Long before the advent of antihistamine tablets and specially formulated cold remedies, cold and flu sufferers turned to herbal teas to relieve their symptoms. Those homemade infusions were rich in vitamins, minerals and medicinal compounds. You can find commercial versions of these old-time remedies in most health food or natural grocery stores, or you can take a page out of the past and make your own. In the herbalist’s pharmacopoeia, specific herbs address particular symptoms, so we asked the experts to share their favorite blends.
Soothe a Sore Throat
A dry, scratchy throat often signals the onset of a cold, and over-the-counter syrups and lozenges just seem to sugarcoat the problem. Fortunately, nature provides some safe and easy-to-use alternatives. “Sore throats are greatly relieved by herbal tea,” says Brigitte Mars, herbalist and author of Healing Herbal Teas (Basic Health Media, Winter 2006). As a first line of defense, Mars prescribes marshmallow root (Althea officinalis), an anti-inflammatory herb that’s “wonderfully soothing on the throat.” Unrelated to the gooey little campfire confections, this herb has a long, well-documented history of successfully treating irritated mucous membranes.
James Duke, author of The Green Pharmacy (Rodale, 1997), recommends two other herbs for throat discomfort: slippery elm (Ulmus rubra), an antiseptic and anti-allergic agent that literally slips down the throat, and licorice root (Glycyrrhiza glabra). Antibacterial, antiviral and anti-inflammatory, licorice has been scientifically documented to break up phlegm, ease coughs and fight infections. A study at Bastyr University found that tea combining licorice, slippery elm and marshmallow is highly effective for reducing throat pain.
For sore throats accompanied by cold and flu symptoms, Mars suggests drinking stomach-soothing peppermint (Mentha x piperita). “It can lower a fever by helping you to sweat and release toxins naturally. It’s antiviral and user-friendly,” she explains. Mars also likes ginger (Zingiber officinale), which is “good for chills and aching muscles, and relieves nausea.” For extra measure, she adds elder (Sambuca nigra), shown by research to keep flu viruses at bay.
“When I have a difficult time breathing, I go for oolong because it opens up my lungs,” says Sara Martinelli, tea blender and owner of The Boulder Dushanbe Tea House in Boulder, Colorado. Indeed, black tea like oolong contains powerful expectorant compounds that help clear mucus from deep within the chest. The caffeine it packs is also a powerful bronchodilator. To take the edge off the caffeine, Martinelli mixes in calming chamomile (Matricaria recutita), touted for its anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, antifungal, antiseptic and antispasmodic properties. She also adds liberal portions of rose hips (Rosa canina), which, she says, “are high in vitamin C and taste great.”
For a respiratory remedy that relies just on herbal ingredients, Martinelli concocts a brew of thyme (Thymus vulgaris), rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) and eucalyptus (Eucalyptus globules). Thyme has antiseptic properties that help heal infections, while rosemary contains disease-fighting compounds and eucalyptus cools inflamed tissues and eases congested lungs. She suggests sipping the tea or making a vapor tent by placing a towel over your head and breathing in the healing vapors.
Want to create your own cold and flu teas? To get a sense of a herb’s individual flavor, begin with a “simple”—a tea steeped from a single herb such as echinacea (Echinacea var.), which Martinelli notes “is best used as a preventive before a cold strikes.” Place two teaspoons in a tea ball or strainer and add to one cup of hot water; steep for 10 to 15 minutes and stir in honey. For more of Martinelli’s tea blends, check out: www.boulderteahouse.com.
Cold & Flu Fighter
(formulated by Brigitte Mars)
This spicy tea relieves swollen nasal passages and calms an upset stomach. Place an inch of the herbs in a quart jar. Fill with hot water and steep for two hours. Strain and refrigerate. Reheat whenever you need relief. 2 parts peppermint leaf
2 parts elder flower
1 part elder berry
1 part ginger root
(formulated by Sara Martinelli)
Congested lungs will love this aromatic breath of fresh air. Place two teaspoons of the mixture in a strainer, add one cup hot water and steep for 10 to 15 minutes.
2 parts oolong tea
1 part rosemary
1 part chamomile
1 part rose hips
Sore Throat Soother
(formulated by Deborahann Smith)
Steep two teaspoons of this soothing herb blend in a cup of hot water for quick throat relief. Licorice root also adds a sweetening effect.
1 part slippery elm
1 part licorice root
1 part marshmallow root
1 part anise (Pipinella anisum)
1 part wild cherry (Prunus virginiana)
Sweeten Your Tea… Naturally
Looking for a safe alternative to white sugar? Smart idea! Natural sweeteners often contain important nutrients that refined sugar lacks, plus they have fewer calories and may help you lower the risk of disease associated with high-sugar diets. One of these sweeteners may be just your cup of tea.
Agave syrup. Also called “nectar” or “honey water,” this syrup is tapped from the heart of the agave cactus—a plant long cultivated in Mexico and considered sacred by the Aztec. Fifty percent sweeter than table sugar yet with fewer calories per serving, it has a more neutral flavor than honey and dissolves easily in hot or cold beverages. It’s also low-glycemic, which means it gets absorbed into the blood stream slowly rather than producing a “sugar rush.”
Blackstrap molasses. Rich in minerals such as iron, calcium, potassium and
magnesium, blackstrap molasses has been considered a health food since pioneer days. Originally a product of the Caribbean Islands, it’s derived from sorghum (an Old World grass).
Honey. Made from flower nectar by the honeybee, honey takes on the color and flavor of the plant from which it was gathered—with alfalfa and clover honey being the most common. Like blackstrap molasses, honey is considered a nutritive sweetener because it contains vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and amino acids. Plus, it has antibacterial properties and is soothing to the throat. Note: Honey is contraindicated for children less than one year old because it may contain harmful bacterium not easily assimilated by infants.
Stevia. Used for centuries as a sweetener in South America, this herb is more than 100 times sweeter than sugar yet is calorie-free. Research shows that stevia may help lower blood sugar, which suggests that it may be a good sugar alternative for diabetics.
Xylitol. This white crystalline substance is extracted from plants and is even produced in the human body. It looks and tastes like sugar (but with 60 percent fewer calories), and studies have shown it to have antibacterial effects against dental plaque and caries, and possibly to be diabetic-safe.