3 Go-To Herbs For Winter Wellness
Updated: Feb 28, 2019
A few days ago, I shared an article about cold and flu prevention. As previously discussed, our lifestyle and dietary habits establish the foundation on which our immune system resilience rests. In addition to these recommendations, there are several herbal remedies that make wonderful allies during the cold and flu season. Botanical medicines can act to nourish the immune system and boost our natural defences, or can be directly antimicrobial or antiviral. Adding these to your tool kit can help to strengthen your immune system, prevent falling ill to the cold and flu, and speed the healing process. Here are my top 3 herbs to consider this winter:
Astragalus membranaceus root, which has been used in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) for many years under the name HuangQi, is from a category of herbs known as deep immune tonics or immunomodulators. These herbs have a nourishing effect and are very strengthening to the immune system. Astragalus is particularly indicated for the person who experiences frequent colds and flus, and takes longer to recover from them. Research suggests that the polysaccharides in Astragalus enhance B-cell, T-cell and cytokine production (1, 2), and cause a dose-dependent increase in monocyte, neutrophil, and lymphocyte counts (3). As this herb works deeply on the immune system to enhance both specific and nonspecific immunity (4), it should generally be taken longer-term and be thought of preventatively, rather than acutely. Interestingly, in TCM it is recommended that Astragalus be taken prophylactically to strengthen a weak immune system, but to stop taking it if you do catch a cold, as it is thought to trap pathogens within the body and potentially drive them deeper into the system. The root can be decocted (simmered in hot water), added to soups, or taken in tincture form.
A word of caution: this herb should be used with caution in those with auto-immune conditions, as well as those taking immunosuppressants, and theoretically may interfere with the absorption of other agents if taken simultaneously. Consult a health care practitioner before use.
2. Black Elderberry
Sambucus nigra is another powerhouse herb for immune health that has traditional use, this time in Europe and parts of North America. The leaves and berries of Sambucus are particularly indicated for upper respiratory tract infections, flus, and to some extent colds, and have a place in both prevention and treatment. Elderberry is well-known in the herbal world for its antiviral properties, and multiple studies confirm its actions against influenza A and B (5, 6, 7), as well as against bacteria (8). It has also been shown to work synergistically with Echinacea to inhibit the influenza virus, the effects comparative to those of the antiviral medication Oseltamivir (9, 10). It is best to take Elderberry as a preventative measure (for its immunomodulating effects), and at the first sign of a cold or flu. This herb is also generally regarded as safe for children, and is commonly given as a syrup. The berries of this herb can also be taken in tincture form, or decocted.
I would be remiss to talk about immune-boosting herbs without mentioning Echinacea! Perhaps the most well-known herbal medicine in the western world, I would bet that you know someone who has used, or have used this herbal medicine yourself for the treatment of a cold or flu. However, a quick google search will tell you that the efficacy of Echinacea for cold and flu treatment is debatable. So what’s the deal? Is this traditionally revered medicine truly beneficial during cold and flu season?
The truth is that Echinacea is a very misunderstood herb, both in use and research. Firstly, it’s important to understand that there are different species of Echinacea: Echinacea angustifolia, Echinacea purpurea and Echinacea pallida being three of the most common. Equally important is to know which part of the plant is being used, and for what purpose: root, leaf, stem, flowering top? Truly, not all preparations are created equally (a mix of species and plant parts), and this creates a lot of variation in both the phytochemical composition and physiological actions of Echinacea extracts. This variability has been confirmed by multiple studies (11, 12, 13), and contributes greatly to the differing results in research. So let’s break it down: the current research tells us that it’s the glycoproteins, alkylamides and polysaccharides in the roots of Echinacea that are responsible for its immunomodulatory properties (14), and that these are found in highest concentration in Echinacea purpurea (15). So it’s important to find a quality supplement that contains the right species, part of plant, and concentration to be an effective remedy.
The second issue is how and when to take Echinacea. It’s often thought of as the go-to herb when you have a cold, but actually Echinacea is best at the onset of a cold or flu and won’t be of much use when a cold or flu progresses. Just like Elderberry, these two herbs really shine when they are taken right at the first signs of illness, and they work wonderfully together.
A word of caution: as with Astragalus, this herb should be used with caution in those with auto-immune conditions, or those taking immunosuppressants.
As with any herbal (or other) medicine, it’s important to consult a health care professional for dosage guidelines. If you would like to learn more about these herbs, custom herbal formulations, or further immune support, consider booking an appointment at Juniper Family Health.
Additionally, if you are experiencing cold and flu symptoms, it is important to seek medical attention if:
Your symptoms are worsening or persistent
You develop a high fever (>100F, beyond 3 days)
You are having trouble taking in solid food or fluids
You experience any shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
You fall into a higher-risk category for complications (infants, the elderly, pregnant women, immunocompromised individuals)
You have a pre-existing medical condition (heart conditions, asthma)
Wishing you health and well-being!
1. Shao, B. et al. (2004). A study on the immune receptors for polysaccharides from the roots of Astragalus membranaceus, a Chinese medicinal herb. Biochemical and Biophysical Research Communications, 320(4): 1103-1111.
2. Zhao, K. et al. (1990). Enhancement of the immune response in mice by Astragalus membranaceus extracts. Immunopharmacology, 20(3): 225-233.
3. Denzler, K. et al. (2016). Characterization of the Physiological Response following In Vivo Administration of Astragalus membranaceus. Evidence Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, doi: 10.1155/2016/6861078.
4. Gong, A. et al. (2018). Evaluation of the Pharmaceutical Properties and Value of Astragali Radix. Medicines (Basel), 5(2): 46.
5. Zakay-Rones, Z. et al. (2004). Randomized Study of the Efficacy and Safety of Oral Elderberry Extract in the Treatment of Influenza A and B Virus Infections. Journal of International Medical Research, https://doi.org/10.1177/147323000403200205.
6. Ulbricht, C. et al. (2014). An Evidence-Based Systematic Review of Elderberry and Elderflower (Sambucus nigra) by the Natural Standard Research Collaboration. Journal of Dietary Supplements, 11(1): 80-120.
7. Kinoshita, E. et al. (2012). Anti-Influenza Virus Effects of Elderberry Juice and Its Fractions. Bioscience, Biotechnology, and Biochemistry, 76(9):1633-1638.
8. Krawitz, C. et al. (2011). Inhibitory activity of a standardized elderberry liquid extract against clinically-relevant human respiratory bacterial pathogens and influenza A and B viruses. BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine, doi: 10.1186/1472-6882-11-16.
9. Vimalanathan, S. et al. (2013). Synergistic inhibition of Influenza replication cycle with Echinacea purpurea and Sambucus nigra. Planta Medica, doi: 10.1055/s-0033-1352457.
10. Raus, K. et al. (2015). Effect of an Echinacea-Based Hot Drink Versus Oseltamivir in Influenza Treatment: A Randomized, Double-Blind, Double-Dummy, Multicenter, Noninferiority Clinical Trial. Current Therapeutic Research, 77: 66-72.
11. Aarland, R. et al. (2016). Studies on phytochemical, antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, hypoglycaemic and antiproliferative activities of Echinacea purpurea and Echinacea angustifolia extracts. Pharmaceutical Biology, 55(1): 649-656.
12. Tamta, H. et al. (2008). Variability in in Vitro Macrophage Activation by Commercially Diverse Bulk Echinacea Plant Material Is Predominantly Due to Bacterial Lipoproteins and Lipopolysaccharides. Journal of Agric. Food Chem., 56(22): 10552-10556.
13. Binns, S. et al. (2002). Phytochemical Variation in Echinacea from Roots and Flowerheads of Wild and Cultivated Populations. Journal of Agric. Food Chem., 50(13): 3673-3687.
14. Matthias, A. et al. (2008). Echinacea alkylamides modulate induced immune responses in T-cells. Fitoterapia, 79(1): 53-58.
15. Balciunaite, G. et al. (2015). Fractionation and evaluation of proteins in roots of Echinacea purpurea (L.) Moench. Acta Pharm, 65(4): 473-479.