This article was written by Courtney Fischer, who is a clinical herbalist intern at MUIH’s Natural Care Center. She can be reached at .
When I think of some of my favorite wintertime herbs, I am drawn to warming, moving, and nurturing plants that help provide balance to the colder, more sluggish and stark energies of winter. As a believer in food as our primary medicine, I have chosen herbs that can all be added to one’s meals or sipped on as an enjoyable tea—bringing our medicine into our daily lives with ease.
Garlic (Allium sativum) – Eating garlic daily, especially through the wintertime, is a great way to keep your immune system awake and strong to ward off sickness. Because garlic is a very heating herb, if regularly consumed it is most appropriate for people who are on the neutral or cooler side. Eating garlic raw, as opposed to cooked, assures that the antimicrobial/antibiotic constituent known as allicin remains active. Try crushing or mincing a clove or two and throwing it raw into your bowl of soup, or any meal, to stay healthy through the winter and to nip the first signs of sickness in the bud.
Astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus) – This root is native to China and is best known as an immune tonic, helpful in building one’s reserves and maintaining a healthy immune response. It is traditionally used as a preventative medicine or during convalescence, as opposed to during an acute viral infection. In addition, astragalus is an adaptogen and over time can create a healthier stress response allowing for more sustained energy. I recommend buying astragalus dried in long thin slices (they look like tongue depressors), and throwing a handful of these regularly into your wintertime soups and stews.
Cayenne (Capsicum annuum) – If you are the type of person that feels cold and stagnant during the winter, cayenne can be one great way to stimulate your circulation and provide a kickstart to your day—without the crash of caffeine. Add it to your food or sprinkle some (to taste) in a glass of warm water with a squeeze of lemon for an effective pick-me-up. Cayenne is equally effective used at the first signs of a cold. By stimulating secretions and encouraging sweating, this powerful herb helps to flush away pathogens, which helps boost the immune system.
Mullein (Verbscum thapsus) – This is a plant that you may have seen on the side of the road—with giant fuzzy leaves and a tall, torch-like flower stalk, it can be hard to miss. Mullein leaf has long been appreciated as a lung herb, acting as an expectorant and a soothing, healing tonic for hot and dry lungs with a barky cough. Best taken as a tea, infuse at least a half cup of dried mullein leaves with other appropriate herbs in boiled water for 20 minutes and strain well through a coffee filter or muslin.
Holy basil or Tulsi (Occimum sanctum) – Sometimes in the midst of a long winter, it is nice to have an herb to lift your spirits and to remind you that the lightness of spring will come. Holy basil can be lovely for just this purpose, with a sweet aroma wafting up from your tea cup at every sip. For at least three thousand years, holy basil has been considered one of India’s most powerful herbs, thought to balance the chakras or energy centers in the body. Today we know this herb as one of our great adapatogens, preventing the negative effects of stress. If this isn’t enough reason to add it to your herb chest, holy basil also has traditionally been used as an expectorant for profuse mucus and to soothe an upset stomach. Infuse one teaspoon per cup of hot water and enjoy.