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Herbs for Cold and Flu

Try these herbal home remedies for boosted immunity and a speedier recovery.

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You know the signs. Stuffy nose, backache, fever, crushing headache—all visited on you just to make you miserable when you can least afford to be knocked out. Welcome to the cold season. With a vengeance.

Influenza (the “flu”) and the common cold are viral diseases, and the only way to blast out these invaders is to boost the body’s own immune system to scarf up the bugs. Natural remedies do that well, but they don’t just help eject the uninvited guests. You can also use herbal remedies to help you make it through the symptoms while the immune system is doing its job by treating your aches and congestion.

At the first sign of trouble, jump into action with these get-well-quick solutions. Even if the symptoms are already threatening to ground you, get going with potent herbs to treat them aggressively, and you still stand a good chance of breathing free very soon.

Chinese astragalus root is a famed immune system support that’s mainly used long-term to prevent infection. During the flu season, use a few grams per day in tea. Astragalus can also be used for the acute symptoms of respiratory virus. Traditionally, it is indicated primarily for colds with symptoms of pale face and body aches, but will reduce symptoms in pretty much any case. The active ingredients include immune enhancing polysaccharides similar to those in echinacea and shiitake mushroom. Fortunately, the tea actually tastes good, so you can brew 30 grams of dry, sliced root and drink it through the day to knock down your symptoms.

Echinacea root is a widely used cold remedy, and proponents hold it in high regard. Scientific evidence appears to be ambiguous, but, in general, the results seem positive. Herbalists say that the key is to use a quality, active preparation in a high enough dose.

A study in the journal Pharmacotherapy took a look at the collection of existing scientific literature on echinacea. The merged data from 12 clinical studies concluded that echinacea was useful in treating the common cold. Three other studies concluded that it was effective in reducing the frequency, duration and severity of common cold symptoms. Another journal stated, “The majority of the available studies report positive results.”

A German experiment found a benefit in an echinacea combination formula. Participants took the echinacea preparation three times a day for 7 to 9 days and documented their cold symptoms. Patients with at least moderate symptom intensity showed responses of 55.3% in the herbal remedy group, compared to only 27.3% in the placebo group. Starting the herb earlier helped. A rigorous study from Sweden reported that a large dose, high concentration preparation significantly reduced cold symptom severity. Participants took the echinacea daily after onset of symptoms, and were advised to continue until they “felt healthy” (for up to 7 days). Most herbalists would say that this could be crucial for success. At the first sign of respiratory symptoms, take 1-3 ml of tincture each half hour until well.

Andrographis (leaf and root) is very widely used in Asia. It has recently become popular in Scandinavia, where it has been used for 20 years for reducing the symptoms and duration of colds.

In 2010, Indian scientists studied andrographis for upper respiratory infection. In a double blind procedure, a total of
223 patients received either andrographis extract or placebo, and self-evaluated cough, expectoration, nasal discharge, headache, fever, sore throat, earache, malaise, fatigue, and sleep disturbance symptoms. By the fifth day, the herb brought about significantly reduced symptoms. The efficacy of the herb was 52.7% higher than placebo. Take 10-15 grams per day, in capsules, when a cold is raging.

The popular Chinese formula Yin Chiao is the ultimate Chinese Grandma remedy. A combination that includes honeysuckle flower for acute fever and sore throat, it is the “go to” folk medicine for the sniffles. Use it for the first hours to two days of superficial cold symptoms (initial aches, stiff neck and clear, watery phlegm), before they settle in. This cooling remedy also strengthens the lungs and relieves fever. Take about 6 grams per day, in tablets, until the symptoms cease.

Traditional herbal systems often treat upper respiratory infections with spicy red pepper, lemongrass, or ginger. In fact, any food spicy enough to make your eyes water will drain your sinuses and ease your symptoms.

Along the same lines, herbalists value diaphoretics (which induce perspiration) for treating colds. Hot peppermint or cinnamon teas are classic examples. You can reduce fever and inflammation with cooling diaphoretics, such as chrysanthemum flower and honeysuckle flower, which are also strongly antimicrobial. Elder flower, yarrow flower and boneset leaf are Western diaphoretics. Try them in teas. Drinking plenty of liquid is one of the best things you can do for a cold, so drink in some herbal tea relief.

Karta Purkh Singh Khalsa is the national president of the American Herbalists Guild.