Yes, you can use herbs and essential oils to help kill bacteria and fight off wintertime infections. Many companies make blends of essential oils known as thieves oil or its numerous other names . These are probably not the original formula the thieves used during the plague as that probably included garlic. I am would much rather smell like eucalyptus, rosemary, cinnamon, lemon, cloves, or any of the other antimicrobial essential oils.
So how did this name thieves oil come about? In Europe during the plague known as the Black Death, a group of thieves made an herbal vinegar concoction to douse themselves in and successfully robbed houses and bodies without coming down with the plague. This vinegar concoction was thought to contain garlic and rosemary and a variety of other herbs that no one seems to agree upon. It possibly had thyme, sage and lavender, but there are so many herbs with antimicrobial properties that could have been used depending on what was available to them for each batch.
To protect yourself and your family from wintertime germs, there are a lot of options to choices from. If you like to make stuff at home, there are great recipes out there for Four Thieves Vinegar, which can be used as a surface disinfectant or taken internally as an immune booster. You can also make your own thieves oil blend from common essential oils. And you can support one of our local businesses by checking out Essential Arts Well Being oil. It is in a base of grapeseed oil so it ready to be rubbed into the soles of the feet or used as a chest rub for colds and coughs. This just scratches the surface of all of the amazing way herbs and essential oils can be used to help us be healthy in the winter. So remember you can stay well and smell great doing it (if you leave the garlic out).
I remember spending hours during the summer as a child eating black cherries off a tree in our yard. It wasn’t until years later that I learned of the medicinal and nutritive benefits of this plant that is also known as wild cherry. The juice from the berries is a popular folk remedy for gout pain. Studies done on tart cherries confirm that they do help reduce the inflammation and pain associated with gout. Black cherries haven’t had similar studies yet, but there is enough anecdotal evidence for us to assume they have the same benefits. The black cherries are also very rich in antioxidants, especially those known as proanthocyanidins that are found in many purple foods and are gently tone to the lining of our blood vessels.
The bark of wild cherry trees is a popular addition to herbal cough formulas. It is used for all types of coughs particularly those that have been going on for a while. Wild cherry bark is an anti-tussive, meaning that it reduces coughing. It may also be useful for an allergic coughs since it has been shown to mildly reduce histamine reactions in the lungs. Wild cherry bark is astringent so it tones mucus membranes such as the linings of the respiratory, digestive, and urinary tracts. Wild cherry bark is a gentle herb that is most commonly used in conjunction with other herbs to enhance it effects. It is also very safe so it is frequently seen in children’s formulas. Occasionally, the fruit is also added to the formulas to improve the taste.
Butterfly milkweed is one of my favorite roadside wildflowers. It has another common name pleurisy root, earned from its traditional use for conditions of the lungs. Pleurisy refers to an inflammation of the lining around the lungs, as sometimes results from coughs and other disorders. Pleurisy root was traditionally used to ease this painful condition, partially because it can help reduce pain and inflammation in the lungs. Pleurisy root is also used for wet coughs that are due to upper respiratory tract infections. Pleurisy root is a stimulating expectorant, which means it helps to encourage a productive cough so mucus is more efficiently expelled from the lungs.
Pleurisy root also supports the body during infections in less direct ways. Pleurisy root is used to induce sweating during a fever. This can help break an uncomfortable fever, but for this effect it is best to take it with a hot beverage like tea. It can also be used to support suboptimal fevers, where the temperature isn’t high enough for the full immune benefit of a fever. Pleurisy root also stimulates the circulation of the lymphatic system, particularly around the lungs. This action can also contribute to a more effective immune response. For all of these pulmonary benefits, pleurisy root has earned a place in many herbal blends used for coughs and bronchitis. It is usually used in fairly low to medium doses because higher doses can cause nausea and vomiting.
When I began learning about herbs years ago before I became a naturopathic doctor, mullein was one of the first herbs I made into a medicinal tea. Since I was plagued by frequent coughs at the time, I had decided to try mullein for its well-touted lung benefits. Mullein was a very useful starter herb for me to try. It made a mild tasting tea and was a very gentle herb for me to experiment with. If I made any mistake in its use at that time, it may have been that I wasn’t drinking the tea frequently enough to help with my acute condition. While gentle herbs can be very safe, we may need to use more of them to get the full benefit.
Though different types of coughs call for different herbal interventions, mullein may be helpful for nearly any type of cough. Mullein may help make coughs more productive since it is a stimulating expectorant. At the same type, it is has some antispasmodic benefits that may help calm a cough. Mullein is also a demulcent herb, which means it can moisten and sooth dry, irritated respiratory pathways. Mullein also seems to have mild antimicrobial benefits, and a test tube study revealed some possible antiviral action. Because of these combined actions, mullein is frequently chosen as part of the treatment for upper respiratory infections like bronchitis. These antimicrobial and soothing benefits have also earned mullein a place in many ear oil formulas. In these formulas, it is typically the flower that is used, whereas either the leaf or the flower can be used for the respiratory tract.
Laurell Matthews, ND is a naturopathic doctor with a passion for helping people understand how to be healthier using dietary and lifestyle changes along with other natural medicine modalities like botanical medicine.