A Winter Herbal Almanac
With winter’s seemingly omnipresent cold and flu season upon us, it is in our best interest to be proactive and to start taking preventative measures.
The key to prevention is a strong immune system, which is the guardian of our body’s health. There are many things you can do to strengthen your body’s defenses against winter illnesses. Creating these healthy habits also contribute to overall health, can help slow aging, help prevent infections, degenerative diseases and cancer.
Colds and flus are caused by over 200 types of viruses that attach themselves to the cells lining the nasal passages and throat. Adequate hydration, especially during cold weather, keeps mucous membranes moist and healthy and enhances their natural resistance to harmful organisms. Keep humidity levels up to combat unhealthy dry air in your home. Water also flushes out toxins, transports oxygen, nutrients and immune enforcers to cells. Unsure of what your fluid intake should be? Take your weight in pounds and divide it in half. The resulting number is how many ounces of clean water you should be drinking per day.
Sleep deprivation and high stress levels can compromise immune function, so managing your stress and making sure you get adequate sleep (7 to 8 hours per night) will help keep your immune system functioning properly.
Good nutrition is of utmost importance. Avoid processed and fast foods composed primarily of anti-nutrients — foods that not only deplete nutrition in the body instead of adding it, but also add a burden of toxins that weakens immune function. Nutrition-rich organic whole foods are best. Eating lots of colorful fruits and vegetables will provide a healthful array of nutrients and antioxidants that keep the microbe-fighting peptides and killer cells strong and also provide protection from free-radicals that can damage the immune system. Vegetables rich in vitamin A and beta-carotene including carrots, sweet potato, pumpkins and winter squash are known to boost immune response. Root vegetables support the liver, which helps strengthen the immune system.
A healthy digestive system plays a vital role in a robust immune system. Making sure it is provided with healthy levels of probiotics is an important preventative measure. Research shows that a daily bowl of probiotic rich yogurt will increase your resistance to colds and flus by over 50%. Plain yogurt is best; add your own fruit, vanilla, and/or natural sweetener. Be aware that within a short period of time, after consuming sugars, your immune system is temporarily depressed. Using stevia, agave or brown rice syrups are better choices.
Herbs have been used since the beginning of time for our nourishment and healing. Nature provides us with the tools to help your body’s ability to strengthen and heal itself.
A step into the kitchen can yield a variety of these health-promoting herbs. Learning how to enhance your foods with culinary herbs can have a beneficial impact on your family’s health. Herbs not only provide us with an array of flavors, but can also nourish and help you stay healthy. Used regularly, culinary herbs and spices can help reduce inflammation, prevent colds and flus, aid digestion and circulation, lower blood pressure, boost immunity, and help prevent free-radical damage with their anti-oxidants. Here are some surprisingly high antioxidant levels of some common herbs. If the antioxidant value of vitamin E = 2: oregano = 29; spearmint, rosemary, lemon balm = 15; peppermint and sage = 12; savory and thyme = 10. So make sure you include these herbs wherever you can.
All the culinary herbs and spices have their own special nutrients and healing qualities. Using a variety is best. Here are some of my favorites:
Cayenne powder is one of the most incredible healing herbs! Cayenne fights infections and helps to flush toxins out of the body. It can rebuild health after an illness. It stimulates circulation, metabolism and digestion and can stop bleeding and help heal ulcers. It is very high in vitamins A and C, beta-carotene, lutein and quercetin.
Ginger adds a tasty spicyness to cooking. Not only does it warm the body, but it is also an antimicrobial, antispasmodic and expectorant. It increases circulation, metabolism, immunity and digestion. It is also a potent anti-inflammatory, especially when combined with turmeric. It is used for all kinds of nausea. My favorite way of using ginger is a fresh tea. Cut up one tablespoon of ginger root per cup of water. I often add cinnamon, a few cloves, and/or allspice to give it even more zing. Cover and simmer at least 20 minutes. I leave a pot going on our woodstove all day. You can add a squeeze of lemon and/or a dash of honey before drinking. This drink is a great preventative, and will also help break up mucous if you have already become sick. If not buying organic, it is important to know where your ginger is coming from; ginger from China often contains VERY high pesticide levels. Both cayenne and ginger added to other herbs will boost their effectiveness.
Garlic is one of the most powerful medicinal plants there is. It has antibiotic, antimicrobial properties that help the immune system combat bacterial and viral infections, and helps prevent secondary infections. It is effective in lowering the risk of heart disease and has anti-carcinogenic and anti-inflammatory properties. It boosts the immune system and protects the liver. For its antibiotic properties, raw garlic is best. To increase its active ingredient, allicin, chop finely and let sit 10 to 15 minutes before ingesting or adding last-minute to your favorite foods. Tip: For medicinal purposes, I add the minced garlic to a spoonful of vegetable juice and swallow without chewing. Then follow it with a cup of the juice. To avoid stomach upset, take raw garlic with food. Use caution if you are taking blood thinners.
Thyme is another potent antimicrobial. It is also a powerful antiseptic and antispasmodic. It can be added to foods for its immune enhancing qualities, and it helps to digest fats. The tea can be used for oral and respiratory infections, colds, coughs, bronchitis, pneumonia, sinusitis, and asthma. It relaxes the tissues of the lungs promoting the flow of mucous out of the body. The essential oil of thyme contains the most potency for these properties. It can be used in all aromatherapy applications, but is not to be ingested. A steam inhalation is a great treatment for a sinus infection.
Medicinal mushrooms such as shitake, maitake, reishi and turkey tails have potent healing properties and strengthen the immune system. Add shitake and maitake to your foods to add vitality and fight colds and flu. Reishi and turkey tails are more usually obtained in extracts and capsule form (as can also be found for shitake and maitake).
Cilantro revitalizes the body, helps indigestion and most importantly, helps the body detoxify heavy metals, especially mercury. It makes a great pesto to have with your fish dishes.
Turmeric helps build your body’s immunity by activating cellular defense mechanisms and genes that also help in cancer prevention. Turmeric contains very high antioxidant and potent anti-inflammatory agents.
Lemongrass is an aromatic grass family herb with a rich aromatic flavor used as a seasoning in soups, stir fries, curries, marinades and Thai dishes. It also possesses many medicinal properties such as being antimicrobial, antifungal, antiseptic, and antibacterial. It is soothing to the digestive system and helps digestion of fats. It makes a good house/tea plant for the winter (it can go out for the summer). Find a fresh stock of lemongrass sold at a health food store and place it in an inch of water until the roots sprout, then place it in organic potting soil. It likes it warm and sunny, but survives cooler and less sunny conditions for the winter. Snip leaves for a wonderful, fragrant and tasty tea; I add it to my green tea in the mornings.
Stock your shelves with lots of green and herbal teas. They will not only add their healing properties, but drinking hot fluids warms the throat and impairs viral replication. Green tea is full of protective antioxidants. Drinking it regularly can help strengthen the immune system, boost the heart’s resistance to cardiovascular diseases, detoxify the body and increase longevity. Buying organic is very important, as many pesticides have been found in conventionally grown tea crops.
Try some holy basil. It has powerful antioxidant, antibacterial, antifungal and anti-inflammatory properties. It can be used as a daily tonic, reducing stress, promoting inner calm and clarity, and a healthy immune system, balancing metabolism, and increasing physical stamina.
Mullein is an herb to add to your winter teas for its tonifying effect on the respiratory system. It will help break up mucous, opening and clearing the lungs. It will also soothe a dry hacking cough. An oil infused with the flowers is an effective treatment for earache/ear infections.
Elderberry is a great preventative and antiviral. It not only boosts the immune system, but also disarms viruses and prevents them from penetrating healthy cells and reproducing. Use it preventatively, at the onset of symptoms, or after the fact for a speedier recovery and prevention of secondary infections. If you get a head cold with sinus drainage, elderberry syrup can help prevent the virus from digging in and moving into your chest. The elderflowers also help with both achyness and congestion of colds and flus. This tea recipe is a good one for a head cold: Mix together equal parts by weight of elderflower, peppermint leaf, yarrow flower and ginger root. Infuse one heaping teaspoon per cup of water covered, for 20 minutes.
Eucalyptus is a powerful respiratory aid. It is used to prevent and/or to treat the symptoms of colds, flus and other respiratory problems. Leaves can be used in teas, baths and inhalations. I prefer to use the essential oil for an inhalant, placing a few drops on a tissue and inhaling deeply. The oil is a potent antiviral and antibacterial and helps clear sinuses and lungs, but it can also kill viruses trying to take hold. It is great for airline flights or anytime you’re around potential exposure to illness. Keep this oil away from eyes, and do not ingest.
Echinacea is a well-known and powerful immunostimulant and best taken at the onset of symptoms, or preventatively when you may have been exposed to a cold or virus.
An unfamiliar herb to most people, andrographis is an effective immune booster. It is antibacterial, antiviral, a cardio-protector and an expectorant. Its most powerful use has been for acute or chronic infectious diseases (including colds and flus) as it helps clear infection from the body. It is anti-inflammatory and enhances liver function. Most important, it is also an anti-spirochetal, being among the most potent herbs in the treatment of Lyme disease.
Milk thistle seed is an important herb to know about. It contains silymarin, which has the remarkable ability to protect and heal the liver. It also helps treat hepatitis and cirrhosis. Anyone who drinks alcohol, takes medication, or eats an unhealthy diet on a regular basis could benefit from milk thistle extract. The healthier the liver, the healthier the immune system.
The effectiveness of your herbs is only as good as their quality. Whether for culinary or medicinal use, choose organic and buy from a local grower or a high-volume distributor to assure the herbs are fresh and haven’t been sitting and deteriorating from age.
Deb Hayes is an herbalist, educator and in Monson, MA.