Q: I get sick every winter with a cold or flu. Why is this, and what herbs should I take to avoid it?
—Sue P., La Mirada, Calif.
A: It’s true that we’re simply more vulnerable to contagious illness during the colder days and longer nights of winter. Cold winds can literally drive pathogens into your system, so bundle up. Warm hats, scarves, and gloves can really help, and so can warming herbs such as ginger, cumin, cinnamon, and the whole range of peppers (cayenne, paprika, etc.). I love fresh, hot lemonade with ginger and a tiny pinch of cayenne as a winter tonic.
Bitters Boost Immune Health
Keeping your gut and your immune system in top shape can also help ward off winter woes. My favorite plant medicines for a healthy digestive tract are “bitters.” These potent herbs stimulate digestive secretions, thus enhancing the breakdown of food into fundamental units (amino acids, simple sugars, and essential fatty acids) to allow for optimal absorption. A classic bitters formula would contain about 50 percent gentian (Gentiana lutea), which works by directly stimulating the production of saliva and gastric juices. Even small doses gently stimulate peristalsis (rhythmic contraction of the colon to trigger evacuation of the previous meal’s waste) without speeding up the passage of food through the tract.
In addition to gentian, a good bitters formula might contain about 20 percent anise (Pimpinella anisum) and 20 percent ginger (Zingiber officinale). For a sweeter bitter, fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) is a good addition. And if your GI tract is irritated, add slippery elm (Ulmus rubra). Take one dropperful or about 1/2 tsp. before all main meals.
Top Antiviral Herbs
Some of my favorite immune support herbs contain antivirals, because viral illness is so prevalent and difficult to treat. Viruses get inside our cells and can mess with DNA and mitochondrial functions (where our energy is produced). An antiviral/immune tonic might contain echinacea, St. John’s wort, osha, cedar leaf (Thuja occidentalis), and paracress (Spilanthes acmella), a lesser-known, but potent, antiviral herb. Look for equal parts in a tincture or glycerite, and take 2 tsp. daily for health maintenance or 2 Tbs. twice daily for acute viral illness.
A lesser-known, but potent, antiviral herb, paracress is a key ingredient in immune tonics.
Best Herbs by Blood Type
Therapeutic herbs that can be made into beverages or incorporated into cooking will go a long way to keeping you free of colds, flu, and aches this winter. For blood type O, sea veggies are particularly beneficial— for both their mineral content and their ability to bind lectins (especially wheat and other grain lectins, which tend to drag down the O immune system). Dulse is a superfood for type Os. You can often find it pulverized in a shaker jar all ready to sprinkle on all your savory meals or even at the top of a smoothie. Carob and curry are also beneficial condiments for Os.
Blood type As can trend a bit nervous and tend to have low stomach acid, so eating slowly and chewing your food well is essential. Herbal medicines to help type As manage day-to-day stress include Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus), ashwagandha (Withania somnifera), holy basil (Ocimum sanctum), and ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba). Explore these herbal medicines in tea or tinctures and find one, or a combination, that works for you. Type As also benefit greatly from green tea (don’t overbrew, 30–60 seconds max) and aloe juice. Both will soothe the intestinal tract and help prevent potential infections from getting deeper into the body.
Blood type Bs tend to internalize stress and can benefit from long-term strategies to reduce a tendency to produce high cortisol levels. Like As, they benefit from adaptogens such as ginseng, ashwagandha, and holy basil. Licorice is a wonderful herbal medicine and adrenal support for type Bs, who also benefit from Bacopa monniera leaf extract, which provides antioxidant support for the brain and nervous system.
Neurochemical balance for type ABs (the most modern blood type) is enhanced by rhodiola species readily found in capsule form, and B vitamins (especially important for vegetarian ABs), including folate (not the synthetic folic acid). Kitchen medicine for ABs includes curry and parsley.
Use Herbs Long-Term
All blood types can benefit from using herbal medicines regularly. The longer you take herbal medicine, the more it will protect your immune and nervous systems. Medicinal mushrooms are highly beneficial, especially as water (not alcohol) extracts: cordyceps, reishi, maitake, and turkey tail have been shown to improve NK (natural killer cell) function.
My all-time favorite herbal medicines for long-term use (teas, tinctures, or glycerites) remain ginseng, astragalus, licorice, and echinacea. One caveat: Echinacea isn’t great for blood type Os. If you have type O blood, opt for larch arabinogalactan as your go-to immune tonic instead.
If you are using an herbal medicine to prevent illness, or maintain health, use as directed. If you’re treating an illness, double the suggested dose for 3–10 days until resolution. While herbal medicines may take a bit longer than pharmaceuticals to manifest results (maybe 10–14 days of taking 1 tsp. of tincture or 1 cup strong tea daily), they don’t produce the unwanted side effects commonly associated with drugs.
The effects of herbal medicines build up over time, so the longer you take them, the better they work.