It was a dark and stormy night. That’s how all exciting stories begin, isn’t it? Our story begins with the advent of the cold and flu season. Dark and stormy days turn to dark and stormy nights, with us fragile folk heading indoors for warmth and comfort. As we breathe in the warm inside air, we also breathe in each other’s colds and flu viruses. What to do? What to do? Come with me, as we delve into simple remedies to keep ourselves, our family, and friends healthy, and arm ourselves with tasty herbal antivirals, and symptom relievers!
Let’s start with some facts about our immune system. Did you know that 70% of our immune activity occurs in our small intestine? While it is fairly well-known that our moods and level of stress affect our immune system, it is not as well known that 80% of our relaxing neurotransmitters reside in our small intestine. It is the place where digestive juices from our gallbladder and pancreas are deposited, so that the food we eat can be broken down and taken up by our hungry body. That’s one busy organ! It stands to reason that if we nourish and heal our gut, the benefits to our emotional/nervous and immune systems are manyfold. We may be able to deal with day-to-day stresses easier and have a higher stress threshold to cope with larger, more intense stresses such as transition, grief, and loss. This can also translate to deeper, more restful sleep, better uptake of nutrition from the foods we eat, and a healthier, heartier immune system.
There are many ways to feed and nourish our gut. We can make fermented foods with cabbage, winter roots, hot peppers, and more (see recipe below). Hard aged cheeses and homemade beers are beneficial as well. The roots of dandelion and burdock contain prebiotics, which stimulate the growth and activity of the good bacteria in our gut. Sounds like the start of good winter meals, doesn’t it?
Water and/or milk kefirs are easy to make and contain readily available probiotics which thrive in our small (and large) intestine. These probiotics not only help us to digest our food, but help us to maintain a happier countenance.
Elderberry is probably the most well-known antiviral herb on the market at present. It can help to reduce swelling/inflammation in the sinuses to help relieve congestion, and reduce flu and cold symptoms.
Most herbal blogs recommend utilizing elderberries to make an elder syrup. They start by saying, “Put dried elderberries in a pan of water and simmer for 15-20 minutes. Gah! Drying and heating plants destroy the flavonoids in plants! Don’t do eeet! In order to retain the immune supporting and antiviral vitamin C complex and flavonoids, it’s best to prepare elderberries fresh. Fill a pint jar with all your fresh squished berries. Fill half the jar with either brandy or apple cider vinegar. Top off to the lower rim with honey. Brandy and honey make an elixir, apple cider vinegar and honey make an oxymel. Tightly cover the jar and put it on a dish as there may be some leakage. Let steep for a month and strain. A half to a whole teaspoon in a cup of warm water several times a day is all that is needed to provide incredible relief. As it takes a month to steep, you might want to get on this right away! You, your family, and your friends will be very happy when you provide them with herbal medicine that works well! You now have elderberry oxymel that can be taken by the teaspoon straight, added to fizzy water to make a shrub, use as an ingredient in salad dressings, and more. Kids over 2 love elderberry oxymel, and it will keep all winter in or out of the fridge.
Dandelion is a primo liver healer and strengthener. We can live without our fingers, we can lose an arm and still keep going, but we can’t live without our liver! Dandelion nourishes and strengthens our immune system. It is a digestive bitter, as it heals and nourishes the entire digestive tract. It helps us to get full nutrition from the foods we eat, and tones and nourishes the spleen, skin, nerves, kidneys, glands, urinary, circulatory, lymph, and gallbladder. That’s a lot of healing and nutrition from a plant that most people try to eradicate from their yard and gardens.
My favorite way to use dandelions in the winter is to dig up the roots, clean them well, chop them up by hand or food processor, and roast the roots. I put the chopped roots on a cookie sheet, put them in a 250 degree oven, and roast them for about 3 hours until they are completely dry and dark brown. At the halfway point, you’ll want to stir them up a bit. Put your roasted dandelion roots in a jar for winter enjoyment! I will put a couple cups of water in a saucepan, add roughly 3-4 tablespoons of the roasted roots, turn up the heat, and bring the water to a boil. Immediately turn the heat down to medium heat, and let simmer for 15 minutes, and strain. Try drinking this with raw milk and a bit of herbal honey.
Burdock is nourishing to our liver, kidneys, lungs, immune/lymphatic system. It cools fevers, rages, and hot flashes. Burdock is antibacterial (a little known fact)! It nourishes our nerves! Are you suffering from nervous energy? Cool down with burdock! It’s a deep digger and hard worker! Got buried resentments/jealousy/anger/grief/denial? Burdock releases powerful emotions—it helps us to get clear and moving forward.
My apprentices and I made a burdock root ferment this fall. Dig up burdock root or buy it from the co-op. Clean, and cut into carrot stick like pieces. Chop up a small onion, and a few cloves of garlic. Pack into a clean jar. Fill a quart jar with water, 1 tablespoon of salt, and 2 tablespoons of whey. If you don’t have whey, omit it and double the salt. Pour over the roots, put on a lid, and let sit on your counter for 3 days. Enjoy a tasteful, probiotic-packed condiment that compliments any meal! It will keep in the fridge for months!
Nettles are a powerhouse anti-inflammatory/astringent/decongestant to all mucosa, including the upper respiratory system. What constitutes the upper respiratory? The lungs, throat, sinuses, and ears. Nettle’s anti-inflammatory action is so beneficial when someone is finding it hard to breathe, tries to blow their nose, and nothing comes out. This could mean that the sinuses are inflamed, not necessarily filled with mucus. A simple nettle decoction will take care of this quickly. Did you gather nettles in the spring and make any pesto to freeze? Defrost a jar! Not only will you have effective congestion relief, but also the antibacterial action of the raw garlic.
Fire Cider! Speaking of raw garlic, here’s an all-time favorite recipe for immune boosting symptom relief!
Chop up an onion, head of garlic, a fresh cayenne or jalapeno, and about 2 inches each of ginger and horseradish. Fill a jar three quarters full and add organic unpasteurized apple cider vinegar. Cover with a plastic lid or put a piece of parchment paper between the vinegar and lid to prevent rusting. Let your brew sit for about 3 weeks to a month, and strain. You can take this by the spoonful when you feel a virus coming on, gargle with it when you have a sore throat (it’s magic!), use it as a salad dressing, sprinkle over cooked greens. Make a fabulous bbq sauce with it by adding a tablespoon or two to a ½ cup of og. ketchup. Stir, and enjoy on chicken or ribs!
Like hot sauce? Try this fermented hot sauce recipe given to me by my good friend Chris Mitchell. What she knows about fermentation, canning, and homesteading skills astounds me!
Cut the stems off of fresh cayenne (I used red jalapenos), slice in half lengthwise, and pack in a jar. In 1 quart water, stir in 1 tablespoon salt, and pour over sliced peppers to cover. You can add 1-2 tablespoons of whey if you have it. Weigh it down and put in dark place for 2 weeks (I just put a lid on my jar). Run it through blender and bottle. It stores up to a year in the fridge. Being a fermented food, used in moderation, it helps to feed the gut, and provides a healthy environment for the immune, digestive, and nervous systems to do their best work.
To make whey: You can get whey from unsweetened cultured yogurt by stirring the yogurt and leaving it on your counter for a few hours. The liquid you see on top is whey. If you are a cheese maker like me, you can get whey from low temperature cheeses such as feta. I keep my whey in little containers in the freezer so that I will always have a good supply for fermenting veggies.
There you have it! Tools in your herbal tool belt to help you sail through the winter months with strength and aplomb!