Suggested Herbal Supports for Influenza/Influenza Like Illness in the Event of a Pandemic
Compiled By: Lora Krall, Nurse Herbalist
With the recent incidence of seasonal influenza on the rise and the additional concern of possible coronavirus infections, the need for a list of possible options to support those who may become ill with these respiratory viruses is essential. This list is by no means complete but is designed to offer the herbalist a list of options in order to support those of a specific disadvantage due to (race, socioeconomic conditions, isolation, gender, ethnicity, etc..), in situations of possible limited availability of certain plant preparations and to expand the list of options for those in your care. In the event of a pandemic, herbalists will be KEY supports to our communities. It is wise to be prepared.
Additionally, none of these herbal suggestions is meant to be a sole support for someone who is ill. In order for herbs to really support the body, some basics should be met along with herbal supports.
- 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 Shitake mushrooms for some antiviral mushroom assistance too. I would also suggest Fire Cider! It is a food, it is a medicine and loaded with all the goodies to support your immune system. Eating may not be on the top of anyone’s list who is ill but these simple foods can be a great base.
- 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 as well. 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 due to any number of factors, pregnant woman and the very old. These people may not have fully developed thermoregulation, may be working for two or it may not be as strong as it once was.
- 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 with good ventilation if at all possible.
- Many people in our communities suffer from isolation and loneliness. That isolation can insulate them from exposure, but it can also leave them very vulnerable with no one to help them in the event they do become ill. Assure anyone in your care has support if at all possible, 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 to start with are some of the most vulnerable for death from a pandemic virus as well as their caregivers. Assuring the above three conditions will help them and your efforts may be focused here instead of with herbs.
- Develop a list of emergency phone numbers/resources. These should include local hospital for advice on progression of outbreaks, 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.
Antivirals: These will be your most likely first line supports as these are specific for treating viruses helping the body activate immune system. The ones listed are known to support the body with influenza that have been researched with supportive evidence.
- Elderberry (Sanbucus nigra). Very popular in mainstream marketing now, 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 this have been shown to be effective against both influenza A and B as well as viral pneumonia and rhinovirus.
- Echinacea (Echinacea purpura or E. angustifolia) This is a known immune booster and has been found to be specific against influenza but also herpes infections.
- Licorice (Glycyrrhia glabra) with a sweet flavor and some adaptogenic properties this can be a nice option. It has been shown to work with SARS infections and may also work with influenza. It is an anti-inflammatory and expectorant as well.
- Astragalus (Astragalus propinquus) this has been shown to be effective against avian influenza and may be a great support to overall immune health. It’s mild flavor makes it great to add to a soup.
- Lomatium (Lomatium dissectum) Used during the 1918 pandemic this was invaluable. It has not only antiviral properties but also antibacterial and antifungal. Steven Buhner has it in his influenza formula and uses in severe cases. * This is a UPS At Risk medicinal, be sure to get organically cultivated sources and use wisely.
- Osha (Ligusticum porteri) Another very potent antiviral with specific use for influenza, it is also an excellent choice for severe influenza. * This is a UPS At Risk medicinal, be sure to get organically cultivated sources and use wisely.
- 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. *This is on the UPS To Watch list, be sure to use cultivated sources and use wisely.
- 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.
- Oregano (Origanum vulgare) Not a specific to influenza, it is one of the easiest herbs to obtain and can be used in a variety of ways, similar to garlic. It 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.
- Ginger (Zingiber officinal) A stimulating herb, this is antiviral, anti-inflammatory and expectorant, it can help with a cough or congestion. It is also diaphoretic so it can help bring down a fever. It can be carminative so helpful for any accompanying nausea.
Aromatics: These herbs can be offered for inhalation via steam. They can be used as fresh or dried plant or as an essential oil. They help to open and sooth airways, provide antiviral, antibacterial properties for respiratory system.
- Thyme (Thymus vulgaris) This is a must as a steam. It is antiseptic, expectorant, antispasmodic and vermifuge. It is included in Four Thieves Formula known for its use during the Black Plague of 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 this is also antispasmodic, antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory and antiseptic. It also works well on sore throats and can go into food.
- Rosemary (Rosemarinus officinalis) Yup more kitchen love, this is antispasmodic, antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory and a stimulant. This also has an uplifting effect, just what someone who is sick needs! It is very nutritive being 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 sooth a cough. It has antiseptic benefits as well. When body aches and pains dominate, this combined with peppermint have an anodyne effect that can relieve body aches associated with influenza.
- Flat Cedar (Arbrovitaes) 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.
Medicinal Mushrooms: Gaining great popularity these would be excellent additions. In many cases, small amounts can have great benefits making them ideal when caring for large numbers of people.
- Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum) Rarely found growing in the wild, it is mostly found in cultivated sources and is fairly easy to grow in 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 easily 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 this is soon to be on the UPS To watch list of medicinal plants. Use wisely and harvest ethically or from ethical source.
- 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. It, 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: These 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!
- Tulsi/Holy Basil (Ocimum sanctum) This plant has the benefit of not only being an adaptogen but is also an aromatic with antiviral capabilities. It has some nervine properties and makes an excellent choice for its multiple avenues of support. It 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. This 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 a great choice for someone already debilitated.
- Cordyceps (Cordyceps sinensis) David 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 a “dry lungs with chronic coughing” making it ideal for someone who may have underlying lung issues and also develops influenza.
- Rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea) This northern climate adaptogen seems well suited for the flu season. It is antiviral as well as immune stimulant, nervine and antidepressant. This should not be taken for long periods of time (Several months) but can be a great option for a rotational support.
- Schisandra (Schisandra chinensis) This is a beautiful berry and one with the unique quality of 5 flavors! It is high in Vitamin C and is anti-inflammatory, expectorant and an immune tonic. This makes a wonderful immune support for care givers to keep them healthy.
- Shatavari (Asparagus racemosus) This adaptogen has a history of use as a specific for increases 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.” (Winston, p.200)
Historical Herbs Used in 1918 Pandemic
In Kathy Abascal’s book, “Herbs and Influenza,” she discusses 3 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 (See discussion above). A short summary follows for consideration:
- 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 pandemic it was used as a “prophylactic” but was not proven to do so. It did however prove useful as a diaphoretic and expectorant. It was often recommended when black cohosh did not relieve body aches and pain.
- Black Cohosh (Cimicifuga racemose) This was used for its analgesic effects similar to boneset. It 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
In addition to the above supports 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 included are in no special order; fennel, yarrow, elderflower, mullein, elecampane, coltsfoot, slippery elm, marshmallow root, comfrey, lobelia, peppermint, spearmint, basil, wintergreen. 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.
Specific favorites: Gigi Stafne, Director Green Wisdom School of Botanical Medicine (2.3.2020 via email):
- Yarrow+Elder Flower+Catnip. An especially ‘kind’ blend for kids and adults.
- Resident of the Northwoods, she also recommends; White Pine, White Cedar, Tamarack, Black Spruce. Another is as you listed including the Usnea.
- Here is another Northwoods influenza tea blend: Usnea, Wintergreen, Tamarack, and Labrador Tea. 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 break through–along with the other herbs you list. One of the BEST combinations for this 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.”
And from Matthew Wood email (2.3.2020) firstname.lastname@example.org
Coronavirus should be thought of as a disease of damp pestilence. The illness lingers and is difficult to fully disperse. It is different from wind-heat with dampness, wherein as soon as the dampness is resolved the heat clears along with it and the patient can make a quick and full recovery. Dampness lingers and clings like “oil mixed into flour”. So, when choosing a course of treatment, practitioners must be very careful not to mistake damp toxicity transforming into heat with heat toxicity with dampness. The herbs deployed in these two mechanisms are completely different.
Coronavirus’ main cause of disease is damp toxicity, not heat toxicity with dampness. In treating heat toxicity with dampness, the strategy is usually to clear heat, resolve toxins and dispel dampness. However, when treating dampness toxicity that transforms into heat or retained dampness heat toxin, if you clear heat and resolve toxins, using cold herbs too early, this will inevitably exacerbate the dampness and lead to cold enveloping heat . . . which will have an adverse effect on treatment outcomes. So, in treating this disease, the focus should be on resolving turbidity with aroma, outthrusting through the exterior and upbearing and downbearing the spleen and stomach. As dampness is revolved, depressed heat can disperse and toxicity will be unable to form – in this way symptoms will gradually resolve.
Translated by Will Ceurvels
Interpretation. The translation is a bit poor, I would read “aromatics” instead of “aroma.” As I understand it, the recommendation is to use herbs that warm the stomach and spleen, the center. That would be like ‘chai spices.’ This is like Samuel Thomson’s idea of warming the center and keeping the periphery open (“out thrusting”). In fact his formula, Lobelia (to keep the pores open), Cayenne (to warm the stomach), and Bayberry bark (to break up ‘canker’ or congealed mucus or what they are calling “turbidity” and “damp toxicity.” That’s an heroic medicine and this is an heroic disease.
Notice also the reference to sepsis (not in this part of the paper) in the very severe cases— that indicated bacteria in the bloodstream (Baptisia, Echinacea, Frostweed, even Calendula). This is a typical presentation where the virus turns to a bacterial respiratory infection. I will post on this pattern. So, if you trust antivirals and antibacterials more than energetics you want WARM SPICEY ANTIVIRALS like LOMATIUM. Or OSHA. Or ANGELICA.
Added after further thought on the above: keep the skin open; sauna, steam bath, skin brushing, diaphoretics because. . . if the water can’t leave by the skin, intestines, kidneys, it will flow into the lungs.
And from my Dear Teacher, Rosemary Gladstar, always mindful of perspective… 😊
“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….being ready, calm, and prepared. “
- https://www.greenmedinfo.com/blog/can-herbal-medicines-fight-wuhan-coronavirus From Katarina Staples
- Abascal, Kathy. “Herbs and Influenza.” (2006) Tigana Press.
- Buhner, Stephen. “Herbal Antivirals” (2013) Storey Publishing. P. 42-54.
- Roger, Robert. “The Fungal Pharmacy” (2011) North Atlantic Books. P.503 for list of mushroom supports.
- Winston, David and Maimes, Steven. “Adaptogens: Herbs for Strength, Stamina and Stress Relief.” (2007) Healing Arts Press. P. 129-200 Monographs.
Lora Krall is an herbal educator, registered nurse, avid gardener, veracious reader, wife and proud mom of two adult sons. Lora has a bachelor’s degree in nursing and graduated cum laude with a degree in English literature and language. Her 35 year career in healthcare has taken her from Wisconsin to New Mexico, Arizona, South Carolina and back home to Minnesota. During that time, she has worked in critical care, emergency and flight nursing with a special interest in education. Lora is an original member and past co-president of the Coulee Region Herbal Institute, founding member of Winona Herbal Education Society, member of Herbalists Without Borders and United Plant Savers. She has taught at Sage Mountain Retreat Center in Vermont, the Midwest Women’s Herb Conference, United Plant Savers conference as well as a wide variety of local community education classes in the Driftless region. Lora is a past contributor to Herbal Living Magazine blog, is published in United Plant Savers journal and Essential Inking magazine. Lora is a teaching assistant for the Art and Science of Herbalism course developed by Rosemary Gladstarr.