Be not sick too late, or well too soon…Benjamin Franklin
Immunity has embarked on a journey of change. Its path leads to a new home, one that mixes innovative thought with present practice and integrates science with tradition. Our body’s immune cells are cast as heroes and heroines battling toxins, pathogens and barriers that threaten along the way. But these fighters also encounter friends and allies, a group of which is botanicals.
"We are inhabited by as many as ten thousand bacterial species; those cells outnumber those which we consider our own by ten to one, and weigh, all told, about three pounds--the same as our brain. Together, they are referred to as our microbiome--and they play such a crucial role in our lives that scientists have begun to reconsider what it means to be human.”
― Michael Specter, The New Yorker and New York Times science and technology journalist
There is no turning back on the journey. The 19th century germ theory rescued a population dying from infectious disease. A central founding principle of modern medicine, the model identified microorganisms: bacteria, viruses, fungi as germ sources causing epidemics. The development of antibiotics ensued destroying microorganisms to allow recovery. Currently chronic diseases: cancers, autoimmune conditions and heart disease overshadow infectious disease. The germ theory labeled microbials dangerous, but microbiome research has shifted them to a protective role. The microbiome is majorly complex, opening all new doors of self-care and medical practice. Herbs reach across all avenues offering prevention and additional immune stimulation, modulation, and regulation. The phytonutrients of plants span multitudes of function participating as partners in this new paradigm.
Your immune systems are comprised of all parts of the eco-system you know as yourself, and include not only every part of you, from your conscious and subconscious thoughts to your physical body systems, but also how you live and function in relationship with the larger ecosystems that surround you. Robin Rose Bennett, herbalist
Parallels help break down the multifaceted subject of immunity and illness prevention. Here in football season focus, my beloved team is lacking a great season, still playing strong, though, with no sign of giving up. Some games the offense shines, others defense. Their coach ever directing, special teams ready to step in. Everything goes better when all the team performs well. Same goes for immunity.
The Coach – Regulators
The coach directs players where to go, how to play. The immune system has the difficult task of maintaining a healthy balance and precise control, while allowing its components to fight pathogens yet refrain from self-attack. It stimulates response to pathogen presence and inhibits response that leads to tissue damage or inflammation as in autoimmunity. Like a football coach plays are being called, decisions are made and encouragement is offered. Immune regulatory herbs achieve their effect primarily due to their strong anti-inflammatory actions.
- Gotu kola
The Offense – Potentiators
Offense builds your lead, scores points against the enemy germs. These herbs nourish and strengthen the body’s immunity, helping it respond better to threats. The offensive line of a football team is in possession of the ball with the task of advancing to goal. Immune system potentiators accomplish this as antioxidants, anti-inflammatories, antimicrobials, and protectors.
Immune Potentiator Herbs
- American Ginseng
- Asian Ginseng
- Cat’s Claw (una de gato)
The Defense – Antimicrobials
Defense comes in and knocks the enemy down, tackles them and sacks them. The defensive goal is to prevent the other team from scoring points, stopping them in their tracks, preventing them from advancing. The faster done, the better for the team. Antimicrobial herbs are not antibiotics but they do stimulate the cells of the immune system to deflect the infection or aid its rapid departure.
- Oregon grape root
- Elderflower and Elderberry
The Special Teams – Modulators and Tonics
Special teams include kickers who punt and score extra points. Key to the kicker are the other players who protect him and block the other team from running a long return. Special teams impact the game through critical points and slowing down the opponent. By definition, modulation is tempering, toning down, tonifing. Herbal immune modulators impact responsiveness either by stimulating and strengthening or by calming an over-active reaction. Herbs provide relief for the discomfort of illness, blocking and scoring against it, preventing a win over your health.
Herbs for Symptom Relief (this list is a combination of different types of herbs, not only immune modulators and tonics)
- Yerba Mansa
- Yerba Santa
Kitchen Medicine Cabinet
The first wealth is health…Ralph Waldo Emerson
Because the immune system intricacies remain mysterious, boosting philosophies may or may not make sense. It is hard to know. Under best preparation, one germ can fight its way in exactly during weakness such as less sleep or more stress. In my own experience, supporting immunity leads to less frequent or severe illness. The concept of boosting is rather reinforcing and strengthening response, pointing in the right direction and offering assistance. The key is start early, at least 6 weeks prior to onset of cold and flu season. Early remedy is also critical. By intervening at the very first sign, often a slightly scratchy throat, defenses can kick in quickly and soften the blow. November is the perfect time to stock a kitchen medicine cabinet with remedies so there if and when needed and also to begin prevention.
Each patient carries his own doctor inside him…Norman Cousins
The ultimate don’t get sick studio inhabits the kitchen. Possible remedies abound. For me, real life gets in the way of all that I want to do, but living without three key remedies is not an option.
The first indispensible: a strong tonic created by one of the modern day pioneers of herbalism, Rosemary Gladstar. She has written several invaluable books on medicinal herbs with supremely practical information and methods to incorporate them into life. I have not met her, but heard her speak and read her writings. She is my inspiration and role model. Rosemary calls her immune tonic, Fire Cider, a mixture of horseradish, onions, garlic, ginger, and bit of cayenne pepper infused in apple cider vinegar and sweetened with honey. The ingredients are powerful immune enhancers that will help to ward off colds and flus. Rosemary shares her recipes freely to bring herbalism back into people’s kitchens. Fire cider is easy and rewarding to make at home for an essential kitchen apothecary supply. Here is Rosemary’s Fire Cider recipe as well as her other favorites for fighting colds and flus
My second crucial kitchen apothecary tool for winter illness prevention is broth, Homemade broth, legendary as a remedy, made with beef or chicken bones (or without if vegetarian) enhanced by immunosupportive herbs like medicinal mushrooms, astragalus or garlic eases illness impact and restores vitality. Another inspirational herbalist, Jim Mcdonald, practices with a unique style bringing herbalism to a level of easy understanding. I love everything he teaches and writes. His website, herbcraft.org, is so packed with information I get lost in it for hours. Here is his recipe for bone broth.
Responsible for my initial aha herbal moment, astragalus root powder proves over and over its versatility and effectiveness. When I began studying herbal medicine, my children were past the age where what their mom said was gospel. As I learned herbal uses for their minor ailments, I hoped they would embrace the benefits. No such luck. Perhaps I was overzealous or maybe I didn’t realize medicinal herbs to be more an acquired taste, a taste that my children hated. They even gagged at smells. My oldest daughter, then about to turn thirteen, seemed to suffer a cold every 3 weeks. I began to add astragalus powder into whatever I could, spaghetti sauce, chili, lentils, soups. Its mild bean like flavor blended in, she had no taste complaints and the colds stopped. No coincidence. For centuries astragalus has been traditionally used as a kitchen remedy. Research supports its ability to strengthen and enhance immune cell response. Illness prevention is where it shines.
Beyond prevention, plenty of research studies support herbal use as therapy for colds and flu, especially alleviation of symptoms. Having herbal supplies on-hand in your kitchen pharmacy makes life easier especially if you are the one sick. For me, there is a sense of empowerment to have tangible remedies for my family or myself when the need arises. The following are a few examples.
Warm steam inhalations moisten respiratory tissue, help to drain sinus congestion and clear infection. A strong herbal tea infusion prepared in a pot can be used as inhalation by placing the pot on a surface and tenting a towel over your head. Relax and breath in for about 5-10 minutes intervals or as long as you can. Common kitchen herbs such as thyme, peppermint, sage, chamomile, and lavender are perfect for this remedy.
Drinking tea soothes and provides a breath of relief during illness. Herbal tea blend infusions gently heal and support the body’s ability to recover. Use any of the symptom relief herbs or purchase one prepared.
Prepare a large amount and keep warm in a thermos to sip throughout the day.
Another of Rosemary Gladstar’s famous remedies is onion-honey syrup. Coughing can be the most annoying, lingering cold and flu symptom. Here is a short video of Rosemary teaching preparation of this easy cough syrup. Watch to see her beauty and special teaching style as well as learn the recipe.
Keeping tinctures to use at the very first signs, such as sore throat or tightness in chest may indeed prevent a cold or flu. Andrographis and Echinacea are two of the strongest. Don’t stop just because you feel better, keep going for at least three days beyond when you have symptoms, even if you feel fine to make sure the germs are not lingering. My most trusted source for tinctures is Herbalist and Alchemist, available for purchase online.
Illness is the night side of life, a more onerous citizenship. Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.
― Susan Sontag, Illness as Metaphor
Fighting off illness can be as straightforward as washing hands, avoiding touching your face especially the eyes, nose, and mouth, sufficient sleep and rest. Easy to say not so easy to all the time do. Plants and their medicinal parts gift us a source of reassurance during a season filled with potential for illness.