‘Tis the season – of cold and flu. Now more than ever is a great time to focus on strengthening your immune system. As you may already know, winter tends to bring about more illness due to social gatherings and spending more time indoors, giving viruses the opportunity to spread more quickly. This time of year, our bodies need all the support they can get.

Luckily, there are many plants, both traditional herbs and aromatics, that can help build our immunity and ward off infection. Not only can some herbs prevent you from getting sick, but they can make your illness less severe and aid in a faster recovery. Let’s explore some ways herbs and aromatic plants can offer us support this winter, as well as the top 10 aromatic plants to incorporate into your herbal routine.

Suppress vs. Support

Your body is intelligent – it is constantly working to survive and thrive. When you develop cold or flu symptoms, it’s usually a sign that your body is fighting off the infection. For example, a cough is your body working to expel mucus and pathogens. A fever is your body’s response to an infection, as it heats up to kill the virus.

To a certain extent, taking suppression medication like conventional cough medicine or Tylenol to reduce a fever often gets in the way of the healing process. Sure, your symptoms seem to feel better, but suppression can ultimately end up exacerbating or prolonging the illness, so you feel sick for longer. The benefit of herbal medicine is that the plants work alongside your body’s response to infection and support your natural ability to heal. 

Note: it’s important to remember that illnesses like the flu, COVID, and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) can be deadly, especially in the immunocompromised, young, and elderly. Sometimes symptoms like fever can get dangerously serious if not treated properly, so always consult a medical professional or herbalist for guidance on treatment. At the same time, conventional medicine has its place in certain situations.

Traditional Herbs for Colds and Flu

There are many plants that are known to help stimulate and boost your immune system that you can incorporate into your diet or herbal apothecary. Some herbs can be taken daily during cold and flu season to help strengthen immunity, like Elderberry syrup, as well as medicinal mushrooms like Reishi, Chaga, and Turkey Tail. Others, like Echinacea Root, are best to have on-hand and taken at the first sign of illness, as they work better in acute situations.

When you are sick, you might turn to certain herbs depending on your symptoms. For example, diaphoretic herbs such as Peppermint, Ginger, and Yarrow are helpful for moving along a fever. Expectorant herbs like Elecampane, Oregano, and Thyme are supportive for coughs. Moistening herbs, including Marshmallow Root and Licorice, are soothing for sore throats.

Eating a healthy, plant-rich diet is also very important. Focus on incorporating all of the colors of the rainbow in the forms of fruits and vegetables into your meals. It’s also important to eat nutrient-dense foods like bone broths and herbs known to boost immunity, like Ginger and Garlic. You can also buy or try making Fire Cider, a spicy, traditional herbal remedy with immune-boosting herbs in apple cider vinegar.

Aromatic Plants for Immunity

In addition to incorporating immune-boosting medicinal plants into your daily diet, you can also release aromatic plants into the air you breathe, adding another layer onto immunity. In ancient times, people would burn herbs like Rosemary, Bay leaves, and Frankincense to cleanse and purify the air around those who were ill. Many cultures burned Frankincense during the plague to help stop the spread of infection.

Many aromatic herbs have anti-bacterial, anti-viral, and antimicrobial properties that can help open the lungs and cleanse your respiratory system. Not only can these plants help relieve symptoms in the moment, but they can also fight off pathogens for a faster recovery. They can help ease symptoms like congestion, coughs, and excess mucus; clear out the sinuses; and make it easier to breathe.

Ways to Use Aromatic plants for Colds and Flu

The most simple way to utilize medical aromatic plants is by burning them as incense or using an essential oil diffuser. You could also add dried or fresh plants into an herbal steam, an age-old tradition that helps support the respiratory and immune system, and more, depending on which herbs are used. For plant recommendations, instructions, and an herbal steam recipe, check out our herbal steaming blog post here.

You could also take an herbal bath coupled with burning incense or using an essential oil diffuser in the room. Some people enjoy adding dried or fresh plants to the bath water, as well as epsom salt to help relieve muscle aches or body pains. 

You can also add essential oils into the bathtub water, but before doing so, you’ll want to properly dilute them in an oil-based liquid like Castile soap or a carrier oil. For an herbal bath, dilute 2-6 essential oil drops in your carrier oil, shake vigorously, then add to your bath water. Essential oils are extremely potent – a little goes a long way.

Top 10 Aromatic Plants for Immunity

You might notice that some medicinal plants work better for you than others, due to our different body constitutions. Every person is unique, and therefore can react differently to each plant, so it is important to experiment and find which plants work best for you. 

The following herbs have antimicrobial properties and are traditionally used to cleanse and open the respiratory system:

Frankincense 

This ancient, historical resin has been used since ancient times to support both the respiratory and immune system. Frankincense has analgesic, antibacterial, anti-infectious, anti-inflammatory, antiseptic, and expectorant properties.

Myrrh

Myrrh has a long, rich history with countless uses, including fighting off respiratory infections due to its anti-fungal, anti-infectious, anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, antiseptic, antiviral, diaphoretic, and expectorant qualities.

Eucalyptus

Eucalyptus is antibacterial, anti-fungal, anti-infectious, anti-inflammatory, an expectorant, and a ​​decongestant that can help relieve common cold and flu symptoms. 

Peppermint

This herb is opening for the airways, refreshing, and cleansing, with antibacterial and expectorant qualities.

Rosemary

Rosemary is antiviral, anti-inflammatory, and antimicrobial, with antiseptic and decongestant qualities.

Copal

In ancient times, Copal was utilized as a fumigant for its decongestant properties. It was commonly used to ease symptoms of asthma, bronchitis, colds, and congestion. Copal is anti-fungal, antimicrobial, antiseptic, anti-inflammatory, antiviral, diaphoretic, and an expectorant.

Palo Santo

Palo Santo is rich in limonene, giving it potent antimicrobial qualities. It is traditionally used to soothe common respiratory issues like colds, flu, cough, allergies, asthma, and respiratory infections for its decongestant and expectorant properties.

Conifers: Cedar, Juniper, Pine, Fir

Evergreen needles are naturally anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial, and have expectorant properties. Evergreens have been traditionally used throughout the northern hemisphere in herbal steaming and fumigation to keep the immune system strong during winter months. 

Thyme 

For centuries, this herb has been traditionally used for congestion and coughs due to its antiseptic, antibacterial, antiviral, and expectorant qualities.

Oregano

Since ancient times, Oregano has been traditionally used to support the respiratory and immune systems. Its aromatics have antibacterial, anti-fungal, antiseptic, and anti-inflammatory properties.

in conclusion

When you really think about it, every time your body gets sick, it learns how to fight off the illness – it gets stronger and more resilient. Your immune system becomes smarter and better equipped to take on other infections in the future. Incorporating herbs and aromatic medicine into the mix helps to support your body in this process, while also soothing symptoms. Plants truly are potent allies in all aspects of our lives.

Article Written By Melissa Szaro

© 2022 The Northwest School of Aromatic Medicine. All rights reserved.

*The statements above have not been evaluated by the FDA, and are for educational purposes only. This article is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. This article should not be taken as medical advice. Please consult your physician before you use this information for health purposes.