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Herbs For Combating Colds and Flu
Herbal prevention and treatment that’s safe and effective.
By Michael Castleman
The signs don’t lie: scratchy throat, nasal congestion, watery eyes. It is, indeed, the start
of another cold. If your first thought is to reach for the Airborne, that over-the-counter
herbal cold remedy invented by a teacher, think again. It probably won’t make a dent.
But other herbal and natural approaches do prevent colds—and if you do end up
catching a cold, natural treatments can spare you considerable misery.
Colds are humanity’s most prevalent illness. Caused by more than 200 viruses, each one
technically causes a “different” cold. But because all colds produce similar symptoms,
the malady is considered a single illness.
Most colds start with a scratchy throat, and progress through nasal congestion, watery
eyes and runny nose to a dry, hacking cough that may become bronchitis. Childhood
colds may cause fever, but adult colds rarely do.
Medically, colds are minor and clear up by themselves in a week or so. But this minor
illness causes major misery and is quite costly. Americans suffer 500 million colds
annually and spend $17 billion a year treating them. Most of that money is wasted on
over-the-counter cold formulas that suppress symptoms without spurring healing.
Herbal and natural approaches are preferable because they provide real protection
and/or speed healing.
Prevention: Boost Immunity
When researchers infect people’s noses with a live virus, some test subjects—those
with the most robust immune systems—don’t catch the cold. These three immune-
boosting herbs have shown value in cold prevention:
• Echinacea (Echinacea spp.). Studies from the 1990s showed scant preventive value.
But in 2007, University of Connecticut scientists analyzed 14 studies and found that
echinacea reduced cold risk by 58 percent. Echinacea’s preventive value remains
controversial, but if anyone close to you catches a cold, there’s no harm in taking it.
Recommended dose: 20 drops of tincture three times a day, or follow package
• Ginseng. (Panax quinquefolius, P. ginseng). Canadian researchers gave 279 adults a
daily placebo or ginseng (400 mg a day). Four months later, the ginseng group
developed significantly fewer colds. University of Connecticut researchers repeated this
study and came to the same conclusion, calling ginseng “a safe, natural means for
preventing acute respiratory illness.” Recommended dose: 400 mg a day.
• Green tea (Camellia sinensis). University of Florida researchers gave healthy adults
either a placebo or green tea capsules twice a day. Three months later, the tea group
reported significantly fewer colds.
No other herbs have been shown to prevent colds. However, several boost immune
function against viruses, so it’s a good bet they help prevent colds.
• Ashwaganda (Withania somnifera). For centuries, Indians have used this immune-
enhancing Ayurvedic herb to prevent illness. Recommended dose: 1 to 6 grams daily (2
to 12 teaspoons) in capsules or tea. In tincture or liquid extract, use 2 to 4 ml three times
daily. Or follow package directions.
• Eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus). Also known as Siberian ginseng, this herb is
unrelated to ginseng but has similar effects, including immune-boosting antiviral action.
A German study shows that it produces a “drastic increase” in immune responses,
notably, more T-cells and natural killer cells. Recommended dose: 400 mg daily of
standardized extract containing 0.3 percent eleutheroside E. Or follow package
• Maitake mushroom (Grifola frondosa). Maitake contains beta-glucan that activates germ-
devouring T-cells, natural killer cells and macrophages. Recommended dose: 3 to 7
grams a day. Or use this delicious mushroom in cooking.
• Reishi mushroom (Ganoderma lucidum). Like maitake, reishi contains beta-glucan, and
revs up the immune system against various viruses, notably herpes. Recommended
dose: 1.5 to 9 grams daily of dried mushroom; 1 to 1.5 grams a day of powder; or 1 ml a
day of tincture. Reishi is nasty-tasting and is not used as a food.
• Shiitake mushroom (Lentinula edodes). These tasty Asian mushrooms are immune-
boosters, notably against the viruses that cause hepatitis B and genital warts.
Recommended dose: 6 to 16 grams a day of dried mushrooms or 4 ounces fresh. Or use
• Vitamin C. Since 1970, when the late Nobel laureate Linus Pauling published Vitamin C
and the Common Cold, this nutrient has ranked among the nation’s most popular—and
controversial— cold remedies. Finnish researchers analyzed 30 trials, and found no
preventive benefit—except in those under substantial physical stress (soldiers,
marathon runners). However, this analysis considered studies using about 200 mg a
day—too little, according to some reports, to show benefit. Most studies showing cold
prevention use 2,000 mg a day or more. The jury is still out. But if those around you have
colds, there’s no harm in taking vitamin C. Recommended dose: 2,000 mg a day in
• Forget Airborne. This bestselling supplement contains some echinacea, but not
enough to help. Otherwise, it’s simply a multivitamin. Last August, as part of a false-
advertising settlement with the Federal Trade Commission, Airborne’s maker agreed to
stop claiming that it prevents or treats colds.