Fending off winter illness

by Danielle Charles

You’ve made it through a week of sick co-workers, sneezing grocery store clerks and sub-zero temperatures seemingly scotch free. But just as you begin to congratulate yourself for having such an extraordinary immune system, that unmistakable sign appears out of nowhere – a subtle scratch in the back of the throat – the sensation of a lump every time you swallow. The sign is different for all of us, but for all of us portends the same thing: we are getting sick.

But before you start waving your white flag of surrender and bunker down with the Kleenex box, comforter and a stack of old movies, it’s worth putting in a good fight. With a little attention and care, you might find that the “unmistakable sign” sentencing you to a week or more of debility becomes more of a helpful warning, allowing you to subvert illness before it starts. Indeed, you might even come to appreciate the sign. Here’s how you can go from getting sick to getting better without ever having gotten worse:

1. Take Immune Stimulants

When illness is lurking right around the corner, herbs that stimulate immune function, enhance cellular resistance to infection and inhibit viral activity are just the thing – like your own personal team of immune body guards. Echinacea, Elderberry, and Sacred basil are always at the top of my list for these activities, and have been well researched for their effectiveness at preventing illness. At the first sign of symptoms, take a good teaspoonful dose of echinacea or elderberry tincture, and follow with a 1/2 teaspoon dose every two hours thereafter until symptoms subside (I like to alternate the two each dose). Sacred basil can also be taken as a tincture, but tastes so delicious that I prefer it as a tea (made with 1 tablespoon herb to 1 cup hot water), sweetened with elderberry syrup for a truly powerful and extra delicious immune boost. (Be sure to check out Brigitte’s post on Echinacea honey over at My Herb Corner – might make another delicious addition to the tulsi immune tea!).


2. Avoid immune depleting foods

When the body is grappling with an illness, the last thing it needs is to be handicapped and subverted at every turn by your diet. Cut out all forms of refined and processed foods (sugar, flour products, alcohol) – which can impair immunity up to 75% after consumption by interfering with vitamin C absorption. Also avoid any foods that promote dampness and cold in the body (sweet fruits, nuts and dairy). These foods exacerbate symptoms such as congestion by facilitating the energetic imbalance of the illness.

3. Warm the body

In Chinese medicine, winter illness is viewed as an invasion of cold and damp into the body. By enhancing warmth and moving bloodflow and vital energy to the periphery, the body can restore balance and squelch illness before it takes hold. (Indeed, a low grade fever is actually a good thing as the higher temperatures prevent viral replication.) Take a hot bath or foot bath; drink hot teas made with ginger and cinnamon; eat warming soups made with garlic, ginger and cayenne and bundle up with scarves, hats and mittens.

4. Eat soup

Soup really is the perfect immune food – full of nutrients and warming, immune boosting spices in an easily digestible, warming and hydrating form. Add beta-carotene rich orange vegetables to strengthen tissue barriers and strengthen immune response, as well as vitamin C and mineral rich greens like kale and collards. Best of all, you can add immune tonifying herbs and spices like echinacea, astragalus, garlic, ginger and burdock right to the broth. See my Medicinal Chicken Soup recipe or my post on Soup Stocks for more ideas.

5. Drink Tea

So often, people want a pill or a dropperful of something so they can get it down and continue on their way. Fair enough. But drinking tea does something a pill or tincture can’t – it continually washes your upper respiratory membranes with anti-inflammatory, anti-viral and tissue strengthening fluid. This washes away pathogens to a sure death by stomach acid and soothes and heals raw, tender membranes. The warmth heats the body and stimulates natural defenses. So drink that tea – use warming spices and aromatic herbs like ginger, cinnamon, thyme, rosemary and sage found in your kitchen cabinet, and soothing anti-inflammatories like licorice, calendula,  and marshmallow for raw, painful membranes.

6. Gargle

Most viruses take 2-3 days to proliferate after initial infection before symptoms occur. By gargling frequently with warm salt water, you can dramatically reduce viral load and prevent full fledge illness from occurring – especially if your water is infused with anti-microbial herbs like calendula, sage, thyme, echinacea, myrrh, propolis and bee balm.  A very effective gargle can be made by combining:

  • a strong tea of sage and calendula (made by infusing a tablespoon of each in 1 cup water for 30 minutes)
  • 1 cup apple cider vinegar
  • 2-3 teaspoons salt
  • a pinch of cayenne
  • 1 drop each thyme and myrrh essential oil.

7. Use a neti pot

Using a neti pot helps to cleanse the sinuses and upper respiratory tract, protecting us from infection for the same reasons stated above. Daily use also tonifies the sinus membranes and can dramatically improve conditions like chronic sinusitis, and post-nasal drip.

8. Stock up on vitamin C

Vitamin C and bioflavanoids work synergistically to boost immune activity and strengthen tissue barriers. Vitamin C is absolutely imperative to immune function as it is a potent antioxidant used by all immune cells. Add Rosehips to your tea, take Elderberry syrup, and eat non-sweet Citrus fruits, chile and bell peppers, dark leafy greens and berries.

9. Support your lymph

The lymphatic system is responsible for cleansing cellular debris and waste products from the body fluids, and houses the immune punching powerhouses called lymph nodes – where immune cells are concentrated to survey for intruders and clean up wastes. When fending off illness, the lymphatics can become sluggish due to the overload of immune cells and waste products, leading to tender and swollen lymph nodes. By supporting lymph flow, this stagnation can be remedied, ensuring a speedy clean up crew and the delivery of fresh immune players to the area of infection. Echinacea is a great lymphatic, but if lymph stagnation is evident, add Calendula, Cleavers or Burdock root to your immune teas and soups.

10. Inhale essential oils

Essential oils have strong immune supportive properties – being anti-viral, anti-microbial, decongesting and anti-inflammatory. Place a few drops on a scarf to inhale throughout the day; diffuse into your environment with a good heat-less vaporizer; add to baths and foot baths (dilute by adding 15 ml to 1 oz of carrier oil for using this way); add 1 drop to a steam or gargle or add to chest rubs. My favorites include eucalyptus, thyme, frankincense, peppermint, spruce, rosemary, lavender, lemon and ginger.  (Lucinda over at Whispering Earth has a really informative article on using essential oils for immune health, so be sure to check that out if you’d like to learn more.)

Even if you do end up sick, following these tips will ensure that you’ll be feeling better faster with less severe symptoms, which is always good. But if you pay attention to that “unmistakable sign” and start supporting your body ASAP, I think you’ll find that the illness might never set in at all, which is great!

P.S. For more information on supporting immune function, check out this article. If you do find yourself under the weather, be sure to also check out this great article by the lovely Lucinda on dealing with illness when you do find yourself in for the long haul.