In my blog post last week I talked about why I’m opposed to flu shots, and outlined a holistic approach to supporting the immune system and increasing the body’s ability to resist pathogens. Because botanical medicine is central to my healing practice, I’d like to address in more detail the herbal protocol I use for protection during the changing seasons.
In my approach, I combine Eastern and Western Traditional Medical concepts with information from modern Biomedical research. I find it most effective to look through both traditional observational and modern biomedical lenses, and to layer these lenses so that they act as a focusing system, allowing for more clarity and direction in healing. This facilitates the integration of traditional wisdom and modern research.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), the constellation of symptoms representing what the Biomedical model calls colds and flus is believed to be the result of pathogenic influences entering the body. TCM views the body as having six layers through which the pathogenic influences can penetrate, where each successive layer brings the pathogen closer to the core of the body. At the onset of a cold or flu, people often experience symptoms such as chills, fever, sweating, cough, sore throat, thirst, eye pain, headache, muscle aches, irritability, and insomnia, all of which represent “external” symptoms, meaning that the invading pathogenic factor has not yet moved to the “internal” layers of the body. Signs of deeper infection are high fever with no chills, profuse sweating, severe thirst, loss of appetite, and bowel or urine changes.
The Vitalist and Eclectic traditions of herbal medicine have long used botanical medicines to address the symptoms associated with colds and flus. For example, the deliberate induction of sweating (called diaphoresis) is used by herbalists from many traditions around the world as a treatment for flu. At the turn of the century it was common to see boneset, a powerful diaphoretic, hanging from the rafters of a settler’s home, ready for making into strong decoctions if the household was affected by a virulent flu. From the TCM perspective, sweating opens the pores and pushes the pathogenic factor out of the body, preventing it from moving deeper and resolving the condition before it takes root.
In Biomedical thinking, RNA viruses cause influenza, while the common cold is generally thought to be a family of rhinoviruses. Both influenza and the common cold are regarded as infectious diseases, transmitted through contact with other infected persons. Interestingly, doctors practicing medicine prior to the introduction of the Biomedical concept of infectious diseases had no knowledge of infectious organisms. Their approach was not aimed at killing an invading bug, but instead focused on the pathogenic influences and changing the internal terrain.
TCM practitioners, and many herbalists from other traditions, believe that a cold is the result of too much “Cold” acting on, or in, the body. When the body’s Vital Force is overcome by “Cold,” the “Cold” can penetrate outer defenses and move inward, causing an internal ecological imbalance that leads to further disease. Modern research has sought to prove or disprove the existence of a connection between environment and disease, and several studies confirm that getting too cold can indeed increase the risk of “catching a cold.”
Modern research aims to define the specific cellular and molecular changes that take place in the presence of an infection. Certain immune modulating compounds are associated with flu and cold symptoms. For example, the induction of interleukin 6 and the related family of immune modulating cytokines is one of the most important mediators of fever and of the acute phase response. It has been shown to be an essential part of the signaling cascade associated with host immunity and is required for resistance against specific bacterium such as streptococcus pneumonia. The induction of interferons (IFN’s) is also associated with host immunity and accounts for some of the host symptoms associated with infections, such as muscle aches and soreness. And recent research indicates that NF-kappaB, another immune modulating compound, stimulates replication of the influenza virus. Many herbal compounds are effective at reducing NF-kappaB.
I find that botanicals work synergistically to achieve several goals: Up-regulation of immune-modulating compounds involved in host defense against invading viruses and bacteria; resolution of pathogenic influences described in TCM (such as Cold, Wind, and Heat); relief of symptoms associated with the disease; and shortening the course of the disease. The following herbs are some of my favorites for preventing and treating colds and flus:
Propolis is a glue-like resin made by bees as a building material and antiseptic agent within the hives and is one of the best infection fighters and healing agents available to us. The pharmacologically active molecules are flavonoids and phenolic acids and their esters, which effectively combat bacteria, fungi and viruses. In addition, propolis and its components have anti-inflammatory and immunomodulatory properties.
Propolis has been found to be protective against Streptococcus mutans and other strep species that are closely related to the germ that causes strep throat, as well as
Staphylococcus aureus, the bacterium that causes dangerous and often deadly surgical infections, blood poisoning, and a type of pneumonia. Internally, propolis is excellent for bacterial, viral and fungal infections, sore throats and mouth ulcers.
Elderberry/Elder Flower (Sambucus nigra)
Both elderberries and elderflowers have a long history of use in treating colds and flus. The flowers contain flavonoids, anthocyanins, carotenoids, essential oil, mucilage, and tannins. Elderflowers are primarily valued for their diaphoretic properties, and are used to promote sweating and reduce fever. Elderberries are rich in vitamin C and a wide range of important flavonoids, including quercetin and anthocyanins, which are believed to account for the therapeutic effects.
Elderberries are used to treat cold and flu symptoms including nasal congestion, cough, sore throat, fever, and muscle pain. Researchers have found that compounds in the berry bind to the flu virus, inhibit replication, and prevent the virus from penetrating cell walls. Israeli scientists have extensively tested standardized elderberry extract, finding significant improvement in flu symptoms or a complete cure in approximately 90 percent of cases within two to three days, compared to six days for a control group. According to researchers, “No satisfactory medication to cure influenza type A and B is available. Considering the efficacy of the extract in vitro on all strains of influenza virus tested, the clinical results, its low costs, and absence of side-effects, this preparation could offer a possibility for safe treatment for influenza A and B” (Zakay-Rones, et al., 1995).
Another study revealed that, “The H1N1 inhibition activities of the elderberry flavonoids compare favorably to the known anti-influenza activities of Oseltamivir (Tamiflu; 0.32 microM) and Amantadine (27 microM)” (Roschek, et al., 1999).
Lian Qiao (Fructus forsythia)
Lian Qiao is a Chinese medicinal herb in the category of herbs that Clear Heat and Eliminate Toxins. In TCM terms, its primary function is to eliminate Wind-Heat or early stage febrile disorders. It is very effective for eliminating the Heat Toxins associated with sore throats.
Jin Yin Hua (Flos lonicera)
Jin Yin Hua is another TCM botanical that is used to treat Wind-Heat disorders, and is categorized as an herb that Clears Heat and Eliminates Toxins. Jin Yin Hua is used to Clear Heat in various stages of febrile disorders and vents Heat from deeper layers of the body outward. Lonicera is useful for the sore throat, fever, thirst, and perspiration associated with an external disease, and is also beneficial for cases where there is internal Heat and Toxins manifesting with high fever, strong thirst, and more severe sore throat.
As an antibiotic, Jin Yin Hua has demonstrated broad-spectrum inhibition against bacteria such as Staph. aureus and beta hemolytic streptococcus and has demonstrated anti-inflammatory and antipyretic effects. Several studies have shown that lonicera can prevent or shorten the duration of colds and flus.
Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)
Yarrow is a classic diaphoretic and is traditionally combined with boneset, elderflower, and mint for the treatment of colds and flus with mild fever. It diffuses and channels heat by inducing perspiration, which is essential for lowering fever.
Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum)
Boneset is native to North America, where it was traditionally used by Native Americans to treat, as its name suggests, “break-bone fever.” The plant induces profuse sweating which breaks fever, and in turn relieves the deep-seated achy pain associated with the flu. Boneset also thins mucus and helps alleviate congestion. The ethanol extract of boneset has cytotoxic and antibacterial effects.
Boneset was one of the most important remedies used by the Eclectic physicians for the treatment of colds and flus. Harvey Wilkes Felter, author of the Eclectic Materia Medica wrote, “In every epidemic of influenza, (boneset) has been used with great advantage. During the severe pandemic of 1918-19 it was one of the safest and most successful remedies employed and contributed much to the successful management of the disease under Eclectic treatment. By many it came to be used as a prophylactic, persons taking it freely apparently escaping attack.”
White Willow (Salix alba)
Willow bark is rich in salicin and related salicylates that metabolize into salicylic acid, which is the active ingredient in aspirin. Salicin is a potent anti-inflammatory agent that inhibits the over expression of cyclooxygenase-2 (COX-2) and nuclear factor kappabeta (NF-kB), which are involved in both inflammation and abnormal gene expression. Willow bark extract is a safe treatment for pain and inflammation and has far fewer side effects than aspirin.
Ginger alleviates a wide variety of symptoms, including chills, coughs, indigestion, nausea, dizziness, diarrhea, and abdominal pain. The active ingredients in ginger are thought to reside in its volatile oils, which comprise approximately 1-3% of its weight. For example, the gingerols have analgesic, sedative, antipyretic and antibacterial effects in vitro and in animals.
Peppermint is rich in menthol, which helps to induce diaphoresis.
Eucalyptus oil has been shown to have antibacterial effects in the respiratory tract and helps to control the secretion of mucus. Eucalyptus oil also stimulates immune system response through its influence on the phagocytic ability of monocyte-derived macrophages.