Old-World Cures for Winter Ailments


Grandma had a cure for almost every common ailment when I was a kid growing up in the rural woods of Muskoka. Folks would come from miles around to seek her advice for treating their health complaints. As a girl, I took as much pride in grandma’s doctoring skills as she did, for I was the one who helped tend her herb gardens and trek through backyard woodlands in search of the “medicinal pickings” that she used in her concoctions.

Today, grandma’s old doctoring journals with their handwritten entries are one of my most prized possessions, and whenever I’m feeling under the weather I turn to the fragile yellowed pages of those cherished scribblers to seek a cure for my discomforts. Sometimes a quick inspiring read is all I need to pick me up. Other times, I’ll take her advice and prepare a cup of herbal tea or a special tonic bound to do the trick. In my book, preparing one of her old prescriptions is the next best thing to having grandma care for me in person.

Of course, she would always recommend that folks who were feeling poorly due to unknown causes seek the advice of a medical practitioner; that sound advice should still be followed today! But for the common upsets of daily living, I can vouch that nothing beats these natural old world cures. Next time you’re under the weather, try one of the remedies below and see if you don’t immediately feel better.

Homemade Herbal Cough Syrup

Grandma has recorded many recipes for homemade cough syrup; this one is my favourite. It seems to ease the cough soon as it is taken. To make, add 3 cups fresh mixed herbs or 1/2 cup dried herbs into 2 cups of water. Herbs to choose from are sage, thyme, rosemary, parsley, lavender, oregano, borage and mint. You can also add dried plantain leaf, crushed dried clover blossom, chamomile flowers, dried raspberry leaves, ground wild ginger rhizomes or fresh grated or dried commercial ginger root to the herb measure. Bring mixture to a boil, simmer about 20 minutes or until reduced to half. Remove from heat, cover and steep until cold. Strain liquid into clean pan. Put back on stove and add 1 cup of creamed clover honey. Heat until blended. Cool. Pour into sterilized bottle and cap. Take 1 tsp as needed. Store the cough syrup in a cool place and it will save indefinitely.


Chamomile Tea for Aiding Digestion and Warding off Heartburn – This fragrant tea is reputed to aid digestion and should be served before mealtime. To make, put 3 Tbsp fresh chamomile flowers or 1 Tbsp dried flowers into a warmed teapot, cover with boiling water and steep for 5 minutes. Strain into a teacup and drink before mealtime.

Sage Tea for Sore Throat, Upset Stomach and Gas – To make sage tea from the fresh plant, put 2 Tbsp fresh sage leaf or 1 tsp dried plant in a heated teapot and cover with 1 cup of boiling water. Steep 5 minutes. Add lemon if using as treatment for sore throat. Sweeten with honey if you wish. In China, sage tea is recommended for many ailments including bad nerves, ulcers, liver, kidney troubles and to reduce fever. Grandma notes that cold sage tea can be used as a cleansing wash for cuts, sores and wounds. It can also be used as a hair rinse, in which case I usually brew it up a little stronger. It adds shine, helps prevent split ends and leaves hair smelling naturally clean with no trace of the heavy fragrance often found in commercial rinses.

Thyme Tea for Cough and Bronchitis, and Oregano Tea for Sinus – Thyme makes a comforting cup of tea that is useful for breaking up coughs associated with bronchitis. It can be made by steeping 2 Tbsp fresh plant or 1 tsp dried plant per cup of boiling water for 15 minutes. Oregano tea is a good treatment for sinus congestion. Make it the same as you would thyme tea. A blend of the two herbs makes a potent tea for any cold or flu virus.

Dandelion Tea to Boost the Immune System – Grandma writes that this tea is good for warding off cold and flu. It is also noted as being a good cleanser for the intestines and helps prevent bloating from overindulgence in rich foods (good to remember at holiday time). To make the tea from fresh plant, simply put a handful of fresh picked, washed flowers in the teapot, cover with boiling water and steep for 5 minutes. To make it out of dried plant, use about 2 Tbsp dried flowers per cup of water. The tea can be sweetened with honey and served hot to ward off cold and ‘flu in winter, or served cold with a bit of lemon to cool down the body in summertime.

Parsley Tea for Halitosis, Sore Throat and Mouth – This tea is good for treating bad breath, sore throat and mouth infections. To make tea from fresh plant, put several sprigs of parsley in the teapot, cover with 1 cup of boiling water and steep until all the goodness has been leached out of the plant, about 15 minutes. To make it out of dried herb, use 1 tsp per cup, although grandma has it written that fresh plant, especially in this case, is much more potent. Like grandma, I keep a window box of herbs in my sunroom all winter long in order to have fresh herbs readily available for cooking and for good health. If you don’t grow your own herbs, most large supermarkets offer a selection of popular fresh herbs year-round. Buy organically grown herbs if possible.

Calming Clover Tea for Bad Nerves and Bronchitis – Clover tea is a very calming drink and a good treatment for bronchitis. Species of clover include red, white, purple, pink and yellow flowered plants from which the best teas are made. Clover flowers can be steeped fresh but the tea is more fragrant when made from dried flowers. Clover flowers can be dried by spreading them on a sheet of clean cloth or waxed paper and drying them in a warm sunny place until the moisture is gone, about 2 to 3 weeks. To make, use 1 Tbsp dried crushed flowers per cup of boiling water. Sweeten the tea with clover honey for double the goodness and pleasure of drinking.

Mint Tea for Bloating, Gas, Colds and ‘Flu – Garden and wild mints make delightful teas that are very good for treating bloating and gas caused by gas-producing foods such as dried beans and lentils. They are also wonderful for the sheer pleasure of drinking and have a cooling effect for the discomforts of cold and ‘flu. Wild mint or garden mint-peppermint, spearmint and lemon balm are all delightful in the teapot. Use a small handful of fresh plant per cup of boiling water or 1 Tbsp dried plant.

Lavender Tea for Depression, Insomnia, Headaches – Nothing is more uplifting than catching a whiff of lavender in the summer breeze. The good news is, you can grow lavender in your indoor herb garden all year round to fill your room with the calming scent. Of course, you can also dry the excess bounty from your summer herb patch to use as a picker-upper whenever you’re feeling down and out, can’t sleep or are suffering from headaches caused by stress. To make lavender tea, use 2 Tbsp fresh lavender or 1 tsp dried plant per cup of boiling water. Steep 15 minutes. For headache, inhale the steam before drinking the tea. To cure insomnia, drink the tea in a bathtub to which you’ve added a good handful of dried plant to the water for a calming, relaxing scent before retiring.

Rice Water to Alleviate Diarrhea

Put 3/4 cup of washed long grain brown rice into a saucepan. Add 8 cups of water and 1/4 cup golden raisins. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer 15 minutes. Strain off the rice water through a sieve into a clean bowl, forcing out the juice with the back of a spoon. Put rice water into a jug and store in the refrigerator. Give to the patient as needed. This is also good treatment for those who can’t keep food down or those with a poor appetite. So as not to waste the rice and raisins, add a little more water (as needed) and finish cooking the rice. It can be sweetened with honey, flavoured with a dab of grated nutmeg and eaten as a special bonus.

Apple Cider Vinegar Preventive Medicine

Apple cider vinegar is another one of those “magical” tonics useful for treating many different types of stomach ailments including diarrhea, bloating, gas, sour stomach, traveller’s sickness and mild cases of food poisoning. If you are prone to getting travel or motion sickness, or are nervous about getting stomach and bowel infections while traveling and eating away from home, a teaspoon of unpasteurized organic apple cider vinegar stirred into a glass of water and drunk a half an hour before mealtimes helps ward off bacteria that causes upset stomach and diarrhea. To make the drink more palatable, especially for children, it can be sweetened with honey. It’s an easy regimen to follow and it works.

Toast Water for Upset Stomach

Like Grandma, I make toast water out of home baked bread (a stale crust is the best piece to use, but you can use whatever bread you have available). Toast one slice of bread until it is very well browned – almost, but not burnt! Put the toast into a bowl and cover it with one quart of boiling water. Cover it with a plate and steep until it has cooled. Strain if needed. Give one cup of toast water to those with upset stomach or invalids who can’t keep food down. Add a pinch of salt, if you wish.

Old Fashioned Barley Water

Grandma swore that nothing was better for general poor health than nutritious barley water, especially good treatment for those who are bedridden and have no appetite. When I was a kid, I knew this as “pearl water” because of its pearly-slippery texture! To make, boil 2 Tbsp of barley in a pint and a half of water for 5 minutes. Stain into a jug. Serve warm by the cup full. A squirt of lemon juice and honey can be added. Like grandma, I always put a few grains of barley into the cup for good measure.

Flaxseed Tea for Travel Sickness

Grandma has it written that the secret to good flaxseed tea is to grind the seeds first, otherwise the tea will be very cloudy and slimy. To make, take 2 Tbsp flaxseed and grind them or use flaxseed (or as some know it, linseed) meal when available. Add 3 cups boiling water and steep 15 minutes. Strain before serving. Sweeten with honey and add a pinch of cinnamon, if you wish.

Bran and Balsam Infusion for Chest Colds

To make this old world tonic, put 1 cup of bran into 4 cups of boiling water and let stand 20 minutes. Strain off the water into a bowl, pressing out all the goodness through the sieve. The spent bran can be discarded or used to replenish the soil in your herb or houseplant pots by divvying it into the pots and mixing it into the soil with a fork. Put 1 Tbsp of balsam gum or resin into a small bowl. This is the sap that runs from the balsam tree and hardens into a blister of resin. It can be gathered anytime of the year, being softer texture in spring and harder in winter. According to grandma’s notes, balsam is a powerful antiseptic, making this drink also soothing for sore throats and good for breaking up phlegm. Add 1/2 cup of honey to the balsam resin and stir over boiling water until melted. Stir this into the bran water. Pour into a jug and cork. Store the infusion in the fridge and sip 1/4 cup full as needed. This will keep for several days, by which time “the cold will be broken up and you’ll be on the mend.”

Rose Hip Cold Prevention Medicine

“Drink a cup of rosehip tea everyday all winter long and you’ll never catch a cold.” This is preventive medicine that’s easy to swallow and since rose hips are so plentiful and easy to gather, it’s old advice that I live by. Rose hips are at their best for gathering in the autumn after they have been nipped by frost. Gather the hips, thumb out the seeds and discard as they contain tiny bristles that can irritate the mouth and stomach if eaten. Spread on cloth and let dry in warm place until they are shriveled and moisture is gone. Or you can dry the whole hips and strain the tea, if you’d rather. Or buy dried rose hips at health food stores if you can’t pick your own.

Rose hips contain more vitamin C than oranges and are a rich source of iron, calcium and phosphorous. They make a very nourishing cup of tea. Put about 3 Tbsp dried hips in the teapot and cover with boiling water. Steep 15 minutes. When the teapot is empty, I always sweeten the hips with honey and eat them for good measure!

Molasses Posset for Cold and ‘Flu

A posset is a medicinal drink that dates back to the Middle Ages. Grandma has many types of possets recorded in her journals for treating various conditions. They are made from milk or buttermilk that is heated to boiling and then curdled with ale, wine, brandy or, in this case, molasses. I still have what Grandma called her “posset pot”, a little cast-iron skillet with an inner lining of enamel for heating the milk. This lets the milk come to the boiling point without scorching. A posset should be served in a small heavy cup that will keep it hot until the very last drop is sipped.

To make this pleasant, caramel-tasting posset, put 1 cup of milk (or buttermilk for a thicker, richer posset) into a small heavy saucepan. Add 2 Tbsp molasses. Heat to boiling, but do not let it scorch. Simmer 1 minute. Strain through a fine sieve to separate the “curdle” from the liquid. I have always eaten the curdle but you can discard it. Grandma said, “take the posset to bed, roll up in flannel and you’ll feel better upon rising – your cold will be long forgotten.”

Brandy Posset for Sleeplessness

Grandma warns that this relaxing posset should not be given to children but works very well at helping to induce sleep in fretting adults. The posset should be sipped slowly before bedtime. It calls for 3/4 cup of milk to be scalded. Add 1/4 tsp grated lemon rind, 1 Tbsp honey and simmer until honey is dissolved. Stir in 1/4 cup brandy and heat through. Strain into cup and take upon retiring.

White Wine Whey for Cough

Like grandma, I use homemade dandelion wine for this medicinal drink, but any kind of commercial white wine will do the trick. Put 1 cup of milk in a heavy bottomed saucepan and heat to boiling. Add 1 cup white wine. Bring to rapid boil and then pour into a bowl. Set in a cold place and let settle until curds fall to the bottom of the dish. Pour off the whey and drink it for coughs associated with cold and flu. The drink is more pleasant if sweetened with honey.

Grandma’s Prescription for Good Health and Well-being

“Eat three proper meals a day, work hard and enjoy every minute of every chore; think happy thoughts and smile often. And when you are feeling under the weather, pamper yourself until the sun comes back out.”

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