Herbs to help you breeze through cold season: Home Medicine Cycle 28

In many places winter is already coming on. The weather is wet, cold and grayish. The season brings plenty of physical problems - from driving conditions to cutting wood - and then there is the chaos around family holidays. The last thing you need is a cold. 

It may not be the worst illness to have, but unlike a lot of illnesses you usually don't get to stay home in bed and watch reruns when you have a cold. You just feel worse, have less energy and have to deal with a runny nose, headaches, a sore throat and some coughing, while doing all the other things you normally do.  That make colds highly unpleasant and the lack of rest makes them hang on for weeks sometimes. 

One of the first things to do in cold season is to make sure you're getting enough rest and fresh air. Both will help to prevent and cure colds. Rest is the most important component of any strategy to boost your immune system and fresh outside air doesn't carry viruses as well as the air in buildings full of people. If the weather is actually freezing, your risk of catching a cold can go way down if you bundle up warmly and spend at least an hour outside each day. Viruses don't do well with frost. 

That said many of us live in climates where several months out of the year are more dank, cold and rainy than frosty and viruses love this weather. Beyond that, if you work or study in a crowded environment, your immune system would have to be spectacular to avoid the latest cold virus going around. So the chances are that most of us will get a cold at some point. 

Image by Arie Farnam

Image by Arie Farnam

If you use pharmaceuticals to beat back the symptoms you will often prolong the cold and while your nose may not run, you will still have less energy. That will often cause you to drink more caffeinated drinks and that will disturb your sleep. And less sleep will mean more colds.

Beyond that, synthetic medicines often suppress the immune system over the long term and have other systemic side effects that aren't listed officially because they are caused by the overall intake of pharmaceuticals rather than by one specific drug. Colds are one area in which you can use herbs very effectively and thus reduce the need for harmful pharmaceuticals. 

Here are the basic steps to using herbs to deal with colds:

Prevention

The primary preventative herb today is still Echinacea. It stimulates white blood cells, which make up the best-understood part of the immune system. It also includes virus-fighting substances and boosts the ability of immune cells to engulf and destroy invaders. 

There is controversy in medical circles about Echinacea largely because there have been some studies conducted using commercially available pellets of freeze-dried Echinacea juice, which showed that the pellets were not very effective in preventing colds. There are studies showing the effectiveness of Echinacea in other forms, however. I took those freeze-dried pellets for a few years because I was traveling and I hoped to get some herbal medicine even when I couldn't grow my own or brew concoctions. And I have to say that I didn't notice any dramatic effect by taking the expensive Echinacea pills. Combine that with the problem that many commercially available Echinacea "supplements" contain only a tiny percentage of actual Echinacea (and sometimes none at all) when they are subjected to lab tests and you could become very skeptical about this herb.

However, none of these facts have any real bearing on the herb itself. Poor use of an herb doesn't make the herb itself ineffective. 

Image by Arie Farnam

Image by Arie Farnam

The best way to use Echinacea is to grow your own or find a local supplier of fresh or freshly dried herbs. Then use dried Echinacea flowers (stored in an air-tight, non-metallic container) as a cold prevention tea for children and adults. It has a very pleasant, almost spicy taste reminiscent of the smell of bee hives.

For adults, Echinacea tincture is also excellent. It's best taken as needed the moment you notice a tingling of a cold in your throat or nose. I personally prefer Echinacea flower tincture and have found it most effective in cold prevention. If I can take a large spoonful of Echinacea flower tincture within an hour or two of the first signs of a cold or when other people around me have colds, I almost never end up with a real cold and if I don't take it my immunity to colds is not very good.  Here is a basic recipe for tincture.

I have read that many herbalists prefer Echinacea root tincture. However, in order to make a tincture with enough potency they must use several batches of Echinacea root for each batch of alcohol. This means soaking finely chopped roots in alcohol, then straining the alcohol after a few weeks and pouring it over another bunch of roots for several more weeks and repeating the process at least three times. The process is complicated but the results may be even better than Echinacea flower tincture. 

Echinacea works best if taken at specific times when immune support is needed. The immune system may become too accustomed to that support if it' s taken constantly. I use Echinacea flower tea when flu and cold season is in full swing on a regular basis and take Echinacea tincture as needed within hours when I can feel something coming on.

Treatment 

Even herbs don't provide an actual cure for colds. Once you have a cold, rest is the closest thing to a cure and often rest is hard to come by. Most herbs for colds treat specific symptoms and you can choose the best ones based on the symptoms you have. Treating symptoms is far from useless when it comes to curing a cold because many cold systems will interrupt your sleep and sleep is key.

Image by Arie Farnam

Image by Arie Farnam

One general anti-viral herb to take after a cold has set in is St. John's wart. St. John's wart helps to fight a wide range of viruses and it gives the body energy needed in fighting an infection.

There is a myth that one should stop taking Echinacea once a cold has set in. I have found that this is bad advice. First of all your immune system doesn't just prevent infections, it also fights ongoing infections. So, the need for the immune support of Echinacea doesn't end simply because the cold temporarily got the upper hand. I have also experienced long-term colds and coughs that hung on tenaciously and would only recede when i took Echinacea tincture each day and for several days AFTER the symptoms disappeared. I stopped several times once the symptoms had disappeared and the infection returned, until I had the discipline to continue taking Echinacea tincture daily until about a week after the symptoms had cleared up. This has happened to me enough times that I consider it to be a pattern.

Herbs high in vitamin C are also good for general treatment. Rose hip tea and even more so buck thorn syrup  contain vitamin C (as does homemade sauerkraut).

Treating congestion

Now we get into the nitty gritty of treating specific symptoms.

One of the best herbs for treating the congestion that comes with a common cold is elder, particularly the flowers. My family uses dried elder flowers for tea (which is quite pleasant). And the adults use elder flower tincture as a powerful decongestant. If you do have to continue working when you have a cold, elder flower tincture is essential. It will clear out congestion as effectively as many pharmaceutical cold medicines but without the negative health effects associated with those. 

If you don't pick all the elder flowers off of your local elder bushes in June, you can also make a syrup from the elder berries themselves. This contains many of the properties of the flowers plus vitamins that are helpful for recovering from colds.

Another way to deal with stubborn congestion is to put a drop of thyme or eucalyptus essential oil and a few table spoons of salt into a bowl of hot water and breathe in the steam from it. You can put a towel over your head to catch the steam and clear out built up congestion that keeps the infection inside and interferes with rest.

Treating sore throats 

Lemon balm leaves and linden flowers are both excellent for treating sore throats. Lemon balm has been recently found to specifically fight the bacteria that cause strep throat. This is essential when you have a cold because while a cold is minor by itself it will often weaken the body and allow a bacterial infection to set in. I drink lemon balm even if I don't have a sore throat with a cold in order to prevent strep. Making lemon balm syrup (with this recipe) is one excellent way to combat sore throats.

Raw honey is also good for a sore throat. Gargling with salt water or a bit of propolis tincture diluted in water are also useful methods. You can even chew a piece of propolis if you don't have propolis tincture although it will temporarily stain your teeth bright yellow. 

Treating coughs

I covered the treatment of coughs in another post which you can find here. In brief, the best herbs I have found for coughs are thyme, mullein, marshmallow, longwort and plantain. 

I love hearing about your experiences with herbs. Let's have some discussion on what really works in the comments section below.

The easiest herbal syrup recipe: Home Medicine Cycle 27

It can be tough to get kids to take herbal medicine, especially if they haven't been brought up with it from day one. Herbs have taste and herbal medicines often retain a bit of earthy sediment. They are natural after all and today's kids are used to candy that looks like it's made of plastic, as well as food items that have been shaped, pressed and specifically colorized to look synthetic. 

Creative Commons image by  Susy Morris    

Creative Commons image by Susy Morris

 

Add to that the problems of rendering alcoholic tincture safe for kids to consume and the homecrafting herbalist parent has a lot of technical issues to deal with. 

One of the best tools for conquering these problems is herbal syrup. It's sweet and with proper straining it can be sediment free and have a texture that kids associate with commercial medicine and candy. It is often dark brown or black in color, which can be an issue until they've tried the first taste. But once a child is convinced that "black honey" is like caramel, the struggles over medicine will dissipate. 

The other good thing about making herbal syrup is that it is simple and relatively forgiving of the novice. For one thing, you can safely start with either fresh or dried herbs, which means you can make a fresh batch of syrup at various times of the year. Here's how to go about it:

Creative Commons image by  Angelina Earley    

Creative Commons image by Angelina Earley

 

  • Find a source of good-quality honey. Organic honey is good if you can get it, but the primary issue is to make sure that the honey does not include added sugar syrup, which many brands of honey purchased in grocery stores do. The easiest way to make sure your honey is good is to find local beekeepers and buy their honey. It may be a bit more expensive, but beekeeping is so crucial to your local environment that it this is one cost that is well worth it, even if your resources are limited.
  • Obtain fresh or dried herbs. The most basic syrup can be made with plantain, which is found in many lawns, and it is excellent for sore throats, upset stomachs and coughs and will cover a wide variety of children's health problems safely and without a battle. Other common herbs for syrups include lemon balm, mullein leaf, marshmallow flowers and thyme. Lemon balm is good for sore throats, anxiety and hyperactivity, and the other herbs are all specific to coughs and bronchitis. If possible grow your own herbs, even if it's just in a pot on the window sill. If not, gather them in wild places or get to know an herbalist and make sure that the herbs you get are no more than a few months old and stored carefully.
  • Now you're ready to make syrup. Pour a cup of boiling water over a double handful of your chosen herbs in a small saucepan (use enamel if possible or second-best stainless steel, as many medicinal compounds react with metals and lose potency). Add more herbs if they will fit and still be covered by the water. 
  • Simmer for 5 minutes.
  • Strain the herbs out of the water. What you have now is a strong infusion. 
  • Measure your infusion with a cup (as some of the liquid will have evaporated) and add an equal amount of honey.
  • Set your stove on a very low heat and simmer the syrup until all the water has evaporated. The time involved will depend on how hot your stove is. If you keep it at a regular simmer, you will have to stand over it and stir to ensure that your honey doesn't burn or boil over. And then you may be able to evaporate the water in just a half an hour. If you can set your stove to a very low heat, however, it may take hours to evaporate the water but require little supervision. 
  • Don't boil the syrup too long or too vigorously. Not only will this reduce the potency of some herbs. At times I have also accidentally turned the syrup into candy, which would be okay, except that I poured it into a jar and then couldn't get the resultant mass of hard candy out of the jar once it cooled. If you do boil the syrup more vigorously, you can then drop it into greased molds and have candy of various consistencies. I prefer to simmer at a lower heat in order to retain as much of the herbal potency as possible.

A syrup that is about the same thickness as honey is ideal and primarily depends on how long you are willing to evaporate the water. The infusion of herbs will then be left in the honey, usually turning the honey a rich dark color. You should store this syrup in the refrigerator, but it can then last many months if properly evaporated. Both children and adults will enjoy it.

Be sure to share this simple recipe with your friends. It is one that even those without much herbalist experience can use to good effect and get a little of the earthy goodness of herbs to counterbalance pharmaceuticals and processed foods. Drop me a line in the comments below if you have any ideas or questions about this. Thanks!

The season of coughs looms but the herb cupboard is well-stocked: Home Medicine Cycle 25

Whether you've been busily flitting from wildflower to wildflower this past summer to gather your herbs or you are looking for a good local supplier of freshly dried and tinctured herbs, this is the time of year to take stock of your herbal supplies. The season of colds, coughs and flu brings infections, seasonal light deprivation, slumps in immune function and other problems that modern medicine has difficulty solving is at hand. 

Wild thyme - Creative Commons image by Summi of German Wikipedia

Wild thyme - Creative Commons image by Summi of German Wikipedia

I dread taking my kids to a doctor for a checkup at this time of year because we're sure to catch something in the waiting room. And if someone in our family is sick with a viral infection, we're much better off staying home to rest with a cup of tea than we would be exposing ourselves (and others) to more problematic infections. As hard as doctors and nurses try (and they do try mightily) to combat bacteria, serious infections from antibiotic resistant bacteria are widespread in hospitals and spreading to all types of medical facilities. When you are already weakened by a virus, your chances of contracting a life-threatening resistant bacterial infection are higher.

As much as I love having a good doctor nearby, I would rather chat with her in line at the grocery story than visit her office. And one of the most important ways to avoid that office at this time of year is to know how to handle a cough on your own. Here are my tips:

Know your cough

There are two basic types of cough--a productive cough (where you are actually coughing up mucous) and a dry cough.  And these different types need different approaches. While most of the pharmaceuticals sold over the counter attempt to suppress a cough at all costs, this can actually lead to worse infection and often simply doesn't work. With a productive cough, you don't need to be hacking and coughing all the time to get the troublesome mucous out. If you can loosen up the mucous a productive cough doesn't have to be a too unpleasant or last more than a few days.

In these posts, I try to stay away from terms that aren't clear to lay people, but there are two herbalist terms that are really worth learning. The first is "expectorant." An herb or a chemical compound that is an expectorant has the property of helping to loosen mucous and make it easier to cough out. You may feel like your cough is suppressed after taking an expectorant herb because you will not have to cough so many times in order to release the mucus, but in reality this type of herb does nothing to suppress a cough. It does, however, make it easier to breathe, prevent further infection, hasten the end of the cough and often reduce the frequency of coughing.

Herbs for a phlegmy, mucousy cough: 

  • Mullein leaf (good as tincture, syrup and tea and it's soothing as well)
  • Thyme (my all-time favorite--makes a delicious tea and a good tincture as well)
  • Ginger (a tasty and helpful addition to any cough tea)
  • Eucalyptus (use one drop of essential oil in a steam bath to clear up congestion)
  • Hyssop (a pleasant tea)
  • Horehound (extremely bitter as a tea but can be made into taste cough drops)
  • Garlic (fresh garlic is good sprinkled on soups and salads whenever you're sick)
  • Horseradish root (It's possible that just smelling the fresh root will cure what ails you! Caution!)
  • Elecampane flowers (good for cough syrups)
  • Anise Seed
  • Black Cohosh root
  • Colt's Foot

For a dry, irritating cough

The other important term is "demulcent." An herb or compound that is demulcent will sooth mucous membranes and help get rid of irritations that cause dry, hacking coughs. This second type of cough--the dry cough--is the kind you do want to suppress. The cough itself doesn't do much to rid your body of mucous or infection. It simply serves to further irritate already inflamed places in your throat and airways. That's why this type of cough can go on for months and become chronic. It is often self-perpetuating and it disrupts sleep, further harming the body's ability to heal. 

My husband has battled dry, chronic coughs in the winter for years and the remedie that has finally brought some relief is a combination of thyme, mullein and ground ivy tinctures along with syrup made from mullein leaves, plantain leaves, elecampane flowers and marshmallow flowers. You may have to experiment to find the right combination for a chronic cough but the most common demulcent herbs are:  

  • Mullein (For chronic coughs I find regular tincture to work best but if you can ensure that you drink the tea every day, that could work as well)
  • Marshmallow flowers (not made into candy but rather into syrup)
  • Plantain (helps to sooth whatever it can physically touch, so it is good for irritations close to the throat)
  • Coltsfoot (another good tea)
  • Lungwort (the flowers particularly make a nice tea)
  • Liquorice
  • Slippery Elm
  • Wild cherry bark (It's said to be a strong cough suppressant but I don't have personal experience with it.)
  • Lemon, and honey (Drink a warm lemonade made with honey. It may only provide temporary relief but sometimes temporarily relief is all your body needs to recover.)
  • Onion (you can make a syrup from cooked onion that is used widely for coughs in some parts of Eastern Europe.)
  • Sage, peppermint and rose hips are good additions to many of these teas and syrups for the nutrients they provide when you are dealing with a chronic cough.

Whooping cough

Another kind of cough is whooping cough and this is quite different from a the two other kinds of coughs. True whooping cough (pertussis) is a dangerous bacterial infection that can sometimes be fatal in infants. The signature sound of whooping cough is a cough followed by a whooping noise. The noise comes from the sick person (usually a small child) trying desperately to pull air in through swollen tissue. You can see the hollow at the base of the throat depress as the child strives to take a breath and this is a critical sign of danger.

My son had a cough like this when he was two and again last winter, although he wasn't treated with antibiotics at the time. Sometimes a whooping-type cough comes even when a child has been vaccinated against pertussis and it is frightening and possibly very dangerous. One of the ways that whooping cough is treated in an emergency room is to put the child into a cool steam tent. The reason is that the cool steam soothes the swollen tissue that makes it so difficult to breathe. This is also why many people start out to bring a child with a terrible whooping cough to an emergency room, only to have it disappear by the time they arrive, because of the exposure to the cool, damp air (given that most attacks of whooping cough occur at around 10:00 pm to midnight). 

I learned this the first time my son had such a coughing attack and couldn't breathe. After trying several things that work with other types of cough (to no good effect), I took him out at night and the cough subsided within a half an hour. I didn't get much sleep the rest of the night but he did. The second time it happened, I didn't wait but immediately bundled him up and went outside, where I held him until the attack stopped. Interestingly enough, as a child of barely four, he cried and insisted that he didn't like the cold air. The cough was so powerful, he though he would vomit but couldn't and within ten minutes it passed. 

Please be aware that I'm not a doctor and this isn't medical advice for any specific ailment. My experience shows that the only thing you can do at home for something resembling whooping cough is cool steam or night air. Otherwise, I would seek out professional medical attention.

Other times to seek out professional help with a cough

Coughs can be a symptom of a number of bacterial infections or other breathing problems. Beyond whooping cough, there are times to leave the home herb cupboard and find professional medical help, particularly if...

  • There is a fever for more than several days,
  • A fever, wheezing or headaches are severe or get worse rapidly,
  • you develop fast breathing or chest pain,
  • it is difficult to get a breath,
  • you cough up blood or rusty-colored phlegm,
  • you become sleepy or confused,
  • a cough lasts for longer than four weeks or keeps coming back.

Please feel free to add your comments and experiences with herbal cough remedies in the comments. 


Time to harvest a power herb to fight coughs: Home Medicine Cycle 14

My husband grew up with two chain smokers in the house, and then he lived in a Eastern European metropolis heated by coal in a particularly smoggy hollow for another ten years. He drives a lot on clogged freeways for his job as a surveyor. Of course, he has a chronic cough.

Common Thyme flowers - Creative Commons image by Magnus Manske

Common Thyme flowers - Creative Commons image by Magnus Manske

He's been to a string of specialists. He's had his share of infections and sometimes it takes antibiotics to clear up the infections, but for the first six or seven years we lived together he always had a chronic cough from October to April. He'd get tested and often as not he was told that there was no infection detected.

"You're airways are just oversensitive," the specialists said. They gave him synthetic pharmaceuticals and none of them helped appreciably. 

Yes, this is another one of those stories. It is worth noting how many times herbal medicinals work in precisely those areas where modern pharmaceutical medicine is weakest - immunological issues, chronic disease and systemic health problems. It is not so much a question of which type of medicine is "better," but a question of informed choice and using both pharmaceutical and herbal medicine to compliment each other. 

In this case, I didn't immediately try my own home herbs. I was a beginning herbalist at that time (about ten years ago) and I didn't have enough confidence in my own local herbs. I assumed that cures to big problems had to come from rare and powerful sources. So, after we had been through the wringer of mainstream medicine, we went to a professional herbalist. He suggested one extremely expensive herbal product and then another. The second one was the magic bullet.

It was an Ayurvedic mix of exotic herbs in capsule form from a foreign company. It had a hefty price tag, but it worked. If he took it for several weeks, the cough subsided. When he stopped taking it, the cough returned. It wasn't coincidence. For two winters my husband kept his chronic cough at bay with this mixture... and then the company stopped exporting to our country. 

I spent a small fortune finding and ordering the product abroad one year, but by then I had become a bit more skilled in herbs and I started to wonder if I might be able to come up with a formula of local herbs that would work. I had noticed that my husband's cough responded a bit to thyme tea, so I started giving him doses of thyme tincture every day. I added various other herbs to this (including plantain, ground ivy, marshmallow and mullein). After a few months, I hit on something that worked in his particular case - a combination of thyme and mullein tinctures. 

Wild Thyme flowers - image by Summi of German Wikipedia with GNU Free Documentation License

Wild Thyme flowers - image by Summi of German Wikipedia with GNU Free Documentation License

The lesson in this experiment is much bigger than the fact that thyme and mullein are generally good for chronic coughs. Every individual is different and the underlying causes are varied. So, it may not always work the same. The greater lesson is that you can often find a local source of herbs that are much fresher, safer and less expensive than the herbs sold in shops. A good professional herbalist can also help with this. I don't trust "professional herbalists" who will only sell you expensive formulas rather than consult with you and help you figure out which herbs you can grow yourself.

You do need time and patience to test out various combinations like this. And in most cases, you need to remember to take herbal medicinals consistently, according to the schedule for that particular herb. My husband's chronic cough has come back at times - always when he neglected to take the tinctures. And once started it takes as long as a month to go away again after he resumes taking the herbs. 

Still, this was also the case that has proved the extraordinary power of thyme to us. GreenMed Info reports 25 studies indicating the therapeutic value of thyme in treating bronchitis. We use thyme for other things as well - in tinctures, salves and teas.

Thyme is one of the herbs most widely used in pharmaceuticals in Europe, so here at least there is a blurred line between synthetic and herbal medicine. I am still convinced that fresh, homegrown thyme is far superior for medicinal use.

In the Czech language the common name for wild thyme translates as "mother's soul." Some people find the smell of thyme unpleasant or even just too intense, but my family loves it, especially the purple wild thyme. Thyme is one of my favorite teas and we rarely have enough to be able to just drink it for the enjoyment of it. I have to save it for my husband, so I only drink thyme tea when I'm truly sick and then I really enjoy it. Thyme tea is good for coughs, sniffles and sore throats as well as aches and pains.

Thyme makes a good tincture (see the recipe here), which is useful for:

  • Chronic coughs and bronchitis
  • A pain killer for menstrual cramps (Here's a study on this one. It appears to mention consuming highly diluted essential oil internally. But that is never a good idea outside of a doctor's supervision. Essential oils, particularly those of intense herbs like thyme, can be very dangerous and even fatal when taken internally. I suggest using tincture instead.)
Bundle of thyme - public domain image

Bundle of thyme - public domain image

Thyme infused oil (recipe here) is one of the best oils to use in making a salve for cuts and scrapes because it is mildly disinfectant. There are studies showing the antibiotic action of thyme and its constituents in laboratory tests, which may account for how helpful thyme is in salve. 

It is useful to note that when gathering thyme the most potent part of the upper plant is the flower. We always gather our thyme when it is flowering. Sometimes we get two cuttings. My favorite type of thyme is the creeping wild variety with purple flowers. Some herbalists believe the common white-flowered variety is stronger and I haven't had enough experience to compare directly. The common thyme tends to have a somewhat less inviting smell for tea, but may be actually somewhat more effective in disinfectant salve.

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Note: This does not constitute medical advice for a specific person with a specific problem. We are all individuals and I'm not a doctor who can prescribe treatments for you personally.