Herbal Wisdom for the Cold and Flu Season
What do we know about herbs and the viral respiratory infections which always accompany cooler weather and dry indoor conditions beginning in the fall?
First, this is the single most common type of acute illness affecting humans, so it’s hardly surprising that a huge number of herbs have been traditionally used to treat colds, coughs, and flus.
Second, the symptoms of viral infections are mainly or entirely due to the body’s inflammatory response to increased concentrations of a particular virus. (Unimaginable numbers of viruses, both “benign” and “pathological,” are normally present in our bodies at all times, without noticeable effects.)
Inflammation and immune response are terms for closely related events in the workings of the complex system that maintains the body’s dynamic, constantly shifting homeostasis. Most of us are able to maintain a state that we experience as “normal health,” most of the time, amidst the vast universe of microscopic and submicroscopic life that constantly teems around and within us.
Third, when we hear that an herb is “antiviral,” we may imagine that it literally kills viruses, something like the way that some antibacterial herbs or drugs directly kill bacteria. But viruses are not composed of living cells, and are actually kind of not quite alive, in the sense that bacteria, plants, or animals are. They are essentially bits of genetic information, RNA or DNA, sheathed in a protein/lipid coat. (Incidentally, this description also applies to exosomes, which are a normal and important part of the molecular communication that constantly happens within and between organisms, and are about the same tiny size as viruses.) Their ability to reproduce depends on penetrating the living cells of bacteria, plants, or animals, and using the resources of the cell to replicate.
“Antiviral” herbs generally work either through:
Along with those actions, healing herbs can also regulate the accompanying inflammation, in ways that allow your body to combat viral infections while reducing the uncomfortable, and occasionally dangerous, inflammatory symptoms that we may experience along the road to recovery.
Medicinal herbs tend to be useful for multiple purposes, helping to balance the ever-present populations of microscopic life forms (bacteria, fungi, protozoa, etc.) and submicroscopic viruses, while keeping inflammation—from all causes—down to sustainable levels, in ways that work to our advantage. These multiple modes are possible in part because plant chemistry includes many, many different compounds that act together to minimize side effects and confer combined benefits.
Science is barely beginning to understand exactly what’s in plant medicines, and how some of those compounds work, separately and together. Meanwhile, research into healing herbs generally confirms their traditional uses, and often finds promising new ways to employ their powers.
Unfortunately, some people take bits of information from the swirling pool of emerging knowledge, and put them together in ways that seem logical, but are actually untrue. A current example is the mistaken idea that taking immune-enhancing herbs like Elderberry or Echinacea is dangerous now, since they allegedly might increase the risk of cytokine storm, a late-stage inflammatory event associated with some of the most severe cases of viral infection, including Covid-19.
Here are two important points to understand about this misconception.
• Herbs like Elderberry and Echinacea are prized for preventing and treating colds and flu largely because they safely modulate the inflammation that can accompany viral infections. There is simply no history of of sick people getting sicker from taking these healing herbs!
• The dreaded cytokine storm takes place when people are extremely sick and very unlikely to be at home, taking herbs! As Paul Bergner ND writes, “Cytokine storms are a phenomenon of the critical care unit or the ICU. Here patients with advanced respiratory disease are losing the battle against the viral infection, and have acquired pneumonia, or other complications such as multi-organ involvement or sepsis during the late stage of the disease… At this point, the herbalist will not be likely given access to the patient anyway, so what to give or not give them will not be an issue.”
Actual science opens up views of the world that are bewilderingly complicated! It’s seductively simple to think in black-and-white terms: “virus: bad!” “inflammation: bad!” “cytokines: bad!”, and so on, imagining that such slogans reflect “Science.” But viruses are far older than plants and animals, and have always been an integral part of every life form on earth. Inflammation is troublesome in some instances, yet necessary and beneficial in many others. Certain cytokines can be harmful, even deadly, while others are helpful.
In every moment of our existence, we depend on an amazing matrix of natural processes that take place almost entirely without our awareness. Lucky for us, most of the time, all we have to do is stay out of the way, and not make things worse by overthinking it and trying to fix what’s not broken! We rarely go wrong by staying with good, basic self-care: eating natural food when we’re hungry, drinking when we’re thirsty, sleeping when we’re tired, staying connected with the people and critters we love, doing good work when we can, and avoiding things that are obviously bad for us.
When we do get sick, very often our grandmothers’ plant wisdom can help us recover. Elderberry and Elder Flowers (Sambucus nigra) and Echinacea (E. purpurea and E. angustifolia) are among the most thoroughly researched plant allies for addressing colds, coughs, and flus.
So many others deserve attention for the roles they can play in staying well and aiding recovery! A brief list might include Astragalus Root, Boneset, Chaparral, Coltsfoot, Eleutherococcus Root, Eyebright, Ginger, Hawthorn, Licorice Root, Lobelia, Marshmallow Root, Meadowsweet, Mullein Leaf, Ocotillo Bark, Peppermint, Reishi, Rhodiola Root, Rosehips, Rosemary, Sage, Slippery Elm Bark, Thyme, Yarrow, and Wild Cherry Bark.
And don’t forget our Winter Defense Tea, an excellent and good-tasting blend that works well both for warding off colds and coughs, and relieving symptoms when they occur.
Stay well this season, take good care, and fear not!