Tag Archives: antiviral

Astragalus: Traditional recipes for the immune system

When it comes to staying healthy during the winter, astragalus is my favorite herb to strengthen the immune system. Astragalus is an immune modulating herb, meaning that it helps rev up or calm down the immune system based on what the body needs. I love this “wisdom” that some herbs offer us by cooperating with our bodies instead of forcing us in one direction like some medications do. Astragalus can be used long term, so it is a great choice to take all of cold and flu season. Astragalus also has some antiviral properties, and research shows that it may help to prevent upper respiratory tract infections.

Astragalus roots

Astragalus roots

In addition to its immune benefits, astragalus can help the body compensate for long-term stress. Stress has many negative effects on our bodies, particularly on our adrenal glands that help regulate our metabolism among other things. Our adrenal glands release cortisol in response to stress. Disrupted cortisol production can be associated with fatigue, insomnia, and even high blood sugar and blood pressure. By balancing adrenal output, astragalus can be a great part of the plan to help us recover from these types of issues. Because astragalus is high in antioxidants, it can also help protect the liver.

This winter I am enjoying my astragalus the traditional way by making astragalus soup and astragalus bone broth. I looked through several different recipes for astragalus soup, the traditional Chinese way of using this immune boosting herb. I was trying to decide how long the soup needed to simmer. Some recipes recommended adding astragalus root to any chicken soup and simmering for 10 minutes, but I didn’t think this was long enough. Then I found a traditional recipe. It called for 2/3 of an ounce of astragalus in 5 cups of liquid cooked over medium heat until only 2 cups of liquid was left. This was clearly a “real” recipe with its longer cooking time to extract the maximum benefits from the astragalus, so I decided to add astragalus root to my bone broth.

Here is my recipe for Astragalus Bone Broth:
Place chicken or other bones in a pot or crockpot
Cover the bones with water
Add about 2 tablespoons of raw apple cider vinegar for every 8 cups of water
Add 1 ounce of dried astragalus root for every 8 cups of water or so
Cover with a tight fitting lid
Simmer very low on the stove or cook on low in the crockpot for 12-48 hours
Strain the broth and enjoy

I drink this broth as a hot beverage with a little bit of salt. The astragalus has a mild nearly smoky taste and the broth is quite delicious. If you want to try astragalus soup but aren’t ready to make a bone broth, try adding the astragalus roots to any soup you are making. Cook the soup with the astragalus roots for at least 20 minutes. Then remove the astragalus roots before you serve the soup just like you would with bay leaves. And of course, astragalus comes in capsules too so you can get these immune benefits no matter how busy your schedule is.

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Natural Ebola Prevention Strategies

So far there are no new confirmed cases of Ebola in the United States, but there have been 5000 false alarms since Thomas Duncan’s diagnosis in Dallas. This tells you how worried people are. On one hand, the Ebola virus has a particularly high mortality rate. On the other hand, Ebola is not as easy to spread as other viruses. The chance that we really need to worry about this is the United States is low, but this seems like a good time to review immune support and antiviral basics since we will have our normal viral infections to cope with as the cold weather hits.

First practice basic hygiene. This is washing your hands before you touch your face, especially your eyes, nose, mouth, or open wounds. Ebola is spread through bodily fluids and it not spread through the air, though scientists are worried about Ebola mutating to this type of dispersal.

The key to preventing colds and flu and possibly to surviving an Ebola epidemic is having a strong immune system. Ebola weakens the immune system. Survivors of past Ebola outbreaks seemed to have stronger and faster immune responses compared to those who didn’t survive. As my Ayurvedic colleagues point out, “For an infection like Ebola, which has no apparent clinical cure, natural reinforcement of the immune system may represent an oasis of hope in the desert of fear and panic.” So start with the lifestyle basics: healthy diet, moderate exercise, proper hydration, and adequate sleep.

For basic wintertime immune support, I also add probiotics, vitamin D, and vitamin C to my daily routine. When it comes to fighting viruses, some of my favorite supplements are colloidal silver, oregano oil, elderberry, and medicinal mushrooms.

None of these have really been studied with Ebola so we have to extrapolate from what we know about other viruses and remember that not all viruses are the same. For instance, elderberries have been shown to slow the replication of influenza viruses, but this does not mean that it is going to work with all viruses. On the other hand, colloidal silver has shown benefit from a wide array of viruses.

Agarikon

Agarikon

Other agents that might be theoretically useful are turmeric and agarikon. Turmeric could be useful in two ways. As an inflammation modulator, it could calm excessive inflammation that contributes to tissue damage and depletes the immune system. Turmeric also activates an enzyme called heme oxygenase-1, which in test tubes has been shown to reduce Ebola replication. Agarikon is a medical mushroom available in some of my favorite immune supporting blends like MyCommunity and MycoShield from Host Defense. Agarikon, like colloidal silver, has the potential to be active against a wide array of viruses and the other mushrooms in the blends are great immune supporters.

Please remember that all of this information is speculative since this virus it too new for us to have the studies that we would want to make confident claims. But strengthen your body and immune system to help prevent the more likely threats of colds and flu and donate to some of the many funds providing aid to those suffering in Africa.

How to Make Elderberry Syrup

Elderberry European? cropped

Last week, I wrote about natural tips for preventing the flu. Elderberries were one of the items I highlighted because they taste delicious and are safe for nearly every age group. I have trouble getting my husband to use some of the remedies I use personally like Echinacea tincture and oregano oil, but he is happy to take elderberry syrup. Elderberries have been shown to directly reduce the rate that the influenza virus can replicate. We both notice that it seems to immediately make us feel a little better when we are fighting a cold or flu. Allergy sufferers also report that elderberry syrup eases their symptoms.

I have been making elderberry syrup for years now. I make it from either fresh or dried elderberries and various sweeteners. I don’t even normally use a recipe because you can hardly go wrong. I just taste it to see if I have sweetened and concentrated the syrup enough. For my last version, I used xylitol as the sweetener since this is a natural sugar alternative that won’t raise blood sugar and can help prevent some bacteria infections, especially ear infections. I usually make very large batches and freeze the extra so I have it on hand to defrost whenever we need it. In the summer, I will harvest the fresh elderberries and make syrup out of them right away. At this time of year, we only have dried elderberries available, so this recipe will use them. For fresh elderberries, you can cut the water in half.

 

Dried Elderberries

Dried Elderberries

Simple Elderberry Syrup

½ cup dried elderberries

2-3 cups of water

¼-½ cup xylitol or sweetener of your choice

Combine ingredients in a saucepan and bring them to a boil. Simmer on low for an hour, stirring occasionally. Let it cool down enough to handle. You can strain it through a fine mesh sieve. I prefer to put to then put the berries into a jelly bag or nut milk bag so that I can squeeze the residual juice out of the berries.

(Some times I then take those berries and cook them down a separate time with more water and sweetener to get the remaining goodness out of them. This makes a less concentrated syrup, so I just label it differently so I remember to use twice as much of it.)

I take 1-2 Tablespoons up to 5-6 times a day when I am really feeling bad. For prevention, I might take it once or twice a day.

Natural Flu Prevention

This seems to be shaping up to be a particularly bad flu season. So far, nearly forty people have died of influenza here in Arkansas. My husband recently had a mild case himself, and it made me think I should share what I did to prevent myself from getting it. These interventions can also help prevent colds and other upper respiratory infections and reduce the severity of a cold or flu if you come down with one.

Astragalus

Astragalus

When the cold and flu season starts, I begin taking astragalus, which has been shown to boost the immune system especially when taken long term. That is why I start it at the beginning of flu season, so I get the full immune benefits. But it is worth starting at anytime since astragalus also has a mild antiviral activity. Astragalus also helps with the body compensate for stress and reduces cortisol, which has been shown to suppress immune function. In addition, astragalus can help increase stamina. Because of this combination of immune and energy benefits, I choose astragalus over Echinacea for the flu season. I still use Echinacea sometimes, especially if my preventative strategies haven’t been enough and I start to feel a cold or flu coming on.

Another lesser-known immune booster is larch arabinogalactan. These are polysaccharides derived from the larch tree. Polysaccharides are the immune stimulating compounds in many of the best-known immune herbs like Echinacea and aloe. In addition to supporting the immune system, larch arabinogalactan can help with inflammation and joint pain. I also like larch arabinogalactan because it is a mild tasting powder that is safe to for children.

In addition to an immune booster, I take my daily fish oil and vitamin D. Fish oil and vitamin D are again obvious choices because of their multiple health benefits. The polyunsaturated fatty acids in fish oil help with optimal immune function, while also supporting mood, fighting inflammation and helping prevent heart disease. Vitamin D has been shown in numerous studies to help reduce rates of influenza. People who are deficient in vitamin D are much more likely to get the flu. In fact, lack of vitamin D production from sunlight is possibly one of the reasons the flu season is at this time of the year. If you already have adequate vitamin D levels, taking more vitamin D isn’t necessarily helpful. In fact, excess vitamin D might slightly increase the rate of influenza.

Elderberry

Elderberry

I always keep elderberry syrup in my house, and when my husband or I start feeling sick, this what we reach for. Elderberries have been shown in test tube studies to reduce the rate of influenza virus replication. Studies have also shown it to reduce the severity and duration of flu symptoms. In one study, 87% of the people taking elderberry had nearly complete resolution of symptoms in 3 days, while only 33% of those given the placebo felt as good at that point.

There are many other herbs and supplements that I could write about to help fight the flu, but lifestyle considerations are even more important. I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to reduce stress, get adequate sleep, and allow yourself extra rest when you feel like you need it. When our stress goes up, so does our cortisol, which as I mentioned suppresses the immune system. Additionally, inadequate sleep hampers our immune system partially through causing elevated cortisol output. So get 8-9 hours of sleep a night and establish stress management techniques like deep breathing, exercise, yoga or meditation so that every day stress won’t leave you more susceptible to the flu.

Essential Oils for Cold and Flu Season

It is that time of year again. The cool weather is hitting us and I have been seeing more people with colds and other contagious illnesses. One of my strategies to stay well when interacting with sick patients is to use antimicrobial essential oils like peppermint and eucalyptus. While many essential oils have antimicrobial benefits, I particularly choose these two for their additional decongestant nature.

Peppermint essential oil is a very versatile and inexpensive remedy to have around for cold season as well as other times of the year. Inhaling peppermint oil can help relieve sinus pressure because of its high concentrations of menthol, which helps open up congested nasal passages. Peppermint also has analgesic and anti-inflammatory benefits so it helps ease the discomfort that comes along with sinus issues. Peppermint also helps reduce coughing so you nearly always see menthol added to cough drops. Due to its cooling action, adding 10 drops of peppermint oil to a tepid bath can also be useful for fevers or sunburns. For all times of the year, peppermint oil can be a wonderful digestive soother. Add 2-3 drops to 1-2 teaspoons of a carrier oil like almond or coconut oil and massage some of that blend on the back or tummy to reduce indigestion or nausea. Peppermint oil also works well for headaches that are related to digestive or sinus issues. Finally, inhaling peppermint oil has been shown to increase alertness as well as memory and concentration.

Eucalyptus Leaves

Eucalyptus Leaves

A great essential oil to combine with peppermint during cold season is eucalyptus. Eucalyptus is a relative of tea tree and has nearly as potent antimicrobial action as its well-known cousin. It also helps reduce inflammation in the respiratory tract. It is a popular choice for sinus congestion and bronchitis because it helps to break up mucus. Eucalyptus oil can also be a very useful headache remedy. Combined with peppermint it can be used topically for numerous issues from joint pain to repelling mosquitoes. Always dilute them with water or oil before applying to the skin.

For colds, I add 5 drops of an essential oil to a boiling hot cup of water and inhale the steam for several minutes. In addition to easing respiratory symptoms, these oils can also help prevent upper respiratory tract infections. Inhale these essential oils when you have been around sick people or are travelling by plane to create your own essential oil vapor shield.

Catnip: This Nerve Soothing Herb Is Not Just for Cats

My cats love it, but there are many great reasons for people to choose this nerve-toning herb too. While catnip is stimulating to cats, it is relaxing to us. Because of these benefits, catnip can be a good option for restlessness, insomnia, and nervous headaches. It also helps relax tense muscles and ease muscle spasms. For this reason, some women use catnip for menstrual cramps. Like its close cousin lemonbalm, catnip has a pleasant lemony taste that can make it a great choice for a soothing tea. It is also a popular addition to make herbal blends taste better.

Catnip

 

Catnip is a great herb for children too because of the good taste and gentle effect on the body. It can be used for insomnia or excitability in children. It is good for upset stomachs and other digestive complaints. Catnip has some antiviral activities and can help break a fever. It also helps ease coughs. These actions make it a good herb for children during cold and flu season.

I find catnip very easy to grow as long as my cats don’t destroy it when it is small. I bring the fresh leaves inside for my cats, but also see them in the garden eating it and rolling around in it. Catnip is reputed to be a nerve tonic for cats, so their brains actually benefit from the “buzz” they get. I also love catnip for its scientific name: Nepeta cataria. If fact, I used to have a cat by this name. Her nickname was Nip.

Nepeta hunting goldfish

Nepeta hunting goldfish

Spice Things Up: Warming Spices for Digestion

Now that we are getting some true fall weather, it is a good time of year to enjoy some of my favorite warming spices. I love hot beverages spiced with cloves, cinnamon, cardamom, and ginger just to name a few. I usually choose a tea that has some of these spices, but for special occasions it is fun to make a mulled cider or wine for your guests.

For instance, here is a delicious mulled cider recipe.

2 quarts unfiltered apple juice (or 1 quart of apple juice and 1 bottle of red wine)

4 cinnamon sticks

1 orange, zested and juiced

8 whole cloves

15 whole allspice berries

½ teaspoon nutmeg, grated

7 cardamom pods

½ teaspoon whole black peppercorns (optional)

1 inch slice of ginger root (optional)

¼ cup honey (optional)

Combine all of the ingredients including the orange zest and juice, bring to a boil and simmer over low heat for 10-20 minutes. Strain and pour into mugs garnished with a cinnamon stick or strip of orange peel and serve.

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The spices used in these seasonal beverages tend to be called warming spices because they stimulate blood flow and help us feel cozy on cool fall days. They also increase blood flow to the digestive tract, helping it to work more efficiently. All of the spices in my mulled cider recipe are also medicinal herbs known as carminatives. These are herbs and spices that are rich in volatile oils that help ease digestive discomfort and reduce gas pain. Other examples of carminative herbs are anise, fennel, chamomile, peppermint and turmeric. Many of these spices also have antimicrobial properties so they may help prevent colds. Additionally, cinnamon is well known for helping improve blood sugar. Your guests can just enjoy themselves without even knowing how much you are benefiting their health.

Let me know if you have a favorite way of enjoying these spices.

Immune Boost!

The first cold of the season has been working its way through my patients, so this is the perfect time to talk about boosting the immune system. A strong immune system can help us avoid colds and flu during the winter months to come. The first step is to avoid the things that suppress the immune system like improper nutrition, lack of sleep, and stress. Okay, I admit we can’t avoid all stress, but we can do things to reduce the impact stress has on the body. As I have mentioned in many of my blogs, stress suppresses the immune system. The purpose of this mechanism is to prioritize our body’s use of energy: for instance, when it is time to run from the bear, our bodies divert energy away from our immune system, because who cares about that virus that might kill us in a week if we don’t survive the bear in the next hour! But now in our society, we often have continual low-grade stress that can still suppress our immune system even if we are not facing a bear.

To reduce the impact of stress, we can use medicinal herbs known as adaptogens to balance out our response to stress and strengthen our adrenal glands. Examples of adaptogens include holy basil, astragalus, ashwagandha, and cordyceps. If I could only take one supplement, it would be one of these herbs or a blend of them. I find them to be extremely useful for supporting my energy and stamina as well as keeping my immune system healthy.

Many mushrooms like reishi are well known for helping enhancing the immune system as well as acting as adaptogens. Their immune enhancing capacity is due to the special polysaccharides found in their cell walls, such as beta glucan. Most mushrooms have these polysaccharides, but the type and amount varies between the different varieties. Reishi has been shown to activate several types of human immune cells such as macrophages and natural killer cells.

Another medicinal mushroom to use during cold and flu season is agarikon. One study showed it to have exceptionally strong antiviral activity against a range of viruses including the bird flu H5N1. It even out performed an antiviral drug for fighting the flu virus. For more information on agarikon, check out what mushroom expert Paul Stamets had to say about it on the Huffington Post.

Refresh and Fight Stress with Holy Basil Tea

People sometimes ask me if I could grow only one medicinal herb what would it be. My answer is Holy Basil, because it has so many useful medicinal actions and it is very easy to grow. Holy Basil is one of the many herbs that help us cope with stress, but it is easier to work with than many of the others in this category like ginseng because we use its leaves instead of the root. And it makes a pleasant tea. Some of you might have already tried the popular teas made from Holy Basil, where it is often sold under its other name Tulsi.

My Holy Basil, just from one plant

My Holy Basil, just from one plant

Holy Basil has been demonstrated to reduce the impact of stress on the body and brain. Stress can have a serious impact on our health and contribute to diabetes, high blood pressure, immune dysfunction, and memory issues. Holy Basil has been shown to counter act some of the negative changes that happen in the brain when we are exposure to prolonged stress. Holy Basil may reduce insulin resistance and thereby help lower elevated blood sugar. It can also help decrease elevated cholesterol. Holy Basil helps fight inflammation in the body and therefore pain, partially by being a COX-2 inhibitor. Holy Basil modulates immune system activity and can be a good choice for people who get frequent infections. I like to use it during cold and flu season because it has some antiviral properties too. Finally, Holy Basil is rich in antioxidants and can help protect us from cellular damage, even from radiation.

To make Holy Basil tea from the loose leaves, put 1-2 teaspoons in a cup of water that just came off a boil. Steep for 5-10 minutes, preferably with a lid over the tea. Strain (if you didn’t use a tea ball), sweeten if desired, and enjoy this awesome wellness boosting, stress-fighting tea. Or try it iced.

And if you want to grow your own Holy Basil plant next year, I got my seeds from High Mowing Seeds sold at Ozark Natural Foods and online. I may also be selling the plant starts next spring when I do the annual plant sale for our farm.

Herbs of the Ozarks

I believe that if we know the local herbs in any region well enough, we can rely on them nearly exclusively to treat most common complaints. This holds true for the Ozark region, where many classic American herbs grow and many introduced species also tend to flourish. In fact, the Ozarks are part of the native range for herbs in very high demand—like goldenseal and American ginseng.

Another well-known plant from this part of the country is black cohosh. This herb is found in nearly every blend for menopausal symptoms, but it is most effective for women that have a particular constellation of symptoms, such as hot flashes, depression, and achy muscles or joints. Studies are showing that black cohosh may reduce the hormone surges associated with hot flashes. Black cohosh might also have constituents that act similarly to the medications known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), which could explain its possible mood benefits. Furthermore, black cohosh also has pain-relieving attributes that make it an ideal herb to choose for discomfort and complaints not related to menopause. It contains analgesic and inflammation modulating constituents that make it a promising consideration for joint and muscle pains. Women can use it to address menstrual cramps because it relaxes smooth muscles, such as those found in the uterus. Black cohosh is also an herbal option for men who have low back and knee pain, especially if they also have prostate issues or are under a lot of stress.

 Robert H. Mohlenbrock @ USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database / USDA SCS. 1991. Southern wetland flora: Field office guide to plant species. South National Technical Center, Fort Worth.


Robert H. Mohlenbrock @ USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database / USDA SCS. 1991. Southern wetland flora: Field office guide to plant species. South National Technical Center, Fort Worth.

Japanese honeysuckle is a plant that is probably known to every Arkansan, but few know about its health benefits. Japanese honeysuckle isn’t native to the Ozarks. It was introduced and is now invasive, but one way to combat invasive plants is to harvest them for herbal medicine. The flowers of Japanese honeysuckle are antimicrobial, antiviral, inflammation modulating, and mildly detoxifying. The most common traditional use of honeysuckle flowers is as a component of Chinese herbal blends for colds and flu. A modern use of honeysuckle flowers is as an addition to pharmaceutical or herbal antimicrobial agents to increase their effectiveness. Additionally, Japanese honeysuckle flowers can help block the pumps that harmful bacteria use to disseminate the antimicrobial agents out of themselves. Apart from supplementation, Honeysuckle flowers are also mildly cooling and can make a refreshing summertime iced tea.

So we don’t necessarily have to search exotic lands for our medicinal herbs. Instead we can use our local plants provided by Mother Nature to help our environment and ourselves.

And you can check out my recent appearance on a local Harrison TV station talking about some other common herbs found here in the Ozarks.