We’ve hit that point in the year where everyone I know is sick, just getting over being sick, or living or working with someone who is sick. Since I work within public elementary schools, which are among the germiest places on earth, I’m often asked if I’ve gotten my flu shot. I never tend to go into a long diatribe but I long ago stopped getting one as it rarely helps ward off the actual virus I end up coming down with, and does nothing to support the natural strength of the immune system. Instead I’ve slowly built up a natural medicine cabinet of traditional foods and herbs to support the system throughout cold and flu season.
While this is a long list that I’ve been using this year, it is by no means comprehensive. Nature is incredibly competent at providing ample foods and herbs that support health and prevent viruses and infections, and truly, the herbs and products one might reach for should depend on the nature of the condition since even with the same virus, individual symptoms may vary and are best supported by addressing the nature of their presentation, such as assisting a dry cough with different herbs than a “wet/mucousy” cough, etc. And fortunately enough, this is also where herbs shine in their support of immune health.
Vitamin C // citrus // rose hips powder
Vitamin C helps stimulate white blood cell production, the blood cells that act as an army to take care of infection, pathogens, and inflammation in the body. Rather than relying on a supplement, I prefer to eat vitamin C rich foods including citrus fruits, berries, and dark leafy greens. I also sometimes add in a few shakes of powdered rose hips into smoothies, as rose hips are among nature’s richest and most-potent sources of Vitamin C (1).
Vitamin D has a variety of positive effects on the immune system including enhancing innate immunity which means those white blood cells do their jobs when a cold or flu virus is on the scene. Vitamin D also protects against autoimmune conditions. All individuals should have their vitamin D levels tested when getting normal bloodwork done, and suboptimal levels should be supplemented with vitamin D3, especially in the fall and winter months or when one primarily works inside and doesn’t get adequate sunlight.
Dark Leafy Greens
I don’t think I will ever be able to emphasize enough the importance of an ample variety of dark leafy greens on one’s health. Greens are rich in vitamins A, E, K, and C, as well as a myriad of beneficial phytonutrients. Choose a couple varieties to eat each week and rotate throughout the season including spinach, kale, mustard and collard greens, turnip and beet greens, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, bok choy, broccoli, swiss chard, arugula, parsley and cilantro.
Probiotics // Miso
A daily dose of beneficial bacteria is good for more than just gut and mental health. Growing research is showing us that certain strains of bacteria modulate the immune system as well as bind to viruses and toxins to prevent infections (4). While I tend to rotate probiotic supplements for general health, consuming beneficial bacteria from traditionally fermented foods is best. My favorite during the winter is miso, as sipping on a little spoonful whisked into warm water, or making a miso broth-based soup when sick is really delicious and helpful.
There’s a reason this folk remedy has been around so long. Many scientific studies have supported the long tradition of consuming elderberry syrup to ward off or shorten the duration of viral infections. I take 1 teaspoon elderberry syrup every day throughout cold and flu season. Bonus is that when made with gently heated (not cooked) raw honey, it also includes a small daily dose of beneficial probiotics from the honey.
Adaptogenic herbs // reishi // Eleuthero
Medicinal mushrooms have been getting a lot of trendy press time lately for a good reason. Reishi is my favorite as it strengthens both the immune and adrenal systems. Reishi, like several other mushrooms contains polysaccharides called beta glucans which stimulate the immune system. (2,3)
Eleuthero or Siberian ginseng is another favorite adaptogen. Like reishi, it can be used as an immune tonic with regular use reducing the incidence of colds and infections. It has also been shown to reverse low white blood cell counts in cancer patients. (3)
Herbal Throat Spray and Herbal Throat Lozenges // Zinc
Rather than reach for the common drugstore throat sprays, I’ve taken to using an herbal version called TheraZinc. It contains some of those soothing and supportive herbs such as elderberry, cloves, echinacea, and slippery elm, as well as zinc, an important mineral used as a co-enzyme in many cellular reactions, as it is essential for the normal development and function of cells and for regulating immune cells (4). I tend to rotate throat lozenges but some of my favorite ones also contain the same herbs and zinc.
One of the current superfoods, turmeric has been used for centuries in Ayurvedic medicine. It is highly beneficial and nearly a catch-all in terms of what it can assist with, including the ability to enhance immunity. Like dark leafy greens, turmeric also contains important antioxidants to support the immune system, including vitamins C and E (1). However, the thing about turmeric is that its beneficial compounds are exceptionally difficult to become bioavailable in the body. Taking it with a small amount of ground black pepper and with another ingredient that contains fat helps turmeric work its magic in our systems.
Common fresh or dried ginger is exceptionally beneficial in controlling inflammation and muscular pain, increases circulation, and also aids in digestion. Ginger is a warming and pungent spice, and I particularly enjoy it in hefty doses during the cold season. What’s more, many herbs act as synergists with each other meaning when you take them together the effects of both herbs are more than a sum of their parts. Happily, turmeric and ginger seem to work together to great effect in our bodies when it comes to combating inflammation.
Demulcent Herbs // Marshmallow Root // Licorice Root //Mullein
Marshmallow Root // Putting a few pinches in a jar of cold water and letting infuse overnight is the best way to see how marshmallow root works. In the morning, you will have a jar of slippery, soothing, slightly sweet liquid that is best for dry and sore throats and coughs. The root will provide a similar soothing action on the tissues of the GI so beyond cold and flu season, this is a great herb for digestive support.
Licorice Root // Despite the connotation with licorice candy, licorice root does not taste anything like the red or black ropes I loved to eat as a child. Licorice is an excellent herb for balancing the adrenals, balancing blood sugar, and helping decrease stress and inflammation. It is also soothing to the mucous membranes and GI tract, and makes for a good addition to a tea blend to help out a sore throat. Note: licorice should not be taken by those with high blood pressure.
Mullein // Known for its ability to support the lungs and respiratory system, this common weed grows freely along roadsides and pathways in the summer months. Mullein brings moisture to the respiratory tract providing soothing relief to dry, inflamed tissues and tickly coughs (2). I’ve taken to adding a couple teaspoons of dried mullein to loose leaf tea blends when I need some moistening lung and throat support.
Look to adding bee pollen when one is especially depleted. Bee pollen, the food of the young bee, contains nearly all the nutrients we require, and contains protein in the form that is readily useable by the body. It is eaten throughout the world for a variety of indications including aiding recovery from chronic illness, building new blood, preventing colds and flu, improving endurance and vitality, and extending longevity (5). When using bee pollen, it’s wise to remember that it is precious food, with a daily dose taking one bee over an entire month to gather. Use consciously.
These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA. This information does not intend to treat, diagnose, cure, or prevent any disease.
1) McBride, K. (2010). The Herbal Kitchen
2) Pursell, JJ. (2015). The Herbal Apothecary
3) Winston, D. and Maimes, S. (2007). Adaptogens: Herbs for Strength, Stamina, and Stress Relief.
4) Braun, L. and Cohen, M. (2015). Herbs & Natural Supplements: An evidence-based guide (4th ed.).
5) Pitchford, P. (2002). Healing with Whole Foods: Asian Traditions and Modern Nutrition (3rd ed.).