Along with the beauty of snow-glistened trees and the festivity of holiday parties, winter also brings the onset of more colds, flu, sore throats and other ailments. Stocking our homes with time-tested, tried-and-true homemade remedies (and potent preventives) is a smart solution. These winter favorites come straight from Grandma’s cupboard—from medicinal syrups and vinegars to sweet elixirs and old-fashioned bitters.
Note: Herbal medicines are used for their potential effects in the body; discuss any new remedy with your doctor to make sure it’s a good fit for you. Always consult your health-care provider when considering treatments for children younger than 2.
Recipes for Herbal Remedies
Some of the best herbal remedies for colds and sore throats are medicinal syrups. These simple remedies are a wonderful way to administer bitter-tasting medicinal herbs to reluctant children and adults alike. Sweet and delicious, syrups can be taken by the spoonful and make a lovely addition to teas, desserts and bubbly beverages.
All syrups begin with a concentrated decoction, which is then cooked down and sweetened with either sugar or honey to help preserve the mix and add flavor. This process perfectly concentrates an herb’s active constituents, making it great for treating upper respiratory infections. Syrups prepared with honey are usually preferable to syrups prepared with sugar, as honey is naturally antibacterial and effective at soothing and coating sore throats. (Don’t give honey to children younger than 2.)
If no preservatives are added to your syrup, it should last about two to three weeks. Add a few drops of vitamin C powder to increase its refrigerated shelf life by one to two weeks.
Great for: Sore throats, upper respiratory infections, preventing and fighting colds and flu
Best Herbs for Syrups: Elderberry, echinacea, ginger, garlic, licorice, marshmallow root, peppermint, sage, thyme
Bitters have long been used to treat illness and flavor cocktails. Made of medicinal, bitter roots, barks or leaves, bitters are primarily taken to enhance appetite and improve digestion. The theory is that the strong, acrid taste of bitters hitting the taste buds signals production of more saliva, acids, enzymes, hormones, bile and so forth, in turn stimulating and improving the activity of the digestive organs as a whole. Bitters are also said to support liver function and boost metabolism.
To make this age-old remedy, tincture the fresh or dried digestive herbs of your choice with 100-proof vodka. Store the solution in a dark amber or cobalt bottle—use dropper bottles to make dosing easier. You can simply add drops directly to your tongue. Bitters can also be added to soda water or cocktails. To improve digestion, take about a teaspoon before or after dinner.
Great for: Stimulating digestion, increasing appetite, supporting metabolism and liver function
Best Herbs for Bitters: Angelica, bitter melon, chamomile, chicory, dandelion, gentian, ginger, orange peel
Elixirs are another tasty and traditional way to take your herbs. They are essentially sweetened tinctures that typically call on the healing powers of adaptogenic herbs. This useful group of herbs is well known for supporting the health of our adrenal systems, which manage our bodies’ hormonal response to stress. These tonic herbs are useful for boosting energy, vitality and possibly even longevity.
This sweet remedy is usually made with brandy, which is gentler on the stomach than other alcohols used for tincturing. It’s also naturally warming, smooth and tasty. Elixirs are typically made for sipping, as they are much more palatable than their tincture counterparts, and typically have a shelf life of about three years.
Great for: Enhancing energy and vitality, boosting immunity and overall wellness
Best Herbs for Elixirs: Astragalus, ashwagandha, damiana, fo-ti, ginger, ginseng, gotu kola, rhodiola, saw palmetto
Although they are not as potent as alcohol-based tinctures, medicinal vinegars are an excellent choice for people with an intolerance to alcohol. Vinegars have been used for thousands of years to preserve foods, and thanks to recent studies we now know that vinegar offers a multitude of health benefits of its own. Apple cider vinegar, in particular, may be helpful in treating diabetes, high cholesterol, poor digestion and minor skin ailments.
Extract nutritious herbs (fresh or dried) with this kitchen staple, and enjoy atop salads and veggies or drink diluted in tea or water. (Avoid direct contact with your teeth, as the acid content in vinegar could harm them.) Compared with alcohol-based tinctures, herbal vinegars have a shorter shelf life—about six months—and don’t draw out as many beneficial components of a plant. However, vinegars excel at drawing out minerals and vitamins. As a general guide, take 1 tablespoon vinegar extract up to five times daily as needed.
Great for: Enhancing nutrition, fending off colds and flu, boosting immunity, lowering cholesterol, relieving arthritis, improving digestion
Best Herbs for Vinegars: Dandelion, elderberry, lavender, oregano, plantain, rosemary, sage, thyme, yellow dock