The incredible potential of herbal medicines as new-age antimicrobial substances in the fight against antibiotic resistance has yet been untapped. I’m not the first herbalist to write about this, and I direct you to a much more in-depth article on the subject, should it interest you further.
A couple of weeks ago it was the WHO’s antibiotic resistance awareness week, so there couldn’t be a better time to expound the virtues of medicinal plants and their potent antimicrobial compounds.
Below are 7 herbs that you should never be without before, during and after colds, coughs, flu, ear infections and tonsillitis. I’ll also mention where you can find the herbs and offer a simple recipe to get you going.
Cold & flu
The most widely known of the cold & flu herbs, Echinacea was used by the Native Americans not only for its powerful activity as an immunomodulator but also as a depurative – a lymph cleansing herb that helps decongest as well as fight and prevent infection.
Compounds called N-alkylamides in the root are thought to act in synergy on the cannabinoid system, responsible for immune as well as psychiatric control. These compounds make the tongue tingle – the mark of a good Echinacea product.
Echinacea is available from chemists these days, and is safe to take long-term despite suggestions to the contrary. Bear in mind, however, that you might find a better quality product at a natural health shop.
Elderberry & Elderflower
This season, gather the berries and make syrup! It’s great for children and if you add some Echinacea tincture, you’ll have yourself a traditional herbal cold & flu remedy. Flavonoid-type compounds called anthocyanidins are responsible for the berries’ dark purple colour and are potent antiviral molecules.
Here is a recipe for the syrup – only pick the dark purple berries as the red ones are poisonous. If you can’t make it yourself, your nearest natural health shop will probably have some in stock. One tablespoonful 3-5 times a day should do it.
Elderflower, Mint & Yarrow tea is also a favourite cold and flu remedy among herbalists. It is cooling whilst being a circulatory stimulant, so is great for a fever and also acts as a decongestant. Mix equal parts of the dried herbs and infuse one heaped teaspoonful of the mixture in a cup of boiling water for 10-15 minutes…
This Ayurvedic (Indian) herb is extremely useful as it is both bitter and immune enhancing, making it perfect for people who have chronic infections and need support for the liver as well as the immune system. A potent antiviral, antibacterial and anti-inflammatory, there is evidence for its use in respiratory infections, sinusitis, tonsillitis, cystitis and also ulcerative colitis.
Andrographis is harder to find, being non-native, but it is well worth asking for at your local natural health/ herbal shop. When you feel a cold coming on, taking 10ml of a mix of Echinacea and Andrographis tinctures every couple of hours can completely stop the infection in its tracks.
Compounds called gingerols in fresh ginger (not dried) are anti-viral. Hot ginger tea with lemon & honey is the first thing anyone should do when they get a cold. Peel & grate the ginger, simmer it in boiling water for 15 or so minutes and drink as much as you can!
You can also add ginger to soups and smoothies throughout the winter months to encourage circulation and improve digestion. It’s one of my favourite herbs and I’ve written about it before at length. Avoid ginger if you have hot flushes or acid reflux.
All of the above and Garlic
The sulphurous compounds in garlic are extremely potent antimicrobials. Crush fresh garlic and wait ten seconds before adding it to your food, to maximise the production of allicin and its smelly derivatives.
For ear infections, squeeze a drop of garlic juice from a fresh clove into a spoon of warm olive oil (I’ll admit this is easier said than done – a garlic crusher is essential) and pour straight into the ear. Lie on your side for up to 20 minutes before draining into a bowl, or if you want to move around, stick a plug of cotton wool into the affected ear. Do this up to 3 times a day.
This recipe has the added benefit of olive oil, which is a soothing anti-inflammatory compound in itself.
All of the above and Sage
Specifically for viral tonsillitis, strong sage tea is a wonderful soothing remedy for the throat as well being an underrated anti-infectious herb. Among other compounds it contains rosmarinic acid, a very potent antioxidant molecule that has shown anti-HIV and herpes simplex activity.
The fresh herb tea is delicious, but dried is fine too. For fresh, I like to make it really strong – about 6 leaves per cup. Lightly bruise the leaves before pouring in hot water, cover and leave for 15 minutes before drinking. For dried, use about 1 heaped teaspoon per cup.
All of the above and Astragalus
Brought to us by the Chinese, Astragalus is a really amazing herb. It acts on our adaptive immune response, stimulating an increase in the various types of antibodies we need to fight infection. The proper name for it is an ‘adaptogen’ – a herb that helps build general resistance to external stressors, be they bacteria and viruses or emotional and environmental stress.
Don’t take adaptogens while you have an active infection, as they can prolong it. Astragalus can also be used to keep cold sores at bay, and is used in Chinese medicine for kidney disease. Find it at your local natural health shop in powder, dried herb, tablet or tincture form.
You can add one heaped teaspoon of the powder to warm milk at night time for a delicious, immune-enhancing bedtime drink.
If you experience repeated infections of any nature, it is worth consulting a herbalist to help you get to the root of the problem. Changes to diet, exercise and lifestyle patterns may be necessary as well as a herbal prescription.
Read my earlier post on infectious disease to see what you can do in the meantime, and email me at email@example.com if you’d like to arrange an appointment. I will be in practice as of January 2016.