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Vanquish Colds and Flus- by making your body stronger

If you’re one of the millions of people who enter the colder half of the year with the depressing certainty that you’ll have to live through the tedious misery of colds or flus, then this is the post for you.  Cold and flu season is a bonanza for anyone peddling remedies, and as you’ve probably noticed, very few of them do more than take the edge off of the worst symptoms for a few minutes to a few hours.

There is no magic pill, but the combination of ancient herbal and nutritional knowledge from traditions around the world can put a potent arsenal at your fingertips to defend the integrity of your immune system- and your first stop will be the grocery store, not the pharmacist.  We’ll walk you through immune-boosting first responses that will kill a cold or flu before it gets a grip on you, and what to do about the symptoms.

 

First Response

We cold sufferers all know the feeling, that first inkling that something is off inside.  Maybe it’s the beginnings of a sore throat, or a dripping nose, or chills, or just a general feeling of untimely fatigue.  Pay attention, because this is your body telling you that it needs help, and the sooner you shore up your immune system, the better off you’ll be.

General Immune Boosting- Herbs and Foods

The first line of attack when your immune system starts complaining is to boost it directly.

Garlic contains allicin, a natural antibiotic, and has immunostimulant properties.  This is the herb of first resort for many people when a cold comes on, usually paired with ginger, an immune system and respiratory system tonic.  Cinnamon  is a powerful immune booster, especially paired with honey.  Whenever I feel a hint of a cold, cinnamon tea is usually enough to knock it out  (you can buy cinnamon tea in bags, or make your own from cinnamon sticks- powdered cinnamon makes an unpalatable sludge).  Cloves are another helpful ingredient used with cinnamon in Ayurvedic medicine.

Echinecea, though well-known, is not a particularly powerful immune stimulant.  Astragalus is the best herb you can add to this array.  It is a powerful antiviral and immune booster used in Chinese medicine, usually paired with woad (isatidis), the plant used to make blue dyes in Europe for centuries.  Astragalus also helps the liver, which has work to do in any viral infection.  Astragalus is fine in tea, but woad is rather bitter and is better ingested in capsule form.  Reishi and Shiitake mushrooms are also key parts of the Asian antiviral and immune-boosting repertoire.

Next, you have to give your immune system all the support it needs by taking in micronutrients.  A number of herbs used in traditional medicine worldwide to treat colds and flus act by boosting Vitamin C and other micronutrients and thereby fortifying the immune system.  Citrus fruits, rosehip tea, quince tea, sea buckthorn juice and even white pine needle tea have been used this way.  Rosehips are also helpful for sinus conditions.  Closer to spring, birch sap is a traditional option.

Whenever immune-boosting foods are discussed, grapefruit gets mentioned.  It is a powerful support to the immune system and natural blood cleanser, but do not mix it with any pharmaceutical medication, and even be careful with some of the herbs listed here, as it magnifies the effect of many medications, often to the point of causing damage to the liver and kidneys.

One straightforward way of dealing with a cold is to make a soup that is as spicy as you can possibly stand.  Spices are your friend in cold season (notably cayenne pepper and the rest of the chilies, which all have immune-boosting properties).   Robyn Landis suggests a soup containing astragalus, a bulb of garlic, a large onion, a quarter cup of ginger, cayenne pepper, antioxidant vegetables such as broccoli, carrots, beets and shiitake mushrooms.  Believe me, no hostile living organism will survive the onslaught of this broth, and the moment you drink some, you’ll know why 🙂

Nutritional Habits

The moment you feel something coming on, stop eating junk.  As we’ve discussed in previous posts, when your immune system complains, get it off everything that’s harming it, especially refined sugar, unhelpful fats, processed foods and anything with the harmful chemical additives we’ve discussed before.  For colds, cutting dairy intake to zero early on is a very good idea, as it stimulates mucus production.  Reduce heavy foods like meat and cereals, and try to eat more fruits and vegetables.  The old saying “feed a cold, starve a fever” shouldn’t be taken literally- starve the cold too.  If you can fast totally, even just for a day, go ahead (this advice doesn’t apply if you’re the kind of person who undereats).  If not, reduce your food intake and focus on fruits and vegetables.

Above all, no alcohol, no sugar drinks, and especially none of that energy drink crap.  Yes, caffeine can relieve some cold symptoms temporarily, but in those doses, caffeine and other stimulants will devastate your immune system.  We have created a society that wants to extract every ounce of productivity from us 48 hours a day, but in this season above all, tell it to get stuffed and drink some nice green tea.  Drink plenty of tea and water to flush out your system.

Lifestyle

Stress is a big contributing factor in immune system breakdown.  A cold may be your body’s way of telling you to get some rest and relax.  Make time for it.  More to the point, if you’re under great mental stress, you’re practically inviting colds and flus.

Here’s a great video primer on how herbs can help you, by Dr. Robyn Benson:

Nuking the Symptoms by Supporting the Body

So, your cold or flu is already setting in.  If you’ve applied the first response techniques and they haven’t worked, it’s likely that you’ve either been taking poor care of your body for an extended period before that, or that your stress level is just too high.  In any case, now is the time to approach your symptoms systematically, which is largely done by supporting the parts of the body involved.  If you are a frequent sufferer of bad colds, get to know your typical symptoms and jump on them before they can take hold-  if you know that you’re going to start with a sore throat and that symptoms seem to migrate from there, start supporting your throat when the first symptoms appear.

 
Sinus, Cough, Nasal and Respiratory Symptoms

Ginger, specifically in dried and powdered form, is a useful expectorant for coughs.  Fenugreek, a popular ingredient in Indian cuisine, is another expectorant and an effective soothing agent for mucilaginous tissues.

Nettle leaf tea is a good lung tonic and antihistamine (freeze-dried products only), and no, there are no prickles involved.  Ephedra, used in the treatment of asthma, is a nasal decongenstant and bronchial dilator useful for acute respiratory symptoms, but should be used very conservatively.

Rose hips, as previously mentioned, support irritated sinus tissue, as do watercress and lemon grass.

For acute sinus pain, make a paste of powdered ginger and water or eucalyptus oil, and apply over the location of the pain.

Note that many of these remedies are available at your local grocery store, and others, such as nettles, are food sources that have fallen into disuse.

 Throat

Herbs for a sore throat can be broken down by their purpose.

Licorice and marshmallow were herbal remedies before they were candy, and both help to coat and soothe dry, itchy throats (no, eating the candy won’t help).  Turmeric is used in Ayurvedic medicine as an anti-inflammatory and antibacterial for sore throats.

Bee balm, garlic and ginger function as antimicrobials, attacking the germs- start them early.

Astringent sage and horehound close the mucus membranes against further infection (do not use at the dry stage of a sore throat), while calendula, burdock root and mullein stimulate the lymphatic system to help flush out the area.

For more information on the preparation and use of these herbs, see http://www.methowvalleyherbs.com/2011/10/herbal-remedies-for-sore-throat-part-3.html.

Licorice, marshmallow, burdock root and mullein would have been familiar ingredients to any chemist in the Western world less than a hundred years ago, before the onset of pharmaceutical medicine, while bee balm has been used to fight colds by Native North Americans for centuries.

Stomach

When nausea gets you down, there are a few herbs that can help.

Ginger is the classic for all forms of stomach upset, and Ayurvedic medicine would add cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, cardamom, garlic and onion (and hey, did you really expect Indians to leave out those two?).

Peppermint is also soothing for the stomach and can help with nausea.  Chamomile tea isn’t a bad idea either.

Cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and peppermint are all good digestive aids, and once upon a time, these herbs and spices showed up a great deal in Western European cuisine, at a time when European cuisine was actually rather spicy.  For a variety of reasons, they have become disused, and we’ve been missing this digestive tonic ever since.

Fever

Fever is a symptom that traditional medicine will tend to leave alone, on the grounds that your body is trying to heal itself.  Treatment is usually to induce sweating, to allow the body to flush out toxins.  If the fever lasts particularly long or is particularly high, you should consult a healthcare professional.

Headache

A frequent symptom of the flu, you can treat headaches with turmeric, white willow bark (natural precursor of aspirin) and peppermint oil, but most especially with water, rest and darkness.  There is no substitute for rest, and any attempt to keep working through a flu with the aid of pills simply leaves your immune system weaker when the next thing comes.

 Note on Lozenges and Cough Medicines:

Avoid if at all possible most commercial lozenges and liquids, particularly those with high sugar content.  If you find lozenges a necessity, try to find some with a useful herbal base.  A few local shops in North America will still supply the traditional horehound or licorice lozenges, and there are now a few mass-market herbal lozenges, though of varying usefulness and occasionally with pernicious immunodepressent ingredients such as sugar substitutes.

Cure Yourself at the Grocery Store

 You may have noticed by now that a large proportion of these recommendations have more to do with the grocery store than the pharmacist or even the herbalist.  No doubt there are many brilliant herbalists out there, and consulting one about any course of herbal treatment is a good idea.  But the fact is that colds are relatively easy to deal with, and your best defence is a judiciously-stocked larder and a healthy lifestyle.

~ Dr. Symeon Rodger




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