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How to Choose the Right Medicinal Herb When You're Sick

Not all medicinal herbs are created equal. How do you go about deciing which one is the best means of combating what's got you down? In this blog from the Vermont-located herbal school and farm Old Ways Herbal, the medicinal herbs are broadly categorized and given a rundown of how and when they should be taken.

Certain herbs work best to boost the immune system and keep sickness at bay, like Echinacea or Elderberry. Here's how it works:

Immune stimulators get your body into gear.  They work in various ways, some through increasing lymphatic filtration, some by stimulating T-cells or B-cells, some through unknown magic passed down through our ancestral folklore.  The “how” isn’t relevant here, but “when” is: the sooner you take an immune stimulator, the more likely you are not to spend a week miserable on the couch.
There’s this idea floating around our enlightened culture that if an occasional little bit is a good thing, you should probably take a metric shit-ton daily because then you’ll turn into a superhero and it’ll rule.  This is not the case.  Please don’t take these every day, and please don’t drink tinctures by the ounce.  Immune stimulators are strong medicine and should be treated with respect.  If you’re buying or bartering for tinctures, ask the herbalist for a dosage; otherwise look it up in your favorite book.  I really don’t recommend tea for these herbs since the medicine extracts best in alcohol.
It’s important to note that stimulating an already over-reactive immune system can be dangerous to some folks; for example, if your immune cells are attacking your nervous system, like in MS, you shouldn’t encourage them.  People with serious autoimmune disorders, heads up: this might not be a great idea for you.
The most famous immune stimulating herb is Echinacea; there’s no need to go into the science—let’s leave it at “it works”—but here are some tips.  Before you make medicine, eat some of the plant you’re going to harvest.  It should make your mouth go numb and tingly, and if it doesn’t it’s not strong enough.  E. purpurea is the species I recommend, since it’s easier to grow than E. angustifolia, has a wider range, and isn’t endangered.  Please do not use wild E. angustifolia, or I will judge you as a jerk contributing to the wholesale destruction of an endangered plant.  I like to make several tinctures through the season of different plant parts, then combine for a whole plant tincture.  Similar immune stimulators include spilanthes, yellow root, barberry, oregon grape, garlic (eat this, don’t tincture it), and thyme (nice in oil).  Please don’t use wild goldenseal: it’s endangered, and then you will be a jerk etc.
Elderberry, Sambucus canadensis, is less famous than Echinacea but no less fabulous as an antibacterial, antiviral immune stimulator.  Use the mature black berries in tinctures, syrups, elixirs—anything with some alcohol in it.  It tastes great and is safe for kids.  The berries freeze and dry well.  Unlike other immune boosting herbs, elderberry is safe for everyday use.  Give the kids 10 drops of syrup every day in the winter to protect them from their disgusting little friends (this also works for adults).  If you’re actually sick, take a bigger dose to fight it off faster.  The flowers are a great immune stimulator too, tinctured fresh in summer and used when you’re actually sick.  Do not make medicine from poisonous red elderberry (S. racemosa).

 

However, if you're already sick, you'll want a different herb, one that can tackle specific issues, whether it's a wet sore throat or a dry cough. Read the rest of the blog at Old Ways Herbal to learn how to read the needs of your body and give it the most optimal herbal remedies.