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Preparing for the cold season

by Anne McIntyre(more info)

listed in herbal medicine, originally published in issue 69 - October 2001

Despite the apparent health-giving properties of summer – holidays, outdoor activities and all the fresh fruit and vegetables of the season – as soon as the autumn winds start to blow, a chill is felt in the air, and the children go back to school, those troublesome cold and flu viruses are on the rampage again. According to research it is 'normal' to catch four to six colds a year, but that figure certainly seems more normal for some than others who never catch colds at all.

Those whose immunity is compromised are clearly more likely to be the ones to succumb first and this could be related to a number of lifestyle factors: nutritional deficiency, physical and emotional stress, excess alcohol, smoking, drugs (legal and illegal), excessive sugar consumption, chemical toxins and allergies, to name a few. Then there are health problems such as raised cholesterol and triglyceride levels and diabetes, which can also play their part in lowering defences.

Primary prevention of infection means building a healthy immune system and this means sticking to the rules of a healthy lifestyle and avoiding such factors that weaken immunity. We all know it is essential to have plenty of nutritious, preferably organic food to eat, a balance of work and play, exercise and relaxation, sufficient sleep, a minimum of pollution in our environment, a positive attitude to dealing with stress and the cultivation of practices to engender peace of mind. We may tend to forget, however, how central digestion is to health. If our 'digestive fire' is good, food that we eat will be digested and assimilated well and the residue of wastes remaining to be eliminated will be minimal. If, however, our digestive energy is low, digestive juices and enzymes are not secreted as they should be, and much of what we eat will remain in the gut as partially digested or undigested food, and produce toxins which can permeate the body and in turn lower resistance.

Bearing this in mind, the first steps to enhance immunity are to improve digestion and assimilation and to detoxify the system. Spices such as ginger, cinnamon, cardamom, coriander, clove, black pepper and asafoetida are some of the best remedies for the digestion and for raising immunity and these can be taken as part of your diet and as tasty hot teas. Take ginger. Its pungency warms and strengthens the digestion, stimulates the flow of digestive juices and invigorates the whole system. The volatile oils are highly antiseptic, activating immunity and dispelling bacterial and viral infections. Similarly, cinnamon is a perfect remedy for warding off the effects of the cold, invigorating the digestion and detoxifying the body. The volatile oil in cinnamon is one of the strongest natural antiseptics known. Its antibacterial, antiviral and antifungal properties make it an excllent medicine to prevent and resolve a whole range of infections. A hot cup of sweet and exquisitely aromatic cinnamon tea, with its expectorant and decongestant actions, will help to relieve coughs and colds, flu and catarrh.

Next it would be appropriate to choose from the herbs that have shown a remarkable ability to enhance our own immune mechanisms.

Some increase the production and activity of macrophages – cells that the immune system sends to digest foreign invaders; some also stimulate the production of defence substances like interferon, which protect non-infected cells from viruses. Others enhance the production and function of T-cells, vital immune cells that kill viruses, fungi and certain bacteria, and natural killer cells that are responsible for destroying cells already infected with a virus.

Some of the most significant immune enhancers are Echinacea (Echinacea angustifolia), Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis), liquorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra), and Astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus).

Without doubt the most popular immune-boosting herb in this country today is Echinacea. This amazing herb can improve the immune system in many ways, including increasing the activity of T-cells, interferon and natural killer cells and raising properdin levels.

Properdin activates the alternative complement pathway which is responsible for increasing non-specific host defence mechanisms like neutralization of viruses, destruction of bacteria and increasing the migration of white blood cells to the areas of infection. Echinacea may work best as a preventative if it is not taken continuously.

The antibiotic activity of Goldenseal's alkaloids against a wide range of infecting organisms, including Staphylococcus sp, Streptococcus sp, Diplococcus pneumonia, are well documented. It also has remarkable immunostimulatory activity, increasing blood supply to the spleen and thereby promoting optimal activity of the spleen and the release of immune-potentiating compounds. One of the alkaloids, berberine, is a potent activator of macrophages.

Liquorice is particularly useful for treating respiratory tract infections such as pharyngitis, bronchitis and pneumonia. It has antiviral effects and enhances interferon production. This in turn increases antiviral activity as interferon binds to cell surfaces and stimulates the synthesis of proteins that prevent viral infection.

Astragalus taken regularly as a preventative also boosts resistance to colds, flu and other viruses. It has antiviral and antibacterial properties, stimulates production of interferon and enhances the production of T-cells. You can buy the raw root and add it to soups or casseroles. It does not have a distinctive enough taste to be discernible. Simmer it for 30 minutes and then remove it. Alternatively it can be bought as a supplement.

The root of the Peruvian rain forest herb 'una de gato' or Cat's claw, which got its name because of its claw-like stems, has been used by the Peruvian Indians for centuries for a range of immune problems. It is now a popular remedy here for a whole range of immune problems, acute infections, rheumatoid arthritis, gastric ulcers, colitis, Crohn's disease, herpes, Candida and allergies. Cat's claw is available in health food shops and chemists in tincture and pill form.

But why not simply go out into the hedgerows and benefit not only from some fresh air and exercise but also from some delicious fruits of nature. Elderberries abound in the autumn and are delicious cooked, especially mixed with blackberries and apples. For centuries they have been popular as a flu remedy. Lately they have been found to contain unique compounds that help to prevent flu viruses from penetrating the cell membranes. If this sounds more preferable to your taste buds than the bitter Goldenseal or tongue-numbing Echinacea, perhaps you might like to make elderberry syrup using 2 cups of elderberries, 500 mls water, 1/4 cup of honey and 1/4 cup of lemon juice. Cook the berries in the water for a few minutes until they are soft and blend with the honey and lemon juice. Pour the puree into a clean bottle and store in the fridge. Take a tablespoonful in hot water once or twice a day and keep those winter bugs at bay.


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About Anne McIntyre

Anne McIntyre FNIMH MAPA is a fellow of the National Institute of Medical Herbalists and a member of the Ayurvedic Practitioners' Association. She has been practising as a herbalist for 30 years and has also trained in remedial massage, aromatherapy, counselling, homoeopathy and Ayurvedic medicine. She is the author of several books on herbal medicine, including The Complete Woman's Herbal (Gaia), The Complete Floral Healer (Gaia), The Herbal Treatment of Children (Elsevier), The Top 100 Remedies (Duncan Baird), The Complete Herbal Tutor (Gaia) and Healing Drinks (Gaia). Anne's latest book Dispensing with Tradition: A practitioner's Guide to using Indian and Western Herbs the Ayurvedic Way has recently been published. She teaches regularly in the UK and USA and spends as much time as she can in her herb garden which she opens to the public by appointment. She practises at Artemis House, Great Rissington, Gloucestershire, (Tel: 01451 810096) and in London and Wales once a month. She may be contacted on Tel: 01451 810096

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