Effective Herbal Helpers for the Cold and Flu Season

With the changing of the seasons comes the wretched cold and flu virus.  Luckily, we’ve got some great resources to help us both prevent and combat an attack by this troublesome tag-along.  One of the many great things that alternative medicine has to offer includes solutions for the common cold and flu that can be much more efficient or practical than conventional medicine.  I like the educational program “Do all bugs need drugs?” that aims to educate people on the proper “when and why” of conventional antibiotic use.  Not all bugs need drugs, but we could benefit from some herbs!

In this article, I will outline a few of my favorite TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) herbs with great anti-viral activity: Jin Yin Hua (Honeysuckle flower bud), Chuan Xin Lian (Andrographis herb), and Ban Lan Gen (Isatis root).  I’ll also mention a few of the cold/flu helper herbs that I like to call my “tea and spice rack wonders”:  Gui Zhi (Cinnamon), Sheng Jiang (Ginger), Bo He (Peppermint) and Ju Hua (Chrysanthemum).

Jin Yin Hua (Honeysuckle flower bud), whose Chinese name translates to “Gold and Silver Flower”, is an easily recognizable plant for most folks.  This is a very effective herb for the first stages of a cold or flu, being found in the famous cold/flu formulas Yin Qiao San and Gan Mao Ling.  Besides being an anti-viral herb, it is also an effective anti-inflammatory (which makes it great for a sore throat) and antipyretic (able to reduce a fever).  Easy to come by in loose tea form in Chinese herb shops and common markets, the one you will find is of a particular variety and from a specific region.  You may notice that, although available all year, the price per gram can increase dramatically during the winter months!

Chuan Xin Lian, or Andrographis, is an important herb in both Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine.  This wonderful plant not only has potent anti-viral activity that can stop an impending cold/flu in its tracks, it is also an immune system booster that can help speed recovery from one that has already taken hold.  When I feel a cold knocking on my door, Andrographis is one of the first things I reach for.  It is important to note that this is one of the many herbs that are considered unsafe for pregnancy.   Chinese Medicine also considers this herb to have a very cold nature, which can injure some of the aspects of the body that we say need a more warming energy to operate properly, such as digestion.  For this reason it should not be relied on for prevention, and is not to be taken for long term.

Ban Lan Gen, or Isatis root, is another of our anti-viral herbs that is most famous for its benefit to the throat.  So besides being able to tackle the invader that is causing all the problems, it is a great symptom-alleviator for an irritated sore throat.  Ban Lan Gen is also found in the famous Gan Mao Ling formula, of which I am a particular fan!  Having both anti-viral as well as anti-bacterial properties made this herb historically important for various throat infections such as tonsillitis.

Now for the “tea and spice rack wonders” – cinnamon, ginger, peppermint, and chrysanthemum.  One thing you will notice that these herbs have in common, is that they are all quite flavorful and aromatic!  This is part of what gives them their medicinal value when it comes to colds and flus.  In TCM tradition these ailments were thought to attack the superficial parts of the body, so one of the best ways to quickly get rid of them was to disperse them out through the skin.  It’s not too hard to think of these pungent and aromatic qualities as being “lifting and dispersing”, and cinnamon, ginger, and peppermint are all effective diaphoretics (sweat-inducers) that can help “push out” a seasonal illness.

Gui Zhi or Cinnamon carries the additional benefits of having both antiviral and antibiotic effects, and can also increase circulation and provide analgesic action.  Great for the aches that can come with a flu!  Gui Zhi is revered for its ability to assist the yang of the body, which gives it versatile use in a many of our formulas.  It is the chief herb in the common cold (and more) formula Gui Zhi Tang (“Cinnamon decoction”)

Sheng Jiang or Ginger has long been consumed as a preventative for seasonal illness, and is one of the most well known remedy herbs in the world.  It has antibiotic action, and is probably the most famous herb for its ability to calm the stomach, reduce nausea or vomiting, and assist digestion.  Ginger is found in too many Chinese herbal formulas to mention!

Peppermint and Chrysanthemum (Bo He and Jue Hua) differ from Ginger and Cinnamon in that they have a cooling action, which gives them excellent ability to sooth redness, irritation, and itchiness that can come as symptoms.  Peppermint is very dispersing and has great ability to clear the head, nose, eyes, and relieve headache.  Chrysanthemum is most famous for its ability to sooth issues concerning the eyes (including itch due to allergy), and also has antibiotic properties.  Both of these herbs are readily available as loose or packaged teas, and they taste great!

It is extremely important to note that you must consult with a qualified professional before taking any herbal remedy, even before increasing a culinary herb to a medicinal dose.  This is especially important in certain medical conditions and in pregnancy.  Just like conventional drugs, all herbs have the potential to be incompatible with certain medical conditions or prescription medications.


Rebecca Stephens
Dr.TCM, R.Ac., B.Sc.