At this juncture between the equinox of September and the shortest day in December we find ourselves shifting between seasons, navigating the change in temperature, the change in weather, the change in light and change in pace.
In clinic as a medical herbalist, the most common struggle for people facing these seasonal infections seems to be finding the time to rest. Although the transition to winter demands a shift to quietness and introspection, it can seem better to push through using paracetamol to avoid taking a break. The unfortunate consequences, however, can be that a cold that could have been overcome in 3 or 4 days becomes a lingering infection that can dominate a week, a month or even comes and goes over the entire season.
My favourite herbs to be drinking during infections are easy to find in kitchens and supermarkets or even your local park; home remedies of the best kind.
Thyme is antiseptic, antimicrobial, hot and dry (and therefore acting against the cold and damp nature of a runny nose, clogged sinuses, puffy face and stagnant energy familiar to use all). Specifically effective against bronchitis and sore throats because it has an affinity for the respiratory system (and self expression), it also helps for a dry irritating cough and to expel mucous that refuses to come up and out. Use a handful of fresh or a heaped teaspoon of dry thyme per cup and make sure to brew tea for 15 min with a lid as the essential oils in the vapour are a key part of the power of the herb. Thyme can also be added to a hot bath or as a steam inhalation to capture those volatile compounds.
Garlic is another kitchen staple to reach for at the first signs of infection, as it is powerfully antimicrobial (it can even be used on infected wounds). Garlic has a particular affinity for head colds and the lethargy that comes with an infection. Its heat is beneficial in all cold diseases and can be consumed in food, crushed into hot water or ginger tea (with a squeeze of lemon and a spoonful of sugar to make the medicine go down) or as a syrup or electuary (infused honey).
Yarrow, a common herb in wildflower meadows and parks but somewhat harder to find and may require a trip to a herbalists dispensary. It helps to activate and promote an immune response by supporting sweating and improving circulation (allowing white blood cells to circulate more freely), it’s also tasty medicine, spicy and pungent.
Elderflower is a traditional companion to yarrow (often with the addition of peppermint) to promote fever in infections, to kill the pathogen. It has a powerful capacity to clear the ears, nose and throat infections and mucous (it’s also a fantastic friend in allergy season for the same reasons). Any cold that has a streaming runny nose, a sore throat or inflamed adenoids and phlegm in the head is crying out for help from elderflower. Elder is an ever yielding medicinal tree and elderberries, ripe for picking in late August and early September, can be made into a preventative immune boosting syrup (or purchased) to take throughout the season, full of antioxidants and vitamin C.
Other warming kitchen herbs – ginger, peppermint, basil and sage have similar heating and drying effects and can be added to or substituted for the above herbs to make a tea that is delicious and healing, our tastes and cravings are a good guide to what the body needs at a given moment, and a moment of play blending tea in the midst of sickness can bring welcome lightness and hope for healing. Drink a good 3 or 4 cups a day, especially on the first day of onset, the quicker you stop and rest and address the infection, the quicker and more complete recovery can be.
2-4 twigs thyme
1 small spring sage
2 coins ginger
1 slice lemon
add to a teapot and add 500ml boiling water. Cover with a lid and leave to stand 15 mins. Serve hot or at room temperature, with extra lemon/sugar/honey as desired
It’s interesting to notice that herbs that have a physical affinity for immunity tend to have an emotional affinity for courage. Thyme gives us the faith and stamina to keep going. Elderflower helps to lighten stuck emotions and face the world with hope. Garlic is believed to absorb and return negative magic and supports courage, energy and willpower and yarrow gives courage, perseverance and hope, self confidence and wards off fear according to Elisabeth Brooke.
In sickness we have a tendency to self-pity; after all, the normal functioning we take for granted is impaired and our energy and enthusiasm can abandon us for a few days as we wonder whether we will ever feel well again. But wellness involves illness, without one there is no other and cold season is a great leveller that reminds us all of our vulnerability and our strength.