Thursday, November 24, 2011

Winter Immune Health: Tonic Not Toxic

In recent years there have been more and more fear-based reports, advertisements, and products pushing US Americans into anti-bacterializing our lives with sprays, wipes, and gels. This war-like mentality of needing to build our defenses and kill all invaders (bacteria) in order to protect ourselves not only shows a very limited view of the function of our immune systems, it actually harms our health. Using toxic products to “clean” our homes and bodies and attacking common infections with a barrage of antibiotics depletes our bodies in the long term. Our immune system is not meant to be a fortress around our bodies. Yes, its function is to protect our bodies, but it is also a means for us to interact with the world around us.

Taking tonic herbs and foods daily helps to maintain our health, and having remedies that help activate our immune systems during times of stress and depletion is far more effective than constantly exposing ourselves to toxic “cleaners” and “sanitizers.” Herbalism and other healing modalities that are much older and more holistic primarily focus not on killing pathogens, but on strengthening our bodies’ natural defenses through foods, herbs, and lifestyle. When we are overtired, stressed, and eating junk food, we are more susceptible to whatever virus is going around; whereas, if we were well rested and taking care of our bodies, being exposed to this same virus may have no affect on us at all. I do not mean to imply an individualist and ableist idea that if we get sick or if we’re not born healthy that it’s our own fault. Rather, I believe it’s empowering to remember that self-care and collective-care (getting enough rest, plenty of water, nourishing foods, movement, and other aspects of creating a culture that encourages this kind of care) is much more effective than trying to hose down our life with toxic chemicals in order to kill bacteria in our environment. We have evolved with bacteria and need them for good health, and fortunately mainstream US culture has shifted in the last few years to recognize/remember that probiotics and cultured foods (sauerkraut, kim chi, kombucha, injera, miso, yogurt, etc. – see Sandor Ellix Katz's books on fermentation) are tried and true ways to support the good bacteria in our bodies.

Practices to Help Stay (or Get) Healthy:

Drink plenty of liquids!
Fluids not only give our bodies necessary hydration, they make it more difficult for bacteria and viruses to cling to our mucous membranes (i.e., nose, throat) and cause trouble. So drink plenty of water and tea to prevent getting sick and to heal quicker once you already are sick. Soda, coffee, and other such drinks don’t count as nourishing, immune-supporting fluids (sorry!).

Get rest! Winter is the time for hibernation, to store energy that will fuel that sprouting green spring energy and feisty summer energy. If we rush and take on too much during the resting time of the year, we deplete our bodies. When a full 8-hour night sleep isn’t possible and you need to cram, remember to eat, breathe, and get as much rest as you can. However, try to remember once deadlines are met to take the time to both rest and sleep.  I know, not always do-able, especially for caregivers.  But important to integrate into our lives if and when possible.

Stay warm! Hats, warm socks, mittens, and scarves help us maintain our body’s heat in the colder months. You can also wear a scarf or tube-top around your waist to keep your kidneys warm, a practice that is common in Japan, where the cloth is called a haramaki. In many different traditions wind is an external influence that can enter your body and bring with it sickness, particularly at the nape of your neck and your kidneys (lower back), and especially if you have recently taken a hot bath or received a massage, which opens your body up. If you’re feeling chilled, you can also take a hot bath, foot bath, or wrap around you or lay upon a hot water bottle or microwave-heated rice pack.

Steam! Steams cleanse, hydrate, and improve circulation, while also warming and moistening dry air passages and clearing congestion when we’re not feeling well. In a large glass or metal bowl, pour a kettleful of boiling water over a handful of dried herbs, two handfuls of fresh herbs, or drop 1-3 drops of essential oils into the water. Drape a towel over your head to create a tent over the bowl of steaming herb water, breathe, and relax. Steam for approximately 10-15 minutes. If you get too hot, emerge from the tent to cool down, and then go back in. Aromatic herbs such as Peppermint and Thyme help clear congestion. You can create a mini-steam with a serving bowl or a mug of tea.

Move your body! Unlike our cardiovascular system, our lymph system doesn’t have a heart-muscle to pump and create circulation in our bodies. It’s up to us to get our lymph systems moving, which we can do through movement that we enjoy – walking, dancing, etc. Lack of movement in our lymph systems causes stagnation and can make it difficult to clear infections from our bodies. When we’re feeling under the weather and don’t have the energy to exercise, we can practice self-massage, receive massage from someone else, and/or take lymph-moving herbs such as Calendula, Cleavers, Red Clover, and Spilanthes.

Limit/Avoid Sugar and Dairy! Sugar depresses the immune system and makes you more vulnerable to getting sick. Sweet things like refined sugar, maple syrup, and honey are very concentrated and are a special treat. It's a good practice to limit your intake of refined sugar especially, and during times of stress or when sick, avoid it all together if you can. Honey is nourishing and soothes the mucus membranes and can be added to teas, both when healthy and under the weather. Dairy products create more mucus. Some say this is not true, but it is true for many people, so see how your body reacts to dairy. If you feel more phlegmy after having dairy, you may want to avoid it.

Herbs for Immune Health

Astragalus in flower, Dried Astragalus root, and ripe Elderberries

The herbs below can all be grown in the bioregion of the Northeast US. There are different types of immune herbs – immune tonics to help build immune strength and promote healthy immune response, and immune stimulants to help activate the immune system once you are sick or starting to come down with something. There are also immunomodulating herbs, which can both quiet an overactive immune system (lots of environmental/food allergies) or to build up a depleted one (after a long illness). This is a quick list for your reference. Please keep in mind that each herb has its own traditional use and energetic (i.e. warming/cooling), so research ones that you’re interested in to learn more!

Astragalus - Astragalus membranaceus tonic/immunomodulating - The root is commonly used in Traditional Chinese Medicine and the prepared root looks like a tongue depressor. It is an immune tonic, meaning that you can use it often and over long periods of time to build strength and maintain health. You can take it to prevent getting sick or during recovery from an illness. I have heard that you don’t want to take it while you’re sick because it can potentially make you worse, but there are immune stimulants we can use at this time. To prepare Astragalus tea, like most other roots: simmer, covered for 10—20 minutes in water. If I have time, I like to soak the root in water for a few hours or overnight before and/or after simmering it. You can simmer the root in immune-nourishing bone broths, chicken soup, and other soups; just remember to remove it before serving, or just let people know there are lil pieces of woody herbs in their soup! Astragalus powder can also be used to make Adaptogen Herb Balls - see recipe below.

Medicinal Mushrooms – such as Reishi and Chaga mushrooms tonic/ immunomodulating – Medicinal mushrooms help support the immune system and liver, and Reishi in particular has an affinity with the lungs. Please seek out an experienced mushroomer to learn more about and correctly identify particular mushrooms. Medicinal mushrooms can be taken as soups or decoctions (ideally simmered for many hours), syrups, and tinctures. A simple and alcohol-free way to take medicinal mushrooms daily is to pour the decoction in ice cube trays, freeze, and melt one daily and drink as tea or add to your food. 

Elderberry Sambucus nigra tonic/stimulant - Black elderberries have a long history of use for colds, flu, upper respiratory infections, and is also a preventative. They are anti-viral and can be taken as syrup, jam, juice, or tea (not to be eaten fresh, so blanch or cook them). Elder is also a very magical plant - it protects the other plants in the garden and is said to be home of the faeries. Be sure not to use red elderberries – as this is a different and toxic plant! In Northern New England the black elder’s flowers bloom in June and the berries ripen in late August/early September. (The red elderberries ripen in June, so this is a way to tell the difference between the red and black elderberry bushes.) The flowers also have traditionally been used for colds and flus, and drying up mucus. If you'd like to make your own Elderberry syrup, please see my Elderberry (and Other) Syrup Recipes post.

Echinacea Echinacea purperea stimulant/lymphatic - the roots, leaves, flowers, and seeds are all medicinal, though the third year roots are most commonly used. Echinacea is anti-bacterial, anti-viral, and stimulates your immune system. This plant is not meant to be taken as immune support over long periods of time. It’s recommended to take this herb when others around you are sick, you feel yourself beginning to come down with something, or you are already sick. To make an Echinacea tea of the roots, follow above instructions for making Astragalus root tea. To make a tea with the other parts of the plant, add them when you remove the Echinacea roots from heat and let them sit and steep for 10 minutes or longer. For a tea with just the leaves, flowers, and/or seeds, pour boiling hot water over them and let them steep 10+ minutes before straining. In general when you are sick, you take smaller and more frequent doses than with tonic herbs.

Spilanthes Spilanthes acmella stimulant/lymphatic – The leaves and gum-drop looking blossoms of this plant can be taken as a tincture or a tea, and is also used in mouthwashes and toothpowders. This is a fun plant to grow and you can make medicine from it in its first year (rather than three years, like with the fellow immune-stimulating Echinacea [root]). It’s nicknamed ‘the toothache plant’ because it numbs and relieves pain in the mouth, giving a tingly post-Novocain feeling. It is also numbing and pain-relieving in the throat, so you can use it to ease a sore throat as well. Please let others know about the tingling sensation before sharing Spilanthes – it can sometimes feel like your throat is closing up. Some people are sensitive to Echinacea and Spilanthes can be a great alternative.

Thyme , Sage, and other Culinary Herbs - Thymus vulgaris, Salvia officinalis, and others – Culinary herbs have been used for many generations around the world to help maintain health, both in our foods and as teas or other remedies. Thyme and Sage, like other culinary herbs, relieve congestion, help break up mucus in the lungs, and can be added to soups and taken as a tea or a steam. Thyme is specific for supporting respiratory health and makes a powerful respiratory steam. Sage is soothing to a sore throat as a tea or you can put the dried herb into honey and take it by the spoonful.  And Rosemary, and Mint, and Basil, and on and on...

There are also versatile plants that you may not think of primarily as immune-supporting herbs, but may be a great match for what ails you. Licorice root (Glycyrrhiza glabsupports the adrenals, soothes mucus membranes, and is calming and anti-viral. Lemon balm (Melissa officinalisleaf and flower is also anti-viral, calming to the nerves and digestion, and is said to gladden the heart. Tulsi (aka Holy Basil/Sacred Basil - Ocimum sanctum) leaf and flower is an adaptogen (helps your body adapt to stress) and has a particular affinity with the lungs, as well as the heart.

Also, please see my Ideas and Remedies for When You’re Home Sick… for more herbal info and suggestions for when you're feeling under the weather.

Echinacea in bloom, Lemon Balm before flowering, and Spilanthes leaf and bud

Recipes for Immune Health

Immune Soup and Spread
Using Miso paste and herbs, you can create a soup base that can be stored in the fridge long term. This is especially nice when you aren’t feeling well and you don’t have tons of energy to put into cooking.

½ cup Miso
1 tblsp fresh Ginger, grated or chopped   
3 cloves fresh Garlic, crushed and chopped
1 tblsp fresh Turmeric, grated or chopped 
   finely (optional)
pinch of Cayenne

Crush the garlic and leave it to sit for a few 
minutes before chopping, in order to make the most of its medicine, as this releases its allicin. Mix together the other ingredients. To make a simple soup, just put a spoonful of the paste into a bowl, cover with hot water, and stir. (Remember that the good living organisms in miso will be killed if you boil them.) If you want, you can add sliced scallions to the soup. You can also add the paste to a soup of sautéed and simmered onions, garlic, mushrooms, greens, chicken soup, bone broth, etc.

To make a spread for crackers and bread, you can just add Tahini (sesame paste) and/or local Honey to the miso herb paste.  The photo to the left on the bottom is of immune paste with Tahini.

Hot Ginger Lemonade
1-2 inch piece of fresh Ginger root, grated
1 quart of water
Juice of 1 Lemon, freshly squeezed
Honey to taste
Pinch of Cayenne powder

Grate fresh Ginger root and steep in hot water for 10-20 minutes. Strain and add freshly squeezed Lemon juice, Honey, and a pinch of Cayenne. This concoction is warming (Ginger & Cayenne), contains vitamin C (fresh Lemon juice), and is soothing to a sore throat (Honey & Ginger). The Ginger root can be used more than once, and depending on where you live you may be able to find it locally-grown, even in colder climates.  ie Snakeroot Farm in Central Maine, Friends and Neighbors Farm in Marshfield, VT, and Massachusetts-grown Old Friends Farm Ginger root can be found at various farmers markets/Coops.

Adaptogen Herb Balls
Adaptogens are herbs that help our bodies adapt to stress. Coffee and other stimulants that give us rushes of “fake” energy trick us into thinking we have energy while it depletes our energy reserves over time. But these herbs are nourishing.

2 cups of Tahini (sesame paste)
1 cup of local Honey
½ tblsp Cardamom and Nutmeg each
½ cup Sunflower seeds
½ cup Sesame seeds
¾ cup dried Coconut flakes (optional)
1 tblsp Spirulina (fresh water blue-green algae, with tons of protein & B vitamins)
Powdered tonic herbs such as:
Astragalus root, Ashwaghanda root, Hawthorn berries, Licorice root (start with a few tablespoons of one or many herbs, experiment with the taste)
Extra sesame seeds, coconut flakes, and/or cocoa/carob powder

Mix the Tahini and Honey together so that they are smooth. Stir in the herb powders, and then the nuts. If needed, add more herbs, or Coconut flakes, until you can form balls that hold their shape. Roll into balls, and coat with Sesame seeds and Coconut flakes if you like. These will keep for many weeks stored in the fridge. Feel free to experiment with other nuts, dried fruit, and to adjust the amounts.

Demons Begone! Fire Cider
Fire Cider is a spicy concoction that boosts the immune system and relieves sinus congestion. You can take a daily shot of fire cider to keep you well through the winter months, or take as needed when you're feeling under the weather. Fire cider can also be used topically as a liniment by rubbing it into sore muscles and aching joints or as a compress by soaking a clean cloth in the fire cider (either room temperature or warmed) and then placing onto a congested chest.  For the record: I haven't used Fire Cider topically before, I've just heard of it being used and like knowing multiple uses for the same herb/remedy

¼ -½ cup Horseradish root, grated
1 head of Garlic, chopped
1 Onion, chopped
¼ - ½ cup of Ginger, grated
1 tsp Cayenne pepper
1 quart organic Apple Cider Vinegar, preferably local and raw

Place herbs in a quart jar and cover with apple cider vinegar. Cover tightly with a non-metal lid (or put a piece of plastic or waxed paper between the jar and metal lid) as vinegar makes metal rust. Infuse for a month, shaking daily or at least often. After a month, strain and rebottle into a glass jar with a plastic lid. You can add honey to taste, if you wish. You can also eat the spicy strained herbs!

Note:  There is an active boycott of Shire City Herbals, as they have trademarked this traditional remedy and are suing fellow herbalists.  You can take action by spreading the word in your community/ies, contacting your local health food store to encourage them to support small local businesses that offer Fire Cider (instead of Shire City Herbals who is sending those small business cease and desist letters), and signing the petition.  You can learn more about the situation and find recipes and more on the Free Fire Cider website and the Tradition Not Trademark  Facebook page.

Medicinal Mushroom Extract
To create an extract that combines both tinctured and decocted (simmered tea) mushroom, divide your mushroom into two halves. Set aside half - if it’s fresh, allow it to dry whole or sliced. Chop the other half (fresh or dried) and weigh it. Make a tincture using approximately a 1:5 ratio - 1 part weight of mushroom to 5 parts volume of menstrum (liquid that you’re using to extract the mushroom), i.e. 2 ounces of dried mushrooms to 10 ounces of menstrum. Cover the chopped mushroom with a menstrum made of: 70% alcohol, 20% vegetable glycerin, and 10% water. (Glycerin is added to help the blend emulsify – otherwise it supposedly gets goopy.) Let the tincture infuse for a month, and then strain. Measure and put aside the liquid. Put the mushroom that you just strained and the dried mushroom you saved earlier together in a pot. Cover the mushrooms with twice the amount of water as tincture, and simmer for one hour to two days. The longer you simmer the mushroom, the more medicinal properties that are drawn out. When you are finished with the decocting, strain out the mushroom and measure the liquid. Return the liquid back to the pot and let it continue to simmer until it is reduced to the same amount as the tincture. Once this is achieved, remove the pot from heat and allow the liquid to cool. Once the liquid is at room temperature, combine with the tincture, using a whisk to blend the mixture together.

Some medicine-makers, after dividing the mushrooms in two, compost the mushrooms used to make the tincture, and then decoct only the other half that they’d put aside earlier. Others don’t divide the mushroom at all, and both tincture and decoct the same mushroom. When I’ve made mushroom extracts in the past, I try to add at least some untinctured mushroom to the decoction. Once after I completed an extract, I felt like the mushroom still contained a lot of medicine, so I added fresh water to the tinctured and decocted mushroom and continued the decoction process. I let it simmer a long while and then let it cool. I poured the liquid into ice cube trays and once frozen, I stored them in freezer bags that I labeled well. This way, I had a deep immune tonic that was ready to use whenever I needed it, to thaw as a tea or soup. You can also add other immune-enhancing medicines like Astragalus and Garlic to your decoctions, or freeze soup/bone-broths that contain medicinal mushrooms and herbs.

Rosemary, Thyme, and Sage, Reishi mushroom, Tulsi/Holy Basil/Sacred Basil

Please feel free to post additional recipes and ideas in the comment space below. If you don't have these remedies in your home apothecary and you'd like to support the community herbalism/organizing work that I do by placing an order, please see my online shop: Dandelioness Herbals Etsy Shop. Thanks so much!

*Ideas and Remedies for When You're Home Sick...
*Ginger Lovers Unite!: Medicinal and Culinary Uses of Ginger


  1. WOW!!! There is so much great info in this newsletter. Are they archived so I can come back to it?

  2. I'm so glad that you got something out of this post! There's always so much to write, especially about particular medicinal herbs, that giving a brief glimpse often feels like I'm not doing the plant justice. Hopefully the info and recipes are helpful for you, your loved ones, and those you're connected with in the community. Yes, you can definitely return to this post by either saving this particular link or just visiting the blog: Anytime you visit the blog you can find the list of posts on your right at the top of the page under "Blog Posts", or scroll down to where they're archived by month and year under "Blog Archive." Click on the particular post that you'd like to read and voilà! it should appear. Thanks so much for the support!

  3. Thanks for this information and for the recipes especially! I had grown spilanthes but didn't know when to harvet it. I enjoyed having it around though. It really is fun.
    I really enjoy your blog and read often as well as pass on your articles to otbers. You do great work here:)