During this time of year, immunity to various colds, flu’s and viruses are a huge topic. You can barely watch a television program or listen to the radio without hearing and seeing commercials about cough drops, syrups, over the counter, non-prescription immunity protection, not to mention the shots that are so conveniently provided by various drug stores. The problem is that many, if not all, of the commercial products have a few ingredients that are not the best for your body that are an included ingredient to help with color, flavor, and preservatives. Plus, do you really know what is in that needle that is being injected into you that is called a ‘flu shot’?
With immunity being such a vast topic, there is no way to go into the details of how our physiology interacts with plants, and it’s not possible to provide you with a huge list of herbs that aid and boost your bodies natural immune system in this little blog. This is to provide you with a few things to think about, ponder, and will provide you a few common examples in how to use various herbs to help boost your natural immune system.
So, let’s start with immune stimulators which get your body into gear. They work in various ways, some through increasing lymphatic filtration, some by stimulating T-cells or B-cells, some through ‘squeaks’ (stories) that have been passed down through ancestral folklore. The “how” isn’t relevant here, but the “when” is: the sooner you take an immune stimulator, the more likely you are not to spend a week or more, miserable on the couch or in bed.
There’s this idea floating around our “enlightened culture” that if an occasional little bit is a good thing, you should probably take a massive amount of it daily because then you’ll turn into a superhero and you’ll rock! This of course, is not the case, so please don’t drink Maus’ tinctures by the ounce! Immune stimulators are strong medicines and should be treated with respect. If you’re buying tinctures to be used as an immune stimulator, make sure you read the label for the correct dosage or just send a “Squeak” to me by phone or email and I will be happy to assist you! I really don’t recommend tea for these herbs since the medicinal extracts are best if infused with alcohol, which is why I suggested that you don’t drink it by the ounce!
It’s important to note that stimulating an already over-reactive immune system can be dangerous for some people; for example, if your immune cells are attacking your nervous system, like in Rheumatoid arthritis, you shouldn’t encourage them to be extra stimulated. People with serious autoimmune disorders, just a heads up: this might not be the best path for you to travel down.
The most famous immune stimulating herb is Echinacea; there’s no need to go into the science—let’s just use Maus sense and know that it works—but here are some tips to using Echinacea. Before you make medicine with it, sample some of the plant you’re going to harvest. It should make your mouth go numb and tingly, and if it doesn’t, it’s not strong enough. Echinacea purpurea is the species I recommend, since it’s easier to grow than Echinacea angustifolia, has a wider range of temperature zones, and isn’t endangered. I like to make several tinctures through the season of different plant parts, and then combine them all at the end of the season for a whole plant tincture. Similar immune stimulators include yellowdock root, barberry root bark, Oregon grape, garlic (eat this, don’t tincture it), and thyme (nice in oil).Elderberry, Sambucus canadensis, is not as well known as Echinacea, but it is no less fabulous as an antibacterial, antiviral immune stimulator. Of course we only uses mature black berries in our tinctures it tastes great and is even safe for little mauschens too (that’s lil’ mice!). Unlike other immune boosting herbs, elderberry is safe for everyday use. You can give the mauschens up to 10 drops of tincture every day in the winter to protect them from any of their little mice friends that may be ‘coming down with something’ and this works for adults too! If you’re actually sick, take a bigger dose to help fight it off faster. The flowers of the Echinacea are a great immune stimulator too, tinctured fresh in summer and used when you’re actually sick. If you are going to make your own tincture of Elderberries make sure you do not make medicine from poisonous red elderberry (S. racemosa).
Energetics for everyone! To help in avoiding getting sick, take immune stimulating herbs. If you do get sick, at lease you don’t have to choose between unrelieved suffering and DayQuil®, you can also choose to pump up your body with natural immune stimulating herbs. First, identify what’s actually wrong, using a concept known as ‘energetics’. Do you have a dry, non-productive cough? A wet sore throat with a post-nasal drip? In very simple terms, is this problem a wet problem or a dry problem? Next, do you need to stop something that’s happening, like a hacking cough? Or do you need to make something happen, like coughing that junk out of your lungs? In other words, do you have a problem that is stuck or moving?
Once you’ve identified the energetics of your problem, wet/dry & stuck/moving, it’s easier to pick herbs by thinking about how to balance out your problem. Choose an herb that has the opposite effect, like a drying herb for a wet problem. I know this seems very simplistic—it is actually a vastly over-simplified version of a really complicated idea—but it works, it’s easy, and it’s accessible. Right there you’ve narrowed down your choices of herbs to the ones that will actually help. There’s a constant theme in society, “I know herbs don’t work, because when I had this gross phlegm-y cough I tried mullein and it didn’t work.” Think about this, you can’t use water to clean black mold and on the other hand, you can’t put out a fire by adding more dry wood, so in this case, why would a moistening herb fix a wet cough? Society gets like this because the article they read in Cosmo didn’t mention balance at all (not that this is an exhaustive explanation, but still) and they’re expecting a ‘one-size-fits-all’ miracle pills, but that is not how this works, and should not be how medicinal and pharmaceuticals should work either. You, however, are now well-informed and you want your remedies to work, so you will think about balance.
Coughs: The harbinger of doom. When we talk about symptoms, we’re going to talk about them in terms of wet/dry & stuck/moving. ‘Expectorants’ are for stuck coughs: they make you cough up the grossness in your lungs…eek! This is very helpful if you happen to have that grossness in your lungs because you need to get it out. However, if you don’t have anything in your lungs, or if you have a hacking, painful cough that won’t quit (a moving cough), an expectorant is not a good plan—in that case, you want a cough suppressant (“lung antispasmodic”). So right off the bat, is the cough stuck or moving? Is it dry or wet (think phlegm-y versus sandpaper throat)? Choose herbs based on these characteristics of your cough.
For a wet, moving cough (the kind that won’t quit), try a drying cough suppressant like wild cherry bark, which historically was such a famously effective medicine that when Robitussin® came out they had to make it cherry flavored or it wouldn’t sell. Cherry bark contains cyanide so open a window if you’re drying it inside. If your cough is very irritable, combine with another antispasmodic like blue vervain or coltsfoot.
For a dry, moving cough, use a moistening cough suppressant like marshmallow root or slippery elm bark. If your cough is very irritable, combine the demulcent with another lung antispasmodic like blue vervain or coltsfoot.
Sniffles (not my cousin, Sniffles the Mouse): For nose & sinus symptoms, again think about identifying and balancing your problem: is it wet/dry or stuck/moving? A stuffy nose is a great example of a stuck condition that can be wet or dry: sinus pressure or a post-nasal drip usually means there’s a bunch of wet inflammation in your face, as opposed to when your nose is so dry that you can’t blow it. A decongestant increases movement and drains everything, so we use it for stuck conditions. Astringents are herbs that dry and tighten mucous membranes, like the lining of your nose and sinuses, so they work great for wet conditions. Just like with coughs, think about demulcents for a dry condition.
A wet stuffy nose or a runny nose is just begging for an astringent decongestant; they are also appropriate if it hurts to touch your cheekbones or forehead (where your sinuses are). Examples are goldenrod, bee balm, bergamot, thyme, or cayenne (not really astringent, but a strong decongestant). Use these in any preparation, although I recommend drinking them in a tea because these herbs are stronger in this form. You can also boil water add goldenrod, bee balm, and a little eucalyptus or thyme, put a towel over your head, lean over the steam and breathe in all those delicious oils—believe you me, you will be thanking me, so I’ll say it now, “You’re welcome!”
If you’ve got a dry, stuck stuffy nose or a runny nose you can’t blow, you want something to increase movement and moisture. Combine a less-drying decongestant like bee balm, goldenrod, or thyme with a demulcent herb like mullein or violet to loosen it all up. Again, demulcents should be tea only.
Unearned sweat: Fevers are common with winter illness, and can generally be brought down with herbs called febrifuges or antipyretics. That being said, don’t ignore an emergency: if the fever is very high, especially in a child, use your maus sense. There are two basic ways to get rid of a fever with herbs: increase body temperature until it breaks into a sweat (most herbs), or cool the body down. The most widely growing herb for fevers is willow bark, which affects temperature regulation in the brain, as well as relieves pain and inflammation. Willow contains salicylates, the compound that aspirin was synthesized from, but, being natural, it doesn’t thin blood like aspirin. You can use any species for medicine as long as the bark tastes bitter and astringent—the yuckier it tastes, the better. Meadowsweet, black birch, and wintergreen work like willow too. Cayenne, prickly ash, bee balm, or boneset (in small doses, tincture only) make you sweat out the fever. These herbs work best in tea or as tincture added to tea; most of them don’t taste great but hot water increases temperature, and dehydration is a fear with fevers.
It’s not a good idea to use these herbs with little ones under 6 with viruses, because they don’t have a good temperature ceiling and fevers can go way too high; instead, use cooling herbs to reduce temperature like catnip, borage, and peppermint; together with cold baths (you can add herbs to the bathwater, too).
See!!! It works! So let’s say you’ve got a fever, stuffy nose with post-nasal drip, sinus headache, and a gooey cough but you’re not bringing much up. Instead of taking an herb or two for each of these problems, let’s look at the whole picture and pick a couple of herbs to do a bunch of stuff. Based on our very simple wet/dry moving/stuck thing, this looks and sounds like a wet, stuck condition, so we’ll use dry, moving herbs to get you feeling better. An example of a reasonable combination would be prickly ash, goldenrod, and bee balm. These herbs are warming and drying, expectorant, decongestant, and will help with the fever. They are also not too strong—you don’t want to overdo it and throw yourself out of balance in the other direction. Don’t forget to take some immune boosters too, like elderberry, so you can get better even faster.
You can always look up herbs on the Maus’ website, and of course if you have any questions, squeak at me! If you are going to gather your own herbs, please make sure you have the right species and that the contraindications (when not to use it) are okay for you and not poisonous.
Editors Note: Jim and Patricia are the owners of a home based organically grown herbal business in Washington state. They are wonderful folks who have a passion for living the pioneer lifestyle and creating products for long term health remedies. Please support them and their journey and let them know when you order that you learned about them at American Redoubt.
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