Top 20 Immune Boosting Foods and Herbs for Colds and Influenza

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One of the great things about living in Ontario is the opportunity to experience the yearly cycle of the seasons. Although every season has its own special beauty and important lessons to teach us, many people dread the coming of winter. Some fear the cold, even though Canadian winters really aren’t that severe. Cold is just part of life. Like anything else, it’s not so bad if we learn to accept it instead of fight it.

For others there is the concern of becoming ill. Winter does often bring its share of colds and flu and other minor infections. Ironically, the incidence of acute infectious conditions is actually less during more severe winters. Microbes don’t like the cold either!

Winter doesn’t have to be a time of frequent illness. If we understand the causes of these conditions, take better care of ourselves, and have a few simple herbal preparations as a back-up, we should be able to significantly reduce the frequency and severity of these common infectious conditions.

The first thing that we need to realize is that colds and flu and other acute illnesses are not caused by the mere presence of viruses or other microorganisms. We are exposed to millions of potentially disease-causing micro-organisms every day, and yet it is the rare occasion that we actually get sick. The reason for this is that our bodies have many defenses to protect us from these organisms. It is only when these defenses are compromised in some way that we become more susceptible to illness.

Clearly, the best way that we can avoid getting sick is to make sure that our bodies’ defenses are strong and healthy. This is basically a lifestyle issue. It is not possible to go into an exhaustive discussion of all of our bodies’ defenses, so I am going to focus primarily on those factors that contribute to healthy (and unhealthy) immune function. Our immune system is the last of our defenses and the ability of this system to deal with any kind of pathogenic infestation is often the ultimate deciding factor that will determine whether or not we get sick.

Diet and Supplements for Prevention of Cold and Flu

If we want to have a healthy immune system, it is essential that we eat a good diet, get lots of exercise, plenty of rest and relaxation, minimize stress in our lives and avoid excessive exposure to toxicity in the air we breathe (indoors and outdoors), the water we drink and the food we eat.

Diet deserves special mention here because this issue is a bit more complex. A diet that is healthy for our immune system is one that includes primarily whole, organic foods, with an emphasis on fresh fruits and vegetables and, in general, avoids excesses. A diet that is unhealthy for the immune system is one that includes an abundance of commercial (non-organic) processed foods, deep fried foods, dairy products, caffeinated beverages and foods, sweets and alcohol. If you really enjoy being sick, go ahead and smoke cigarettes, drink lots of coffee, and take social and pharmaceutical drugs. Sounds like the typical Canadian diet, eh? Don’t forget: don’t exercise, stay up late at night and get plenty of stress!

For healthy immune function, nutritional supplements can also be of help, but they are no substitute for a healthy lifestyle. Although everyone’s needs are different, it is possible to make some general recommendations. A good quality low-potency multivitamin with minerals is recommended. Look for one with the B complex vitamins in the 15-25 mg range, and minerals in the form of amino acid chelates or citrates. Take one per day with your breakfast.

Antioxidants are very important, especially vitamin C. This is best taken in the form of calcium ascorbate, and it is essential that it contain a decent amount of flavinoids (bioflavinoids, quercetin, rutin, etc.) and related compounds such as proanthocyanidins and/or anthocyanins. The latter two usually come in the form of grape seed, pine bark and various berry extracts. A good vitamin C source should have 500-600 mg of vitamin C in the form of ascorbates with at least 100 mg of these other compounds. Take two per day at different times with meals (breakfast and supper works best).

Other important antioxidants include alpha- and beta-carotene (10,000-25,000 IU per day), vitamin E (200-400 IU per day, natural only) and the mineral selenium (100-200 mcg per day).

Herbs for Preventing and Treating Cold and Flu

Finally, to help minimize colds and influenza during the winter months we need a good selection of herbs. If we keep on hand at least three herbs from each of the following categories, it’s possible to put together combinations that will address any combination of cold and flu symptoms. I will limit my recommendations to a small number of effective, readily available herbs.

Immune stimulants promote a short-term increase in the response of our immune system to cold and flu viruses. They should be included in any formulation for acute infections, regardless of the symptoms. They include: purple coneflower (Echinacea spp), pot marigold (Calendula officinalis), elecampane (Inula helenium), boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum) and Chinese milkvetch (Astragalus membranaceus).

Lymphatics support the lymphatic system, which works closely with the immune system. These herbs should be included in any cold or flu formulation. They include: purple coneflower, pot marigold, cleavers (Galium aparine), plantain (Plantago spp) and sweet clover (Melilotus spp).

Antiviral herbs reduce the proliferation of viruses in the body. Cold and flu symptoms are caused by viruses. Antiviral herbs should also be included in all cold and flu formulations. They include: purple coneflower, pot marigold, hyssop (Hyssopus officinalis), lemon balm (Melissa officinalis), garlic (Allium sativum) and cinnamon (Cinnamomum spp).

Expectorant herbs loosen up the secretions of our lungs and make it easier to cough them up. They should be included whenever we have a cough. They include: elecampane, plantain, hyssop, white horehound (Marrubium vulgare) and thyme (Thymus vulgaris).

Anticatarrhal herbs dry up the mucus secretions of our nasal passages. They should be included whenever symptoms include sneezing and a runny nose. They include: pot marigold, boneset, plantain, yarrow (Achillea millefolium) and elder flowers (Sambucus spp).

Decongestant herbs loosen up the mucus secretions of the nasal passages. They should be included whenever there is thick congestion in the sinuses or sinus headaches. They include: thyme, gum tree (Eucalyptus globulus), oregano (Origanum vulgare) and wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa).

Diaphoretic herbs increase blood flow to the surface of the body thereby increasing heat loss. These herbs should be included whenever a fever is present. They include: boneset, hyssop, yarrow, elder flowers, wild bergamot and lemon balm.

Circulatory stimulants improve blood flow, thereby aiding in the distribution of the constituents of herbs throughout the body and assist the ability of immune cells to reach all of the body’s tissues. Circulatory stimulants also increase the effectiveness of expectorants, decongestants and diaphoretics. They are always included in formulations for colds and flu. They include garlic, cinnamon, ginger (Zingiber officinale) and cayenne (Capsicum spp).

Stocking Up

To put together your herbal medicine chest for the cold and flu season, it’s best to include three herbs from each of the above categories. Even though there are eight categories, that doesn’t mean that we need to stock 24 herbs because the majority of these herbs fall into more than one category. If we stick primarily to herbs that fall into two or more categories, we can significantly reduce the number of herbs that we will need. It is possible to cover the first seven categories with as few as eight herbs. We don’t need to worry too much about the circulatory stimulants because all four of the herbs listed in that category are already found in almost everyone’s kitchen.

The best way to use these herbs is in the form of fresh herb tinctures, as many herbs work best when fresh. However, some also work well as teas: but it’s best to keep the better tasting herbs on hand to use as teas. These include hyssop, thyme, oregano, wild bergamot, lemon balm, cinnamon and ginger. The rest can be used as tinctures which can be added to the tea. This is important because formulations for colds and flu are best taken hot. Other herbs that are good teas to add the tinctures to include chamomile and the various mints.

To put together a formulation to meet our needs, we should pick two herbs from each category of herb for which we have the appropriate symptoms, but only one circulatory stimulant. For example, if someone has a cold with a runny nose and a cough, they would need to include two immune stimulants, two lymphatics, two antivirals, two anticatarrhals, two expectorants and one circulatory stimulant.

If they pick herbs that fall into more than one category, the formulation doesn’t need to be too complex. In this case it’s possible to put together a formulation with as few a five herbs: purple coneflower (immune stimulant, lymphatic, antiviral), pot marigold (immune stimulant, lymphatic, antiviral, anticatarrhal), plantain (lymphatic, anticatarrhal, expectorant), hyssop (antiviral, expectorant) and ginger (circulatory stimulant). It’s okay to include more than two herbs from most of these categories as long as we include only two anticatarrhals and one circulatory stimulant. More than two anticatarrhals could dry out our sinuses too much. More than one circulatory stimulant could make the formulation too pungent (spicy/hot).

Our herbs should be combined so that we have one part of each herb and 1/2 part circulatory stimulant. For the average adult, the total amount of all of the herbs collectively should be about the equivalent of four to six droppers using standard 1:5 fresh herb tinctures, or three to four teaspoons of dried herb per cup of tea. In either case this constitutes a single dose. The formulation should be taken six to eight times per day on an empty stomach in the early stages of treatment, three to five times per day when the condition has almost cleared up. It’s best to continue until a few days after all of our symptoms have cleared up.

For the best results, we should begin taking herbs as soon as we have even the slightest indication of cold or flu symptoms. For this reason, it is essential to stock up on tinctures and dried herbs now. We shouldn’t wait until we are already sick. The longer it takes for you to start the treatment, the longer it will take to get better.

Colds and flu can sometimes have unexpected complications. In addition, although rare, the symptoms of more serious conditions can appear like a common cold or flu. For this reason anyone who experiences severe symptoms, especially high fever, or after following the recommendations indicated here doesn’t seem to be getting any better, should consult with a qualified health care practitioner. It is also not wise to attempt to treat children under three or seniors unless we educate ourselves to a greater degree than can be provided in an article like this one.

Nevertheless, with a few basic guidelines it’s possible to successfully treat the symptoms of the typical cold or flu. Armed with this knowledge, all we need to do is embrace the cold and get out there and enjoy the winter.

Michael Vertolli is a Registered Herbalist practising in Vaughan (just north of Toronto). He is the Director of Living Earth School of Herbalism, which offers in-class and online general interest courses, certificate, and diploma programs. More information: 905-303-8723, ext. 1. Visit: Blog:

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