It seems like everywhere I’ve been lately someone’s talking about how they just can’t seem to get rid of the cold they keep passing around. It’s been awhile since we’ve had to deal with a cold or flu around here. I like to attribute that to health that begins at the cellular level as our bodies are nourished and strengthened with nutrient-rich, plant-based, whole foods. You can read more about what I have to say about the building blocks of a vibrant life and how to boost the immune system if you are interested. But…while I can safely say we haven’t been sick beyond the sniffles around here for at a couple of years (really!), once in awhile something is bound to get the better of us when our defenses are down. So what do you do when you get sick? (1) Sit back and wait for it to pass? Hope you’re patient. (2) Take over-the-counter “remedies” to suppress the symptoms? Good luck with the next batch of germs for which your body is now ill-equipped to fight. OR (3) Give your body a helping hand but let it do the job it was created to do? NOW we’re on to something.
Modern medicine is aimed at suppressing all symptoms and approaching all pathogens with “search and destroy” tactics. The resulting problems are twofold. (1) Most symptoms are our body’s way of getting rid of the offending pathogen, so suppressing the symptoms also suppresses the defenses. (2) Using antibiotics and other medications to kill germs does not allow the immune system the exercise it needs and kills good bacteria needed to keep everything in proper working order. As a result, recurring or seemingly never-ending cold symptoms are common.
Traditional herbal remedies are designed to promote the body’s natural defense systems and to ease the discomfort of symptoms while allowing the body to do its job. Learning how to treat a cold naturally can not only help you and your loved ones feel better, it can also help your body grow stronger in fighting off infections.
Warning: this is about to get really long…if you don’t have time to read all of this, feel free to search through the subtitles for the info that is helpful to you right now and file away the rest for later!
Fighting the Infection – Supporting the Immune System
I’ve already written about several effective ways to boost the immune system in general (elderberry syrup being one of my favorites!), so today I’d like to look mostly at dealing with some specific symptoms. However, supporting the immune system is an important part of fighting off your microscopic attackers, so let’s look at some simple solutions. Astragalus and echinacea are my favorite herbs for boosting the body’s natural immune system response to a cold.
Astragalus can be taken by people of any age (infants excluded) at any time for immune system support. Astragalus actually increases the white blood cell count in the body and helps the body adapt to the stress of dealing with an infection. Because of the increase in white blood cells, it is important that you inform your primary care physician that you are taking it if they are doing any bloodwork, or it might cause them to be alarmed. Astragalus should be avoided if there are auto immune disorders, as the boost to the immune system would likely worsen conditions associated with the auto immune disorder.
Echinacea should only be taken when you are already sick. It has been shown to reduce the average duration of cold and flu symptoms by 30% as compared to those using over-the-counter remedies or doing nothing at all. Do not take echinacea for more than 8 weeks. Echinacea should be avoided if there are auto immune disorders, as the boost to the immune system would likely worsen conditions associated with the auto immune disorder.
Unless you have an arsenal of dried herbs and a knack for making your own herbal medicines, I’m assuming you’d like some ideas for how to get your hands on these powerful natural options? Two companies I love: Gaia Herbs and Herbs for Kids. Many herbal remedies can be found at drugstores and grocery stores, but they often fail to perform. The problem with most methods of preparing herbal remedies for mass distribution is that they fail to deliver the medicinal qualities of the herbs because of excessive processing, lack of knowledge as to proper herbal formulation methods, and the tendency to standardize and “purify” the botanical extractions, often excluding beneficial components of the extract. Medicinal plant compounds are most effectively drawn out by soaking the herbs in an alcohol or glycerin base for varying lengths of time (called tinctures or glycerites, respectively) depending on the herb and the desired application. Once the medicinal compounds have been extracted, many companies isolate what modern science has deemed to be the desired chemicals. Excluding parts of the plant’s unique blueprint as it was designed leaves the solution incomplete and often ineffective. Products from companies like Gaia Herbs are left in their pure form in order to be the most effective. In their own words: “At Gaia Herbs, we never purify, isolate, or “spike” any compounds within our extracts—delivering the original chemical blueprint of the herb as nature intended.”
Soooo…stepping down off of my soapbox now…here are my go-to pre-made choices for adults and kids:
Gaia Herbs Whole Body Defense Liquid Phyto-Capsules – combines astragalus and echinacea as well as a mushroom extract also known to support immune function – take only if already experiencing symptoms and for no longer than 8 weeks at a time
Gaia Herbs Astragalus Supreme Liquid Phyto-Capsules – a better option for daily wellness without symptoms as it does not contain echinacea – combines astragalus with mushroom and garlic extracts as well as extra vitamin C – can be taken daily or as needed
doTERRA On Guard – a pleasant, spicy essential oil that is effective at helping the body protect itself or heal from sickness – rub it on your chest, throat, or the soles of your feet – gargle with a drop mixed into a glass of water – diffuse in the home
Herbs for Kids Echinacea/Astragalus Extract – combines astragalus and echinacea as well other nutritive and taste enhancing supporting herbs – give only if already experiencing symptoms and do not give for more than 8 weeks at a time
Herbs for Kids Astragalus Extract – a better option for daily wellness without symptoms as it does not contain echinacea – can be taken daily or as needed
doTERRA On Guard – a pleasant, spicy essential oil that is effective at helping the body protect itself or heal from sickness – rub sparingly on the chest, throat, or the soles of the feet (if the child has sensitive skin, stick to the soles of the feet only or dilute with another oil (e.g., olive or coconut oil) before applying) – gargle with a drop mixed into a glass of water – diffuse in the home
Before moving on, I thought I’d include a little common sense advice about supporting the immune system.
- Be sure to stay hydrated and provide your body with the nutritive food it needs to support its healing efforts.
- Avoid sugars – studies show that they lower your immune system response by as much as 40% for up to 5 hours after consumption.
- Get your rest – a tired body makes for a weak immune system response. Most adults need 7-9 hours of sleep each night, but if you are fighting an infection, listen to your body if you need a little extra sleep.
- Get your blood flowing with some light exercise – just a short walk will do wonders for your mood as well as improving circulation of germ-fighting white blood cells.
Fighting the Infection – Herbal Antimicrobials
Garlic – Garlic is a powerful antimicrobial (it kills viral, bacterial, fungal, and parasitic pathogens). Incorporating raw garlic into our diets is the best way to benefit from its properties. Three great ways to eat raw garlic are in hummus, guacamole, and salad dressings. You can even use it like a throat lozenge or swallow it like a pill if you’re tough enough. However, if you can’t quite stand the thought (or smell!) of munching on a garlic clove, try one of these three alternatives:
- Kyolic is an odorless garlic extract that can be taken orally without the taste or after-taste of fresh garlic (the garlic can be tasted slightly when sitting in the mouth to be swallowed, but goes away once swallowed). Kyolic’s Immune Formula also contains Vitamin C, astragalus, and mushroom extracts, all proven beneficial and safe in boosting immune system response.
- The pores in the soles of the feet are large, meaning that in spite of the thick skin that covers the feet they have the ability to absorb remedies into the bloodstream quickly. The feet also have many nerve endings that are connected to all of the various parts of the body. Applying garlic directly to the soles of the feet can therefore be an effective way of getting its healing properties into the body without eating it. Try peeling and slightly smashing a clove of garlic and placing it between your toes (or use a bandage to keep it in place elsewhere on the foot) while you sleep. Be warned: your room may smell like a pizzeria and you may wake up with garlic breath! But you will have undoubtedly given your body an immune-boosting dose of garlic’s amazing antimicrobials.
- Infusing a good quality oil with garlic is a great option for those with sensitive skin (e.g., children). Placing garlic straight on the skin can be too strong for some. Covering minced garlic with oil for just a half hour and then straining produces a potent remedy that can also be applied to the feet (with socks). If you don’t need a remedy right away, make a stronger oil infusion by placing the oil covered garlic in an oven that has been warmed to 200 degrees and then shut off. Let it sit in the oven until it cools (about 3-4 hours). Let it sit, covered with cheesecloth, another 4-5 hours at room temperature. Strain through cheesecloth and squeeze to release any remaining juice/oil. Store in a dark glass bottle in the fridge for maximum shelf life. Use as indicated above.
Treating the Symptoms
When treating the symptoms of a cold, it is important to remember that the symptoms are designed to help the body eliminate the infection. Consequently, the goal is not to eliminate the symptoms but rather to ease discomfort while aiding the body in fighting with its God-given defense mechanisms. There are countless natural over-the-counter remedies available (again, Gaia Herbs and Herbs for Kids are my favorites), but here I’ll share my favorite home-style remedies.
Treating the Symptoms – Coughing
Productive coughing is most often triggered by drainage of mucus and serves to keep mucus out of or clear mucus from the lungs. Non-productive or “dry” coughing frequently follows in response to spasmodic, inflamed, and/or irritated bronchial tissues. Productive coughing should not be suppressed but encouraged. Thyme is my favorite herb for coughing of either type as it is both an expectorant (encouraging productive coughing) and an antispasmodic (calming and soothing non-productive coughing). Thyme has a very pronounced, pungent flavor, so rather than making a tea with only Thyme, I prefer to add other supporting and flavorful herbs. Peppermint is a good catalyst and has good flavor. Fresh ginger is another good option for boosting the effectiveness of other herbs and masking flavor (see a simple recipe for ginger tea under sinus infection remedies below). To make it easy, just brew the thyme with your favorite tea.
To brew tea for medicinal purposes, be sure to cover it while it steeps for at least 10 minutes or you will have lost all of the volatile oils to the air. Fresh loose herbs like those linked to above are generally the most potent and therefore more effective, but if it’s all you’ve got, thyme is widely available as a culinary herb. You may even be able to find fresh thyme at some grocery stores. If you have loose herbs, use about 1 tsp. of herbs per 8 oz. of water. If you have fresh herbs, use about 1 tbsp. of herbs per 8 oz. of water.
Treating the Symptoms – Sore Throat
A sore throat is often one of the earliest signs of the onset of a cold. Start supporting your immune system right away (see above and this post). If your sore throat is accompanied by a high fever, it is wise to see your healthcare provider to rule out strep throat, which is a bacterial infection rather than a virus and can be much more difficult to treat at home without antibiotics.
One of the first things I do when I feel a sore throat coming on is to use OnGuard essential oil (found in the ‘oil blends’), diluted and rubbed all over the neck/throat area throughout the day. For small children I use the oil undiluted on the feet.
In terms of treating the viral infection and soothing the irritated tissues in the throat, raw honey, a powerful antimicrobial, is one of the simplest solutions. Adding ground cinnamon, which increases circulation and raises body temperature, helps to stimulate the immune system’s efforts. Mix raw honey 4:1 with ground cinnamon (e.g., 1 cup raw honey to 1/4 cup cinnamon), and you’ve got a powerful, soothing (not to mention safe & tasty!) medicine. Take it by teaspoonfuls frequently throughout the day while symptoms persist. Do not give honey to infants under 1 year old due to the risk of botulism.
Hot tea made with a combination of slippery elm bark and marshmallow root is great for soothing sore throats due to the high mucilaginous (i.e., a good kind of slimy 😉 ) content of both herbs. I also add licorice root for its anesthetic (pain-killing), anti-viral, and anti-inflammatory properties. If you don’t have these herbs on hand, Traditional Medicinals Throat Coat is a less potent, albeit much easier way to get a small dose of these herbs.
For bark/root teas using loose herbs, you must simmer the herbs for about 20 minutes to draw out the medicinal properties. Use 1-2 tsp. of each herb per 8 oz. of water. Strain immediately, pressing the plant matter to be sure to get as much of the soothing mucilaginous substance as possible, and add lemon and raw honey after the tea has cooled down (90-100 degrees is the ideal temperature to avoid killing the beneficial enzymes/antimicrobial properties of the raw honey). Dilute to taste with warm water and drink a small amount every ½ hour or so.
Treating the Symptoms – Stuffy or Runny Nose
It may seem strange to talk about the relief of both a stuffy and a runny nose as though they are one in the same, but they are not as different as you might think. When you have a cold, the body produces excess mucus to keep the underlying tissues moist and to prevent unwanted bacteria from entering the body. A runny nose is the body’s way of kicking out unwanted guests. When the tissues in the nasal cavity become inflamed and swollen, excess mucus can (and often does) get congested. The pressure to get rid of the excess builds and can be very uncomfortable. Either way, the goal is to allow the nasal and sinus cavities to drain.
My favorite way to relieve this discomfort is a facial steam using chamomile and/or peppermint tea. Both herbs are anti-inflammatory and have decongestant properties. Together with the warm steam, they work wonders to help clear stuffy AND runny noses. Instead of making tea in a cup, make a strong tea (using 2-4 times more herbs than you would for drinking tea) in a bowl and hold your face over the bowl with a towel over your head. Have the tissues handy! For children, stick with chamomile tea for facial steams as the volatile oils in peppermint can be very painful in the eyes and children have a tendency to forget to keep their eyes closed. Also be sure to test the steam yourself before placing your children under the towel so you can make sure it’s not too hot! When the stuffiness/runniness returns, do it again!
It is very important to stay well hydrated to provide the body the fluids it needs to produce excess mucus, keep it thin, and help it drain out of the body. Typical recommendations are to drink eight 8-oz. glasses each day. While this recommendation is a nice average to shoot for, it does not take into consideration the varying body sizes and fluid needs of an individual at any given time. Instead, shoot for 1/2 – 1 oz. of water per pound of body weight. Simply put, to calculate your minimum daily requirement in ounces, divide your weight in pounds by 2. For example, a 200 lb. man should aim for 100-200 oz. (~12-25 8 oz. cups of water) on a regular day.
Eucalyptus & peppermint essential oils (found in the ‘single oils’) are great for diffusing to provide relief from congestion and a feeling of easier breathing. If you don’t have a diffuser, they can be added to bath water, but be sure to avoid getting the water in your eyes! I do not recommend putting these oils undiluted on the skin, especially for children. Instead, place a drop or two on your/their shirt collar to take advantage of the aroma-therapeutic properties.
Treating the Symptoms – Sinus Infection
Sinuses are the air cavities designed to filter our air. When we have mucus that doesn’t leave the body but instead stagnates in the sinuses (e.g., after or during a cold), we have created the perfect environment for bacteria to set up camp. Getting the mucus out is priority #1. Problem: mucus is trapped due to inflammation of irritated tissues. Plan of attack: reduce inflammation and promote drainage. If the source of life (stagnant mucus) is removed, bacteria will cease to exist, and the infection goes away. Taking antibiotics (whether prescription or herbal) will likely cause some improvement because the bacteria will be killed, but without dealing with the inflammation and trapped mucus, there is more chance of a recurring infection…and usually the next “bug” is harder to kill.
One simple option for reducing inflammation and promoting drainage is drinking chamomile and/or peppermint tea. To brew tea for medicinal purposes, be sure to cover it while it steeps for at least 10 minutes or you will have lost all of the volatile oils to the air. Fresh loose herbs like those linked to above are generally the most potent and therefore more effective, but if it’s all you’ve got, bagged teas are widely available. If you have loose herbs on hand, use about 1 tsp. of herbs per 8 oz. of water.
Ginger is another good option for stimulating sinus drainage. It also raises the body’s temperature slightly, helping it to destroy 98.6-degree-loving-bacteria. My family loves fresh ginger tea with raw honey and lemon. I use about a tablespoon of grated ginger, 2 cups of water, a spoonful of honey, and a half of a lemon. Simmer the ginger and water for about 20-30 minutes, covered. Strain and add lemon and raw honey after the tea has cooled down (90-100 degrees is the ideal temperature to avoid killing the beneficial enzymes/antimicrobial properties of the raw honey). Dilute to taste with warm water and drink a small amount every ½ hour or so.
As mentioned above under treating a stuffy or runny nose, one of my favorite ways to provide relief from sinus pressure and congestion is a facial steam. Instead of making tea in a cup, make a strong tea (using 2-4 times more herbs than you would for drinking tea) in a bowl and hold your face over the bowl with a towel over your head. Have the tissues handy! For children, stick with chamomile tea for facial steams as the volatile oils in peppermint can be very painful in the eyes and children have a tendency to forget to keep their eyes closed. Also be sure to test the steam yourself before placing your children under the towel so you can make sure it’s not too hot! When the congestion returns, do it again!
Eucalyptus & peppermint essential oils (found in the ‘single oils’) are great for diffusing to provide relief from congestion and a feeling of easier breathing. If you don’t have a diffuser, they can be added to bath water, but be sure to avoid getting the water in your eyes! I do not recommend putting these oils undiluted on the skin, especially for children. Instead, place a drop or two on your/their shirt collar to take advantage of the aroma-therapeutic properties of these oils.
Finally, facial massage can be very helpful and soothing. If you are the one suffering, you can certainly perform your own massage, but having someone else help you can be a bit more relaxing. Here’s a simple way to give a facial massage: Have the person suffering lie on their back. Massage the lymph nodes on the upper chest to stimulate them (the tender places located just under the collarbone, especially directly below the ears). Next, beginning at the side of the face in front of the ears, using firm pressure, gently move in a circular motion down towards the jaw (repeat 2 or 3 times). Finally, beginning at the inner point of the eyebrows, using firm pressure and a gentle pulling motion, move towards the outside of the face to the hairline.
It’s OK Not to Share
I’m sure your mother taught you that it was always nice to share, but no one expects you to share your germs. Please. Stay home. Take care of yourself. To help protect those that live with you, here are a few simple things you can do:
- Circulate some fresh air through the house each day
- Cleanse the air by diffusing essential oils with anti-viral properties (e.g., OnGuard, Purify, lavender, tea tree, or my personal favorite blend of rosemary, clove, and lemon (1:2:3) essential oils)
- Keep commonly touched areas of the home (light switches, door knobs, bathrooms, etc.) wiped down with a natural anti-viral spray made with 1/2 cup distilled water, 1/2 cup vodka, and about 60 drops of your favorite combination of essential oils (similar to the list above)
While the ideas I have shared above have all been useful for myself and my family at times, I want to be sure to encourage you to be wise, pay attention to your body, and do what you have to do to take of yourself and your family. If you’ve done what you can and nothing seems to be working, please take the time to visit your health care practitioner. If you and your doctor decide that antibiotics are necessary (because of a bacterial infection that has developed in addition to your cold, usually as a result of stagnant fluids), it is important to include a probiotic supplement (we supplement with probiotics all of the time…but that’s a different story) in order to maintain a healthy bacterial balance in the digestive system. We use Udo’s Choice Adult’s Probiotics. Our children use Udo’s Choice Children’s Probiotics,but for children unable or unwilling to swallow pills, Renew Life Ultimate Flora Children’s Probiotic Chewables are also a good option.
What are your favorite, tried-and-true natural remedies for the common cold? Share in the comments below!