When it comes to avoiding getting sick, we all know the basics. But certain times of year—such as cold and flu season—call for more ways to fend off illness than just hand-washing. To help us stay well during the winter months (and beyond), we reached out to Colleen O’Bryant, practicing herbalist and owner of Hunt Country, Virginia’s Wild Roots Apothecary, for advice. Here, she shares five herbs—plus one spice—that can have a positive impact on your health, from boosting your immune system to speeding up your recovery.
Make garlic your go-to. A strong proponent of the pungent herb, O’Bryant recommends garlic for its antiviral and antibacterial properties, plus the fact that it supports cardiovascular health, respiratory health, and digestion. In terms of winter wellness, she says that garlic can both help boost your immunity and shorten the duration of an illness. One of O’Bryant’s favorite recipes for immunity-building is garlic honey, which she makes by adding eight to ten peeled and smashed garlic cloves to an eight-ounce jar of raw honey, leaving the jar on the counter for a day and flipping it upside down and right side up periodically, then refrigerating after 24 hours. She advises taking one teaspoon a day for general maintenance, and one to three teaspoons a couple of times per day when you’re not feeling well to aid the body’s healing.
Boost immunity with elderberry. According to O’Bryant, elderberry is known to build the immune system, shorten the duration of a cold or flu, and help with rheumatism and inflammation. The berries are also supportive of the cardiovascular system, and may help lower blood pressure. O’Bryant uses the herb for general wellness, particularly during the changing of the seasons, the back-to-school time, and when traveling. Because of its natural sweetness, it’s a remedy that kids enjoy, and it is a great immunity booster in conjunction with other herbs.
Ramp up your immune system with astragalus root. O’Bryant uses this herb as a daily tonic to keep her immune system healthy and robust. “It increases the white blood cell count and stimulates the natural killer T cells,” she explains, noting that it’s also a great energy booster. Her favorite ways to incorporate astragalus is to add 10-30 grams per day to her smoothie or a few slices into her bone broth. For best results, she recommends consuming astragalus daily to fend off sickness. However, in cases of acute viral illness such as a cold or flu, astragalus should not be used for the duration of the illness, as it will trap the virus inside of the cell membrane and delay recovery.
Incorporate thyme into your treatment plan. In addition to being a chef’s favorite, this classic herb is fantastic for upper respiratory infections, congested sinuses, as an expectorant for colds and flus, and fungal infections, says O’Bryant. It’s most powerful as a dried herb, and for strictly medicinal purposes, she will use it in a steam or to make an herbal tea. Favoring the lemon thyme variety, she’s also been known to add it to vodka for two to four hours, and then use it as a base for an herby cosmopolitan or vodka and tonic.
Get your energy moving with ginger. Perhaps best known for its ability to assist with digestion, according to O’Bryant, ginger can also be helpful for migraines, inflammation, and pain. “In general, ginger is an herbal stimulant; it helps move all the energy of the body,” she says. She recommends adding it to your cooking whenever possible, also and suggests incorporating it into winter cocktails and mocktails for an extra boost. So go ahead and muddle some into a spicy pomegranate margarita, mix some into a gin and tonic, or add a small slice in a Manhattan.
Sprinkle on the cinnamon. “Cinnamon is a warming antioxidant that helps balance blood sugar and relieve arthritis pain,” O’Bryant says. “It’s also a demulcent, which keeps your mucous membranes moist and healthy,” she adds. But the list doesn’t stop there; cinnamon can also help numb pain, and it is antimicrobial. There are many ways to incorporate cinnamon into your daily diet, including sprinkling it into your morning coffee or onto your morning cereal. For a truly addictive and nourishing concoction, O’Bryant likes to add four cinnamon sticks, 10 star anise pods, and about half a cup of coriander seeds to her Herbal Bone Broth.