With colds, flu, and COVID-19 kicking up this time of year, we all want to know how to bolster our immune systems and what to do at the first tickle of trouble. Here are some first-line herbs and supplements to consider keeping on hand.
First things first: If you feel an infection coming on, the old standbys matter most:
You may also consider testing to find out if you’re positive for COVID-19 or the flu.
While most people experience day-to-day respiratory infections without needing medical care, nothing—including herbs, vaccines, or pharmaceuticals—guarantees an illness outcome. Every body is unique. If you’re at high risk for serious outcomes, talk with your healthcare provider.
If you experience potentially life-threatening symptoms, including the following, seek immediate medical attention:
Both traditional use and scientific evidence supports this berry’s ability to reduce the severity of viral infections. Viruses hijack your cells and reprogram them to make more viruses, which allows the virus to spread more virulently. Elderberry works at least in part by binding to cell receptor sites to block viruses, including the common cold, flu, and non-COVID-19 coronavirus species.
This herb has a long history of use for infection, particularly bacterial infections and sepsis (a life-threatening state that warrants immediate medical care). It has many immune actions including mobilizing white blood cells to fight infections more aggressively and modulating and reducing inflammation as well as helping the body clear infectious debris in the lymphatic system. Though herbalists most often think of echinacea as an immune mobilizer at the first sign of infection, it also offers benefits for prevention.
A 2022 study tested the preventative benefits of 2,400 milligrams of echinacea extract along with additional acute support versus a control group with no treatment. The echinacea group fared better against viruses, including COVID-19.
One review of 231 studies concluded that people were 55 percent more likely to experience a cold when taking a placebo versus echinacea. An early study on ginger and echinacea in combination suggested benefits at COVID-19 infection onset (described below).
Herbalists prefer high doses of fresh echinacea tincture—ideally the root or a mix of the root with aerial parts—taken every waking hour or two from the first tickle of an infection until it passes. Echinacea extract numbs the tongue, doesn’t taste great, may cause a flareup of autoimmune disease, and occasionally causes allergies in people who react to other daisy family plants.
One of the most recognized home remedies worldwide for everyday infections, ginger shows promise in preliminary studies for COVID-19 support.
In an Iranian clinical trial early in the pandemic of 100 suspected COVID-19 outpatients, those taking a combination of ginger and echinacea had greater improvement in coughing, shortness of breath, and muscle pain compared to the group that took hydroxychloroquine. Two percent of the herb group required hospitalization compared to 6 percent in the drug group—which was not statistically significant.
Ginger has anti-inflammatory, sweat-inducing, fever-breaking, blood-thinning, and antiviral activity. The fresh-grated or juiced ginger root in tea, broth, syrup, or juice may be more effective than dried root for viral infections. It’s popular in tea alongside fresh lemon and honey and also blends well with elderberry and hibiscus, cinnamon, or thyme.
Several studies support the likelihood of this phytochemical to assist in various stages of COVID-19. It’s found in red grapes but more typically extracted from Japanese knotweed roots. It’s also known as an antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, blood-thinning, immune-regulatory, and antimicrobial herb popular in anti-aging, pain, cognition, diabetes, chronic and acute Lyme, cardiovascular, and other protocols.
A 2022 randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study on 105 outpatients ages 45 and older with mild COVID-19 found that those taking two 500 milligram capsules of trans-resveratrol twice daily for 7 to 15 days had 2 percent hospitalization versus 6 percent in the placebo group.
Herbal clinicians anecdotally report that resveratrol supplementation during COVID-19 resolution seems to relieve or reduce fatigue in the later stages of infection and post-infection.
Additional herbs and supplements worth considering include:
Because COVID-19 is relatively new and research takes time and funding, only a handful of clinical trials have been conducted thus far, mostly on traditional Asian medicine formulas. However, more herbal clinical trials for COVID-19 are in progress.