tea blend is 2 parts boneset flowers and leaves, 1 part elder flowers (Sambucus canadensis or S. nigra), and 1 part peppermint (Mentha piperita) leaves. Use 1 teaspoon of this mix per cup of boiled water, steep for 10 to 15 minutes, strain, and drink 3 to 4 cups daily. Otherwise, you can take boneset tincture, 20 to 30 drops, three times a day. For the European tincture combo, Brinker says to take 10 to 15 drops of boneset, 10 to 15 drops of baptisia, and 20 to 30 drops of echinacea three times a day. Caution: Used in large amounts, boneset can cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and may damage the liver. Pregnant women should not take it.

Ginger (Zingiber officinale) has mild analgesic effects. Castleman adds that Indian studies demonstrate immune- boosting effects and Chinese studies indicate this herb helps kill the influenza virus. Use fresh gingerroot in cooking or drink 2 cups of tea daily. Castleman’s tea recipe is to add 2 teaspoons of powdered or freshly grated root per cup of boiling water, steep for 10 minutes, strain, and drink. Brinker likes to add lemon to his ginger tea.

For headaches, try feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium), ginger, or peppermint.

For fevers, diaphoretic herbs promote sweating, which helps to lower body temperature. Time-honored diaphoretics include elder flower, yarrow (Achillea millefolium), peppermint, catnip (Nepeta cataria), and boneset. A classic tea recipe is to blend equal parts of elder flowers, yarrow flowers, and peppermint. Steep 1 to 2 teaspoons per cup of boiled water for 10 to 15 minutes, strain, and drink as much as you want.

For sore throats, try demulcent herbs—licorice root, marshmallow root (Althaea officinalis), plantain leaf (Plantago officinalis), and mullein leaves and flowers (Verbascum spp.).

For coughs, use demulcents (discussed above) to soothe dry coughs. Try expectorants—mullein, elecampane (Inula helenium), garlic, licorice, horehound (Marrubium vulgare), hyssop (Hyssopus officinalis), and lobelia (Lobelia inflata)—to help clear mucus. Antispasmodics—thyme (Thymus vulgaris), lobelia, ginger, and hyssop—help calm coughs. Wild cherry bark (Prunus serotina) is a natural cough suppressant, but don’t use it if your cough is producing mucus.


Linda B. White, M.D. is coauthor of Kids, Herbs, & Health (Interweave, 1998) and The Herbal Drugstore (Rodale, 2000).


The reference list for this article is extensive. If you would like a copy, please contact “Flu,” Herbs for Health, Loveland, Colorado, or e-mail us at HerbsForHealth @ HCPress.com.


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