Nothing like a 2-year-old to give you a reality check on how your immune system is doing,” one of my patients, Sarah, told me. She smiled as she spoke, but I could see she wasn’t thinking it was so funny. “Last winter I had more colds than I’ve ever had in my life,” she said. “My little girl brought home a dozen sniffles through the fall, winter and spring, and I caught at least five of them. One of the colds got worse and went into my lungs.
“And my poor little Molly had a time of it. I was always wiping her nose,” Sarah said. “She had several fevers as well.”
Now Sarah had another cold. I checked her pulse and looked at her tongue. Her tongue was normal, but her pulse was notable because it was clearly discernible on the “surface,” even when I just rested my fingers on her wrist and didn’t push at all. This surface pulse is thought to be a sign that a viral pathogen is just entering the body — that the infection is only on the surface and still easily treatable. When the pathogen starts penetrating the body, going to the bronchial level or worse, into the lungs, the situation is more difficult.
When cold and flu season comes, it’s difficult to tell a cold from the flu or a deeper upper respiratory tract infection. Traditional Chinese Medicine and, for the most part, Western medicine, define a cold as an upper respiratory tract infection with copious clear mucus discharge, sore throat, some fatigue and body aches, followed by coughing. Fever and loss of appetite usually are not present, as they are with the flu.
Having children in the household makes it especially important to maintain a strong immune system throughout the cold and flu season — or, better yet, have lots of strategies on hand to prevent the youngsters from getting sick in the first place.
Whether or not you have children, knowing how to prevent colds, or reduce and shorten symptoms is a good thing.
Sarah was interested in learning how to treat the symptoms of a cold without using aspirin and antihistamines. “As often as we get colds in our house, I don’t really want to depend on chemicals too much,” she said. “I know about echinacea, but I read in the paper that it doesn’t really work.”
The recent human studies on echinacea (Echinacea spp.) showed that the extract didn’t help reduce symptoms once a cold was established in children or adults, but that using the herb during a cold was associated with a significantly lower rate of follow-up colds. Echinacea seems to be better at protecting against a cold (especially when taken at the first sign of symptoms) than it is at treating cold symptoms.
Sarah wanted a program to help prevent colds throughout the season and a few herbs to help reduce symptoms and shorten the cold’s duration. The chart on Page 16 explains a basic program I’ve used with many people over the years and from which I’ve seen excellent results.
The first time I saw Sarah, though, it was too late to use herbs for prevention — she was fighting a bad cold. She told me she had a sore throat, headache, stuffy nose and trouble sleeping.
“We should get right on it,” I told her. Because the infection was already established, I put together a formula of some of the most potent immune stimulants and herbs proven to reduce symptoms fast.
I gave her a tincture with ginger (Zingiber officinale), cinnamon (Cinnamomum verum) and thyme (Thymus vulgaris), with some lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) added for flavor. She agreed to take several droppersful, four or five times a day in a little water, gargling for a minute and then swallowing. (You could also try a tea made with the same herbs, which would work as well as the tincture, without the alcohol. Drink 1 cup of a strong infusion several times daily.) These herbs and tinctures are widely available in health-food stores. Warm, spicy herbs, such as ginger and cinnamon, are traditionally used to resolve the cold’s symptoms.
I advised Sarah to take 2 capsules of andrographis (Andrographis paniculata) several times daily for 10 days. Andrographis is another herb that helps reduce cold symptoms.
For good measure, I had Sarah blend some Ginger-Garlic-Cayenne Super Cider. This blend will help decongest stuffiness, kick your immune system into high gear — and it tastes great on salads, in soups or in a cup of hot water. Blend equal parts ginger, garlic cloves and cayenne powder, to taste, in a cup of organic apple cider vinegar. Let it steep for a few days and then use a teaspoon at a time, several times daily. Taken as a tea, it’s a fabulous toddy for a cold winter night.
Loading patients up with an armful of supplements isn’t my usual procedure, but I decided to add a product for Sarah’s headaches, since they were bothering her so much. I knew that standardized willow bark (Salix spp.) would do the trick. Willow bark extract is effective for reducing pain, especially when taken over a few days to a week. Do not give willow to children or use the herb if you’re allergic to aspirin (see Page 46 for further cautions). Before giving any herbal remedy to a child, check with his or her doctor or a qualified herbalist for safety and dosage information.
When she came in the next week, Sarah looked a lot better. “The cold mostly went away in two days,” she said. “I was impressed.” I gave her a good shiitake (Lentinula edodes) product to take for a month, along with a tea of lemon balm and a little sage leaf (Salvia officinalis) and yerba santa (Eriodictyon spp.), to clear out some of the thick residual mucus, all time-tested herbal products. When it comes to colds, herbs have been the way to go for many centuries.
Christopher Hobbs’ case studies are gleaned from his 30 years of studying and practicing herbalism. Hobbs, a fourth-generation botanist and herbalist, is the creator of the correspondence course Foundations of Herbalism; www.foundationsofherbalism.com.
“Case Studies” is not intended to replace the advice of your health- care provider.
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