Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth nutrition, fitness and adventure courses, and more than 2,000 instructional videos when you sign up for Outside+..
When coworkers, family members, or fellow air travelers are coughing, sniffling, and sneezing, herbs can help you stay healthy or speed up recovery, says David Winston, RH (AHG), a registered herbalist and professional member of the American Herbalists Guild. In clinical practice for over 34 years, Winston is an herbal consultant to physicians, herbalists, and researchers throughout the United States and Canada, as well as the author of Adaptogens: Herbs for Strength, Stamina, and Stress Relief.
To help you use herbs effectively this cold-and-flu season, Winston explains why his top three choices are andrographis, echinacea, and elderberry. All are supported by research as well as clinical experience. And, he says, “They can be used to help prevent disease, treat disease, and help people live healthier lives.”
Related: 10 Ways to Flourish in the Winter
Also labeled as Andrographis paniculata, this is the strongest of the three, and has been used for thousands of years in both traditional Chinese and ayurvedic medicine. Andrographis finds and kills harmful bacteria and viruses without destroying beneficial bacteria such as probiotics. It also stimulates certain types of immune cells that destroy foreign invaders.
It doesn’t aggravate autoimmune conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis or multiple sclerosis, but isn’t recommended during pregnancy.
Among the three most popular types of echinacea, Winston recommends taking the strongest, Echinacea angustifolia, alone or in combination with Echinacea purpurea and/or Echinacea pallida. Like andrographis, echinacea stimulates the immune system, but in a different way. The key when taking echinacea is to make sure that you get the correct dose. “There are good German studies,” says Winston, “showing that if you drop below a certain threshold of the dose, it just doesn’t work.” In rare cases, echinacea has aggravated autoimmune conditions.
The gentlest of the three herbs, elderberry (specifically Sambucol) has been shown in studies to speed recovery from flu. It can also be used to both prevent and treat colds and flu. It stops viruses from replicating and reduces inflammation and histamine production, helping to prevent allergies that can develop into sinus infections.
How They Compare
Andrographis kills bacteria and viruses, whereas echinacea gives the immune system a stronger boost. Either one can be taken alone, but when taken together they enhance each other’s benefits. Elderberry is the gentlest and has the most pleasant taste. For the most powerful flu treatment, use it in combination with the other two herbs.
Based on animal research that showed some anti-fertility action with andrographis, it’s not recommended for pregnant women, but echinacea and elderberry are safe. For women who are trying to conceive, andrographis can be taken for a few days to get over a cold, but is not recommended for ongoing use. Children can take any of the three herbs, but often prefer the taste of elderberry.
Related: Boost Your Immunity
If you take blood thinners, or have questions about possible interactions between herbs and other medicines, consult a physician who is trained in herbal medicine.
As a general rule, Winston recommends using daily dosages on product labels for prevention, and doubling those amounts for treating colds or flu. Average doses are typically calculated for a 150-pound person, so they should be adjusted in proportion to body weight of an adult or child. For example: you would use two-thirds of the dose for a 100-pound person or double the dose for someone who weighs 300 pounds.
When using tinctures, which are well absorbed, take the low end of these doses for prevention, and the high end for treatment:
- Andrographis: 1-2 droppers, 3-6 times per day. Its bitter taste can be masked by sipping a mouthful of water or juice (tomato juice and grape juice work especially well), then squirting the andrographis into your mouth and swallowing the combination together.
- Echinacea: 2-3 droppers, 4-8 times per day.
- Elderberry: 2-4 droppers, 2-4 times per day.