Mother Earth Living

Herbs for Cold and Flu

By Kathi Keville
November/December 2002
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Say goodbye to colds and flu with these antiviral and immune-enhancing herbs.


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Cold and Flu Recipes:

Ah, winter. Yes, it’s cold and flu season again and you’re looking for some relief. Although colds and flus are caused by different types of viruses, both can leave you feeling tired, coughing, feverish, achy and foggy-headed.

You’ve probably discovered that conventional medicine has little to offer the bleary-eyed sufferer. Over-the-counter remedies such as aspirin, and even prescription drugs, only suppress symptoms; they don’t cure the illness or make you well any faster. While antihistamines dry sinuses, they can also irritate your nose and throat and prolong the infection. As for antibiotics, including penicillin, they don’t target viruses at all and should only be prescribed if a bacterial infection follows the cold or flu.

Simply suppressing symptoms can impair your body’s natural ability to fend off disease. Symptoms tell you what’s wrong and what to do about it. Headaches, sore muscles and feeling tired indicate that you need rest, and fever or indigestion is a sign to eat lightly.

Herbal treatments help your body heal itself and boost natural immunity. Your cold or flu probably won’t disappear immediately, but chances are you will get well sooner and more completely. Then, when next winter rolls along, you may be less likely to pick up a cold. You’ll find plenty of herbal cold and flu remedies in the health-food store, or follow my simple recipes to make your own. In either case, have these remedies on hand in your medicine cabinet so that when the next cold or flu strikes, you’ll be prepared.

Antiviral herbs

Researchers have discovered that some herbs destroy viruses, and they’re studying ways to turn these herbs into pharmaceuticals. But you needn’t wait. Among the herbs that have already been found to inhibit viruses, including the flu, are lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) and eucalyptus (Eucalyptus globulus). Also packing an antiviral punch are rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis), lemon balm (Melissa officinalis), hyssop (Hyssopus officinalis), peppermint (Mentha ¥piperita) and tea tree (Melaleuca alternifolia). All of these herbs also foil bacteria responsible for infections of the throat, lungs, sinuses, ears and eyes that often tag on the heels of a cold or flu. In addition, they relax coughing spasms, aid digestion, and lower a fever by encouraging circulation and sweating. Tannin compounds found in other herbs such as white oak bark (Quercus alba) and bayberry (Myrica cerifera) destroy flu and other types of viruses, so it’s no wonder they are traditional cold and flu treatments. You can even eat your way to good health by seasoning your food with garlic (Allium sativum), thyme (Thymus vulgaris), marjoram (Origanum majorana), cinnamon (Cinnamomum verum) and black pepper (Piper nigrum) to eradicate viral and bacterial infections. Ginger (Zingiber officinale) is not only antiviral, it also lowers fevers and reduces muscle soreness.

If you are looking for ways to make the medicine go down easier, mix cold and flu herbs with virus-fighting apple or grape juice. You can also make your own ginger ale by adding sparkling bottled water to ginger tea. Or, try elderberry (Sambucus nigra), which is not only sold as a part of herbal formulas but as pleasant-tasting tonic juice. Researcher Madeleine Mumcuoglu first learned about elderberries’ long history of use as a flu remedy from her mentor, Jean Linderman, Ph.D., who found that the berries help prevent the flu virus from invading healthy cells. Flu sufferers in her study got better faster with elderberry compared to drug medications.

Immune herbs

Boosting your immune system with herbs will help you get better faster when you’re sick and stave off future illness. Russian children were more resistant to a serious flu epidemic that swept through their town when given the Chinese herb schisandra (Schisandra chinensis). In another study, taking Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus) meant that people living in the cold regions of northeastern China got far fewer colds and had fewer cases of bronchitis. Lavender, lemon (Citrus ¥limon), and bergamot (Citrus bergamia) stimulate the production of infection-fighting white blood cells called leukocytes. Studies show that people who take echinacea (Echinacea spp.), one of the most popular immune-enhancing herbs, came down with fewer colds. When the echinacea-takers did get sick, all of their symptoms—weakness, chills, sweating, sore throat, muscle and joint pain, and headaches—were less severe. Echinacea particularly helped anyone who tended to pick up several colds a year. One way the herb works is by strengthening a cell’s protective membrane, making it less susceptible to viral invasion and more resistant to infection. Along with licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra) and the Chinese herb astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus), echinacea increases T-cell activity to improve general immunity.

Echinacea and licorice seem to slow down viral replication by increasing the production of macrophages—white blood cells that devour viruses. When taken as a preventive to keep from getting sick in the first place, a good plan is to take echinacea for a week or two, then lay off of it for a week. This may also be true of other herbs that enhance the immune system. I’m often asked if this means echinacea is toxic. Not at all. Think of it as teaching your immune system how to operate, then giving it a chance to practice.

Other symptoms

Besides fighting viruses and bacteria directly, herbs can relieve unpleasant symptoms caused by colds and flus. Eucalyptus, rosemary, peppermint, and bergamot thin and eliminate congestion, particularly in the sinuses. Mullein (Verbascum spp.), elecampane (Inula helenium), and horehound (Marrubium vulgare) open up the lungs so you can breathe better. Anise (Pimpinella anisum) suppresses coughing by working on the brain’s cough center. Natural herbal aspirins such as willow bark (Salix spp.) or meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria) reduce fever and pain. Ginger and peppermint can help settle an upset stomach.

The most popular antihistamine to relieve sinus congestion and dilate bronchial passages is ephedra, or ma huang (Ephedra sinica). Most herbal preparations are made with the whole herb, although formulas that use an “extra-strength” extract or derivative have run into controversy. The ephedra debate mostly concerns people who frequently use large amounts of the plant in herbal diet pills or combine it with recreational drugs. Herbalists still recommend moderate doses to relieve the congestion of a cold or flu, as long as you don’t have heart or thyroid problems, high blood pressure or diabetes, or take antidepressants.

Herbal cold and flu busters

Herbs are most effective when taken at the first sign of illness. Buy or make your own cold and flu remedies ahead of time so that they’re in your medicine cabinet when needed. It’s fine to use more than one remedy. For example, you can treat a sore throat with the herbal steam in the morning before work, then switch to the spray and cough lozenges while you’re on the go during the day. For the quickest relief, try to use at least one remedy every hour or two. Herbal cough syrups and cough drops are convenient to use, so many people rely on them to soothe a sore throat. However, syrups and drops typically contain 70 percent sugar or other sweetener, which slows down immune-system activity. I suggest going easy on them or searching for an unsweetened variety, and relying more on some of the following remedies instead.

Nasal inhalers

Aromatherapy nasal inhalers contain essential oils that you deeply inhale directly into your sinuses. They are less effective than steaming but are very convenient to carry. You’ll find them in natural food stores and some pharmacies. For a homemade version, add a few drops of essential oil of peppermint and/or eucalyptus to rock salt and carry this in a small vial with a tight lid. Open and inhale the scent as needed.

A final word

Spending a day or two in bed nursing a cold or flu with herbs is a luxury not everyone thinks they can afford, but consider it an investment in health. You may save yourself a week of misery in which you end up in bed after all. Sleep gives your cells a chance to regenerate from viral damage and keeping warm deactivates the virus. And while you’re at it, drink lots of fluids to flush out the infection. Take vitamin C with rose hips (Rosa spp.). Eat lightly, avoiding milk products, citrus, and refined grain products—they increase mucus production. Don’t be too hasty to lower a fever. The heat it produces inhibits the growth of viruses and encourages elimination of mucus. You can also increase immunity by keeping physical exertion and emotional stress to a minimum.


Kathi Keville is the author of eleven books, including Aromatherapy: A Complete Guide to the Healing Art (Crossing Press, 1995) and Herbs for Health and Healing (Rodale, 1996). She teaches herb and aromatherapy seminars throughout the United States and is director of the American Herb Association (www.ahaherb.com).


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