The cold and flu season is upon us, and every couple of weeks or so someone at the Earthsong requests help with herbal ideas to help them through the worst of it. Last week a plea came through for some ideas on prevention, and the ensuing thread covered the usual concepts – watch your diet, make sure you get enough of all essential nutrients, avoid getting overtired, nourish the immune system with gentle support such as astragalus, a little extra zinc and Vitamin C, warming beneficial drinks such as turmeric milk and chai with additions to strengthen immunity…garlic, chicken soup. But what about those times when all efforts to resist a bug fail, and you find yourself tucked away at home, miserable and sick – as invariably some of us will over the winter? What about the sore throat that makes life a misery, the hacking cough that worsens at night and won’t let you sleep, the misery of clogged sinuses, the body aches, the lingering misery that doesn’t respond to our usual firstline defenses?
Herbal medicine has much more to offer than the usual “garlic and Vitamin C” advice, and can target specific aspects of the individual’s symptoms to offer the strongest natural relief, helping the sufferer get through the duration of the illness with minimal distress. In this article I’m looking at remedies – some familiar and others may be new – to broaden the choices for those wishing to help themselves back to health. I will discuss the Actions of some popular herbs, with an eye to sharing how they work, aside from simply telling you “ Elder is good for colds “ we’ll look a little bit at how and why. First theme is this; not all coughs, sore throats, cold bugs overall are the same. Dry hacking coughs need a different approach from loose, productive versions, and – ideally – call for different herbal strategies. Those studying herbalism here will already be familiar with Actions of herbal medicines, and the importance of choosing specifically, but anyone can learn to think in terms of “what does this herb actually do – and is it optimal for me?” While we select herbs for their specific primary actions a lot of the time, we also need to be mindful of their secondary effects – and that takes a bit of study. The herb you choose should be optimal for your symptoms and condition – but also work optimally for you overall. As a quick example, people with autoimmune disease may not do well with plants that stimulate the immune system. But again this can be a matter of dosage and duration.
Review/summary: When someone asks “What can I take for a cold?” a good herbalist will look at the symptoms the person is experiencing and then find herbs that have Actions suitable to help these symptoms. How this is done is a very big topic and too much to go into in an article this size, but I’ll be using some terms which may be new, so – briefly – here are some of the Actions we look for (rather than just seeking ‘herbs for colds’).
1) Diaphoretics – promotes perspiration, opens the pores, some promote circulation, others relax tension and some do both – but the idea is, to help the body release sweat
2) Demulcents – soothe and ease inflamed tissue (sore throat, for example) moistening, cooling and sometimes relaxing
3) Expectorants – help to expel mucus from lungs and sinuses
4) Antimicrobials, antivirals – helps the body to resist or eliminate pathogens
5) Anti-catarrhals – assist the body to reduce production of mucus, generally from ear, nose and throat
6) Immune Strengtheners – boost or modulate immune function
7) Nervines – the ones we’re using will have a beneficial effect on the nervous system, in this case generally relaxing and sedative, to assist with rest and sleep
8) Anti-spasmodics – prevent or minimize muscle spasms, used here in cough remedies to control spasm and help with sleep
This is the primary group of Actions we will be looking for to help with the symptoms of a cold. All of them are Biomedical Actions; there are other groupings of Actions that are essential for a herbalist, but most who are simply seeking help for a cold will want to start with these. We can use herbs from the above group to warm up and dry moist, soggy tissues and dry up phlegm; or, apply them to help cool down – soothe and ease a hot flamed throat; relieve tension and pain, especially headache and bodyaches: stimulate peripheral circulation and help the body sweat; clear toxic build up from the body; relax the body and promote sleep, and more. The vast majority of herbs I will recommend are readily available, and once you have used them on yourself or a family member, you will want to build a herbal Medicine Cabinet and keep them on hand year round. Many, such as yarrow, marshmallow and mullein are useful for numerous other ailments and conditions, and should be part of any first aid herb cabinet.
It’s important to remember that many of these herbs function on several levels, so the classification below will focus on the primary action in context of the ailment and tissues.
We will look at how to take these herbs – in teas, tinctures, elixirs, syrups, pastilles, steam inhalations, poultices and more.
1) Diaphoretics. This is the group I often look to first, and the time-honoured elder/yarrow/peppermint tea falls into this category. The term refers to the action of some herbs to encourage or promote sweating. The action of opening the body, helping perspiration to flow, is achieved in part by the process of stimulating circulation of capillaries near the surface of the body. Best taken in hot (or at least warm) tea, sipped throughout the day, diaphoretics include the great multi-taskers Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) and Elderflower (Sambucus Canadensis) used in combination or alone, depending on what you have on hand. One of the great things about learning the Actions and Energetics of herbs is you don’t need to go look up what to use for what, and rush out to the store – if you have Peppermint, use that, and if it needs warming, add ginger! But yarrow and elder (flower and berry) are two herbs I’m never without. One of the great combinations for flu and colds with fever.
In the course I completed last year from Dominion College, just about every single herbal treatment for any kind of cold and flu was infused and then “poured hot upon ½ teaspoon cayenne”. At the time I found this a little quaint, and I still think not every cough, cold, sore throat and upset tummy needs it, but in cases of blocked sinus with headache, deep lung congestion/infection fever with a real need to sweat, I generally do infuse the yarrow and elder and pour it hot over cayenne. Cayenne (Capsicum frutescens) should not be included in the diaphoretic tea formula if there is any evidence of stomach ulcer, and I am cautious if there is a history of cardiac problems like arrhythmia; otherwise, use as needed. Ginger is warming, and diaphoretic when added to hot water or the tea, too. Make sure you rap up really well to help the sweating process too!
Looking more deeply, in the next installment, we’ll see that some Diaphoretics are classed as relaxing and others, stimulating. How to work with Vital Actions and symptoms is a whole article unto itself; for the purposes of this article, elder and yarrow can be used together to gently promote perspiration in most common colds and flus.
Some other common herbs (not an exhaustive list) with diaphoretic action include:
Angelica (Angelica Archangelica)
Hyssop (Hyssopus o.)
Pleurisy Root (Asclepius tuberosa)
Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum)
Catnip (Nepata cataria)
Ginger (Zingiber officinale)
Thyme (Thymus vulgaris)
Sage (Salvia o.)
To make the tea, simply place a teaspoon of each herb in 8 ounces of boiling water, cover, and steep for 8 – 12 minutes. Serve warm with raw honey, if desired. To make an infusion – greater medicinal strength – use a half ounce of each in a pint of boiling water , and allow to sit for at least 30 minutes, strain and serve at about 3 ounces every half hour. I use tea for milder colds and the stronger infusion for more severe cases or at the onset. Often with phlegmy, ratting cough I will add the ginger or cayenne as well.
Ask the average person what to take for a cold, and the first answer is either VitaminC and/or echinacea. The idea here is to provide a stimulating effect to the immune system, to help the body fight infection. And that is something Echinacea does indeed do well. However, many other herbs stimulate, modulate, balance and strengthen the system, and Echinacea may not be the right one for the individual. Studies have shown best results when Echinacea ( angustafolium) is taken in tincture, right at the onset of symptoms, and in doses higher than the label indicates, sometimes as much as three times higher.
My feeling is, this aspect of herbal cold care is very personal. Astragalus, reishi (and other) mushrooms and elderberry are better choices for many individuals,and one should exercise caution even with these, if the patient has an Auto-immune condition (diabetes, multiple sclerosis, Grave’s , lupus). I tend to fall back on Elder – but this time emphasize the berry, in tincture or elixir, taken in fairly high dose but at intervals throughout the day. While the flower helps move fluid with it’s diaphoretic action, the berry goes to work strengthening – balancing, really – the immune system, so my standard approach is to add a teaspoon of elixir or dropperful of tincture 3 – 5 times daily as needed. Elderberry tincture is a must-have for any herbalist and readily available, but elixir is something we make ourselves, and so I include the recipe here. I first learned how to make it from Kiva Rose, so I reference her recipe here:
By Kiva Rose
For your elixir, it’s helpful to have on hand:
▪ A pint canning jar (or other glass jar that seals well)
▪ Fresh elderberries (dried can be used as well, simply use about a third of the amount, or about 2.5 oz to follow the 1:5 proportion method for dried plants).
▪ About a pint of high quality brandy (the better the brandy, the better your elixir will taste), depending on whether you’re using fresh or dried berries.
▪ Appr. 1/3 pint of raw honey (or to taste, as you prefer)
▪ A good stirring spoon
Step by Step Instructions
- • First, fill your jar all the way to the top with fresh elderberries.
- • Now, pour the honey in slowly, stirring as necessary, until the berries are well coated.
- • Next, fill jar with brandy, stirring as you go, until all air bubbles are released.
- • Now cover the jar with a tight fitting lid, and shake carefully to finish the mixing process.
- • Let macerate in a cool, dark place for four to six weeks (or as long as you can stand to wait.
- • Strain, reserving liquid. Store in an airtight container in a cool, dark place.
Take 1/4 – 1/2 dropperfull of Elixir every two to three hours at the first sign of illness. You MUST take the Elixir frequently rather than having a bigger dose further apart, it just won’t work that way. Use the same dosage if you are actively ill. For a general preventative dose, I suggest 1/3 dropperfull every four hours or so.”
This basic recipe is the one I use for all kinds of other elixirs that are wonderful to have on hand for a cold or flu; I like to use ginger, rosehips, sage, pine as well as elderberry, and add them in as needed, too.
In this category we have one of the classic cold/flu remedies, often taken in soup or honey – of course I’m thinking of garlic! In treating our own or loved one’s cold by working on all the levels, we want to include herbs that inhibit or help kill off the virus and/or bacterial agent responsible for it. Garlic is great in home made soup, added not long before serving, or in honey, or as part of a “Fire Cider” vinegar recipe to clear sinuses and open the upper respiratory tract. But garlic again is not for everyone, it can upset some people’s stomachs or be generally too warming (just like ginger and cayenne).
To make Fire Cider, and I’m not sure where I learned this because recipes abound! But the jist of it is, to use something like the following (and you can certainly experiment, no hard and fast rules here):
Take about 1/3 cup of grated horseradish (and be careful with the stuff, it is HOT!) a quarter cup chopped organic garlic (if you can get organic) and a half cup each chopped onion and ginger. Place all in a sterile quart jar, add a teaspoon of cayenne pepper, and cover all with a good quality apple cider vinegar.
Cover tightly and let it sit for about 6 weeks, a minimum of four and up to 12.
Once it’s opened, you simply strain into another sterile jar, or separate into two if you plan to keep them separate for different uses. Now you can use the Cider mixed with honey to help clear sinuses and for the strong antimicrobial power of garlic and horseradish, you can use it as a compress on the chest, you can even try a little bit (start small, a half teaspoon) straight up if you need a jolt of something HOT to clear congestion.
Garlic (allium sativa) is wonderful if your constitutional type does well with it. Two recipes I use extensively( I sometimes have problems with garlic but love it so much I use it anyway) are Garlic Honey and Garlic Soup. For the honey, simply peel all the cloves from one head of garlic; chop coarsely, and place into a sterile pint jar. Pour a good, preferably raw local honey over top, mixing well with a knife or chopstick. Let it sit for about 3 weeks and you have a lovely medicinal honey.Take a teaspoon straight up for relief of sore throat and sinus congestion.
NOTE: Fresh chopped ginger, monarda, sage, thyme and many others make excellent honeys as well!
For the soup – this is one I’ve made for about 30 years now so I have to admit I don’t recall where I got the basic idea from. I vary it up all the time, and I love it, but it’s not to everyone’s taste. If you love and tolerate garlic, do try this; the cooking eases it’s pungent raw taste (and so it’s not as sinus-clearing) but combined with chicken broth it does pack a healing punch for colds and flu. And, many find it delicious.
Garlic Soup ( bugs-be-gone)
about 4 whole bulbs of garlic, up to six if you’re a freak like me
3 Tablespoons good olive oil or butter
about a quart of home made, rich chicken or turkey stock
4 egg yolks
plus whole plain yogurt, chopped almonds and lots of parsley to top
All you do is:
Crush the cloves and slip off the skins, Toss the smushed cloves into a Dutch Oven size saucepan (stainless steel, cast iron or enamel, please) with the oil and saute oh- so -carefully, making sure not to brown (browned garlic is bitter tasting). When the garlic is soft, add the stock and simmer about half an hour, again very gently. Cool, and then squeeze the stock through cheesecloth or a sieve, into a bowl.
in a separate bowl, beat the egg yolks until thick, with a whisk and pour into the large pot. Start slowly beating in a Tbsp or two at a time of the now cooled garlic broth. When you have about a half cup beaten in, you can add the rest of the broth is a steady drizzle. Heat to the boil, and remove. As soon as it’s cooled but still nice and warm, serve in large bowls topped with a dollop of yogurt, chopped almonds and parsley.
If you like, you can add salt; other herbs to taste, of course, but I prefer it straight up. Good tasting medicine!
A couple of lesser-known but very important anti-microbial herbs deserve mention here as well. These include Usnea (Usnea barbata, around here anyway), a lichen found all over the world, and commonly referred to as Old Man’s Beard. It offers strong antimicrobial action and is useful in all kinds of cold and flu preparations. It helps remove bacterial infection and inflammation in the mucus membranes and thus clear the lungs of heat and fluid. Another herb not as commonly known outside the herbalist’s community is Osha (Ligusticum porteri,) sometimes known as Bear Medicine. Osha is found in the Southwestern USA and in some parts of the Rockies; Osha is diaphoretic , anticattarhal and expectorant (here we go with the overlap of Actions) and helps clear mucus from the lung. The root is extremel y powerful medicine for the lung but this is not a herb widely found in commercial use, and so you may need to look around a bit for a source.(Mountainrose Herbs is one, resources at end of the article) but well worth the effort.
Osha Root (ligusticum porteri)
You can try both Usnea and Osha in tincture, but they are bitter. This lovely recipe from Jim McDonald combines both, with the added punch of Echinacea- and tastes much better. Thanks to Jim for letting me share this.
Oshanasnea Maple Cough & Cold Syrup
This is a really nice cough & cold syrup… while some people use honey and some people use a simple syrup made with sugar, you simply can’t beat the flavor obtained by combining Osha and Maple Syrup. This stuff is drinkable…
While the only musts here are Osha and Maple Syrup, this is the formula I first started with. I often play around with it, and can say that either replacing the Usnea with Wild Cherry Bark (or just adding it to the rest) also tastes pretty darn good…
Combine, in equal parts:
Add 1 “squirt” (about 30 drops) of this combined tincture to each tablespoon of pure Maple Syrup (any grade will do, but Grade B has the strongest Maple flavor).
This syrup can be used as needed as a cough and cold remedy, and is quite delightful in flavor and effect (i.e. your kids aren’t likely to complain…)”
This category refers to those herbs that offer soothing, inflammation-easing properties and can reduce the pain of a sore throat or irritated, inflamed sinuses or bronchial tubes. Demulcents contain high amounts of mucilage, which in turn creates that slippery, slimy feel these herbs produce when combined with water or honey. Slippery Elm (Ulmus rubra) Marshmallow (Althea officinalis) and Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra) are most often used in pastilles, syrups, electuaries and teas to help relieve some of a cold’s most difficult symptoms. A wide range of plants have some demulcent properties, but for colds these tend to be most popular and effective. They can be used alone, or in combination with cooling astringents such as rose and/or antimicrobials like sage. When I first started making my own herbal pastilles, I used mostly slippery elm with licorice and rolled the “dough” onto a marble board like one does for cookies, then cut out the lozenges with a cap from a soda bottle. This makes pretty pastilles but is time consuming! The method I use now can be found here:
Marshmallow, Althea officinalis, in flower
You can of course, make a tea with slippery elm or a cold infusion with mallow, for example. They combine well in formulas for lung catarrh and cough, and are indispensable allround for easing the discomfort of raw, inflamed tissue.
Expectorants, Anti-Catarrhals, Anti-Spasmodics
These three types of Action are grouped together because they are often used in formulation (along with a Demulcent herb) to address the nasty coughs and lower respiratory discomfort of colds. Briefly, Expectorants help expel mucus from the lungs while anti-catarrhals work on the sinuses and throat to thin and expel build up. There are a range of herbs that perform these functions and it can be confusing to know which to select. I would suggest assessment of the type of cough, and choosing from herbs that loosen a tight chest and those that assist in drying up a boggy, rattly one. The chief herbs I use for coughs and lung inflammation due to a cold are:
Mullein (Verbascum thapsus) – anti-inflammatory, expectorant, demulcent, mildly sedative – the dried leaf is one of the best allround medicines for respiratory conditions. David Hoffman suggest combining it with Lobelia, Coltsfoot and White Horehound; I avoid Coltsfoot because of the PLAs (pyrrolizidine alkaloids, which my herby friends will know are the same compounds present in comfrey and can make ingestion of those plants problematic). Take 1-4 mls of mullein leaf tincture three times a day, or make an infusion of the dried leaf – 1-2 tsps in a cup of boiling water – three times a day. Mullein is especially helpful for tight, dry coughs where little mucus is produced.
Elecampane (Inula helenium) – expectorant, diaphoretic and anti-bacterial, the rhizome of elecampane is called for when the lungs are boggy and there is a lot of phlegm coming up. Hoffman recommends 1-2 ml of the tincture 3 times a day.
Wild Cherry(Prunus serotina) – a very popular ingredient in cough syrups, wild cherry bark has a sedative effect on the cough reflex, easing the misery of repetitive coughing. Use in syrup, or take 1-2 mls in tincture up to 3 times a day.
Angelica (Angelica Archangelica)- the dried root is also diaphoretic and so useful in coughs with fever – a Teaspoon of the dried root decocted in a cup of water, can be taken up to 3 times a day for cough with fever.
White Horehound (Marrubium vulgarum) – an expectorant herb with antispasmodic and bitter (digestive) properties, hard to take in infusion but good in syrup or tincture (down the hatch!) Use alone or in combination; alone take/give 1-2 ml of tincture 2- 3 times a day.
And to help with the painful spasm of repetitive coughing, Lobelia (lobelia inflata) in a formula helps lessen the severity of the attack without entirely suppressing the cough. All of these herbs can be taken in tincture form individually or in a formula, in syrups, electuaries and infusions, although some, like Horehound, are notoriously bitter. The point here is, to research and learn about all the Actions useful for helping with colds and flu, not to be comprehensive I any one area. MANY herbs possess expectorant, anti-catarrhal, mucolytic or anti-spasmodic actions, which we choose and how we use them depends on the type of symptom. Is the cough dry and hot? Loose and watery? An assessment of the type of symptom is our tool for choosing a herb or combination that will help most effectively.
This group is included here because during the acute stage of a cold we so often cannot sleep well; partially due to the long days spent doing much less a than we are used to, and partially because symptoms will worsen at night and we cannot sleep due to coughing and unpleasant congestion. Once we’ve eased those symptoms with poultices, steam inhalations, soothing pastilles and cough syrups, we may still require a little help drifting off (and staying there).
This category is called “relaxing” nerviness, because, well, not all nerviness actually help relax us. Think of nervines as herbs which have a beneficial effect on the nervous system (generally) and you will see that some, like caffeine (in moderate doses!) actually perk us up. Those are Stimulating nervines – so the ones that help us unwind, that relieve tension and soothe, are the relaxing sort. From this group I generally use…
Chamomile (Anthema nobilis)
Skullcap (Scutalleria lateriflora)
Motherwort( Leonorus cardiaca)
Vervain (Verbena o.)
Passionflower (Passiflora incarnate)
Rose (Rosa rugosa)
Lavender (Lavendula angustifolia)
Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris)
My own sense of which nervine to choose if you or a loved one has difficulty sleeping through a cold (and sleep is so badly needed when the body is healing) is to select from whichever herbs you know to be effective and helpful. During an illness is not time to experiment and risk an allergic reaction, or as in the case of valerian, a reaction opposite to what one is hoping for. I like a tea made from chamomile, skullcap and passionflower, but have also used motherwort, rose and sage when that’s what I had. Teas, warm, rather than tincture are my preferred method of administering nerviness. Try one of these straight up, look for a good commercial blend such as BIJA, or blend up your own. And rest easy!
Very Helpful Things
1) Some kind of herbal steam is often a lifesaver for me when I’m congested and can’t sleep. I generally throw in a handful of whatever I have that is anti-microbial and stimulating (mucolytic) and that often means thyme! Eucalyptus is another perennial favorite, and I have had great results with an interesting blend from Kiva Rose, who suggests the following:
1 Part Bee Balm (Monarda spp. the spicier the better)
1 Part Moonwort (Artemisia spp.)
1 Part Rabbit Tobacco/Cudweed/Everlasting (Gnaphalium spp. and related species.)
You can just take anywhere from a pinch to a small handful (depending on your tolerance of the smell and the strength of your herbs) of each and toss it into a small pot of just boiled water (about a quart) and cover for a few minutes. Then take a towel and place your face (carefully) over the open pot. Be careful not to burn yourself but to get close enough breathe in a lot of the vaporized essential oils. Try to stay under there as long as the water is hot and there’s plenty of steam. If you can’t, take short breaks while covering the pot and then go back under.”
This was an interesting one for me, as I have both Monarda and Mugwort in my garden and Everlasting grows wild around here everywhere. I recommend trying this bled if you even have two of them, but all three are easy to find and or grow – and have myriad other uses in your medicine as well. (NOTE: this summer I faced one of the worst, no THE worst allergy season in my life,and used rose petals, sage, mugwort and lemon thyme regularly for easing relentless sinus misery. It was absolutely lovely and smelled divine too. Highly recommended).
2) Compresses and Poultices; the classic is mustard or onion, but compresses (gauze or other material soaked in a hot infusion of the herb and applied to the chest) or poultices ( chopped warm herb applied to the area and held in place with flannel or other cloth) can be made from a multitude of plants.
Here’s the classic method of making an onion poultice – I include this because it uses simple and readily –to-hand ingredients, and is amazingly helpful.
• One medium onion
• 2 Tbsps ground corn meal
• Apple Cider vinegar, 2 Tbsps
• Cheese cloth
• Flannel, wool scarf, or cloth
• Small amount of Olive oil
Peel the onion and place into a skillet that has been coated with the tsp of vegetable oil. Bring the skillet to a medium heat and sauté until they are clear. Do not brown.
Sprinkle in the of cornmeal and vinegar. Stir well until the onions are mixed – you want a poultice that holds together and won’t fall apart once it is placed on afflicted area. Take the pan off the heat. Cut a piece of cheese cloth (or old cotton T-shirt) twice as big as the area to which the poultice is to be applied. Drop some onion poultice onto the cloth and fold it in a neat package. Make sure that the poultice is at least 1/2 inch thick and not so hot as to burn the skin.
Place poultice over the area to be treated and cover with flannel or wool. Keep on at least 20 minutes or until the poultice is cool.
No article covering herbal remedies for the common cold would be complete without a mention of chest rubs – which can of course also go on the forehead, back of the neck and head, anywhere the sinus pain manifests – being cautious not to get it in the eye, and avoid using the hotter versions (eg with cayenne) around the face. A basic herbal rub I make and use a lot in the winter is made with pine sap infused into olive oil mixed with beeswax and a few drops of eucalyptus oil added as it cools. But I will happily use any sap from our many local conifers, including Hemlock, White spruce and my favorite, Red Pine (for this purpose).
To Sum Up…
A long but still very introductory look at herbs and the Actions we seek for helping with cold symptoms. Instead of thinking “I have a cold, better get the garlic and Echinacea” we can consider what symptoms we have, and what Actions are needed to address them. It’s much easier in the beginning to think about actions for specific issues, rather than memorize long lists of which herb does this (especially given that the average herbal lists about 15 Actions beside each one!) I hope this article is helpful in thinking about herbs this way. Some excellent resources, many of which I used in putting this together, below.
Have a healthy winter!
Jim McDonald’s site is a goldmine of resources on so many aspects of herbalism. Do check out his marvelous collection of articles (under the Link Seeds and Stems, bottom of the page). I thank Jim for all his hard work and the Osha syrup recipe, too.
A great supplier of all kinds of herbs, including the harder-to-find Usnea and Osha.
You all know I’m a huge fan of Kiva’s beautiful blog and approach to herbalism. This blog is such a gift, really a course in itself for those new to herbalism altogether, or like me, new to this way of practising it. Indebted on many levels – do check this out, please.
Dominion College – coursework for the Chartered Herbalist programme
Medical Herbalism, David Hoffman
The Book of Herbal Wisdom, Matthew Wood