Sunday, July 20, 2008

Herb Teas for Cold and Flu

It's that time of year again-cold and flu season. Friends, family, and co-workers are sniffling, sneezing, and blowing their noses. But you're not as helpless as you think under the onslaught of all those germs. The answer to preventing or alleviating colds and flu may be growing right in your own backyard. Many different herbs can give your immune system that needed boost to keep germs at bay and can help relieve cold and flu symptoms if you do get sick.


One of the most popular herbs, (Echinacea angustifolia) and (Echinacea purpura), also called purple coneflower, fights off colds and flu by increasing the activity and number of immune system cells. Native Americans used this plant for coughs, colds, sore throats, infections, and snake bites. Echinacea is considered extremely safe, and no side effects have been reported when used at the recommended dose.

To grow echinacea, buy plants from a nursery. Select a site receiving at least six hours of sun per day. It does best with regular watering. This perennial prairie native grows from two to three feet high with several stems per clump. The large, showy light purple flowers, resembling daisies, develop during the plant's second year. Echinacea attracts butterflies, resists deer, and makes a lovely cut flower too.

Although healers have traditionally used only the echinacea root in herbal preparations, herbalists have found that an effective tincture can be made from the flowers as well. Harvest the flowers, storing in a jar in the refrigerator, until the jar is full. Cut the flowers into quarters and return to jar. Cover with cider vinegar, place lid on jar, and set it on a sunny windowsill, shaking daily for two weeks. Strain, pour the tincture into a bottle, and refrigerate. When colds start making the rounds, fix yourself a nice hot cup of echinacea tea. Squeeze the juice of one lemon into a mug, add one cup of hot water and twenty-five drops of the tincture. Drink this three times a day to boost the immune system.

In her book Healing Teas (Avery, 1996), author Marie Nadine Antol recommends preparing a tea using 1 to 2 teaspoons of dried or powdered echinacea per cup of boiling water. Take one cup of tea 3 times daily.


Garlic (Allium sativum) has been a popular herb since ancient times. A bunch of the "stinking rose" was found in King Tut's tomb. The ancient Romans dedicated garlic to Mars, the god of war, and soldiers ate it to increase their courage in battle. Garlic has antibiotic, antifungal, and antiviral properties and is effective against many flu viruses. In laboratory tests, garlic killed eight out of nine antibiotic-resistant organisms. Garlic extract killed almost 100 percent of the cold-causing human rhinovirus and parainfluenza 3, a flu virus.

Adding garlic to your diet during winter can help prevent colds and reduce congestion if you do catch one. Raw garlic works best and can be finely minced and sprinkled on salads, casseroles, and soups, or added to salsas and dips. Although not the tastiest way to take your garlic, a tea can be made by boiling a clove or two in water on the stove and sipping the cooled stinky, steamy water.

To grow garlic, break mother bulbs, called sets, into cloves and plant from October through December in warm winter areas and in spring in colder areas. Choose a spot that gets at least six hours of sun a day. Plant cloves base downwards, two inches deep and three inches apart. Water regularly. Harvest when leafy tops fall over. Air dry bulbs, remove tops and roots, and store in a cool place.


Many cultures have used hyssop (Hyssopus officinalis) for coughs and congestion. Gerard's Herball, written in 1597, suggests that "a decoction of Hyssope made with figges, water, honey and rue and drunken, helpeth the old cough." The Cherokee Indians used a syrup of hyssop for congestion and asthma. Hyssop is valued for its ability to loosen phlegm in the lungs and throat and is especially good for children's sore throats. Hyssop also helps with fevers. Research confirms that hyssop's volatile oil does relieve mild respiratory problems caused by colds.

A compact, perennial shrub, hyssop reaches a height of two feet and has either white, pink, or blue flowers that bloom from July to November. Hyssop can be grown from seed or nursery plants and then propagated by root divisions and stem cuttings. Hyssop needs full sun or light shade, infrequent watering, and well drained soil. Harvest during the summer.

Make a tea from fresh hyssop leaves and flowering tops by steeping a heaping teaspoon (or one teaspoon dried herb) in one cup of boiling water for twenty minutes. Drink the tea cool for use as an expectorant and hot to relieve congestion. To increase the decongestant properties of hyssop, add a teaspoon of sage while steeping and sweeten with honey.


Mint (Mentha) has long been associated with health and holiness. The Hebrews strewed the herb on synagogue floors, a custom repeated later in Italian churches. Peppermint leaves have been discovered in Egyptian tombs. The ancient Greeks considered mint the cure for over forty ailments and gave mint its name, after Minthe, a nymph transformed into this herb by a jealous goddess. The essential oil in mint, menthol, gives the plant its analgesic, antiseptic, and decongestant effects.

Peppermint tea relieves colds and flu and helps with digestion. To make a cup, pour one cup of hot water over one teaspoon of dried mint leaves, cover and steep for five minutes.

Mint plants spread quickly through underground stems and runners and can take over a backyard in no time. To prevent this, grow mint in pots or planter boxes, or surround with an eight inch piece of edging. Mint likes light and moist soil in shade or partial shade. This perennial reaches a height of three feet and most types have purple flowers.


To dry mint (and other herbs), harvest long stems when the flowers first open. Do not remove the leaves. Rinse in cool water and tie the ends of the stems together in small bunches. Hang the bunches in a warm, dry place away from direct sunlight. Don't hang against a wall because air must circulate through the bunch. To keep dust off the herbs, hang them in an open paper bag. When the leaves are crackly and completely dry, take down the bunches, gently remove the leaves, keeping them whole, and store in an airtight container in a cool, dark cupboard.


Sage (Salvia officinalis) has long been the herb of health. Its Latin name, salvia, comes from the word meaning "to be in good health." Sage is an antioxidant and antimicrobial whose volatile oil kills bacteria and fungi, even those that resist penicillin. Sage also dries up phlegm and relieves coughs and throat infections. Use sage in teas mixed with mint, lemon grass, chamomile, or other herbs to cut the strong flavor. Steep one and three quarters teaspoons of sage in one cup of water for 10 minutes. Drink three times a day, but do not use for longer than a week as sage can cause convulsions in very high doses. Sage tea can cause contractions of the uterus, so pregnant women should not use it.

Sage is easy to grow. It likes well drained soil in full sun and is fairly drought resistant. This perennial reaches a height of three feet and has violet-blue flowers that attract hummingbirds and butterflies.


The ancient Romans burned incense made of thyme (Thymus vulgaris) to keep away evil and snakes and as a fragrant offering to the gods. During the Middle Ages, thyme was burnt to ward off the plague. Modern studies done in hospitals have proven that thyme's aroma alone helps kill germs. The volatile oil in thyme, thymol, is antiseptic and antibacterial. Thyme fights infections, dries mucous membranes, and relaxes bronchial passages helping coughs, sore throats, and colds. Thyme's strong flavor can be enhanced in teas by adding licorice, mint, or lemon juice. To make thyme tea, infuse one to two tablespoons of fresh thyme leaves in a cup of water, covered, for four minutes. Drink four cups a day.

Grow thyme in fairly dry, well drained soil in full sun. Thyme, a semi-woody perennial, evergreen shrub, grows 6-12 inches high and spreads 1 1/2 feet or more. It has oval gray-green leaves and tiny lilac flowers that bloom in June and July.


A hot herbal bath can soothe muscles aching from a cold. Steep one large handful each of fresh thyme, lavender, and pennyroyal in eight cups of hot water for twenty minutes. Strain and add to bath water.

Essential oil of thyme also helps fight colds. Purchase the oil in a health food store. Combine five drops of essential thyme oil with a quarter cup of olive oil. Massage into neck, chest, and upper back. Never apply thyme oil without diluting it since it can burn and irritate the skin. Thyme oil added to steaming water makes an excellent infection-fighting inhalation. So this winter, when everyone else is armed with tissues and hankies, protect yourself with herbs. Your nose will thank you.

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