By Jillian Bar-av, MS, LDN
Jillian is a Clinical Herbalist here at the center… click here to find out more about her.
What can you do to prevent getting sick this cold and flu season? First of all, eat well, get plenty of sleep, and try to keep stress to a minimum. I know that is all common sense, and sometimes more easily said than done, but these inputs actually make a huge difference in how your immune system functions. Most people are aware that Vitamin C can help prevent the common cold. White blood cells need Vitamin C to do the work of phagocytosis (eating up viruses and bacteria). But did you know that Vitamin C has to compete with glucose to get into your white blood cells? If there is more glucose around than Vitamin C, the phagocytosis ability of white blood cells declines dramatically. So, eating sugar can have a real negative effect on your immune defense system, and Vitamin C can really support immune defenses. Another thing that can make a huge difference in staying well is taking herbs preventatively to support the immune system.
My favorite herbs to build up a strong immune system are Astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus) and Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum). Astragalus has been used for centuries in Chinese medicine to support the immune system. Research has shown that Astragalus increases white blood cell activity, natural killer T-cell activity, interferon activity, and phagocytosis – all ways that the body fights off infection. Astragalus can be taken in capsule form, as a powder, or as a tea. The polysaccharides that enhance the immune system are water soluble, so I believe it is more effective in these forms than in the form of an alcohol-based tincture. That said, if you want to enhance the immune system of a child, I think using a glycerin-based tincture does work well.
Reishi is a medicinal mushroom and another herb that made its way to us from use in Chinese medicine. The Chinese historically regarded Reishi as a panacea and it was only available to the ruling class. Luckily, people of all classes now have access to this amazing herb. My favorite use for Reishi is to support the immune system and there is considerable scientific evidence to support Reishi’s immune stimulating activity. Research has shown that constituents found in Reishi enhance the proliferation and maturation of T and B lymphocytes and natural killer cells as well as increasing activity of macrophages.
Astragalus and Reishi are both considered tonic herbs, which means they are safe to take over the long term. The dosage used is often substantial, such as 3-12g of each herb daily. In addition to using these herbs in the usual ways of capsules, teas, and powders, whole Reishi mushroom and slices of Astragalus are often added to soups and let to simmer for many hours. Immune soups such as this are a great way to boost the immune system for the whole family over the winter. Reishi is used only for its medicinal properties (it is much too hard to be edible) so it is not as widely available in whole form as other mushrooms. Shiitake and maitake are both edible mushrooms that also have immune supporting properties and make excellent additions to soup.
Another herb that I love for immune support is Elderberry (Sambucus nigra). I find Elderberry most effective as a preventative tonic or for protection when you are exposed to someone else who is sick. It is a great preventative and can also be useful right at the first signs of a sore throat. In vitro and animal research on Elderberry has demonstrated inhibition of viral proliferation and replication, including against H1N1 influenza. Although I don’t find that it can turn a cold around once the symptoms really begin, it may shorten the length of a cold or flu. A Clinical trial using 15ml of elderberry syrup or placebo syrup for 5 days on 60 patients with flu-like symptoms was found to reduce the length of symptoms by an average of 4 days and reduce the need for rescue medications as well. Elderberries can be effective in many different forms. I enjoy them best in syrups and taken by the tablespoon every hour or so at the first signs of a cold. Another great way to incorporate them is to buy the whole dried berries and to make a tea out of them. Simply add a handful of berries to a couple cups of water and bring to a boil. When it comes to a boil, lower the temperature and simmer for 20 minutes. Then strain and add a little honey (if desired) to sweeten your purple-colored tea!
It would be hard to write an article about cold and flu prevention without mentioning Echinacea. Echinacea comes in handy at the very first signs of infection. If you can catch the tickle in the back of your throat before it becomes anything more, than you have learned the art of how to use Echinacea effectively. The other trick to Echinacea’s effectiveness is to take enough of it. Small, frequent doses are better than just a few large doses and I highly recommend that it be taken in tincture form. The reason is that Echinacea works by increasing phagocytosis of white blood cells directly on the tissues it comes in contact with. Therefore, the liquid extract diluted in a little water and put directly on the throat is going to be more effective than a capsule which will never come in contact with the mucosa of the throat. Another trick I use to increase the effectiveness of Echinacea is to mix it with licorice extract and also myrrh extract. Licorice thickens the blend and has its own anti-viral properties, while the resins in myrrh help the mixture to stick to the throat while adding to the antiseptic activity. The dose I recommend at the very first signs of a cold is 1 dropper-full of Echinacea (or Echinacea blend) every hour diluted in just a little bit of water. It should feel tingly on your throat – that is the alkylamides at work!
Last but not least, the value of Vitamin C should not be forgotten. I really enjoy Emergen-C packets for this purpose. 1 packet mixed into an 8oz glass of water contains 1000mg Vitamin C and tastes good. 1 glass daily is a great cold and flu preventative and many glasses of this mixture per day can be taken for acute immune support.
To sum up:
- If you are someone who easily gets sick whenever something is going around, Astragalus and Reishi are tonic herbs that strengthen the immune system. They can be taken daily throughout the winter months.
- If you are around others who are sick, take elderberry to prevent yourself from getting sick. You can also take elderberry at the start of a cold or flu to help shorten the duration of being sick.
- The moment you feel a tickle in your throat, begin taking Echinacea to try to prevent yourself from getting sick.
- For general winter wellness, get plenty of sleep, eat well, and take Vitamin C.
Stay tuned for part 2 – what to do if you do come down with a cold or flu!
Jillian Bar-av is a clinical herbalist and nutritional consultant in private practice at Howard County Holistic Center. For more information or to schedule an appointment, call 410-258-9625 or go to www.greenspringherbs.com.
The information provided in this article is for informational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for advice from your physician or other health care professional.
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- Roschek B Jr, etal. Elderberry flavonoids bind to and prevent H1N1 infection in vitro. Phytochemistry. 2009 Jul;70(10):1255-61. Epub 2009 Aug 12.
- Zakay-Rones Z, etal. Randomized study of the efficacy and safety of oral elderberry extract in the treatment of influenza A and B virus infections. J Int Med Res. 2004 Mar-Apr;32(2):132-40.