4 Immune System Herbs to Help Treat the Flu this Winter


07 Apr 4 Immune System Herbs to Help Treat the Flu this Winter

Botanical medicines can help fortify your defenses against viruses and bacteria.

Cold and flu season is back, which means all sorts of viruses and bacteria are threatening your immune system as you read this. These microbes can’t wait to exploit a weakness in your defenses and run amok in your nose, throat, ears, sinuses and lungs.

But do not be alarmed. Botanical medicines can help fortify your defenses.

Many naturopathic and integrative doctors recommend effective, immune system boosters that can be safely taken long-term during the flu season to help lower the likelihood you’ll get the flu.

What about a flu shot?

Even conventional doctors agree that prevention is the most effective management strategy for the flu. The most common conventional flu strategy is vaccination. Flu vaccine does not guarantee you will not get the flu. Historically, Medscape reports that the flu vaccine has had 50-60% efficacy against infection with influenza A viruses and 70% efficacy against influenza B viruses (the two most common types of flu viruses). For the 2012-2013 flu season, they report overall efficacy against influenza A and B virus infections was 56%.

But that effectiveness rate published by a government agency, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), is strongly disputed by some scientists. In a British Medical Journal editorial published in May, 2013, a Johns Hopkins Medical School scientist blasted the CDC for pushing flu shots saying these federal health authorities vastly overstate the benefits of the flu shot and, for most healthy people, vaccination is unnecessary at best and potentially risky at worst.

Preventing the flu with natural immune system supplements

Flu vaccine effectiveness and safety continues to be strongly debated among some health experts. But to improve your own odds of escaping the flu in a safe manner, research shows certain natural immune-boosting remedies are safe and effective if taken prophylactically. If you would like use natural medicine to help stay healthy and flu-free this season (either in addition to or in place of the flu vaccine) you’re in luck. Below is a brief discussion of some of the best-researched herbal and nutritional therapies that have been shown to reduce the likelihood of getting the flu or a viral upper respiratory infection during the flu season.

But first, don’t forget the basics: wash your hands frequently; eat a good diet, which means cutting out or vastly reducing sugar and getting plenty of whole, unrefined foods, including whole grains, fruits, vegetables and adequate protein; take a high-quality multivitamin and mineral supplement on an ongoing basis; and live a balanced life that does not include too much stress (this includes getting adequate sleep).

The following immune system boosters are herbal and nutritional supplements that can be used long-term during the flu season to help prevent the flu:

Andrographis (Andrographis paniculata): Andrographis is an annual herb of the Acanthaceae family. It is native to India and Sri Lanka and has been used in Ayurvedic medicine for centuries. Andrographis contains a plant chemical called andrographolides, which has been shown in several clinical trials to stimulate activity of important disease-fighting cells of the immune system. More and more over-the-counter botanical supplements are including Andrographis in their cold and flu formulas.

Elderberry: Black elderberries are known to be extremely rich sources of plant compounds called polyphenols, including flavonoids, catechins, and proanthocyanidins, as well as possessing a variety of anti-oxidant properties and enhancing the immune response. In addition, elderberry extracts have shown to help ward off the flu and other respiratory viruses in human clinical trials. They also taste sweet, which make elderberry a great addition to children’s cough and cold formulas.

Echinacea: Perhaps the most recognized herbal supplement today for prevention and treatment of colds and flu, Echinacea has come under much scientific scrutiny to determine its effectiveness and the studies have yielded mixed results, depending, in part, on the type, concentration, and dose of Echinacea extract used. One well-researched Echinacea extract that has proven to help protect individuals against catching colds and flu is the extract of the fresh roots and aerial parts of organically grown Echinacea purpurea and angustifolia.

Ginseng: Numerous studies have shown taking either American Ginseng (botanical name: Panaxquinquefolius) or Korean Red Ginseng (also known as Panax ginseng) during the flu season lowers the risk of contracting a cold or the flu. Dosages used in studies have varied depending, in part, on whether the ginseng supplement contained an extract or the whole dried herb and whether it was a liquid, capsule, or tablet. If you’re commonly run-down, stressed, and fatigued, Panax ginseng may be the best option for you as a preventative during the flu season, since this ginseng is also an excellent adaptogen that treats stress-related fatigue. Take as directed on the bottle.

Elderberry, Echinacea, Beta-Glucans, Andrographis, Sterol 117, and Red Korean or American Ginseng are just a few of the well-researched immune system boosters that you can safely take throughout the flu season to decrease the chances you’ll get the flu. Beta-glucans, such as those found in the patented supplement Epicor, are another favorite immune system supplement for flu season prevention. And remember, probiotics are the corner stone of any arsenal you’ve compiled to help you fight the flu season this year!

A word of caution: Talk to your doctor before experimenting with the medicines mentioned above. Herbs can cause significant biological activity in the body and “Dr. Google” can often lead you in the wrong direction. Naturopathic doctors are equipped to discuss the safety and effectiveness of botanical medicines.


Influenza, Medscape, September 16, 2013.

BMJ. 2013 May 16;346:f3037.

International Med Res. 2004;32:132–140.

Wien Med Wochenschr. 2013 Feb;163(3-4):102-5.

J Korean Med Sci. 2012 December; 27(12): 1472–1478.

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