Hi Sandra, winter illnesses such as cold, flu and cough have already started to do the rounds at the office I work in. I seem to catch at least one or two of these each winter. Is there anything natural I can take to reduce the chances of getting sick over the next few months? Thanks, Sean.

Hi Sean, thanks for your question. If you are prone to picking up colds and flu over the winter months, the end of autumn is the perfect time to begin fortifying your immune system. In addition to the winter season, being surrounded by others who are sick, undertaking travel, and increased workload or stress can further compromise your immune system.

Plant medicine has been used for centuries to protect and fortify the human immune system. Having immune support on hand during these high-risk times can help to reduce the severity and duration of infection.

With 60 years of clinical research and thousands of years of traditional use, the wonderful echinacea root (Echinacea purpurea) is perhaps the most known and frequently used immune herb. Echinacea has been found to reduce both the severity and duration of colds and flu. It increases both the number and activity of immune cells, resulting in a more efficient attack on viruses and bacteria. Studies on children with respiratory tract infections and ear infections have shown that it is both safe and effective.

Unlike synthetic cold and flu medications, Echinacea can be successfully taken as a preventative medicine over longer periods, with clinical trials showing it reduces the likelihood of cold and flu by 58%. Preparations made with freshly harvested Echinacea root are particularly potent. A recent study confirmed that such a fresh preparation is as effective as Oseltamivir (Tamiflu) in the early treatment of clinically diagnosed and virologically confirmed influenza virus infections with a reduced risk of complications and adverse events. It is an attractive treatment option, particularly suitable for self-care.

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The anti-infective, antibacterial and antiviral properties of thyme (Thymus vulgaris) make it a winter essential. Thyme is particularly useful for coughs and chest infections. As an expectorant it helps to clear mucous from the airways and is a key herb for asthmatics and those who are predisposed to infections that move to the chest. Using thyme in the early stages of an upper respiratory tract infection can help prevent the infection from taking hold in deeper levels of the lungs.

Angelica (Angelica archangelica) is another powerful expectorant plant that is notable for its strong warming action - useful when feeling the chill that can accompany the onset of cold or flu. It is used for the prevention and treatment of contagious infections including influenza and respiratory tract diseases such as bronchitis and a cough. It is also useful to support recovery after a serious illness.

Immune building plants work well when combined with a gentle liver-supporting herb such as St Mary's Thistle (Silybum marianum). This herb assists the normal process of detoxification that becomes critical during periods of illness and infection when pathogens are swallowed in mucus and need to be eliminated via the digestive tract.

Immune-support formulas that combine a number of plant medicines are best professionally compounded by a qualified medical herbalist to ensure therapeutic doses of the selected plants. Low to moderate doses can be used daily to build immune resilience and as a preventative measure (e.g. 5ml 1-3 times daily), with an increased dose (5ml, 3-5 times daily) taken at the first sign of infection in order to shorten the severity and duration of illness.

I recommend that families keep plant-based immune support to hand throughout the winter season since herbs can quickly increase the activity of white blood cells and support a swift immune response. I hope you find this guidance useful and manage to thrive throughout the coming winter months.

If you find yourself falling ill and your symptoms worsen or do not improve, please contact your leading healthcare professional.

References
Ardjomand-Woelkart, K., & Bauer, R. (2016). Review and Assessment of Medicinal Safety Data of Orally Used Echinacea Preparations. Planta Medica, 82(1-2), 17-31. doi: 10.1055/s-0035-1558096.

Dorman, H.J.D. & Deans, S.G. (2000). Antimicrobial agents from plants: antibacterial activity of plant volatile oils. Journal of Applied Microbiology, 88(2), 308-316.

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Schapowal, A., Klein, P., & Johnston, S. (2015). Echinacea reduces the risk of recurrent respiratory tract infections and complications: a meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials. Advances in Therapy, 32 (3), 187-200. doi: 10.1007/s12325-015-0194-4.

Shah, S., Sander, S., White, C.M., Rinaldi, M., & Coleman, C. (2007). Evaluation of echinacea for the prevention and treatment of the common cold: a meta-analysis. The Lancet, 7(7), 473-480.