The sun has dropped to a low spot on the horizon. The days are darker and colder and the night is longer. Winter signifies a need for deep rest and nourishment. It’s a time of quiet. Soup’s on the stove, hot teas are being sipped. The proverbial fire is being stoked in the kitchen’s hearth.
The cold and flu season extends across this dark time of year. One of the best wellness remedies we have during winter is that innate desire to retreat, withdraw, rest and become the quiet the winter season embodies.
It’s no surprise, then, that a combo of quiet, nourishment and rest is my number one answer to the frequently-asked question, “What’s the best way to boost my immune system during the holiday and winter so I can remain healthy during the cold and flu season?”
Ok, I am not recommending becoming a complete hermit in the winter, but it is really good to dial back obligations and focus on rest.
As a fast-paced society that does not value rest, I get a bristling response all the time at this recommendation. “Rest? That would mean I’d have to sleep more. Nourishment? I can barely get my work done in a day, let alone sit down and eat quietly and mindfully. OMG, I don’t have time to get sick. What can I take so I can still get all the things done I need to do?? Can’t you give me something for that?”
C’mon guys! I totally get that it’s hard! This is ~me~ who’s talking here. The above statements are things I say in my own house— I am not exempt from wanting an easier solution to wellness … something other than the tough obligation of making choices to cultivate my long-term health and wellness. I know intimately how demanding the pressures of society, work, and family are — trust me – I really, really do. Making choices, saying “no” to people and projects to rest when I really am bone tired for me –that is… hard.
On the other hand, I know intimately how great a toll these pressures and stresses can take on one’s health — the entire body is affected from prolonged exposure to chronic stress and it can take years to recover from depletion and exhaustion. Dialing back obligations and managing stress — as well as resting is a big deal for the body. And even though it’s freezing cold outside, foraging plant-sister Butter Wilde is reminding me to GET OUTSIDE. Get thee some good base layers, warm boots and a hat and get some fresh air. These are all key to staying well in the winter.
In regards to cold and flu season and without getting into the complete physiology of stress, it’s important to remember that when we are stressed, the immune system all but gets put on hold. The body’s energy is diverted away from the immune system, making it hard to both defend against viruses and infections. During cold & flu season, it is easy to not rest as much as we need and become easily stressed, particularly with the holidays just around the corner.
Alas — Getting sick is part of the human condition. Those viruses, bacterias — all part of the world and our biomes — will inevitably come into contact with our person. During cold and flu season, this can mean a whole host of viruses from the more serious influenza to strains of rhinovirus and norovirus.
A simple cold in a healthy person can be cleared as little as 4 days, or even rolled completely if the immune system is given a chance to ward off the invading illness. But a simple cold (there are many, many viruses under the heading common cold) or bout of influenza (which can last up to 10 days) for someone with a compromised immune system could deteriorate into in a much more complicated situation and illness. Having a strong immune system can help prevent that — and rest, good food and moderate exercise is foundational for a strong immune system.
What does that immune system offer during cold & flu season? The body has a ton of great immune responses to help fend off the invaders — runny noses, fever, vomiting, diarrhea. Immune responses are part of the body’s design and are meant to be supported as part of the body’s healing process. But if our immune system is compromised because of too much stress, lack of rest and lack of regular and adequate nourishment — or if we artificially and repeatedly suppress immune responses like FEVER our bodies will not have the tools they need to fight off and restore the body from an infection.
Herbs can be “helpers” in the body’s healing process when we do get sick. I rely on them to help support the body’s vital energy, not focusing on suppress symptoms. I’ve taken time to get to intimately know the herbs I work with, their energetic properties and how they effect movement and change within the body. Herbs can help ease pain and discomfort during illness and can help support the body’s process during a bout of illness through recovery, but the key is learning how to work with the plants as the body processes its illness.
When illness hits…
Creating the space to rest. Before I even reach for herbs, when a cold or a flu starts coming on my biggest strategy is to first dial back the activity and cancel all non-essential projects. The key word here is non-essential — Not everything is top priority. Some things really are (like having to show up for your work shift because you really will lose your job and don’t have enough paid sick time) and I recognize that. But a good deal of our commitments really are not and can be left to the wayside for a bit. More-over, when you are sick — YOU and your health are a priority! Resting when sick is not a luxury or indulgence, rather rest is part of a natural healing protocol!
Arm the castle with good defenses. Get out the soup. Broths. Hot chicken soup is this Jewish mother’s penicillin. It’s ancient Grandma wisdom, and not only does the healing from the nutrients nourish from the deep inside out, but it’s a great childhood favorite and everyone loves it. Vegan? Vegetable broths can be equally healing and nourishing. I have excellent vegan and marrow BROTH RECIPES that include great herbs and foraged wild plants to add to the broths, making them extra-fortified with immune building herbs like Reishi, Maitake, Astragalus, Nettle, Red Clover, Oatstraw. Deep healing on a cellular level, broths are.
In addition to broths, I then reach for the herbs to help stimulate the peripheral immunity. I like to use Elderberry (inhibits the viruses ability to reproduce), Echinacea, Boneset, Yarrow, Osha all at once in my own Elderberry Elixir to help supply my immune system with that extra boost — kind of like adding men to the towers to defend my proverbial castle. Want to make your own? Herbbie friend Rebecca McTrouble has a great ELDERBERRY SYRUP RECIPE HERE, or call me to stock your shelves with my own Elderberry Elixir blend.
Supporting the Process with Plants. Using plant energetics, work to match up the body’s needs with the right plants. This will change as your body moves through the illness. Got hot fever with chills? I like to reach for a strong diaphorhetic mint like Oregano or Bee Balm and maybe add in a relaxant herb like Elderflower to help my body relax from the chills and ache. Sometimes the tension is really strong (think flu’ish hit-by-a truck symptoms) and then l can add calming, tension-relieving sedatives like Chamomile (also aromatic), Lemon Balm, Spearmint, Catnip, Passionflower, or Valerian to my blend. A favorite combo for cold and flu is the basic Gypsy Tea made of Mint, Elderflower and Yarrow. When I get sick, I sometimes make a large thermos of Gypsy Tea and put it bedside so I don’t have to keep getting up.
Sinus? I turn to the herbs that are aromatic. Pine, Mints, Lavender, Bee Balm, Oregano, Sage - all these herbs have aromatic oils that can be uplifting and can open sinus and relieve tension in the body. Steam inhalations are AWESOME. See how I do STEAM INHALATIONS (thanks, Jim McDonald for the kid towel tip – I am forever grateful for that teaching). Neti pots with saline rinses are also AWESOME tools to have on hand, and astringent, anti-bacterial herbs like Goldenseal or Mahonia can be added to the rinse in small drops as means to ward off a potential bacterial sinus infection.
Coughs? Dry or wet cough? This is a great example of needing to learn the energetics of the herbs. A dry, barking dog cough can indicate a signifiant drying of the tissues in the lung and stagnant expectoration, and would benefit from moisturizing herbal combos like Mullein, Marshmallow or Licorice, Raw Honey and Wild Cherry Bark. Damp, wet coughs can benefit from drying herbs like Garlic (though everyone can always benefit from garlic), Elecampagne, Osha, Pine. In both instances, long standing lung conditions indicate a significant illness and should not be ignored. Rest and herbs and even medical care to rule out serious conditions like pneumonia.
Sore throat? Hot teas with lemon. Ginger. Bee propolis is awesome, especially when working in tandem with an antibiotic for strep throat — add some Elecampagne to that. And oooo raw honey. I can’t say enough about the importance of RAW HONEY in the herbal apothecary.
Vomiting? Chamomile and catnip are two favorites to sip SLOWLY as tea, and Valerian can be a wonderful relaxant for excess painful cramping from dry heaves. I’ve also taken to using small tastes of the sour Umaboshi vinegar plum paste for cooling and soothing vomiting states. Diarrhea? Loose bowels due to a stomach flu can benefit from a strong astringent tea made with Blackberry roots. To make it kid-friendly, I’ve learned to use this tea to make a not too sweet hot cocoa, sweetened with maple syrup instead of white refined sugar. NOTE: LEARN THE SIGNS OF DEHYDRATION. Dehydration can become very serious fast, and if you don’t feel you have the ability to work with dehydration for your or your loved one, visit the ER immediately for appropriate treatment.
Recovering from sickness? Take it slow. Continue to rest and nourish with simple foods. Also, support your body’s recovery process in cleaning up the illness detritus by adding in bitters for the digestion, absorption and elimination of wastes in the digestive and lymphatic system. in general, bitters ~should~ be had as food and a main staple in our diets (think dandelion leaf, Romaine lettuce, fennel, Chamomile — check out Jim McDonald’s Bitters rap HERE) but in a recovery state (as well as everyday use) simple tinctured bitters (I hand make my own bitters with a variety of herbs such as Orange Peel, Cinnamon, Aspen Bark, Fennel, Red Root) can be very supportive of the metabolic process and foundational to a healthy digestive system. Consider also adding in a good probiotic or digestive enzyme also, especially if recovering from a bout of stomach flu. The recovery process is very, very important so your body can properly return to a balanced state.
I really love sharing this vitalist framework to getting a cold or flu. It provides the basis and tools to truly support and work with the body in a deep way and more often than not, it has me back on my own feet sooner than I sometimes think when I get sick!!!
Got your own tips? Maybe recipes you use when sick? Share them with me!
A Few Other Good Links & Resources:
- Darcey Blue on Flu
- Todd Caldecott’s Ayurvedic approach to Colds & Flu
- 7 Song’s Materia Medica for Colds & Flu
— Paul Bergner on Vitamin D