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It’s that time of year — time to break out the boots, light up the fireplace, and restock your over-the-counter cold medicine.
But maybe this year you’re not so keen on the de rigueur drowsiness that comes with Tylenol Cold or the sugary aftertaste of Emergen-C. If so, consider the power of plants to up your immunity and help you hedge infections.
Yep, this is how to build a cold/flu season first aid kit with herbs.
Remedies made from herbs and plants are a modality full of powerful allies for your health and immunity, explains Sarah Corbett, Atlanta-based clinical herbalist at Rowan and Sage — and science is starting to agree: “Research is beginning to confirm the efficacy of folk medicines people have been using for hundreds of years,” says Corbett.
Here are six easy herbal medicines you can add to your medicine cabinet (or fridge, as it may be) for a prevention booster, or as a healing aid.
Get the power combo
Herbs may give your immune system a little boost but nothing says wellness booster like the flu shot. Each year the flu shot is updated to help better fight viruses going around, because yes, the virus gets stronger — and so should you. Get your flu shot.
Chances are, you’ve already tried elderberry in some form or another, as this deep-purple berry has definitely gone mainstream in the past few years.
Also called sambucus, elderberry is antifungal, antibacterial, and antimicrobial, so it’s good at knocking out any kind of crud you’ve got going on. There’s evidence that elderberry is effective at treating the flu, as well.
It’s most commonly found as a syrup (it will make your kitchen smell divine if you DIY), but tinctures (a plant extract made with alcohol or glycerin), lozenges, and even gummies can work too.
Corbett advises taking this remedy once per day if you’re trying to prevent sickness, and then much more frequently once you’re already sick — every few hours or so.
Elderberry is considered safe, but don’t chug a whole bottle or anything like that — a teaspoon to a tablespoon of syrup at a time will work. Keep syrups in the fridge, as they aren’t shelf-stable. If you have any autoimmune disorders, it’s probably best to stay away (because it stimulates the immune system).
Another well known immune booster is echinacea, aka coneflower. It works by stimulating the immune system to produce natural killer cells and other sickness-fighters.
A 2015 meta-analysis concluded that echinacea may benefit folks with low immune function the most, even reducing the risk for a cold up to 35 percent.
Corbett suggests echinacea is most effective used right when you start to feel that tickle at the back of your throat, rather than when a full blown sickness has already taken hold.
A tincture is the best way to take it, she says, but teas won’t fail you either (especially since you’ll be hydrating your system in the meantime). Look for Echinacea angustifolia or a whole plant extract, because it’s the most chemically bioavailable (easily absorbed and used by the body).
It’s important to note that if you have a ragweed allergy, you may also be sensitive to echinacea — so if you feel any telltale allergy symptoms like itchiness, hives, or increased congestion, stop taking it immediately.
If you have an autoimmune disorder, skip echinacea.
Yes, ginger will soothe an upset stomach, but it’s also great for boosting your overall immunity during cold and flu season.
This versatile plant (which has been shown to be antimicrobial, antibiotic, and anti-inflammatory) lends its natural fire to many different uses — sip on a ginger tea, head to the juice bar for a fresh ginger shot if you’re feeling icky, or just add more ginger to your cooking.
It’s pretty safe when used in cooking and remedies, but pregnant people shouldn’t ingest more than 2 grams of dried ginger per day.
Garlic’s powers go well beyond making food taste delicious. It’s thought to stimulate the immune system and boost the efficacy of white blood cells, though studies are inconclusive.
Garlic is really easy to use — eat it every day to keep yourself feeling top notch. Up your garlic intake when you’re actually sick, too. Make a super garlick-y soup (don’t skimp on the bone broth, either), eat a couple of raw garlic cloves, roast a garlic bulb, or pack it into a jar of honey and let it sit for a few weeks to infuse.
Dietary doses of garlic are pretty safe. It would be difficult to take enough to harm you, but if you’re on anti-clotting medications, be cautious. (And brush your teeth if you find yourself going high on the hog with raw garlic, too!)
This intense liquid, sometimes also called the Master Tonic, is kitchen medicine at its best: an intense mixture of garlic, ginger, onion, horseradish and hot peppers (plus any number of other immune-boosting ingredients like turmeric, or tasty ones like lemon or rosemary) marinated in apple cider vinegar.
Fire cider gets its efficacy from the communal power of these sinus-clearing, warming, infection-fighting plants — plus an extra boost from the fermented ACV. And yes, this immune brew will burn (in a good way!) going down.
It’s ridiculously easy to make, so whip up a batch and toss it on your salad every night, sprinkle it on rice or quinoa, or take a shot when you feel a cold coming on. If handcrafting isn’t your jam, you should be able to find some from a local herbalist or at a natural food store.
Steer clear if you have GERD or a history of stomach ulcers.
You’ve probably heard this wellness world buzzword in the last few years — adaptogens — but may not be clear on what exactly it means.
Essentially, adaptogens are therapeutic herbs that support the body in combating and adapting to stress. They’re great to use for people who get sick often, says Corbett, or in times of heavy stress, travel, or extra exposure to pathogens (rather than for every day maintenance or prevention).
Ashwagandha, reishi (both of which stimulate your infection fighting lymphocytes, or white blood cells,) and holy basil (stimulates the immune system and also fights viruses) are all good choices for immune support, explains Corbett.
Buy reishi as a powder and mix it into anything you’re eating or drinking — it’s safe to take in small doses (like a scoop of powder or a squirt of tincture). Ditto for ashwagandha — although steer clear of ashwagandha if you’re taking thyroid hormones like Synthroid.
Holy basil can be made into an infusion and sweetened with honey (don’t take it if you’re pregnant, though, says Corbett). Research some other options, try a few, and see which ones work for you.
Corbett explains that many people think that herbal remedies don’t work, but that it’s often because they aren’t using enough.
One cup of your basic grocery store cold-fighting tea blend per day isn’t really going to do much to help your immune system flush out any offending bacteria, especially once you’re already showing symptoms.
If you want to get the benefits from a tea, you have to steep it longer and/or use more herbal material (read: 2 or 3 tea bags per cup, or load everything up in a French press and let it really brew for 30 or more minutes).
The same goes for tinctures — when suffering an acute condition, you need to be ingesting a full dropper (or whatever the guideline on the tincture bottle says) every few hours or so.
When in doubt about dosage (or even whether or not a certain herb will work with your body), consult a trained clinical herbalist, holistic physician, naturopath, or other trusted source regarding natural medicine.
And always see your healthcare provider or a pharmacist if you’re planning to mix plant medicine with prescription medication.
Above all, tune in to your body before, during, and after any seasonal illnesses, says Corbett. The best medicine for illness is prevention.
While healthy looks different for everyone, there are solid steps you can prioritize this time of year to fight off winter nasties from taking root. You know the drill: sleep, fresh foods when possible, exercise and/or spending time outside, and staying hydrated. And if the cold does creep in, you’ve got plenty of plant allies to help you out.
“No herb is a replacement for a healthy lifestyle,” says Corbett. “It can help, but it won’t fix you. Your body has a vital intelligence that is equipped to send you messages about what it needs. Listen to it.”
Carrie Murphy is a freelance health and wellness writer and certified birth doula in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Her work has appeared in or on ELLE, Women’s Health, Glamour, Parents, and other outlets.