Category Archives: Caring for the Ill

Support for Seasonal Ilnesses

10151019349176860As always I refer readers back to my Caring for the Ill post for a primer on how to take care of sick family or friends. Last year’s flu post offered many additional ideas.  Please check those out.

As there are many reports of H1N1 circulating, I thought I should mention that elderberry is especially effective against the H1N1 virus. Elderberry is a traditional antiflu remedy which seems to work through the mechanism of binding with viruses before penetrating into the walls of cells, consequently preventing the their spread.. The authors of a study published in the journal Phytochemistry concluded that “the H1N1 inhibition activities of the elderberry flavonoids compare favorably to the known anti-influenza activities of Oseltamivir (Tamiflu; 0.32lM) and Amantadine (27lM).” (Bill Roschek, 2007, p. 1255)

Interestingly enough, the CDC did in fact formulate this year’s vaccine for the H1N1 strain, along with an H3N2 strain and a Influenza B strain with the Yamagata lineage.  It is pretty close to last year’s vaccine only the B strain is different and some people got a quadrivalent vaccine which included a  B strain of the Victoria lineage.   But the H1N1 strain still seems to rearing its ugly head this year, even amongst the vaccinated.

Fire Cider  Don't leave home without it.

Fire Cider
Don’t leave home without it.

RSV is considered a seasonal epidemic and that is what our family got hit with this year.   I have to say I prefer this one to last year’s norovirus, but it is still no fun, especially for very little children.    Steve and I managed to pump the fire cider and the Vitamin D and avoid becoming ill but it hit our poor kids before we knew they had been exposed.  Respiratory Synctial Virus (RSV) exhibits symptoms similar to a cold.  It does not respond to antibiotics and unlike influenza, there is no vaccine, so this one is one we have to learn to deal with.   Symptoms are similar to those of a cold- runny nose, sore throat, cough, earache.    Having been around it before,  I will say that this seems to be a particularly wicked strain causing significant symptoms in older kids and hospitalizing babies around here.     I found that the boys really experienced the most relief from their symptoms when they were kept in a steamy environment and given frequent lymphatic massages with our aromatic chest rub.

 I would really like to offer you a few additional tricks other than those I’ve mentioned in the aforementioned articles, that can be made with ingredients you can buy at the grocery store .

As you may  recall I  really prefer warm broths, for hydration.  Here is another  tasty broth that can be used to make soups for the convalescence period so you might want to double the recipe. Barley is a traditional restorative broth.

Barley Broth

1 chopped onion and 2 leeks
1/2 cup barley or steel cut oats
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 tablespoons dried rosemary
2 tablespoons dried thyme
2 tablespoons dried shitake mushrooms
coarsely ground sea salt, to taste
freshly ground black pepper, to taste
2 quarts wsater

In a large saucepan, heat the oil over really low heat. Stir in the chopped onion and leeks. Cook until the chopped vegetables are translucent and soft, but don’t let them brown. Pour in water and add barley, spices and dried mushrooms. Simmer uncovered for 40 minutes. Turn off heat and let the mixture infuse for as long as you want. I usually make mine at night and let it sit overnight. Strain and serve in a mug.

baked lemon and honey For  sore throats…

The boys complained of a lot more of a sore throat than usually I’ve experienced with RSV, in the past,   but that could be because of pressure from swollen lymph, too.    Still it can’t hurt to mention that sage tea with lemon can be soothing to sore throat. 

You can also bake a lemon, spread it with honey and give it to someone to suck on.

Horehound candies are a traditional remedy for relieving inflammation of sore throats.

Another trick for fevers…

Finally I thought I would mention one last idea for fever support.  As I mentioned frequently in the past, I don’t suppress fever.  In fact, the immune system  functions most effectively, in preventing future reinfection,  at about 102 degrees, so I choose to support fever and attempt to minimize the discomfort that it causes.  In addition to using cool compresses, another traditional practice which can be used to pull the heat away from the head and upper body, is a calf wrap.    I would use rose vinegar or lemon juice for this.   You can make a quick rose vinegar substitute by mixing 1/4 cup rose water with 1/4 cup vinegar.  This is an old anthroposophic medicine trick that I learned possibly from the book You are Your Child’s First Teacher or one of the other Waldorf books I read when the girls were little.   

Calf Wrap

1.  Add 1/2 cup rose vinegar or lemon juice to a basin of warm water.

2.  Soak two long strips of cotton in the solution These should be long enough that you calf wrap them from the knee to the foot

3. Wring the strips of cotton until water no longer drips from them and wrap the foot and the leg up to the knee.

4.  Take long strips of wool and wrap the feet and legs again. This is another good use for old sweaters. For children you can just cut the arms off the sweaters and pull them over like a sock.   

5.  Position your feverish “patient” comfortably in bed and change the cotton strips out when they get cold.  If you would like you can lay something under the patient to protect the bedding from getting wet, but honestly the wool keeps most of the damp from seeping out.


Bill Roschek, R. F. (2007). Elderberry Flavonoids bind to and prevent H1N1 infection in vitro. Phytochemistry, 1255-1261

Don’t worry, we’ve got this!

My Arsenal(I am hoping that between the post about elixirs, my older posts on caring for the ill, and this post on prevention and support for viral infections,  I will have enough to refer folks who are requesting information to here on the blog, that I will be able to get some of my other work done.  Here’s to a expedient end to this flu season!  )

Oh dear its flu season again and yes it is a particularly virulent strain, or is it?

According to a report on ABC, maybe not so much.   The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported 22,048 flu cases from Sept. 30 through the end of 2012.

Sounds alarming right?   Now let’s go back to  2009, and the much ado about nothing “swine flu epidemic”.  Over 80,000 cases had been reported by the end of the year and most people criticized the CDC for  over-blowing the warnings of the swine flu.  So it seems to be a matter of public perception as manipulated by the media.

From the ABC report again,  “In an immediate sense; we were a little spoiled last year,” said Dr. William Schaffner, chair of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tenn. “Last year, we had fewer influenza cases than had ever been recorded before.”

Back to the Present

The strain of the flu that seems to be giving us trouble this year is the H3N2 strain.  A stubborn little bug that may be a little bit more hard on children and the elderly.    After seeing it pop up in vaccinated clients,  I was wondering if the maybe they botched the guess when formulating this year’s vaccine?
I checked with the CDC and this year’s  flu vaccine was formulated to address the H3N2 virus. That might make you say “Hmm?” about the vaccine if you are one of the folk who got vaccinated and still got sick, but really it shouldn’t.    The flu vaccine is notoriously ineffective.  Even in last year’s lull, it was only deemed %52 effective by the CDC  and those statistics are slanted towards encouraging you to vaccinate.    I am not even going to go into the vaccination debate.  That is your personal decision .

But if you are one of the %48 of people who did get vaccinated and you come down with the flu anyway or you chose not get vaccinated,  not to worry.   The plants are here to help you.

There are many concoctions  ubiquitous to those of us who live in the herbal realm and most of us rarely even give a thought to the flu, having prepared our arsenal last fall.  In my home I think we probably muddled through our little outbreak shortly after the holidays. That is fairly normal around here,  as we let our diet go shamelessly, that time of year.   This season promises to be drawn out given the sporadic weather, so I thought I would share some of my ideas with you on prevention and management.


Vitamin D Line for the US

Vitamin D Line for the US

As always,  my first advice to you is to eat good food.   Here is a short journal article from Cambridge entitled  concerning Selected vitamins and trace elements that support immune function .
If the information about Vitamin D included there doesn’t persuade you to hit up a supplement then you should take the time to read this.    Now as much as the hippy in me would love to tell you to just go outside to get your Vitamin D,  that just won’t work this time of year.   During the months that correspond with flu season,  the UV rays from the sun aren’t strong enough to trigger Vitamin D precursors in your skin.    So if you spent the drought hanging out in the air conditioning, get yourself a supplement.  Studies done on construction workers show that even they don’t get enough Vitamin D stored to get  through the winter months without becoming depleted.  I supplement all winter long.

Increase the humidity in  your environment.   The lack of humidity in the winter dries and weakens the respiratory mucosa which  is one of your first lines of defense against invading pathogens.  So often, we run a steamer with essential oils in the house, through the winter. If your office is dry, take one of those little potpourri crocks to work and put it on your desk; filled with some water and herbs or essential oils.

Stay warm.   Being cold doesn’t make you sick but it may make you more susceptible to respiratory infection.   It only makes sense not to direct the energy of your body towards warming you up when it is supposed to be working to keep you well.  So wear proper winter gear for the area in which you live.

Throw away that antibacterial crap you rub into your hands and wash your hands with soap and water.    Even, if it doesn’t kill a pathogen, washing with soap makes your hands slippery and running water over them washes everything that can’t stick to them down the drain.   The bacteria are becoming resistant to the antibacterial gels and if the gel doesn’t manage to kill them,  they aren’t going anywhere- except in your mouth.

Moving On to the Plants 

Cardinal Wolsey who lived back in the 1500’s is one of the first folk recorded to wander about huffing aromatic plants  to “preserve himself from infection” but it is almost certain he wasn’t the first.  Those are antimicrobial herbs that are being burned in those nifty little censures at churches. It is fairly probable that the priests who originally came up with the idea were trying to keep from getting sick, like our good Cardinal Wolsey.   Other cultures such as the Ancestral Puebloans burned juniper and pinion in the sick room to protect all occupants. My point here being that ancient people brought aromatic plants into their homes during the winter for a reason, emulate them.

Here are several methods of getting essential oils circulating in the air of your home during the winter:

  • Set herbs steaming in those little potpourri pots they sell  around the house- works well on desks.
  • Burn some loose incense.
  • Set potpourri about the home.
  • Hang pine boughs and other aromatic plants  in your home for the whole of the winter season.
  • Make an herbal distillate or an antimicrobial aromatherapy spray.
  • Toss a cotton ball with essential oils in your vacuum canister or drop some on your filter.
    Drop a few drops of essential oils on the filter of your air purifier or on your furnace filter.

Tonic Herbal Preparations

There are some herbal preparations that I have a bit of every day, during the flu season. I make my Apple-Elderberry Elixir by the gallon jug in the fall and add them to our nourishing infusions daily.    I use fire cider to make salad dressings by adding my infused honey.

When someone else in the house becomes sick, I usually just ramp up the measures above.   Steve, who can’t really afford the luxury of a few days in bed,  starts chugging the  fire cider and applying my aromatic chest rub,  as soon he hears a sneeze.  Thieves vinegar is also a common preparation to take internally as a preventative, when there is an illness in the home.

fire ciderFire Cider

The lovely and talented Rebecca Altman offered up a most glorious blog post on fire cider recently so I will not bore you with  repeating details except to say that mine contains horseradish, onions, garlic, thyme, turmeric, cayenne,  raw ACV and just the slightest bit of raw, local honey.

Thieves Vinegar

Thieves vinegar has an interesting history.  I almost wonder if it wasn’t a poor man’s version of absinthe, which was originally an elixir of health and pretty expensive.   Thieves vinegar has many of the same ingredients, including wormwood.   Peasants often used it as a preventative against the plague. I wrote an article for the upcoming issue of The Essential Herbal that tells a bit about the history of the preparation and shares my recipe. Karen Vaughn has been kind enough to share her  Thieves Vinegar recipe online and there are formula’s in Jean Valnet’s  The Practice of Aromatherapy, also.  I  would imagine some people shake their heads at this idea, but I clean with it when people are sick.   I usually clean with vinegar infused with  orange peel, pine and thyme  When people are sick,  I add about 1/4 cup of the thieves vinegar to a half gallon of my cleaning vinegars.

After the Onset of a Virus

I think that once a virus sets in, your prime directive is to prevent secondary infection. As I mentioned a few posts back, it is my firm belief that suppression of symptoms leads to secondary infection, and I can offer the anecdotal information that neither of the boys has every had antibiotics, due to illness.  Steve hasn’t  had them since we got married, except for that time he was trapped in San Antonio without his herbalist.   That is not to say that  we sit around and suffer from the symptoms.   I have plenty of tricks up my sleeve.

Fevers –  I tend to poke fevers with stimulating diaphoretics unless they are causing discomfort, because in my family we run a little cold.   If a fever causes a headache, we generally tuck one compress under the neck and another on the forehead and that usually soothes the headache while still allowing the fever to do its work.  If a high fever presents,  a relaxing diaphoretic will help open the vents without stoking the fires, so to speak.

Elder  – Few herbalists love anything more than elderberry against the flu, and I am no exception.    I saw Rebbecca and Holly both mentioning it recently.  My recipe is in the blog post from the other day.  The chart to the right references a good study to read when you have a chance.  Personally I view elderberry elixir as a tonic for prevention  but I tend to end up  turning  to the elderflower for support when ill.  I think that is another blog post, also.  They really are two different creatures.

Lemon Balm Elixir-I make a lemon balm elixir, with fenugreek and cardamom,  that seems to have hit the proverbial spot this year especially in dealing with the  norovirus, we ran into last month-but more on that later.  Ginger tea is something I only really enjoy when I am ill.

Old Dog-New Trick –  Do you remember that meme that went around facebook this year in which they poured honey over sliced ginger and lemons?  I did that with the leftover sage honey I had from last year and Trapolin loves it.  He actually asked for it.

Diet  I keep the diet light; we pretty much stick to a homemade soup monodiet.   Warm beverages that flowed freely included:  my sekanjabin  (served warm),  ginger-lemon tea and my favorite infusion blend for the flu-elderflower, rosemary, mint and rose hips,  sweetened  with my sage-thyme honey.  Warm bone broth was kept simmering on the stove.

Supplementary  measures  I use  include an aromatic chest rub,  elderflower/mint steams and lots and lots of rest.  I usually lull the boys to sleep with an audiobook.    Hot water bottles tucked in next to a little body, help mitigate “the chills”.    Long soaks in the tub full of my sick day Epsom salts, also helps sooth aching limbs.

I am not claiming to cure a viral infection and anyone who tells you they can is misleading you.    I can tell you that when someone begins to show signs of being exposed to a virus, these measures  shorten the impact  of the illness, may ward off secondary infections, and seem to help contain the spread of the pathogen.   My husband and I  rarely  catch whatever the kids come down with.   While he has always had the constitution of an ox, this is  a huge change for me.  I was frequently ill, when I was younger.

A much needed sick day…

Grandma's  TeacupIn what seems to be an annual event for me lately, some sort of viral something or other snuck up on me post holiday madness.

I stumbled out of bed yesterday morning after being woken by a strange noise that I soon realized was myself; trying to breathe.

I went to the closet, pulled out  some of my ‘sick day bath salts’ , threw them in the bottom of the tub and proceeded to take a hot steamy shower while the fumes from the essential oils wafted up from the tub floor.   That  was enough to clear my head long enough to bid farewell to my daughter and the grandbaby, who were heading back home after their holiday visit.    But soon after they  left, the familiar chills hit and I knew the rest of the day was going to be spent in bed.   I got out the steamer,  slathered myself with chest rub, burned some pine and juniper in my room and then put up a pot of elderflower-peppermint-hibiscus infusion.

Sometimes  I feel a slight defeat when I come down with something.  Like I shouldn’t get sick because I am an “herbalist”.      Honestly, when I am on my game,  I rarely “catch cold”.      But in each illness there is a lesson to be learned.  In my case, it is usually a lesson about taking care of yourself.    In the holiday rush, I had neglected to make my bone broth, sleep enough hours in the night and take my daily Vitamin D.   My diet wasn’t what it should be-too much sugar and not nearly enough greens.   So I wasn’t too surprised , when my nose started running and my head began to ache.

It was actually a lovely, restful day.  I made my bedside table up prettily, curled up under the blankets, read a little on my kindle and napped. My littlest guy lay in the bed next to me watching the Avengers cartoon on my computer because he didn’t want me to be lonely.  I took a long soak in an Epsom salt bath before dinner.   My husband made me Italian wedding soup and squash risotto.    The fever took hold and I was pretty much out until the morning.

Succumbing to an illness is a message from your body to slow down, rest and maybe even pamper yourself, a bit.  Our bodies have an amazing capacity to make us well, if we listen to them.

I woke up  feeling better; glad that I had not tried to power through yesterday.    I wish more people would do themselves this kindness when they are ill.   It always makes me sad to see people dosing up with OTC  meds;  suppressing the symptoms of healthy immune function.  It is my firm belief that we could cut secondary infections dramatically if people just let viral infections run their course.

Of course, my method of caring for illness isn’t one that always works in today’s fast-paced society.   It certainly isn’t “take this little white pill every four hours and you should be able to stagger around in some sort of zombified productive state.”   The more I look at today’s society, the more I see that the way people live is making them sick- chronically sick-in ways that a nap and a good pot of soup are not going to help.     I think that is something I am going to be thinking about and looking into a lot while finishing my degree.

Nutrition for Health: General Nutrition Guidelines

10151851557451860We have been doing a good job of staying healthy this winter around our house.  Other than the bout of H1N1 which hit us in October and one gastrointestinal virus which were both short-lived, we have been pretty healthy.

We still have to weather the transition from winter to spring in late March, though.  That is usually the peak of the cold and flu season, so I thought perhaps now would be a good time to discuss my thoughts on nutrition.  I don’t really believe that “ramping up” your nutrient intake with mega-dosing once you are sick is very useful-with the exception of vitamin C, maybe.  Your digestion tends to slow down and become less efficient when you are busy fighting off an infection.  It is better to build stores of  fat soluble nutrients.

But what if you ate every day as though you are fighting off a virus or a cold; maybe you would find that you didn’t get sick in the first place?  We shouldn’t limit the usefulness of this approach to acute illnesses. When you don’t eat properly, your body does not find the nutrition in the food you eat, it will find the nutrients someplace in your body such as your bones, muscles or brain matter.   This is especially true of protein which your body will leach from your muscles or brain matter and vitamins and calcium which your body will take from your bones.  A vast majority of health complaints in this country; fatigue, mental fogginess, depression, etc… are caused by your bodies natural response to incomplete nutrition.

That’s why so much of my blog is devoted to posts about different ways eating and cooking with herbs.  Hopefully,  I will post some recipes you would consider trying along the way and give you new things to think about when making meals.   I  do not like pill pushing regardless of what is in them.  You shouldn’t need to take encapsulated herbs or a fistful of manufactured vitamins every day, in place of food. While I am sure that in cases where a blood test has shown there to be a deficiency, supplements can be useful to catch the body up, I prefer to avoid the deficiency in the first place.

I also don’t like recommending supplements from a sustainability standpoint.  I don’t want my well-being to be dependent on any industry.  Besides,  it would be rather hypocritical of me to talk all this smack about local sustainable food systems when half my nutrients are arriving on a boat from China.  This is one of the reasons that I tend to focus on using herbs and foods that I can grow or wild-craft in my area.

I  also  mention this so that you know that I really am not very much help when it comes to giving advice about supplements.  Sometimes people are surprised that I haven’t bothered to learn about this sort of thing.  To many it seems, studying herbal science should be a study of which bottled herbs you should buy at the supermarket or nutrition store in the mall.   Unfortunately, I  generally can’t tell you which company produces the best supplements and  I try to avoid those aisles at all cost, for fear of saying something offensive.  I do openly admit that I came by my aversion to pills honestly.  Back in the days before I knew better, I lost a lot of weight (125 pound) with these bottled supplements and almost destroyed my health in the process.

So with all that out of the way, here is my nutritional philosophy.  I think you will find it is pretty simple.

Our General Nutrition Guidelines

1.  It should go without saying, but purchase as many fresh foods as you can afford and avoid eating food additives.  The best way to do this inexpensively, is to learn to cook and bake your own food.   Do keep in mind though,  that I am a staunch proponent of the concept of having “all things in moderation”.  Don’t fight with yourself (or your family) to entirely give up a questionable food substance, just don’t abuse your body with it and use the healthiest form of the substance possible.

2.  60% percent of your daily intake of food should be in the form of organic plant foods- vegetables, fruits, herbs, legumes, and the  whole grains you can eat. I purposefully laid them out in that order.   Shoot for seven-to-ten servings of vegetables and fruits a day.  And as I frequently tell my children,  potatoes only count if you eat the skins.   I am not even going to get into the other debate.  I’ve raised four children-two of whom have never had an acute illness severe enough that it required antibiotics and no chronic illnesses.  You probably aren’t going to change my mind.

3.   Don’t be afraid of saturated fats and Omega 3 oils.  Your body needs a certain amount to function properly.   I cook with mostly olive oil, and I bake with butter, coconut oil and applesauce. When you eat dairy or  meat, make sure it is grass-fed as grass-fed foods have more Omega 3’s.

4. Regardless of what they taught our parents in the fifties, darker is better where most foods are concerned.  Refined white foods have been completely robbed of nutrients and should be avoided.  Brown rice, old-fashioned oats, whole wheat flour, (around here we compromise on the white whole wheat) and whole hulled barley are far more nutritious than their polished counterparts.

5.  Sweets.  I don’t avoid sugar completely, but I don’t use it often and I NEVER use the white junk they sell at the grocery store.   Unfortunately, sugar in the form of the white sucrose powder you buy in the store is completely devoid of the B vitamins.  So when you bake with sugar, you should be substituting locally produced honey, organic molasses, sucanat, turbinado, or evaporated cane juice in recipes that call for sugar.   Also almost every recipe out there will function just as well with 1/4 less sugar than it calls for.  Maple syrup is nice too, but opt for “Grade B” maple syrup which is less refined and retains more of its natural nutrients.     I avoid high fructose corn syrup like the plague and I don’t use agave nectar nor do I plan to base on the  information I have read.

6.  Eat Your Herbs!   I have learned that by taking in herbs either fresh or  in the form of herbal preparations is best preventative care.  Don’t stop at infusions and decoctions.
Make herbal seasoning blends. Incorporate acetums and bitters preparations into your recipes. Make oxymels, cordials, liqueurs.  Go for variety!  You can provide your body with a much broader spectrum of daily nutrients than you can by with food, alone.