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Colds and flu are caused by viruses. These bugs cannot be killed by chemicals—not by pharmaceutical drugs, and not by herbal compounds. The only way to tame these microbes is to motivate the body’s own immune system.
Herbal regimens to fight infection include three fundamental steps. You must boot out the invader, nourish the tissue (in this case, the respiratory system) that allowed the infection to take root, and support your immune system to prevent a relapse. And herbs that help ease congestion, fever, cough, and other symptoms can help you feel better while your immune system flushes out the root of the problem.
Boot the Invader
If you feel those familiar cold and flu symptoms coming on, hit back hard with potent natural medicines and you can be back in the pink in 24 hours. But you have to give it all you’ve got.
Start with OSHA ROOT (Ligusticum porteri), a North American herb that’s widely regarded as a remedy for respiratory infections. Native to the higher altitudes of the Southwest and Rocky Mountain states, this popular medicine goes by many names, including bear root, mountain ginseng, mountain carrot, and even empress of the dark forest. One of the most widely used herbal medicines among Native American peoples, osha is a member of the parsley family, which also includes carrot and dill, and it shares the same characteristic long, thin, hollow stalk with large divided leaves. Today, herbalists of all schools often recommended osha root for use at the first sign of a respiratory infection.
Osha has a bitter taste, but the root has a numbing effect that soothes sore throats. It’s also an expectorant, earning it the moniker Colorado cough root. According to Michael Moore, an American herbalist who specialized in Western Native herbal medicine, osha is useful in treating head colds; early stages of tonsillitis; coughs; influenza with persistent coughing; dry, hot fevers; and acute bronchial pneumonia. And a 2016 petri dish study at Texas A & M University found osha to be a potential immune-modulating agent involving protective effects against oxidative damage. Osha can be given together with echinacea for elevated white blood cells from infection.
Osha is available as whole or powdered dried roots. Try chewing a walnut-sized piece of whole, dried osha root every 3–4 hours (but be warned that it has a strong, unusual taste). Osha powder in capsules doses out at 15 grams per day. For liquid preparations, follow label instructions for dosage. Do not use osha if you are pregnant or nursing, or if you have acute kidney inflammation.
Nourish your Respiratory System
Already sick but want to recover faster? Andrographis might be your remedy. This herb (Andrographis paniculata, leaf and root) is a very widely used medicine in both Ayurveda and Chinese herbalism. It’s a wild annual shrub found in the plains of Asia that is also cultivated in the gardens of North India, where it’s been a household remedy for many centuries. In Ayurveda, which calls it kalmegh (king of the bitters), andrographis is used for upper respiratory infections such as flu and bronchitis. Chinese herbalism utilizes andrographis to treat fever and headache associated with colds and flu, as well as tonsillitis, laryngopharyngitis, bronchitis, and general inflammation. Andrographis has been used for more than a dozen years in Scandinavia for reducing the symptoms and duration of colds.
At least 676 studies on andrographis have been published since the 1970s, including one from Chile that showed considerable benefits for people with colds. A group of 158 people took andrographis and measured their symptoms of headache, tiredness, earache, sleeplessness, sore throat, nasal secretion, phlegm, and frequency and intensity of cough. By the fourth day of treatment, participants noted significant decreases in the intensity of all symptoms.
A double-blind, placebo-controlled study performed in Sweden treated 50 patients who were in the early stages of a cold with an herbal preparation containing 85 mg of andrographis extract three times daily. After five days, 68 percent reported complete recovery, compared to only 36 percent of the placebo group. In the treated group, 55 percent called their colds unusually mild. These patients also took less sick leave from work.
A 2017 meta-analysis crunched the numbers on 33 different studies that followed a total of 71,715 patients, and concluded that andrographis “appears beneficial and safe for relieving acute respiratory tract infection symptoms and shortening time to symptom resolution.”
Avoid a Relapse
Still sick? A longer-term strategy may be in order. Chinese isatis root (Isatis tinctoria, also known as Ban Lan Gen), an herb in the cabbage family, is a broad-spectrum antimicrobial used primarily to reduce fever. Recent studies show that components from isatis are immunostimulating. A 2015 cell culture study published in the prestigious Journal of Ethnopharmacology found a constituent in isatis that also has antiflu virus properties.
You’ve probably heard of the popular astragalus root, which is known in Chinese herbalism as a warming herb. In contrast, isatidis is regarded as a cooling herb, so the two combine well to treat a wide range of physiological conditions. According to Chinese herbalists, astragalus and isatis both also fortify the lungs. Use a combination of the two, or isatis alone, at a total dose of about 20 grams per day, spread through the day. Both herbs are very safe.
LOMATIUM ROOT (Lomatium dissectum) is also worth considering. Once widely considered to be a powerful healing agent by Native Americans, it was used extensively to treat influenza. Recently, lomatium has had a bit of a Renaissance, used as a effective remedy in the treatment of upper respiratory tract infections—both viral and bacterial. Most people use lomatium in tincture at a dose of 60–90 drops, 3–4 times per day. Be aware that it can cause a measles-like rash in some people.
Get the Edge with Elderberry
Elderberry has proven to be a true superhero in the world of antiviral treatments. Research shows that black elderberry extract possesses potent immune-modulating and antioxidant properties thanks to its high flavonoid content.
But perhaps this herb’s greatest claim to fame is its ability to fight the flu. Studies show that elderberry flushes the virus out of the body by inducing both perspiration and bronchial secretions. And a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study of 60 flu patients jointly conducted by the University of Oslo and the National Institute of Public Health in Oslo, Norway, found that people taking elderberry extract got relief from their symptoms four days earlier than their placebo-taking counterparts.
Elderberry helps protect against the flu, too. In an in-vitro study, researchers at the Hadassah University Hospital in Jerusalem, Israel, investigated the effects of a proprietary black elderberry extract against 10 different strains of the influenza virus and found that it stopped all of the strains dead in their tracks by significantly boosting cytokine production. Cytokines are non-antibody proteins that trigger the immune response when they come in contact with a virus. And unlike pharmaceutical flu vaccines, elderberry stimulates the production of the immune system’s T-cells and blocks viral growth, making it effective against a wide range of influenza viruses.
But the benefits of black elderberries aren’t limited to the flu. One animal study published in the journal Planta Medica reported that the extract caused a beneficial shift in the immune response of mice exposed to parasitic infections like malaria. There is also some evidence that black elderberry extract reduces the symptoms of the common cold. Preliminary research suggests that the herb also boasts antimicrobial activity against both the gram-positive and gram-negative bacteria that causes many upper respiratory ailments.
TIck-Tock, Sick by the clock
When it comes to immunity, timing is everything. Recent research that appeared in the journal PNAS suggests that each cell in the body has its own mini biological clock that allows it to monitor how often it changes throughout the day. Since this could conceivably determine how successfully a virus replicates itself, people could be more susceptible to infections at specific times of the day or during certain seasons. That could explain why we are more prone to getting sick if we work the late shift or during the winter months.