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.
The use of herbal remedies for boosting human health is certainly nothing new. Echinacea, for example, has been used for centuries, primarily as a natural remedy for bronchitis, coughs, respiratory infections, and the common cold. Hundreds of years of anecdotal evidence notwithstanding, echinacea’s ability to reduce the duration and severity of symptoms is also supported by modern research (Percival, 2000).
Of course, many other herbs are still used today and may prove useful to you and your family throughout the fall and winter months. I’m pleased to introduce five of my top herbal recommendations for helping you stay healthy and vibrant during the cold and flu season.
Garlic for immune system
Eating garlic (Allium sativum) 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 for energy
Astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus) 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 for circulation
If you are the type of person that feels cold and stagnant during the winter, cayenne (Capsicum annuum) 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 for lungs
Mullein (Verbscum thapsus) 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 for stress
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 (Occimum sanctum 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.
It’s never been more important to enhance your immunity and overall health during the wintertime months. Herbal remedies are effective, affordable, and accessible strategies you can use to complement the other healthy lifestyle habits you already rely on to support your immune system.
To this end, I recommend incorporating a few herbs into your wintertime wellness routine. If it helps, consider selecting your herbs with your primary health goals in mind—whether it’s garlic for immune system, astragalus for energy, cayenne for circulation, holy basil for stress, mullein for lungs, or some other selection shown to offer direct benefits to body and mind. Herbs and herbal remedies connect us to a timeless tradition of holistic healing and often have a synergistic effect when used in combination.
Wintertime herbs are also incredibly easy to incorporate into the season—say, steeped in a warm mug of tea or tossed into a homemade soup. Your options are vast. Explore them and enjoy them!
Herbal Medicine Programs at MUIH
MUIH’s one-of-a-kind herbal medicine programs recognize the power of the natural world and plant medicines in promoting health and wellness. Through the integration of time-honored uses with contemporary science and research, graduates support the growing consumer use of herbal medicine in community health and wellness, clinical care, research, manufacturing, and retail settings.
Frequently Asked Questions about Medicinal Herbs
Where to buy medicinal herbs?
You can buy medicinal herbs online or in brick and mortar stores, such as natural health food stores. Look for reputable brands and purity of products when making your selection. Many stores offer buy-in-bulk options, which are a great choice for anyone looking to stock up for the winter.
What medicinal herbs to grow?
You can grow many medicinal herbs at home, including basil, cayenne, echinacea, parsley, lavender, rosemary, and peppermint. Purchase seeds separately or as part of an at-home herbal growing kit, available in many retail and online stores.
Why grow your own herbs? Aside from the direct health benefits they offer (and the money you stand to save by growing them yourself), simply having plants in your home has been found to boost memory and mood, among other benefits.
How many medicinal herbs are there?
According to the National Library of Medicine, there are up to 100 herbs and flowers found within the NLM garden. Many of these plants have been used for hundreds of years throughout the world as part of the holistic healing tradition.