Herbal Recommendations for Influenza and Viral Illness in the Event of a Pandemic

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Compiled by Lora Krall, Nurse Herbalist and The Science & Art of Herbalism course teacher.

With the incidence of respiratory viruses on the rise, and the additional concern of Coronavirus infections, knowing a variety of options to support those who may become ill is essential. This list is by no means complete, but it does offer the herbalist tools to support those with specific disadvantages (chronic illness, socioeconomic conditions, isolation, etc.) and suggested alternatives to use in times when certain plant preparations are unavailable. (For even more ideas, visit Rosemary Gladstar’s 15 Recommendations to Boost Immunity blog post.)

Additionally, none of these herbal suggestions are meant to be a sole support for someone who is ill. In order for herbs to really support the body, some other health basics need to also be met. 

In the event of a pandemic, herbalists will be KEY supports to our communities. It is wise to be prepared!

Health Basics

Good nutrition! That includes simple broths of miso or chicken loaded with Onions, Garlic and Turmeric which are all supports themselves. Add some Reishi or Shiitake mushrooms for some antiviral mushroom assistance too. I also suggest Fire Cider! It is a food, it is a medicine, and it is loaded with all the goodies to support your immune system. When someone is ill, eating may not be on the top of their list, but these simple foods provide the foundation for good health.

Hydration! One of the best ways to support a fever aiding the body in detoxification as well as fighting an infection is to be sure the person is well-hydrated. Good clean water is vital, followed by drinking lots of great teas or broths. For small children, herbal ice pops can be a great way to add fluids. Hydration is especially important for the very young, those with compromised immune systems, pregnant women, and the very old. These people may not have fully developed thermoregulation, may be working for two, or may not be as strong as they once were. 

Sleep is when the body does its best regenerative work, and getting sleep is essential. Make sure they have a comfortable place to sleep, clean sheets and blankets, and good ventilation. 

Social supports. Many people in our communities suffer from isolation and loneliness. That isolation can insulate people from viral exposure, but it can also leave them very vulnerable with no one to help them in the event they do become ill. Assure that anyone in your care has support for cooking, cleaning and preparing herbal products. 

Special considerations. While this is not something anyone wants to consider, it is a possibility. You may not be able to help everyone who requests your care. You may wish to consider a personal “triage system” of who YOU feel you are best suited to support and build a network of others you can refer to if needed. Those with complex medical conditions and in poor health are some of the most vulnerable. 

Develop a list of emergency phone numbers and resources. These should include local hospitals, the police, and any community health supports. Keep up-to-date on any areas that may be made available to triage and care for the ill such as schools, gymnasiums or other areas large enough to accommodate many people. Hospitals may have overflow areas and, while not ideal, they can be an option if you need them.

Plant Supports

Antivirals

Antivirals will likely be your front-line supports as these are specific for treating viruses by helping the body activate the immune system. The ones listed below are known to support the body with influenza and have been rigorously researched.

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Elderberry (Sambucus nigra). Very popular in mainstream marketing, it may well be the first plant to come in short supply. A blend of this with Elderflower or any other dark purple berry (Aronia, Blueberries, Black Raspberries) could extend the supply.

Garlic (Allium sativum). A food and a medicine, Garlic has been shown to be effective against both influenza A and B as well as viral pneumonia and rhinovirus.1https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/antiviral-herbs#5.-Garlic
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echinacea small square plant profile

Echinacea (Echinacea purpurea or E. angustifolia) This is a known immune booster and has been found to be specific against influenza and also herpes infections.

Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra) With a sweet flavor and some adaptogenic properties, Licorice can be a nice option. It has been shown to treat SARS infections and may also work with influenza. It is an anti-inflammatory and expectorant as well.

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Astragalus (Astragalus propinquus) This has been shown to be effective against avian influenza and may be a great support to overall immune health. Its mild flavor makes a great addition to soup.

Lomatium (Lomatium dissectum) Used during the 1918 pandemic, Lomatium was invaluable. It has not only antiviral properties but also antibacterial and antifungal ones as well. Steven Buhner has it in his influenza formula and uses in severe cases.2Buhner, Stephen. “Herbal Antivirals” (2013) Storey Publishing. P. 42-54. This is a United Plant Savers (UpS) “At Risk” medicinal, so be sure to get organically cultivated sources and use wisely.3https://barlowherbal.com/blogs/blog/the-super-natural-power-of-lomatium

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Osha (Ligusticum porteri) Osha is a very potent antiviral with specific use for influenza. This is a UpS “At Risk” medicinal, so be sure to get organically cultivated sources and use wisely.4https://www.beneficialbotanicals.com/store/Osha-Root-Tincture-p88861150

Pleurisy Root (Asclepias tuberosa) This plant was used for antiviral effects but also is an antispasmodic and expectorant. Can also have a mild tonic effect on the respiratory system. Pleurisy is on the UpS “To Watch” list; be sure to use cultivated sources and use wisely.

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Forsythia (Forsythia suspensa) Herb used in Chinese medicine known as Lian Qiao, it has been used primarily as a skin herb but can be useful in influenza illness showing some specific activity here.5http://www.chineseherbshealing.com/forsythia/

Oregano (Origanum vulgare) Not a specific herb for influenza, it is one of the easiest herbs to obtain and can be used in a variety of ways, similar to Garlic. Oregano is aromatic and has strong antibacterial properties as well as antifungal. Because of its use as a digestive aid, it can be great for those who have digestive upset with influenza.

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Ginger (Zingiber officinal) A stimulating herb, Ginger is antiviral, anti-inflammatory and expectorant, it can help with a cough or congestion. It is diaphoretic, so it can help bring down a fever. It can also be carminative and is helpful for any accompanying nausea.

Aromatics

Aromatic herbs can be offered for inhalation via steam.  They can be used fresh, dried, or as an essential oil. They help to open and soothe airways,  and provide antiviral and antibacterial properties for the respiratory system.

thyme small square plant profile

Thyme (Thymus vulgaris) This is a must as a steam. It is antiseptic, expectorant, antispasmodic and a vermifuge.  It is included in the Four Thieves Formula known for its use during the Black Plague of the Middle Ages.  It is easy to grow and can be frozen for use later.  It is great to add to food.  Very versatile, it can be used as a mouthwash or for sore throats.

Sage (Salvia officinalis) Another must-have kitchen herb Sage is also antispasmodic, antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory and antiseptic. It also works well on sore throats and can go into food.

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Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) Yup, more kitchen love. Rosemary is antispasmodic, antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory and a stimulant. It also has an uplifting effect, just what someone who is sick needs! It is very nutritive and is loaded with antioxidants to help build an ailing body.

Eucalyptus (Eucalyptus globulus) This plant from Australia is most often used as an aromatic. It is helpful to relieve congestion and soothe a cough. It has antiseptic benefits as well. When body aches and pains dominate, this combined with peppermint has an anodyne effect that can relieve body aches associated with influenza.

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Flat Cedar (Arborvitae) A wonderful aromatic plant, this was shared with me by my Heart Mom and Native teacher, Blackhawk Woman. It is high in vitamin C, is antiviral, antibacterial and a great steam inhalation. It can be sipped as a tea and used in a bath or foot soak.

Gaining great popularity, mushrooms make excellent additions to your herbal medicine chest. In many cases, small amounts can have great benefits, making them ideal when caring for large numbers of people.6Roger, Robert. “The Fungal Pharmacy” (2011) North Atlantic Books. P.503 for list of mushroom supports.

Reishi small square plant profile

Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum) Rarely found growing in the wild, Reishi is mostly found in cultivated sources and is fairly easy to grow in the right conditions. It is known for its use as a lung herb being analgesic and immune protective. It has an adaptogenic property that is good for endurance making it an ideal choice for someone with immune challenges. Shown to have antiviral activity.

Chaga (Polyporus obliquus) This beauty is found on birch trees and can be harvested anytime of year. It has been primarily used for the treatment of a wide variety of cancers and also found to be a strong blood purifier.  Specifically, it was found to provide 100% inhibition of influenza A and B. Due to excessive harvesting, Chaga is soon to be on the UpS “To Watch” list of medicinal plants. Use wisely and harvest ethically or purchase from ethical sources.

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Shiitake (Lentinula edodes) This is a very edible mushroom and has been used for increasing stamina, circulation, help in the alleviation of arthritis, diabetes and high blood cholesterol as well as immune deficiency. Shiitake, like Chaga, has been used in the treatment of cancers.  It has been found to be effective in some studies against influenza but also HIV and several bacteria.

Adaptogens

Adaptogens help the body adapt to stress, restore metabolic functions and can help restore balance to a sickened body. Whether caregiver or client, we all need these!

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Tulsi/Holy Basil (Ocimum sanctum) This plant has the benefit of not only being an adaptogen but is also an aromatic herb with antiviral capabilities. It has some nervine properties and makes an excellent choice for its multiple avenues of support. Tulsi is antibacterial, antidepressant, expectorant and immunomodulator.

Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) This is anti-inflammatory, antispasmodic and an immune amphoteric, meaning it helps to normalize the immune system. Ashwagandha may be especially helpful to prevent a deterioration to a more debilitating illness.  It is also a nervine and can help with sleep.  I think it is a great choice for someone already debilitated.

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Cordyceps (Cordyceps sinensisDavid Winston discusses the use of this adaptogen as a specific for kidney diseases, but it is also a great adaptogen to improve lung function, especially with chronic conditions and “dry lungs with chronic coughing.” Cordyceps are ideal for someone who may have underlying lung issues and then develops influenza.

Rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea) This northern climate adaptogen seems well suited for the flu season. It is antiviral as well as an immune stimulant, nervine and antidepressant. This should not be taken for long periods of time (several months), but can be a great option for rotational support.

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Schisandra (Schisandra chinensis) This is a beautiful berry and one with the unique quality of having five flavors! Schisandra is high in Vitamin C and is anti-inflammatory, expectorant and an immune tonic.  This makes a wonderful immune support for caregivers to keep them healthy.

Shatavari (Asparagus racemosus) This adaptogen has a history of use as a specific for increasing female libido. It is an ideal choice as a lung support due to its demulcent qualities, antispasmodic, antibacterial and immune tonic.  It works well with “irritable and sticky hard-to-expectorate coughs.”7Winston, David and Maimes, Steven. “Adaptogens: Herbs for Strength, Stamina and Stress Relief.” (2007) Healing Arts Press. P. 129-200 Monographs.

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Historical Herbs Used In The 1918 Flu Pandemic

In Kathy Abascal’s book Herbs and Influenza: How herbs used in the 1918 flu pandemic can be effective in ANY pandemic, she discusses three herbs in particular used by physicians for treatment in the 1918 Pandemic.  There is also a wide selection of other herbs and a good read for further study, if interested.  While these physicians did not have the benefit of knowing about viruses, many of their treatments were designed for symptom relief and shortening the course of illness. They often used the term “curative” referring to shortened course, not necessarily completely preventing illness. Three main herbs include Boneset, Black Cohosh and Pleurisy (for more information on Pleurisy, see above).

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Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum) This was used to support the bone-aching pain that accompanies influenza. Native Americans used this as a treatment for influenza and colds as well.  During the 1918 Pandemic it was used as a “prophylactic,” but was not scientifically proven to do so.  It did, however, prove useful as a diaphoretic and expectorant.  Boneset was often recommended when Black Cohosh did not relieve body aches and pain.

Black Cohosh (Cimicifuga racemosa) This was used for its analgesic effects similar to Boneset. Black Cohosh was used to relieve cough and cold symptoms. It was especially favored for use on irritated throats.  It could also help with headaches of influenza.  Unlike Boneset, it does have some antispasmodic activity, making it an aid for strong coughs.  It is also diaphoretic, expectorant and alterative

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“This is one of the places herbalists and other natural care givers can shine, as there simply won’t be enough doctors and nurses should a pandemic break out again…it is absolutely necessary we be informed and prepared. Prevention is the best preparation…be ready, calm, and prepared."

Rosemary Gladstar

Symptom Relief

In addition to the supports listed above, there are a wide range of herbs that can be used for symptom relief for such things as fever, cough, and body aches.  Many herbs can be considered lung tonics and could be of an overall benefit to strengthen lungs to better withstand an infection. These listed below are in no special order: 

  • Fennel
  • Elderflower
  • Mullein
  • Elecampane
  • Coltsfoot
  • Slippery Elm (UpS “At Risk” list)
  • Marshmallow root
  • Comfrey
  • Lobelia
  • Peppermint
  • Spearmint
  • Basil
  • Wintergreen
  • Yarrow

Additionally, herbs that are not specifics for influenza type illness but are worth consideration are:

  • Usnea
  • White Pine
  • Tamarack

They may be especially helpful in prevention of secondary infections.

Recommendations from Gigi Stafne, Director of the Green Wisdom School of Botanical Medicine

Gigi Stafne is a Midwestern herbalist and amazing teacher. I completed a nine month intensive Master Herb course with Gigi just as the COVID pandemic began. These suggestions were part of Gigi’s initial support to clients.

  • Yarrow+Elder Flower+Catnip.  An especially ‘kind’ blend for kids and adults.
  • As a resident of the Northwoods, I also recommend: White Pine, White Cedar, Tamarack, Black Spruce. Another is Usnea.
  • Here is another Northwoods influenza tea blend:  Usnea, Wintergreen, Tamarack, and Labrador Tea. This tea is one that I love to gather and blend for winter health cases such as this.
  • I truly ‘see’ that some viruses ‘hook’ in bronchial and lung tissue.  An aromatic inhalation of herbs or essential oils is what truly makes the breakthrough.
  • One of the BEST combinations for those with influenza: Tea Tree, Rosemary, Bergamot, Eucalyptus EO drops. This works well for a breakthrough.
  • Adding to historical wisdoms: “There were also old traditional herbal methods of swaddling young ones in herb-soaked cloths to reduce fevers related to flu and other viruses.”

Recommendations from Matthew Wood, Director of the Matthew Wood Institute of Herbalism

Another gem from the Midwest, Matthew Wood has written many books on herbalism. His historical knowledge of plants, the energetics of herbalism, and indigenous teachings have been foundational to my own studies.

Matthew Wood, in reviewing some of the first data from practitioners in China and speaking through an energetic herbal lens, understands COVID-19 to be a disease of “damp toxicity,” not the usual presentation of “heat toxicity that transfers to dampness.”

Wood suggests using herbs that are chai-like in nature to warm the spleen, stomach, and center. He bases this on Samuel Thomson’s idea of warming the center while keeping the peripheral circulation open. He further cites Thomason’s formula of “Lobelia (to keep the pores open), Cayenne (to warm the stomach), and Barberry bark (to break up ‘canker’ or congealed mucus).” Wood says, “this is heroic medicine for a heroic disease.” Read more about what Matthew Wood has to say about Coronavirus on his website. 

A little bit about Lora Krall
A little bit about Lora Krall

Lora began studying herbalism over 20 years ago after being inspired by one of her patients. Working as a registered nurse at the time, she kept her plant relationships close to her heart. She took the opportunity to follow a dream and attended Rosemary’s “Ecstasy of Teaching” class. Committed to sharing the wisdom she gathered from Rosemary, and sharing the benefits of working with plants as partners, Lora joined the Science & Art of Herbalism team as a Nurse Herbalist in 2015. In addition to reviewing student assignments as a course teacher, Lora moderates and manages the online Student Forum. She has taught at various local and national herb conferences, has written for a variety of publications, and cares for her community in the Driftless region of Southeast Minnesota.

Warm Herbal Greetings!

I’m Rosemary Gladstar. All my life I’ve had a deep love and fascination with plants. I have been learning, teaching and writing about herbs for over 50 years. It is my honor and joy to share what I have learned with you, and to introduce you to my fellow herbalists and plant lovers!

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