Sarah Powell, an herbalist, medical anthropologist and proprietor of the natural bath & body business, Lilith’s Apothecary. Find her shop at www.lilithsapothecary.etsy.com and her blog at www.lilithsapothecary.wordpress.com for more natural body care tips and recipes.
At the first mentions of swine flu, I was busily boosting immunity with the many herbs in our anti-viral, immune-boosting arsenal by way of homemade herbal syrups. I work in the field of Public Health Emergency Preparedness, believe it or not, and I’ve spent years at least tangentially involved in pandemic flu planning. However, few in the general public are thinking about herbal remedies when preparing for a biological event. Herbs might not be adequate to fight infections on the level of the especially virulent Spanish influenza that devastated the globe in the early 20th century, but I believe in bringing out all the available supports, whenever necessary. And let’s be honest, swine flu is clearly not the pandemic of those proportions. The fact is that regular influenza strains wipe out 36,000 people a year in the United States alone, on average. Truth be told, there are herbs that assist us in disease prevention, no matter what the foe, and these herbs can become part of your regular cold and flu first aid kit.
It is a good idea to have multiple herbal syrups at your disposal. Syrups are a great vehicle for delivering extra strong, perhaps unpleasant tasting herbal decoctions to those adverse to those medicinal flavors. Children, especially, tolerate herbal syrups much better than their derivative decoctions or tincture cousins, and will happily take a spoonful of Echinacea or Astragalus syrup without batting an eye. Even better, syrups prolong the shelf life of your precious immune boosting or anti-viral herbal decoctions by at least a year. There is no doubt that there is a lot of sugar involved, but a spoonful of sugar does indeed help the medicine go down, and in this case, it’s probably worth it.
Herb Companion has provided previous resources on helpful herbs to fight colds and flus.
Although medicinal mushrooms are probably not a good choice for herbal battle against strains of flu that could cause of cytokine storm in the body, as their immune-fighting effect is to help the body do just this. A boost in cytokine activity, in the specific case of these extra-virulent influenza strains, is what creates a powerful immune reaction that could be to the detriment of the flu sufferer, and is cited as the reason why Spanish influenza resulted in so many deaths for young, healthy adults with strong immune systems. That said, commonly used preventative herbs such as astragalus (Astragalus membranaceous) seem an ideal choice. This Chinese herb is part of the famed ‘Jade screen’ (Yupingfeng San) formula, c. 1481, used for immune defense. Though I have little personal experience with it, AHG herbalist Michael Tierra writes about osha (Ligusticum porteri), a Native American herb apparently used by the native population with “noticeable benefit during the 1917-1918 Spanish flu pandemic that killed tens of millions of people. Those who took these native herbs only got a relatively mild case of the flu which was deadly to most others.” Herbs such as echinacea root, ginger root and thyme also provide great anti-viral action once those early signs and symptoms start to make themselves known.
Making an herbal syrup is relatively easy once you decide which herbs to use. James Green, author of The Herbal Medicine Maker’s Handbook: A Home Manual (2002, the Crossing Press), an invaluable resource for kitchen medicinals, instructs us to use a 2:1 simple ratio of sugar to strong herbal decoction, and this has resulted in excellent preservation and shelf life in my own syrup-making. It’s important to work in as clean an environment as possible, including using dry, sterilized bottles for syrup storage.
Step 1: Measure your herbs 1 ounce by weight per liter of water. Simmer herbs in water for 15 to 30 minutes minimum and allow to steep a further 30 minutes or more for a strong decoction. I let the water continue to evaporate via a temperature just under simmering until the decoction is even more reduced and concentrated.
(Learn more about decoctions.)
Step 2: Strain and measure the decocted liquid. Using a 2:1 ratio of sugar to liquid, measure out the necessary quantity of sugar and stir into the liquid until it is dissolved. White sugar, brown sugar, rice syrup or honey can be used. If you want a thicker syrup, allow the liquid to simmer further for another 20 to 30 minutes. If your sugar component is honey, simmering with destroy its enzymic activity, but with the current strain on honey bees, I would advocate against using honey right now.
Step 3: If desired, add 6 to 8 tablespoons of brandy per pint of syrup. This will help preserve the syrup and also helps to act as a mild relaxant for painful coughs.
Step 4: Once the syrup is cool, essential oils such as peppermint, anise, cardamom, or ginger can also be added. Add 5 drops TOTAL per pint of syrup. Add one drop at a time, and each time, test the flavor, as essential oils are extremely potent and must be used with extreme moderation. Further information also exists about the use of oregano oil as a potent anti-viral and antibiotic remedy, a helpful addition to an already potent syrup.
Step 5: Bottle the syrup in clean, dark glass bottles for storage. If made properly, syrups should keep just fine at room temperature. If you are concerned, store in the refrigerator to ensure preservation.
Have fun experimenting in your syrup production; try a variety of herbs with activity to assist with painful coughs, excess mucous production, and other uncomfortable symptoms to prepare you for colds and flus at any time of year. Simple elderberry, ginger, and echinacea syrups (Ecinacea Summer Tincture) are on their own, veritable powerhouses sure to get you through the worst!