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With winter comes a rise in common infectious illnesses such as colds and flu. Stay healthy this season by keeping your immune system strong. Keep reading to learn about six immune-boosting herbs and how to use them.
During the winter months, you may notice an increase in common illnesses such as the flu, and cold-like symptoms, including respiratory infections, strep throat, congestion, and fevers that may be related to a weakened immune system.
Nourishing your body with immune-boosting foods, getting plenty of sleep and rest, and adding in some immune-boosting herbs are essential ways to keep you and your body feeling healthy and strong while reducing your chances of getting sick.
There is a growing body of scientific research supporting the benefits of some of the most popular herbal remedies that have been used for thousands of years. Herbs aren’t only useful for cooking your winter savory stews. Many of these winter herbs can help you fight off common wintertime colds and flus, decrease your symptoms, and even shorten the duration of an illness altogether.
Perennial herbs such as thyme, rosemary, or lemon balm are widely known and used, but other varieties of herbs have been proven to be especially useful for the immune system. And, as an added bonus, many of these garden herbs are easy to grow in your own backyard!
Keep reading to learn some of the most effective immune-boosting herbal remedies, as well as some of the best options for how to use them. Be sure to check with your health care practitioner to ensure that these options are appropriate for you.
Echinacea is not a single herb but is actually a genus, or category, of nine herbaceous flowering plants that are commonly called coneflowers and are native to North America. The different species of echinacea, as well as their different parts (flower, roots, and extracts), have different uses and varying benefits. Three species of Echinacea— E. purpurea, E. angustifolia, and E. pallida—have been used for centuries by indigenous people of North America to treat respiratory tract infections, the common cold, coughs, bronchitis, and other illnesses. Studies have found that when used swiftly after the onset of cold or upper respiratory symptoms, some kinds of echinacea extracts can help decrease the duration and severity of those symptoms.
Echinacea also has anti-inflammatory properties, as well as antiviral and antimicrobial effects. One study showed that some forms of echinacea extracts can be beneficial in the treatment of viral respiratory infections (including a Tamiflu-resistant strain).
Echinacea also contains antioxidants, making it a powerful, protective, and strengthening remedy to include in your healing kit of cold and flu remedies.
Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis) is a popular natural remedy found in most holistic pharmacies, apothecaries, and health food stores. European settlers learned of goldenseal from Native American tribes, who used it for the treatment of gastrointestinal (GI) issues, inflammation, urinary tract infections, and other infections.
Goldenseal has also traditionally been used as an expectorant for common respiratory infections such as pneumonia and whooping cough.
Try goldenseal as a tincture, tea, powder, or capsule. As always, be sure to check with your doctor or health care practitioner to ensure that goldenseal is a good option for you.
3. Osha Root
Osha root (Ligusticum porteri) is a gnarled, dark-brown root that comes with a strong earthy, medicinal scent. It grows in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado and New Mexico and has been used by Native Americans for many different symptoms and ailments. Fresh osha root was traditionally used by the Apache in ceremonial tobacco blends, as well as to soothe the throat and lungs, and to loosen phlegm in the chest. Osha root is commonly used to treat sore throat, flu, bronchitis, pneumonia, the common cold, and other conditions.
Once prepared, osha has a strong and spicy flavor that, when brewed into a tea, warms and soothes the throat as it goes down. One study has found evidence that osha root may strengthen immunity while also protecting against oxidative damage to cells.
Try boiling chopped and washed osha root into a soothing tea. You can also take osha root in a capsule, or use it cured in a tincture.
In 400 BCE, the Greek physician Hippocrates described the elderberry tree as his “medicine chest.” Many classical healers of this time considered the elderberry to be one of the most healing plants found in nature. Long before modern antibiotics were available, healers considered fresh elderberry an integral ingredient in any cold or flu remedy.
The dark purple berry known as elderberry (Sambucus nigra L.) is known for its immune-boosting benefits. Research has found that elderberry can significantly reduce the duration and severity of cold symptoms. Additionally, one study concluded that elderberry has antiviral properties, which can make it a beneficial addition to your cold and flu protocol. This study also found that those participants who took elderberry experienced a significant reduction in the duration of their flu symptoms.
Try elderberry in a capsule, in a tea, in a syrup, or in a tincture.
You may think of oregano simply as one of the herbs you use to flavor your spaghetti and pizza sauce or marinade meat dishes, but did you know that oregano is also a powerhouse immune booster?
Oregano contains potent essential oils, which are known for their antimicrobial, antiviral, and antifungal properties. One study found that oregano oil is effective in fighting clinical strains of E. coli and P. aeruginosa bacteria, supporting the use of oregano oil in treating bacterial infections.
The essential oil of oregano is most safely taken in a capsule, as the flavor is intense. When taken straight, one drop (even in water) may burn the back of your throat as the oil goes down. As with any essential oil, do not ingest directly. Try using one to two drops in a large pot of soup or stew for delicious flavor and an immunity strengthener. Alternatively, take oregano essential oil as a capsule or diffuse in an aromatherapy diffuser.
Astragalus, a member of the legume family, was originally grown in Asia and is used in Traditional Chinese Medicine. There are many astragalus species (approximately 2,000 to 3,000). This primary medicinal species most often used is called astragalus membranaceus.
Astragalus is rich in saponins, a class of chemical compounds found in many plants, which are known for their positive effect on the immune system. Research suggests that astragalus increases immune response in white blood cells.
Astragalus is most often administered as a tincture, capsule, or in whole, dried slices of root that can be added to soups or teas.
How to Take These Herbs
The three primary ways to take the aforementioned roots and herbs are in the form of a brew, tincture, or distillation.
- Brew: Always choose high-quality, fresh herbs whenever possible. Use the leaves, flowers, or finely chopped stems and roots. Use a ratio of one tablespoon of herbs to approximately one cup of water. Place the herbs and water in a covered pot and bring to a simmer.
To steep a strong herbal infusion, keep the lid on while simmering, stirring the herbs frequently. Steep medicinal herbs for approximately 15–20 minutes. Strain well and drink. Store herbal tea in a glass jar in the refrigerator. For optimal potency, keep the herbal infusion for no more than 24 hours.
- Tincture: To make a tincture, the herbs are soaked in either alcohol or glycerin for a number of weeks to extract the active components of the fresh herbs. Tinctures can include various cuttings from the plants (roots, stems, flowers) and are usually taken orally under the tongue by using a dropper.
Most health food stores, herbal apothecaries, and natural pharmacies carry wide varieties of tinctures for various medicinal needs. Many tinctures are also available online for purchase. Tinctures are not regulated by the FDA.
- Distillation: An essential oil is the oil of a plant, distilled down into a concentrated oil that is extremely potent. Most essential oils are extracted by distilling a plant’s oils using steam. Essential oils are most often diffused or applied to the skin using a carrier oil, or ingested (though not oils are safe to ingest).
When using essential oils, always start with small amounts to ensure you do not ingest or apply too much at once, which can lead to skin irritation or allergies. Try adding essential oils to a carrier oil (such as coconut oil) before applying directly to the skin.
Most of these herbs are easy to grow in your own backyard, which is why cultivating your own herb garden can be very beneficial. By growing herbs yourself, you can rely on having fresh herbs when cooking soups and stews, as well as herbal remedies for preventive health care and when you’re under the weather. The ones listed above are just a few options - there are so many other herbs you can also grow in your own backyard or windowsill
Many of today’s popular herbal remedies have been used for centuries to boost immunity, diminish symptoms and duration of colds and flus, and keep the body in an optimal state of health and well-being. Exploring what works best for you and your family while gathering what you will need to do so, can have a powerful impact on how you get through the most immune-challenging time of the year.
*Editor’s Note: The information in this article is intended for your educational use only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition and before undertaking any diet, supplement, fitness, or other health programs.