Herbalism in the Winter: How to Choose Cold & Flu Relief Herbs That Work

This is an excerpt of a longer article originally published in Country Grind Quarterly about how to choose the right herbs for cold & flu symptom relief.  Read the original intro here on the meaning & importance of bioregional herbalism.  There are 3 recipes here that illustrate these principles for colds & flus–they’re different from the one in the Country Grind so check them out!

Immunity is a huge topic and there’s no way to go into the details of how human physiology interacts with plants, nor is it possible to provide you with an exhaustive list of immune herbs and their properties here.  Instead, I’m going to draw some broad strokes to help you understand how to organize the uses of herbs in your mind, and provide common examples.  From there, the hope is that you will find useful herbs in these categories (“actions”) growing in your yard and you can take it from there.  This is the format I follow in my classes, because developing a sense of how to think about herbs helps us learn to use all herbs effectively, instead of simply collecting herblore one plant at a time.  Learn the categories, and the herbs just fall into place like manna from Valhalla.

Immune stimulators get your body into gear.  They work in various ways, some through increasing lymphatic filtration, some by stimulating T-cells or B-cells, some through unknown magic passed down through our ancestral folklore.  The “how” isn’t relevant here, but “when” is: the sooner you take an immune stimulator, the more likely you are not to spend a week miserable on the couch.

There’s this idea floating around our enlightened culture that if an occasional little bit is a good thing, you should probably take a metric shit-ton daily because then you’ll turn into a superhero and it’ll rule.  This is not the case.  Please don’t take these every day, and please don’t drink tinctures by the ounce.  Immune stimulators are strong medicine and should be treated with respect.  If you’re buying or bartering for tinctures, ask the herbalist for a dosage; otherwise look it up in your favorite book.  I really don’t recommend tea for these herbs since the medicine extracts best in alcohol.

It’s important to note that stimulating an already over-reactive immune system can be dangerous to some folks; for example, if your immune cells are attacking your nervous system, like in MS, you shouldn’t encourage them.  People with serious autoimmune disorders, heads up: this might not be a great idea for you.

The most famous immune stimulating herb is Echinacea; there’s no need to go into the science—let’s leave it at “it works”—but here are some tips.  Before you make medicine, eat some of the plant you’re going to harvest.  It should make your mouth go numb and tingly, and if it doesn’t it’s not strong enough.  E. purpurea is the species I recommend, since it’s easier to grow than E. angustifolia, has a wider range, and isn’t endangered.  Please do not use wild E. angustifolia, or I will judge you as a jerk contributing to the wholesale destruction of an endangered plant.  I like to make several tinctures through the season of different plant parts, then combine for a whole plant tincture.  Similar immune stimulators include spilanthes, yellow root, barberry, oregon grape, garlic (eat this, don’t tincture it), and thyme (nice in oil).  Please don’t use wild goldenseal: it’s endangered, and then you will be a jerk etc.

Elderberry, Sambucus canadensis, is less famous than Echinacea but no less fabulous as an antibacterial, antiviral immune stimulator.  Use the mature black berries in tinctures, syrups, elixirs—anything with some alcohol in it.  It tastes great and is safe for kids.  The berries freeze and dry well.  Unlike other immune boosting herbs, elderberry is safe for everyday use.  Give the kids 10 drops of syrup every day in the winter to protect them from their disgusting little friends (this also works for adults).  If you’re actually sick, take a bigger dose to fight it off faster.  The flowers are a great immune stimulator too, tinctured fresh in summer and used when you’re actually sick.  Do not make medicine from poisonous red elderberry (S. racemosa).

Energetics for everyone.  Okay, so to avoid getting sick or get better faster, take immune stimulating herbs.  If you get sick anyway, you don’t have to choose between unrelieved suffering and DayQuil.  First, identify what’s actually wrong, using a concept known as energetics.  Do you have a dry, nonproductive cough?  A wet sore throat with a post-nasal drip?  In very simple terms, is this problem a wet problem or a dry problem?  Next, do you need to stop something that’s happening, like a hacking cough?  Or do you need to make something happen, like coughing that junk out of your lungs?  In other words, do you have a problem that is stuck or moving?

Once you’ve identified the energetics of your problem in terms of wet/dry & stuck/moving, it’s easier to pick herbs by thinking about how to balance out your problem.  Choose an herb that has the opposite effect, like a drying herb for a wet problem.  I know this seems simplistic—it is actually a vastly over-simplified version of a really complicated idea—but it works, it’s easy, and it’s accessible.  Right there you’ve narrowed down your choices of herbs to ones that will actually help.  There’s this constant theme in my life of people saying “I know herbs don’t work, because when I had this gross phlegmy cough I tried mullein and it didn’t work.”  If you can’t use water to clean black mold and you can’t put out a fire with a log from the woodstove, why would a moistening herb fix a wet cough?  Because the article they read in Vogue didn’t mention balance at all (not that this is an exhaustive explanation, but still) and they’re expecting one-size-fits-all miracle pills, which is not how this works.  You, however, are a well-informed person who wants your remedies to work, so you will think about balance.

Coughs: harbinger of doom.  When we talk about symptoms, we’re going to talk about them in terms of wet/dry & stuck/moving.  Expectorants are for stuck coughs: they make you cough up the grossness in your lungs.  This is very helpful if you happen to have grossness in your lungs.  However, if you don’t have anything in your lungs, or if you have a hacking, painful cough that won’t quit (a moving cough), an expectorant is not a good plan—in that case, you want a cough suppressant (“lung antispasmodic”).  So right off the bat, is the cough stuck or moving?  Is it dry or wet (think phlegmy versus sandpaper throat)?  Choose herbs based on these characteristics of your cough.

For a dry, stuck cough, try a moistening (“demulcent”) expectorant like mullein, violet, sassafras, or licorice in tea only since alcohol won’t pull the gooey goodness out of a demulcent herb.  On a side note, please don’t smoke mullein—that’s not mucous you’re coughing up, it’s lung.

For a wet, stuck cough, try a drying expectorant like elecampane, prickly ash, or angelica, in whatever preparation suits your fancy; I like syrups, see recipe that follows the article.

For a wet, moving cough (the kind that won’t quit), try a drying cough suppressant like good old-fashioned cherry bark, which historically was such a famously effective medicine that when robitussin came out they had to make it cherry flavored or it wouldn’t sell.  Cherry bark contains cyanide so open a window if you’re drying it inside.  If your cough is very irritable, combine with another antispasmodic like vervain or coltsfoot.

For a dry, moving cough, use a moistening cough suppressant like marshmallow root.  A lot of people use slippery elm, but it’s endangered and seriously marshmallow works just as well, I promise—and so will other nice, cooling demulcents in your area.  If your cough is very irritable, combine the demulcent with another lung antispasmodic like vervain or coltsfoot.

Snotrockets for the people.  For nose & sinus symptoms, again think about identifying and balancing your problem: wet/dry, stuck/moving?  A stuffy nose is a great example of a stuck condition that can be wet or dry:  sinus pressure or a post-nasal drip usually means there’s a bunch of wet inflammation in your face, as opposed to when your nose is so dry that you can’t blow it.  A decongestant increases movement and drains everything, so we use it for stuck conditions.  Astringents are herbs that dry and tighten mucous membranes, like the lining of your nose and sinuses, so they work great for wet conditions.  Just like with coughs, think about demulcents for a dry condition.

A wet stuffy nose or a runny nose is just begging for an astringent decongestant; also appropriate if it hurts to touch your cheekbones or forehead (where your sinuses are).  Examples are goldenrod (any species of Solidago), bee balm/bergamot, thyme, or cayenne (not really astringent, but a strong decongestant).  Use these in any preparation, although some say the tea is strongest.  Goldenrod and bee balm are great in a netty pot, since they’re gentler.  Add eucalyptus or thyme to boiling water, put a towel over your head, and breathe those oils deep—you’ll thank me.

If you’ve got a dry, stuck stuffy nose or a runny nose you can’t blow, you want a something to increase movement and moisture.  Combine a less-drying decongestant like bee balm, goldenrod, or thyme with a demulcent herb like mullein or violet to loosen it all up.  Again, demulcents should be tea only.

Hard earned sweat.  Fevers are common with winter illness, and can generally be brought down with herbs called febrifuges or antipyretics.  That being said, don’t ignore an emergency: if the fever is very high, especially in a child, do the regular stuff (drugs, cold baths), and make sure it’s not something scary like meningitis.  There are two basic ways to get rid of a fever with herbs: increase body temperature until it breaks into a sweat (most herbs), or cool the body down.  The most widely growing herb for fevers is willow bark, which affects temperature regulation in the brain, as well as relieves pain and inflammation.  Willow contains salicylates, the compound that aspirin was synthesized from, but it doesn’t thin blood like aspirin.  You can use any species for medicine as long as the bark tastes bitter and astringent—the yuckier, the better.  Meadowsweet, black birch, and wintergreen work like willow.  Cayenne, prickly ash, bee balm, and boneset (in small doses, tincture only) make you sweat out the fever.  These herbs work best in tea or as tincture added to tea; most of them don’t taste great but hot water increases temperature, and dehydration is a fear with fevers.

It’s not a good idea to use these herbs with children under 6 with viruses, because they don’t have a good temperature ceiling and fevers can go way too high; instead, use cooling herbs to reduce temperature like catnip, borage, and peppermint, together with cold baths (you can add herbs to the bathwater, too).

See, it works.  So let’s say you’ve got a fever, stuffy nose with post-nasal drip, sinus headache, and a gooey cough but you’re not bringing much up.  Instead of taking an herb or two for each of these problems, let’s look at the whole picture and pick a couple of herbs to do a bunch of stuff.  Based on our very simple wet/dry moving/stuck thing, this looks like a wet, stuck condition, so we’ll use dry, moving herbs.  An example of a reasonable combination would be prickly ash, goldenrod, and bee balm.  These herbs are warming and drying, expectorant, decongestant, and will help with the fever.  They are also not too strong—you don’t want to overdo it and throw yourself out of balance in the other direction.  Don’t forget to take some immune boosters too, like elderberry, so you can get better faster.

Goodbye.  Please look up any herb that is new to you to make sure you have the right species and that the contraindications (when not to use it) are okay for you; I’m only listing Latin names where there is a potential for confusion, so double check on your own.  Try the recipes, you’ll like them–if you already read this article in the Country Grind, it’s 3 different recipes from what’s in the magazine, so give it a go.  As always, I read your comments with joy.  Thanks for reading.

8 thoughts on “Herbalism in the Winter: How to Choose Cold & Flu Relief Herbs That Work

    1. Hi Laura,
      nope. still tingly tasting. lots of good alcohol-soluble constituents in the dried plant, although I’m sure they’re probably stronger fresh because generally herbs are, but you can still taste the medicine when they’re dried. If you’re not sure, just taste it. Also, who are the lots of herbalists? I don’t think I’ve heard this before. Thanks for reading!


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