The takeaway? It's always good to have a plan B. Herbal flu preventives and flu treatments have been around for centuries, explains Eric Yarnell, ND, assistant professor of botanical medicine at Bastyr University in Seattle, and they're easy to get without a prescription. Even some of history's most virulent flu strains have been tamed by herbs, as detailed in herbalist Kathy Abascal's book Herbs & Influenza: How Herbs Used in the 1918 Flu Pandemic Can Be Effective Today (Tigana Press, 2006). Through her research, she found that those treated with herbs in the flu pandemic of 1918 had a much higher survival rate compared to those who nixed herbs.
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Below are some suggestions from some of the country's leading herb experts for bolstering your immune system and treat flu symptoms with herbs. If you already have the flu, be sure to keep in contact with your physician, and keep him or her apprised of any herbal or complementary therapies you're using, as they may interfere with other medications you're taking.
To prevent flu infection: Yarnell recommends taking immunomodulating herbs, especially Panax quinquefolius (American ginseng), because there are clinical trials showing it can prevent both colds and flu. "This may also help flu vaccines work better, especially in the elderly," he says. Follow the dosage instructions that come with the product, and continue to use hand washing and other flu-preventing strategies.
To treat an infection: If you choose to use herbs or another complementary therapy to get you through a flu infection, consult with your physician first if you take other medications. Herbs can interact with even the most innocuous-sounding meds, such as low-dose aspirin and Tylenol, so it's good to let him or her know what herbs you're taking. Once you get the all-clear, Yarnell recommends these herbs if you're showing symptoms of the flu:
Sambucus spp. (blue or black elderberry). Take as a syrup or glycerite (a vegetable glycerin-based liquid extract)—1 to 3 teaspoons, 3 times a day.
Echinacea angustifolia root. Take as a tincture (an alcoholic extract from a specific part of a plant)—5 milliliters (ml), 3 times a day; or as a capsule—1,000 milligrams (mg), 3 times a day.
Eupatorium perfoliatum (common boneset). Take as a tincture—3 ml, 3 times a day.
Andrographis paniculat Take as a tincture—3 ml, 3 times a day; or take a capsule—500 mg, 3 times a day.
Yarnell notes the above herbs have not been shown to interfere with Tamiflu, the common antiviral drug that most doctors dole out. "However, if someone gets sick with the flu, they should absolutely contact a healthcare professional who knows about herbs if they're going to self-treat, because this is a potentially lethal infection," he says. "I'd say people really need to contact an herbalist or naturopathic doctor [ND] to be monitored," he adds. To find a licensed ND, visit the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians at naturopathic.org. Find an herbalist through the American Herbalists Guild.
Try an herbal mix. "I spent a significant amount of time researching herbs that were used to treat the difficult flu strain in 1918 and came away convinced that herbs can be highly effective," says Abascal. "I personally would not be without boneset, black cohosh, and pleurisy root. I would mix equal parts of these three herbs and take about 30 drops of the formula every hour or two if I thought I might be getting sick." You can buy the herbs in tincture form and mix the liquids. Always consult an expert before taking pharmaceuticals or herbs. Some are not intended for use in pregnant women.