The Cold War

Can Herbal Remedies Keep You From Experiencing Seasonal Misery?

'Tis the season to be merry, especially if you've managed to avoid catching a cold or the flu while those around you have been laid low by the winter crud. Is making it through the cold season unscathed just a matter of good luck, or can vitamin and herbal supplements keep you healthy even while being exposed to cold and flu viruses?

Chances are that even the least-likely person you know to embrace natural medicine can tell you the name of the most popular cold-fighting herb: echinacea (purple coneflower). They'll probably even be able to pronounce it correctly. Many people swear by echinacea's immune-boosting properties, but is there scientific evidence to back up the herb's popularity?

Dr. Varro Tyler, author of The Honest Herbal and a distinguished professor emeritus of pharmacognosy (the study of medicinal plants) at Purdue University, is first to speak up when there is more hype than substance to medicinal claims for herbs. And Tyler believes echinacea is probably the best natural defense against colds. “There is evidence that echinacea is effective, but we wish we had more information,” Tyler says.

Tyler uses echinacea himself to avoid getting sick, and says folklore indicates that the tincture form, an extract of the herb usually made with alcohol, is probably more rapidly absorbed than the dried form. But, he says, the problem with tinctures is that the active constituents in solution aren't always as stable as in the dried form. “So if you are going to use a tincture, use a fresh one,” Tyler recommends.


There is some scientific evidence that echinacea, taken regularly at effective doses, can shorten the duration of a cold and lessen its severity. But immunologist Tim Lee of Canada's Dalhousie University cautions that most of the positive studies are based on injection of extracts, not swallowed capsules. One German study found oral echinacea no different from a placebo; a Swedish trial of factory workers had more positive results. “The research is too skimpy and inconsistent to support the claims that are made,” writes David Schardt in Nutrition Action.

If you've taken echinacea and it didn't turn out to be the panacea you'd hoped, you may not have started early enough or taken the doses often enough. “Follow the manufacturer's instructions on the label,” recommends Mindy Green, director of educational services at the Herb Research Foundation. “It is a very safe herb, even if you take it five to six times per day. Echinacea is safe for children, and safe in pregnancy, but you should always check with your doctor. There are no known toxicity or drug-interaction problems. The dosage should equal 900 milligrams per day of the dried root, or six to 15 milliliters per day of the tincture.”

Since the effectiveness of echinacea starts to diminish after five days of use, some herbalists recommend against taking the herb constantly (though others defend the practice). There is also controversy over the use of the herb by patients with auto-immune disorders such as AIDS, because it stimulates the immune system. Writing in the journal Medical Herbalism, editor Paul Bergner, himself a natural physician, documents cases of patients with kidney damage, lupus and ulcerative colitis whose conditions were worsened by the herb.

It has also become popular to take echinacea in combination with zinc in a lozenge form. Studies have backed the effectiveness of Cold-Free and Cold-Eeze lozenges, but only the Cold-Eeze study has been published in a peer-reviewed journal. Large doses of zinc over a long period have been known to weaken the immune system.

Combining echinacea with goldenseal is also popular. Goldenseal has become scarce in its native North American habitat due to over-collection and habitat destruction, so purchasing goldenseal that has been cultivated rather than gathered from the wild is recommended. But you may want to forego goldenseal for herbs whose validity as a cold remedy are backed by clinical studies. Unlike echinacea, there are no scientific studies confirming the medicinal properties attributed to goldenseal.

Garlic is another herb popular for treating cold symptoms. Garlic is primarily anti-bacterial; there is very little evidence it is effective against a virus, but there is evidence it could prevent secondary infections from colds.

Taking plenty of fluids is always recommended, and one good way to do that is drinking herbal cold remedy teas that can include herbs such as lemon grass, lemon balm, yarrow, mullein and mint. Oil rubs such as those containing eucalyptus can also help cold sufferers. Licorice lozenges are helpful as an expectorant, and slippery elm bark lozenges help soothe and coat the throat.

Tried…and True?

Tyler also endorses one of the most old-fashioned remedies: chicken soup. He says the soup is nutritious, and the steam from the vapor helps open nasal passages. However, he recommends adding an ingredient not usually found in traditional chicken soup recipes: hot peppers. He says hot peppers will help increase the flow of mucus, making it easier to cough up mucus and drain the sinus passages.

Besides hot peppers and garlic, other “warming” herbs such as ginger can make cold sufferers feel better. “Ginger is very warming and helps move the blood,” Green says. “There's a lot of good research on the safety and effectiveness of ginger.” Elderberry syrup is another of Green's favorite cold remedies. Preparations made from elder flowers show evidence of anti-viral activity.

Green's final words of advice are not to expect herbal and vitamin supplements to compensate for a poor diet, lack of exercise, a stressful lifestyle, alcohol and drug abuse, and not enough sleep. “Avoid junk foods and dairy products like milk, which can contribute to mucus formation,” she recommends, adding that another way to keep healthy is to take tonic herbs like astragalus and Siberian ginseng through the cold season.

Finally, any discussion of preventing colds would be lacking if it ignored vitamin C. Two-time Nobel Prize winner Linus Pauling believed that large quantities of vitamin C can prevent colds. “There is no need for you to be made miserable by the common cold,” said the late scientist, whose findings were disputed by other researchers. Pauling added, “Vitamin C has only rather small value in providing protection against the common cold when taken in small amounts, but it has great value when it is taken in large amounts.” Caution is needed, though, in establishing how much vitamin C you can take without getting diarrhea. A recommended dosage is 250 to 500 milligrams two to three times per day.