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7 Herbs to Make Winter Bearable

Winter is a time that our plants go dormant, resting to rebuild their energy for another year. Unfortunately we don't often have the luxury of resting at this time of year and winter isn’t a time that health issues rest, but fortunately we have herbal remedies at our fingertips during a season in which maladies abound, (or at least a season during which we try to fend them off!). Here are descriptions of seven of our favourite herbal medicines to have on hand to deal with some of the winter conditions that can be a problem at this time of year.

Sinusitis: Chamomile (Matricaria recutita)

Chamomile is the flower head of an annual member of the aster family. It’s been used for centuries as a mild sleep aid, and to ease upset stomachs. It is also an excellent anti-inflammatory herb for mucous membrane and can be very helpful in easing the discomfort from inflamed sinuses, a common problem during the dry winter weather.

A steam can be made by steeping 1 tbsp of dried flowers in a cup of hot water; then with a towel over your head you simply breathe the steam in through your nose for a few minutes. Do this 1 to 2 times daily until symptoms are gone.

(Caution: People who are allergic to other members of the aster family, including ragweed, may be allergic to chamomile).

Eye Strain: Bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus)

In the winter months with outdoor activities decreased and less natural light, more time is spent indoors reading or working on the computer under artificial light and eyestrain can result. Bilberry, a relative of the blueberry can be of value in this situation. Bilberry was a popular medicine among sixteenth-century Europeans, who used the leaves to fight inflammation and infection. They also used the herb to treat ­diarrhea, prevent scurvy (a vitamin C deficiency), and disinfect mouth sores. During World War II, pilots in the British Royal Air Force reported improved night vision after eating bilberry jam. During the 1960s, Italian and French scientists investigated these reports to learn whether bilberries could improve vision. As a result, preparations of bilberry fruit are used in Europe today to enhance vision.

Circulation: Ginger (Zingiber officinalis)

Ginger is the most widely used and available herbal remedy on the planet, with billions of people using it every day as both food and medicine.

One of the main benefits of the herbal ginger remedy is its ability to stimulate the circulatory system. The herb also helps in bringing an increased flow of blood to the surface of the skin; this singular property makes the ginger a very important herbal remedy for the treatment of conditions such as chilblains and to treat impaired circulation along the hands and feet of patients. Herbal remedies made from the ginger have a warming and soothing effect and help alleviate persistent coughs, all kinds of colds and flu, and other related problems of the respiratory system.

(Caution: Do not take ginger if you have a bleeding disorder or if you are taking blood-thinning medications, including aspirin).

Depression: St.-John’s-Wort (Hypericum perforatum)

Winter is a time many people experience “the blues”. Lack of sunlight, a decrease in activity and holiday stress can all lead to signs of depression. You may have heard the news: St.-John’s-Wort can offer the benefits of prescription antidepressants without the side effects.

During the Middle Ages, remarkable and even mystical properties were attributed to St.-John’s-Wort. By the nineteenth century, U.S. physicians used it as a mild sedative and, in recent years extensive studies have been done on this herb and all found that it effective in treating most cases of mild to moderate depression or temporary depressive moods. St.-John’s-Wort takes time to work, though—allow six weeks of continuous use for full therapeutic benefit.

(Caution: do not take this herb if you are currently on antidepressant medication or oral contraceptives).

Colds: Echinacea (Echinacea angustifolia, E. pallida, E. purpurea)

Few of us don’t know this herb, which is now one of the foremost cold medicines on the market. Native Americans of the prairie used echinacea more than any other plant to cure ailments ranging from colds to cancer. It was the best-selling medicinal plant in the United States until the 1920s, when antibiotics began to replace it. But in Europe it has been used throughout the twentieth century; in 1993, German physicians prescribed echinacea more than 2.5 million times.

Research shows that echinacea enhances the activity of white blood cells and other specialized immune system cells. It increases their ability to attack foreign invaders such as cold or flu viruses and helps accelerate healing if infection already exists. For best results take it at the first sign of cold or flu; take continuously for two weeks.

(Caution: Do not use if on immune suppressing medications).

Flu: Elder (Sambucus canadensis, S. nigra)

Elderberry comes from the honeysuckle family. Medicinally, elder fruit from the North American S. canadensis and elder flower from the European S. nigra are used. American herbalists combine the dried flowers of S. canadensis with peppermint to treat fevers and colds. Native Americans used a tea made from the plant’s inner bark to induce vomiting; Europeans used black elderberry to treat colds and fevers. In one clinical study performed during a flu outbreak in Israel, researchers found that the extract reduces the severity and duration of flu symptoms. Apparently, the plant’s compounds inhibit the ability of the flu virus to enter cells, and thus disarm the virus’s ability to infect. The Germans prescribe elderberry flower to induce sweating in order to treat fevers and increase bronchial secretions associated with full-blown colds.

(Caution: Safe use of elder always relates to the dried or cooked fruits and flowers. When fresh, all plant parts can produce allergic or other adverse reactions). Do not use if on immune suppressing medications).

Headaches: Peppermint (Mentha piperita)

Winter can see changes in barometric pressure, cold air, lack of exercise and or poor nutrition choices, all of which can contribute to headaches. Studies have shown that both Peppermint tea and Peppermint essential oil can help with both tension and migraine headaches. Peppermint tea is often used to settle the stomach and aid digestion, but it is also effective in helping relieve stress-related symptoms such as migraine, headaches, and stomach upsets. Peppermint oil targets headache pathophysiology in multiple ways. If you suffer from tension or migraine headaches, peppermint oil may help as it has a cooling effect that inhibits muscle contractions in the head and neck while also stimulating blood flow to the area. This essential oil cooling comes from menthol, the same compound found in many over-the-counter topical pain-relieving products. A recent meta-analysis of multiple studies found that massaging this essential oil (diluted) into the temples and forehead can help relieve headaches and in fact has proven to be comparable to acetylsalicylic acid (Aspirin) or acetaminophen (Tylenol) in its effectiveness.

All material contained herein is provided for general information purposes only and should not be considered medical advice or consultation. Contact a reputable healthcare practitioner if you are in need of medical care.

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