An Herbal and Dietary Approach to Cold and Flu

Before I start.

Disclaimer:  Just because this is what I do and it works for me doesn’t mean it is appropriate or recommended for you.  It is provided purely as brain candy to the herbal geek.  Consult with a skilled herbalist prior to taking any plant-based medicine since it’s just that – medicine.  And rest.  You need that above all when you feel crappy from a cold or flu.

Introduction:  With the wide variety of herbal remedies and recipes on the market, it can be hard to figure out what to take.  Nothing is more frustrating than paying a small fortune for quality herbals only to have them be next to useless for easing the cold or flu you’re nursing, miserable, in bed.  This brings us to the crux of dealing with illness naturally: it isn’t a one-size fits all type of treatment.   When you treat in the allopathic manner, you take a single capsule of cold and flu formula that deals with everything.  When you go natural, you need to get to know the herbal allies in your arsenal and apply them appropriately based on the evolving symptoms of the illness at hand.  This can vary from day to day, hour to hour, illness to illness and person to person.  It sounds more difficult than it actually is.  The process is quite organic and once you begin listening to the body, it happens on its own.  To illustrate the process at work, let’s look at a case study – the nasty-ass bug that half the people at Christmas Eve dinner have contracted: myself included.

Day 1 – Away from Home; Throat Hurts

Uh oh.  There’s definitely something brewing and between the funky schedule and Holiday indulgence, my immune system is just not getting the upper hand on this.  There’s no fever, a sore throat, dry throat, a bit of heaviness in the lungs and some general fatigue.   Being away from home and without a full apothecary, it’s time for a trip to the local HFS (health food store) to tide me over until returning home.

Herbals:

  • Traditional Medicinals Cold Formula herbal tea; 1 cup 4x daily
  • Whole Earth & Sea Horseradish Respiratory Relief herbal supplement; 1 capsule 2x daily
  • Cold Care herbal pills (home-made formula that I travel with); 2 capsules 3x daily

Diet:

  • Being away from home and a guest at someone else’s house you do what you can: in this case it’s binge on the Brussel sprouts and Broccoli

Exercise:

  • Hold on the usual hard-core cardio. Enter mild yoga stretching and restorative practice along with extended meditation

What does the treatment do?

The Cold Formula tea is diaphoretic (makes you sweat) and antiviral.  The Respiratory Relief is a heating formula with herbs specific for the lungs and respiratory tract.  The Cold Care pills help mobilize the immune system – kicking it into high gear.

Day 2 – Away from Home; Throat Hurts +

The sore throat is worse, pain swallowing and a greater degree of heaviness in the lungs.   More tiredness, but general body feeling is still okay.  No congestion.  Treatment as per day 1.

Day 3 – Returning Home; Throat Hurts ++

The sore throat is worse again, coughing has started although it’s unproductive and the congestion is caught in the lungs which feel heavy and hot.   Really starting to feel ugly and there’s a 10 hour drive between me and home.  On the upside, still no fever.

On the drive, caffeine is required for me to maintain alertness in the face of feeling icky.  Rather than going for coffee or black tea, I opt for green tea with ginger and heavily spiced chai.  Once I’m home, it’s time to raid the apothecary and the bottom of the fridge:

Herbals:

  • Continue with the Horseradish Respiratory Relief herbal supplement; 1 capsule 2x daily
  • Decoction of 4” dried Osha root** and 1 teaspoon of citrus peel in 2 cups of water, remove from heat and add 2 teaspoons of Eucalyptus leaf, infusing covered. Repeat 2x daily, morning and night. **Note – Osha has been over-harvested in the wild and is greatly endangered as a result.  Do not use this herb unless you are certain of your sourcing which should be sustainable (cultivated, not wildcrafted.  I hesitated to even post this recipe as a result…)
  • Vapour balm (think Vicks, but the natural version) over the chest area at bed-time

Diet:

  • Miso soup augmented with heating herbs and vegetables rich in allyl isothiocyanates: an easy to digest and healing brew.
  • Soak some rice and split mung to make kitchari tomorrow

Exercise:

  • Surviving a 10 hour drive in the bitter cold while ill, with a 3 year old in tow.

What does the treatment do?

The Cold Formula has been swapped out for a three-herb formula designed to help the unproductive chest congestion come out or resolve – whichever way the body wants to deal with it.  In addition, a vapour balm has been added to heat the chest area directly.  The scent of the balm eases breathing when it’s most difficult, at night.  Meanwhile the diet has been reduced to a simple and easily digestible broth leaving more energy to heal.

Day 4 – At Home; Still the Chest and Throat

The coughing is still unproductive and the congestion is still caught in the lungs.   Voice is gravelly/squeaky and energy level is low.  No fever.

Herbals:

  • As per day 3.

Diet:

  • Miso soup for breakfast.
  • Lung-supportive kitchari for lunch and supper (from Amadea Morningstar’s The Ayurvedic Cookbook). The mixture includes heating spices and demulcent vegetables and seeds
  • Soak some rice and split mung again to make more kitchari.

Exercise:

  • As per day 1 & 2.

What does the treatment do?

The Cold Formula has been swapped out for a three-herb formula designed to help the unproductive chest congestion come out or resolve – whichever way the body wants to deal with it.  In addition, a vapour balm has been added to heat the chest area directly.  The scent of the balm eases breathing when it’s most difficult, at night.  Meanwhile the diet has been reduced to a simple and easily digestible broth leaving more energy to heal.

Day 5 – At Home; Chest Resolves and Sinus Stuffiness Starts

The chest congestion is easing toward the end of the day.  As the lungs and throat improve, the sinus cavities are steadily clogging up, the head aches and there’s a semi-steady flow of yellow and green mucus when blowing.  No fever.  This is the day that feels the worst by far.

Herbals A:

  • As per day 3 for the AM. At mid-day, when symptoms shift, herbals are changed to Herbals B

Herbals B:

  • Trikatu powder (1 part each powdered Ginger, Black Peppercorn, Pippali Long Pepper and Anise seed); heaping 1/4 teaspoon mixed with a bit of brown rice syrup 3x daily
  • 2 or 3L of hot Ginger tea daily
  • Saline lavage of the sinuses (think Neti pot)
  • Vapour balm over the sinuses and between the nostrils and upper lip

Diet:

  • The rest of the lung supportive kitchari for breakfast
  • Mucus-drying kitchari for lunch and supper (a variation on another recipe from Amadea Morningstar’s The Ayurvedic Cookbook)

Exercise:

  • Very short, very light yin yoga

What does the treatment do?

The pectoral (chest) formulas are put aside in favour of a strongly heating and drying set of formulas aimed at the sinus area and specific for clearing out/attenuating mucus.

Day 6 – At Home; Sinus Stuffiness Flows Out and Return to Normal Begins

Upon rising and performing nasal lavage, a veritable flood of mucus evacuates the sinuses over a period of a couple of hours.  Throughout the day, there is steady improvement in airflow through the nasal cavities and in body feeling and energy levels.  At this point the body is on the mend.

Herbals:

  • As per Herbals B on day 5.

Diet:

  • The rest of the mucus-drying kitchari for breakfast
  • Brown rice, cabbage, carrot and natto for lunch
  • Normal diet at supper (baked beans and roasted squash with a fermented flatbread)

Exercise:

  • Intermediate yoga practice
  • Half-hour of shoveling snow outdoors

Day 7 – Return to Work; Return to Normal Continues

We’ll see what tomorrow brings symptomatically, but for the most part, it’s back to normal.  Herbals will continue as per day 6 as long as necessary, tapering down the Trikatu, Vapour balm and Saline lavage first, followed by the Ginger tea once the cold is completely gone.

Conclusion:  Natural treatment takes more work than an over-the-counter bullet.  However – and this is a biggie – natural treatment allows you to better understand your own body’s processes when it’s ill; and then customize treatment to the specific symptoms, providing support to the body’s innate healing abilities.  And personally, I find herbal treatment more rewarding and synergistic than one-size fits all medicine.

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