Written by Clinical Herbalist + Astrologer Susan Horning. You can send her a message or book a private herbal consultation via Sue@unityyoga.ca.

One of my clients recently asked me why everyone is coming down with colds and flus this season- seemingly more than ever before. My response? ‘What did you expect was going to happen?’. The fact is, periods of isolation can trick the immune system into feeling safe, and as the saying goes, ‘if we don’t use it, we start to lose it’. So, naturally, in the wake of the pandemic, many of us are more susceptible to illness as we move back out into the world. 

It is our susceptibility to disease that may be the key determinant to whether we get sick or not – factors like stress, lack of rest, and poor dietary choices can make us more likely to come down with every passing cold or flu.  This means our best defence is putting up a good offence – taking in an adequate diet rich in vitamins and minerals, adding a bit of extra supplementation support with vitamin C, D, and Zinc, and using herbal antivirals to decrease our susceptibility. And, of course, we have to make sure to have the pillars of health to begin with – adequate rest, a healthy diet, and proper hydration.

As a clinical herbalist, I promote the use of whole plants to boost health and vitality.  For example, I make an antiviral throat spray that kills bacteria and viruses on contact, and acts at the first point of entry – our mouth.  It’s not just killing a virus or creating a physical barrier that protects us, but the fortification of our body systems that decreases our susceptibility to getting sick in the first place, which is the basis of immune health.  This is why plant products and herbal antivirals are so great – they work to enhance and strengthen the health and well being of anyone who uses them.

Herbal antivirals are many, but a few stand out in my mind as herbal heroes, particularly those that can also combat stress, calm our nerves, and have other added beneficial actions.  Choosing the right herb for the person (not the condition) is a foundation of herbal medicine and so a bit of knowledge about the different actions of plants is key to finding the right herb for you.

Ways to Ingest Plants

There are lots of ways we can ingest plants.  We can eat them fresh, we can rehydrate dried plants into tea or soup, we can boil roots and barks, or we can consume a whole plant extract made of alcohol, vinegar or honey syrup.  Some methods of extraction are better for certain things, for example, there is nothing nicer than a warm cup of tea for a common cold, or a syrup or throat spray for a sore throat.

Plant constituents are bioavailable when they are used in whole plant form but have a different effect when they are isolated and magnified into a drug (ie. The supplement ‘curcumin’ vs. the whole plant curcuma longa), and some constituents extract well in water, while some (particularly the more dangerous alkaloids) need to be extracted with an organic solvent.

A note here that the most antimicrobial and strongest extraction of any plant is the distillation of its essential oil.  Essential oils contain triterpenes which means they are some of the most deadly of the plant medicines – for all bacteria – and that includes the ones in our gut!   Because we need our good bacteria to nourish our gut microbiome, I do not recommend the use of essential oils unless you are really ready to bring out the ‘big guns’, and I never use them internally where they can be extremely harmful.

Here are three of my favourite herbal antivirals and some great ways to include them in your diet to boost your immune system and defence against viruses.  I recommend that you consult with a clinical herbalist for more information about whole plants and their many uses, as well as to get specific recommendations for your own body. 

Herbal Antivirals: Three Plants that Boost Immune Function

Astragalus membranaceus (Huang Qi)

This herb from China is one that I use in my Golden Immunitea, a warming, tumeric-based decoction (a tea that is boiled on the stove).  It is a very safe plant that is considered by some herbalists to be an adaptogen because it is so effective in combating the stress response.  Better in prevention than in the acute stage of an illness, Astragalus membranaceus is one of the best herbal antivirals as it raises immune resistance by strengthening both nonspecific and specific immunity.   It is known as an immune-modulator, so it can be very helpful for those with an over-reactive immune state, or auto-immune conditions.

Because it’s a root, it extracts best when it’s boiled on the stove at a dose of 1 tbsp per cup, or it can be added to soups and broths as it has a mild flavour. 

Caution: Astragalus acts as a hepatoprotective, which is beneficial for lots of things, but it also means that it can prevent certain drugs from being picked up by the liver.  Depending on what it is, this can mean that the desired effect of the drug is nul and void because Astragalus blocks the liver from conjugating the drug fully.  So it should be used with caution, especially with drugs that are dose sensitive like MAOI inhibitors and SSRI’s.

Echinacea angustifolia

There are three species of Echinacea  – Echinacea angustifolia, E. purpurea and E. pallida.  They all work very similarly, but E. angustifolia is the best herbal antiviral.  It works a bit differently to astragalus as an immune-stimulant, which gives the immune system a kick to be on guard!  A perfect herb to use during the first signs of a cold or flu, Echinacea angustifolia is always with me when I’m boarding a plane, feeling run down, or if I’m going to be around big crowds of people.  It’s one of the primary ingredients in my Antimicrobial Throat Spray.  It acts as a lymphatic to drain enlarged lymph nodes, can shorten the duration and severity of upper respiratory tract infections and help with post viral fatigue.

Echinacea doesn’t taste great and if it’s good quality it should make you salivate. It’s a gentle lymphatic that can help bring down enlarged lymph nodes.   This is one of the things that helps it do its job.

Echinacea can be taken in tincture (best as a dual extraction where the root has been boiled and preserved in alcohol), but because it’s a root, it won’t extract well or taste very good in a tea or soup. The best way to take Echinacea is to boil the root to extract its valuable polysaccharides which have the most immune stimulant effects.

Caution: Echinacea should not be taken by people who have auto-immune conditions without supervision by a health care practitioner because it can prompt a flare up of an immune response (it’s an immune stimulant), which can worsen conditions like Ulcerative colitis, Rheumatoid arthritis, myalgic encephalitis, and other autoimmune disorders.  Better to lean on the immune modulators in these conditions instead, to exert an overall calming effect on the immune system rather than stimulating it.  Of course it can be used, but I wouldn’t recommend it.

Chaga Mushroom

Although not technically a herb, Chaga Mushroom (Innotus obliquus) stands out for me as one of my greatest allies for immune support.  Not only is it adaptogenic and able to combat the effects of stress, it is also the most potent antioxidant on the planet!  Antioxidant herbs destroy free radicals in the body and prevent ‘oxidation’ of tissues to protect our cells and DNA from damage.  It is not only immune enhancing and antiviral, it is also alkalizing for the body which can help with cancer prevention.

Chaga can moderate blood pressure and blood sugars, and is a rich source of Zinc.  No wonder it’s also an incredible ally for allergies!  If that wasn’t enough, it can also be used as an antifungal and works well topically for skin conditions of all kinds – rashes, lumps and bumps and even skin problems may be soothed by its application.

Chaga should be taken as a decoction to extract its valuable betaglucans, or it can be made into a dual extract by boiling it and preserving it in its alcohol extraction.  The best part about Chaga is that it keeps on giving – you can reboil this fungus many times over and it will keep on creating a rich, chocolately tea that tastes great!

Although its action can be antifungal, caution should be taken using Chaga for fungal infections.  Best to consult an herbalist before using it liberally. You can buy sustainable Chaga in plain form from most health food stores, or try my popular Chaga Chai

How to Make Chaga Tea: Two Ways

About Sue Horning

Sue Horning is a Clinical Herbalist + Bazi Chinese Astrologer. She offers private Astrology readings and 1:1 Herbal Consultations. Read her past articles: 2023 Astrology Predictions based on your guiding element, Herbs for Energy, and How to Make Adaptogen Tea.  Connect with Sue at Sue@unityyoga.ca.

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Three herbal antivirals that will boost your immune system.