The “novel H1N1 Flu” (aka “swine flu’) is a new strain of H1N1 virus that is affecting communities all over the world, thus, it is labeled as a ‘pandemic’. That label does not mean it is particularly dangerous or threatening, as was once feared. On the contrary, H1N1 is a bit on the wimpy side so far. (That doesn’t mean it will stay that way, but for the time being…). I was listening to a physician-vaccine expert on NPR this morning and he was referring to all important public health measures for flu prevention, but neglected to mention anything related to nutrition or herbal supports in our arsenal against flu, both in terms of prevention and treatment.
First of all, it is worth noting that unlike colds, considered in Traditional Chinese Medicine to be energetically cold in origin and thus requiring ‘warming’ treatments and herbs such as the use of diaphoretics to increase sweating (elder flower, ginger) and the use of sweating therapy to help our bodies fight viruses, flus are considered in TCM to be energetically hot. This is significant in that we would thus not use diaphoretics, but other potent anti-virals that will help reduce fevers, lessen severity and shorten severity. Herbal treatments in this camp would include boneset, a potent anti-viral; echinacea, an immune stimulant; and herbs used in Chinese medicine in flu-fighting formulas, such as forsythia, honeysuckle, and red clover. Astragalus is often mentioned as an immune booster, and it certainly is, but we use astragalus for preventative means and not for treatment of acute infection. In addition, there was an intriguing comment on a previous post about the use of medicinal mushrooms being contraindicated with the treatment of flu because of the possibility of some strains of flus causing excess immune response in the form of ‘cytokine storms’.
Master herbalist Michael Tierra, clinical herbalist, educator, and a founder of the American Herbalists’ Guild (AHG), recently addressed this possible misconception in a seminar about the use of herbs to treat H1N1. It appears that cytokine storms, or the theory of an overly strong immune response of some healthy adults, is not so much to blame in flu-related deaths, but rather, bacterial co-infection. Indeed, cytokine storms may not really be responsible at all. And just today there were reports that one third of H1N1 deaths to date were not a result of the flu itself but of bacterial co-infection. For this reason, I am not convinced that medicinal mushrooms such as shiitake, reishi, and maitake should be put aside in the therapeutic treatment of flu– and at the very least, they certainly offer immune-boosting potential. You might check out a lovely recipe posted by the latest Herb Companion issue that utilizes shiitake, astragalus, and garlic in an immune-boosting winter soup.
TIPS TO PREVENT & TREAT THE FLU
1. Follow public health measures: wash your hands, cough into your inner elbow, and use anti-bacterial hand sanitizer in public places whenever necessary. Whether or not to get the vaccine is up to you. That said, vaccine manufacturers don’t claim that the vaccine will actually prevent flu, per se, but will just shortens the flu’s duration by 1/2-2 days and may decrease severity. Make an informed choice and it will be the right choice for you.
2. Get some REST: Putting America’s obsession with business aside is a tough task for most, but realize that the less sleep and relaxation you get, the more vulnerable you’ll be! If you actually do get the flu, make sure you rest and don’t try to work through it. You’ll only end up more sick and vulnerable to nasty bacterial co-infections.
3. Plan to Stay at Home if you do get flu. Check out resources for sheltering-in-place and have some herbal and nutritional supplies stocked up ahead of time (maybe some extra soup frozen, some herbal syrups made, some tinctures all tinctured up, some herbal blends made both for tea and facial steams). Vitamin C is better as a flu preventative than a treatment, but raw garlic is a powerful anti-viral remedy to take as soon as symptoms start to appear. Check out some earlier posts about such herbal remedies and recipes.
4. Take Astragalus syrups, formulas, soups, or capsules as a preventative measure. Along with immune-boosting soups, stews (both of which you can add astragalus root to), take astragalus or Jade Windscreen (TCM formula containing Astragalus) to help prevent the onset of flu. Stop taking if acute infection shows up. Tierra’s Planetary Herbalsmakes an alcohol-free glycerite of the Jade Windscreen for children.
5. Fight Flu with Nutrition and Herbs: Use non-diaphoretic, immune boosting, anti-viral herbs to shorten the duration and decrease severity of flu symptoms, as mentioned above. Eat therapeutic foods such as kicharee, soupy grains, and easy to digest foods. Raw foods, particularly vegetables, are eliminating and difficult to digest, and thus are not recommended to fight flu. Tierra believes that fruit juices have the wrong energy for fighting flu, and thus recommends warm stocks and broths, kicharee and herbal teas and decoctions. Miso soup with onion and garlic (added at the end) is another great choice, as the miso provides assistance with digestion and keeps gut flora up to snuff.