Updated: Jan 15, 2020
A Mom friend of mine recently requested that I write about back-to-school herbs. It's that time of year again! Our kids are venturing out into classrooms full of snot and spit and weird viruses. You might be dreading the months ahead, anticipating being repeatedly knocked down by the bugs your family is exposed to. Here's some encouragement to get you mentally prepared, and some practical tools to get you physically prepared.
We Get Sick When We're Run Down
Stress is the great immune system weakener. Getting sick is our body's way of forcing us to get the rest we need. If you've been burning the candle at both ends, herbs may delay the inevitable, but they can't save you. They won't let you cheat your way out of taking care of yourself.
A friend asked me if you can develop a tolerance to Elderberry. I interpret this question to mean "Elderberry used to keep me from getting sick, but now it doesn't seem as powerful." Or, "My family pounds Elderberry all season but we're still sick all the time!" If you're a bedraggled Elderberry user, I don't think your efforts are in vain.
Have you noticed that some people don't succumb to even the most contagious/treacherous diseases when they're exposed? While others spend all fall and winter battling cold after cold? Some of this variation can be attributed to genetics and constitution, factors we don't have immediate control over, but some of it's due to our overall resistance. If we're generally stressed out, our immunity is compromised. If you're a parent, you're pretty much guaranteed a stress load that will overburden your defenses. This is why we may still get sick despite our best Elderberry-pounding efforts. Even though this is true, know that taking herbs like Elderberry and other immune-system strengtheners adds weight to your "support" column, which always has a balancing effect on the "stress" column. And here's your gentle reminder that getting enough sleep and drinking enough water go in the support column too.
Herbs To Strengthen The Immune System
Elder, Sambucus nigra and other spp.
Elderberries are my absolute favorite immune herb for kids. The berries taste good, they make fun purple-colored medicine. Elder is anti-viral and effective at fighting influenza and coughs. It also generally strengthens the immune system, making it very useful as a preventative, as well as during acute illness. The dried flowers in tea are helpful for breaking a high fever that has been burning too long.
My favorite tincture formula for decreasing the duration and severity of an illness is Elderberry, Alder (Alnus sp.), and Ginger (Zingiber officinale). Alder facilitates the effective movement of our lymph, a key mechanism to the overall functioning of the immune system. I harvest my own Alder, and since it's not widely commercially available, Red Root (Ceanothus sp.) or Echinacea (Echinacea angustifolia) are two other lymph movers that will make great substitutes.
Astragalus Astragalus membranaceous
Astragalus is a root used in Traditional Chinese Medicine to strengthen a weak immune system. It's indicated for sickly lungs, and for people who are succumbing frequently to colds and flus (a.k.a all of us during back-to-school season). It's NOT traditionally used during acute sickness, but rather as a preventative tonic. I've heard a few anecdotal stories of sick people taking it and having their illness worsen. Astragalus can be taken in tincture form, or in a broth (recipe below).
Reishi, Ganoderma lucidum
This herb is known as "The Mushroom of Immortality" in Traditional Chinese Medicine. This is another one I don't recommend taking when you're actively sick, but it helps keep you from getting sick in the first place. It stimulates the immune system, and strengthens and protects so many other organs that it's an all-around vitality-enhancer. I also talk about it here, here, and here. Reishi can be taken in a double-extracted tincture, or in a broth (recipe below).
A Good Dose of Acceptance
Remember, illness is your body talking to you. It's encouraging you to heal, to address what needs addressing. You can meet it with curiosity and humility if you choose. You're not failing because you got sick, you're not being punished. You're being a human, handed an opportunity.
Kids And Tinctures
The amount of alcohol in a dose of tincture is negligible, I personally don't worry about giving them to small children, but that of course is your call to make. Since alcohol tinctures are what I tend to have on hand, I get my son to take them by squirting a dose into a bowl of oatmeal, or into a small amount of juice. I've also told him to open his mouth and squirted a dose in surprise-attack style, but that only worked once. Some herbal medicine companies make glycerite versions of tinctures (the herbs are extracted into glycerine instead of alcohol and water, making the medicine taste sweet and eliminating the alcohol). Another way to mitigate alcohol in a tincture is to pour the desired dose of tincture into a little bit of boiled water, and most of the alcohol will evaporate by the time the water cools to a drinkable temperature.
Dosing: A typical dose of tincture for a 150 lb adult is about 3 dropperfuls. I calculate an appropriate dose for a child by applying the same ratio to their weight. If a kid weighs 50 lbs, which is 1/3 of 150, the dose is 1/3 of 3 dropperfuls, or 1 dropperful. If they weigh 30 lbs, I give them about half a dropperful. With the herbs I've mentioned in this post, it doesn't need to be an exact science.
If you're breastfeeding your child, you can get any herbal medicine into them by taking an adult-sized dose yourself.
Recipe: Immunity Broth
Because it contains both Astragalus and Reishi, this broth is intended as an ahead-of-time immune system strengthener, not for use while you're actively sick. It's reinforcing your fortress walls and training your army for battle.
You can use this in the traditional way, as a base for soups, but perhaps like me you live in a climate where it's still too hot to be enjoying warm soup. I like to cook grains like rice or quinoa in it. They will absorb the plants' constituents during cooking, and it's a great way to sneak broth into picky young eaters. Another sneaky trick is using the refrigerated broth as the liquid component of a smoothie. Note: leave the onion and garlic out of the recipe if you plan to use the broth in smoothies : )
2 medium onions, quartered
1 head of garlic, with the cloves smashed and peeled
2 large carrots, diced
5 Astragalus sticks (about 1 oz.)
1 oz. Reishi
1 inch fresh ginger coarsely chopped
ground black pepper to taste