As the colder weather begins to move into the northerly reaches and higher eleveations of the Western hemisphere, there’s been much talk of the dreaded H1N1 as well as other virulent strains of cold and flu. The most important action you can take this is preventative in nature, including ingesting plenty of fermented foods and bone broth, getting your Vitamin D, being sure to make time for rest and keeping a good stock of immune tonic herbs on hand.
For this post though, I’ll be speaking specifically of bioregional herbs that can be allied with in the actual treatment of already present cold or flu. I have striven to create a simple, accessible, energetics-based materia medica based in your backyard rather than an expensive herb catalog. I’ll be dividing up my selections by action, to help give you an idea of not only what specific herbs to keep on hand, but what ~type~ of herbs to be on the lookout for in your bioregion. There’s some overlap, and that’s to be expected considering how multi-faceted most herbs are, and it means you’ll have less herbs to find and gather that way.
Keep in mind I’m not talking about all herbs available in commerce, I’m specifically speaking of SW bioregional herbs. However, I have primarily chosen weedy species common to most of N. America and even much of Europe. In fact, many of these herbs are so ubiquitous as to be nearly forgettable upon sight, but there are several here you can’t buy from any large herb manufacturer, so if you want them you’ll need to gather your own or buy from a small independent wildcrafter or grower who can cater to you weird taste in plants.
Demulcents are incredibly useful in cases where there is copious mucus, but instead of flowing freely, it cakes up into a hard crust inside the resp. tract causing congestion and feelings of constriction and can’t be expectorated regardless of how much effort is put into the task, often resulting in feelings of heat, oppression and exhaustion. They are also invaluable in situations in which there is little to no mucus but systemic dryness, resulting in withered and/or inflamed tissues. Feelings of heat, and a particular kind of “dustyness” in the lungs along with tongue with no tongue coating, are common symptoms of this.
Lymphatics are essential components of any herbal medicine chest, especially those aimed at treating the viral onslaught that is Winter in many places. These herbs are usually alteratives, with a specific emphasis on the lymphatic system. They increase and initiate movement of the lymph and specifically called with there is immune depression, swollen or painful glands or a history of lymphatic stagnation.
These are herbs that can increase diaphoresis by increasing peripheral circulation. The real key here though, is not in the sweating (although that can be very useful) but in the improved circulation that allows the body to properly modulate temperature and humidity. This may sound less than exciting in words, but really, it’s extremely vital to the treatment of almost any virus, especially if there is fever or signs of restricted circulation. Fever itself is a healthy response by the anima (the vital force) and the body can often eliminate unwanted viral activity simply by raising it’s own temperature. The problem comes when the circulation is impeded by overly constricted or overly lax tissues that prevent the body from properly responding and adapting to the raised temperature, potentially resulting in prolonged and unnecessary fever or in a low-grade but ineffective fever. Diaphoretics need to be taken as hot teas or infusion, and the person needs to be kept warm and bundled up so that the circulation can focus on its healing work rather than just working as a thermostat. Note that diaphoretics, while often initially seeming to increase fluids in the body by moistening the skin, are actually drying in nature.
Relaxant Diaphoretic Herbs - These are called for in situations where there is great tension causing circulatory constriction. The person will often be tense, with little to no sweating, and a hard, hot fever that won’t let go. There is often obvious inflammation as can be seen through a crimson red tongue, a flushed face and a feeling of being very oppressed, irritated and restless.
Stimulant Diaphoretic Herbs - These are called for when the tissues are too lax to allow for proper circulation. There is often significant coldness, a feeling of weakness or lethargy, a pale tongue, and a cold, even clammy quality to the skin. There may be a lowgrade fever happening but it is usually non-productive and intermittent. Dampness and overall congestions may also be present. Be careful with these when it’s cold out, because while they can initially make you feel very warm indeed, they actually lower body temperature through opening their ventilations of the body (which is part of why they work well for fevers, eh?) and are traditionally used in hot weather in hot climates to cool the body down, not warm it up. So, even if you feel all full of warm, tingly goodness, guard your body heat well. In addition to my two examples (both of which are common in gardens in the SW), many kitchen spices and tea herbs are stimulating diaphoretics. Most are generally warming, but some like Sassafras, are much more cooling in nature and those should be used where there are signs of both tissue laxity and heat.
Heat-Clearing and Anti-Infective Herbs
This class of herbs are useful where there are signs of acute heat and possible secondary infection, especially in the respiratory tract. These are usually cooling and drying, and work quickly to lessen inflammation, ease discomfort and restore equilibrium to the body’s bacterial population.
These remedies help move move mucus when it is stuck, overly copious or dried out. Mucus is actually a very beneficial substance, and a vital part of our immune response to bacterial or viral proliferation. As such, it’s not necessarily a good idea to pop those allergy pills and dry it all up before it has a chance to properly do its job. Suppressing fever or mucus has the inevitable result of reducing the efficiency and effect of our immune systems. Use expectorants to move mucus rather than prematurely drying it up. Expectorants come in two primary flavors, relaxant and stimulant, just like the diaphoretics, depending on whether you need to relax constriction to move the mucus or to compensate for laxity or depression in the tissues. They can, like any other type of herb, be either moistening or drying, warming or cooling.
Relaxant Expectorant Herbs – These herbs help relax constriction and tension in the chest and nervous system enough for the mucus to move. If there is also significant dryness, moistening herbs should be used, if there’s too much moisture, drying herbs should be selected. It is quite common for this kind of constriction or tension to cause spasms, even to the point of making expectoration impossible because the constriction is so extensive that coughing only results in gagging rather than anything productive. In such cases, it is often useful to combine a relaxant expectorant such as Chokecherry with a strong relaxant such as Lobelia to allow the lungs enough freedom to properly remove the buildup of mucus. Lonstanding or chronic buildup will usually either result in dried, up crusty walls of mucus or a gurgly swamp, both are breeding grounds for infections. The former should be addressed with moistening expectorants such as Mallow or Elm, the latter with drying, usually aromatic expectorants such as Cottonwood or Pine. Many, if not most, aromatic, diffusive herbs are by their very nature expectorant, so the choices are very broad.
Stimulating Expectorant Herbs - These are called for where there are boggy, lax or depressed tissues. This is especially common where a condition has become chronic or the individual has suffered for asthma or related lung weakness for much of their life. In these cases, there will often be coldness, even there is also a tendency to infection and low-grade inflammation. These situations can become dangerous, as a boggy lung ecosystem can easily turn into pneumonia or become a very welcoming habitat for virulent bacteria. In these cases, I will often recommend the use of an appropriate mucus membrane tonic for a period of time to help restore tone and flexibility to the tissue, which will lessen the chances for future infections or issues.