The light may have returned according to the calendar, but lingering cold and dreary weather can make the dark part of the year seem like it’s going to last forever. Coupled with the fact that most of us spend the majority of our days inside is the unavoidable exposure to a variety of pathogens silently hitching a ride on surfaces, the air molecules we breathe in and on each other. It’s inevitable -- sooner or later, the sniffles will strike. Armed with a few herbal helpers, you can help your immune system to ward off these invading germs or, in the event that a cold or flu does get its viral foot in the door, reduce your symptoms and recovery time.
Photo: iStock/Maren Winter
Enough good things cannot be said about these delicious purple-black drupes in terms of assisting the immune system. Harvested from the European elder (Sambucus nigra), a deciduous woodland tree in the moschatel family, elderberries have been used for centuries to make jams, jellies, tarts and pies, syrups, cordials and wines, and have a long history of use in preventing and treating flu. Compounds in the fruit thwart a type of protein called hemagglutinin that lines the surface of influenza cells. This viral protein attacks healthy cells in the body with spear-like projections that it uses to penetrate and inject its enzymes, which allows the virus to replicate throughout the body. Elderberry prevents this activity by neutralizing those enzymes. It’s effective against several strains of influenza including H7 hemagglutinin, a variety that causes the flu patient to also suffer conjunctivitis.
Elderberry also has antibacterial properties. The extract of the fruit has been shown to counter Streptococcus pyogenes and group C and G Streptococci. It is also effective against Branhamella catarrhalis, a strain of bacteria that often leads to upper respiratory tract infection.
How to Use: The fruit must be cooked or dried before consumption to avoid toxicity. Use the fresh or dried berries to make jam, alone or in combination with other fruits like rosehips or goji berries for extra flavor and vitamin C. Add the dried berries to tea blends. (Note: A recipe for a simple syrup to use as a daily preventative and a remedial flu remedy appears at the conclusion of Part II of this blog.)
Also known as Indian ginseng, Indian winter cherry, asana, and a host of other common names, ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) is an evergreen shrub in the nightshade family and a staple in Ayurvedic medicine. Its Hindu name means “horse smell,” a reference to the fact that the raw plant smells a bit like a sweaty horse. It’s species name is obtained from the Latin word that means “induce sleep,” a testament to the herb’s long history of use to ease stress and anxiety, as well as inflammation. It is said to help one resist disease by increasing strength and energy. As an added bonus, ashwagandha is also reputed to enhance male performance considerably, if taken daily for a year.
The root contains a number of withanolides, a group of naturally occurring steroids. One in particular, Withaferin A, is currently receiving a good deal of attention as a potential cancer preventative and treatment. Both in vivo and in vitro studies have shown that these agents inhibit tumors by triggering apoptosis, or programmed cell death.
How to Use: Ashwagandha root is dried, chopped and infused in soups or broth, or prepared as tea. It is also tinctured. The powdered herb may be encapsulated as a dietary supplement.
Astragalus (Astragalus membranaceous) is a member of the pea family native to China. Also known as gum dragon, milk vetch and Huang Qi (yellow leader), it is one of the 50 fundamental herbs central to traditional Chinese medicine and has been used for centuries as an anti-inflammatory. It is considered an adaptogenic herb, meaning that it helps the immune system maintain homeostasis during periods of physical as well as emotional stress.
The root contains several flavonoids, such as quercetin and kaempferol, that demonstrate potent antioxidant activity. Some of these compounds also show strong antimicrobial effects against several bacterial strains, including Escherichia coli, Bacillus cereus and Staphylococcus aureus.
How to Use: Prepare the chopped root as an infusion or tincture. The powdered herb may be taken as a dietary supplement.
Also known xas Siberian ginseng, devil's shrub, pepper brush and touch-me-not, eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus) is a small, woody shrub indigenous to China, Japan, Korea and Siberia, and is now naturalized in some parts of British Columbia and the United States. As a member of the Araliaceae family of plants, it is a botanical cousin to ginseng and is also considered an adaptogen. The herb has been used for thousands of years in traditional systems of healing to treat a variety of inflammatory conditions, such as rheumatism and arthritis, and as a tonic and restorative.
Recent studies show that eleuthero root has a high antioxidant value and owes its properties to a class of polysaccharides collectively referred to as eleutherosides, among them coumarins and lignans. The root also contains several flavonoids, most notably quercetin, kaempferol and rutin.
How to Use: Infuse in water as tea or in alcohol as a tincture. The chopped root may also be added to soups and stews. The powdered root is taken as a dietary supplement in capsule form.
Maca (Lepidium meyenii), also known as Peruvian ginseng, is a member of the turnip family (its roots resemble miniature turnips) widely cultivated in the Andes Mountains of Peru as both food and medicine. Historically, it is used as a tonic herb to boost stamina, mood and cognitive function. Recent studies suggest that maca may also be of benefit in addressing benign hyperplasia and osteoporosis. One study showed that maca root helped to regulate blood pressure by inhibiting angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE).
In Peru, maca is an important economic crop and is commonly prepared as a root vegetable, either added to soups and stews or mashed and creamed with hot milk, vanilla and sugar to produce a popular porridge-like dish called mazamorra. The root is also ground and used as flour. Nutritionally speaking, maca root is packed with 19 amino acids, fiber, protein, minerals and vitamins.
How to Use: It can be challenging to find the whole root but, if you succeed, prepare it as a tea or tincture. The powdered root, which has a mild malt-like flavor, can be added to cooked cereals and smoothies, or encapsulated as a dietary supplement.
Homemade Elderberry Syrup
This kid-friendly syrup is wonderful served over pancakes or ice cream, or stirred into yogurt and cooked cereals. Make a double batch and share!
- 1/2 cup organic dried elderberries
- 3 cups filtered water
- Optional: 1 small cinnamon stick, teaspoon of grated ginger
- 1 cup local raw honey
Combine the berries, water and spices, if using, in a saucepan; bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, uncovered, for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Strain the mixture through a mesh strainer while pressing down on the berries with a ladle to release every drop of the juice. Let the reserved mixture cool for a minute, then stir in the honey. Pour into clean glass bottles, cap and label/ Keep refrigerated and use within three months. To use, take 1-3 tablespoons daily.
Hannah M. Creager, Amrita Kumar, Hui Zeng,et al. "Infection and Replication of Influenza Virus at the Ocular Surface." J Virol. 2018 Apr 1; 92(7) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5972870/
Christian Krawitz, Mobarak Abu Mraheil, Michael Stein,et al. "Inhibitory activity of a standardized elderberry liquid extract against clinically-relevant human respiratory bacterial pathogens and influenza A and B viruses." BMC Complement Altern Med. 2011; 11: 16. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3056848/
Dushani L. Palliyaguru, Shivendra V. Singh, and Thomas W. Kensler1. "Withania somnifera: from prevention to treatment of cancer." Mol Nutr Food Res. 2016 Jun; 60(6): 1342–1353. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4899165/
Viktor M. Bratkov, Aleksandar M. Shkondrov, Petranka K. Zdraveva, Ilina N. Krasteva. "Flavonoids from the Genus Astragalus: Phytochemistry and Biological Activity." Pharmacogn Rev. 2016 Jan-Jun; 10(19): 11–32. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4791984/
Carla Gonzales-Arimborgo, Irma Yupanqui, Elsa Montero, et al. "Acceptability, Safety, and Efficacy of Oral Administration of Extracts of Black or Red Maca (Lepidium meyenii) in Adult Human Subjects: A Randomized, Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled Study." Pharmaceuticals (Basel). 2016 Sep; 9(3): 49. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5039502/
Daniel Załuski, Marta Olech, Agnieszka Galanty,et al. "Phytochemical Content and Pharma-Nutrition Study on Eleutherococcus senticosus Fruits Intractum." Oxid Med Cell Longev. 2016; 2016: 9270691 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5098108/