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by Eva Urbaniak, N.D.
Did you know that certain foods, herbs and do-it-yourself natural home treatments can alleviate the symptoms of any illness, including coughs, boost the body's immune system, and help prevent a recurrence of disease?
Are you frustrated because you did everything right to get rid of your cold or flu, but that nagging cough still lingers on?

Although colds and flu are caused by viruses, and there are hundreds identified, they are both spread in a similar fashion, by contact with secretions from the nose and mouth of an infected person. Sneezing or coughing propels droplets and mucus that may contain viruses and bacteria. Infection may occur through a handshake with a person who has just sneezed, or by being in the "line of fire" of a sneeze.

In the workplace, a computer keyboard or telephone can be a source of infection, posing a strong case for frequent handwashing and disinfection of items that come in contact with hands and mouths.

When you have a cold, mucus is the body's way of trying to trap and expel an invading organism and protect the membranes from further attack. Coughing is the body's way of expelling that mucus. Over-the-counter and prescription drugs are designed to either treat a symptom or kill the bug. We also know that antibiotics are only indicated for bacterial infections, not viruses, so taking an antibiotic for a viral cold, not only does nothing to the virus, but can cause many other negative side effects. Candida yeast infections, due to the killing off of friendly bacteria in the body, consequent bacterial infections due to a weakened immune system from the antibiotic therapy, and ultimately, resistance to the antibiotic itself are just a few.

Although coughing is most commonly associated with a cold or flu, there are other serious conditions in which a cough may be present such as heart failure, pulmonary edema, pneumonia and pertussis (whooping cough), tuberculosis, lung cancer, fungal or parasitic infections. Allergies, asthma, and postnasal drip also cause coughing. Pertussis and tuberculosis are unfortunately on the increase, and both are showing resistance to antibiotics. However, in the case of tuberculosis, it is well documented that host resistance plays an important role in how a patient will recover. (1)

Treatment of a cough should be aimed at breaking up the bronchial secretions, soothing the irritation, and boosting the immune system. Medicine should not only address symptoms, but also aid in strengthening and restoring proper balance to the body.(2)

Herbs for Coughs

Whole foods and herbs are powerful medicines, and for treating coughs, may already be in your kitchen cupboard or growing in your garden!
Herbs can be eaten or used as teas, tinctures, capsules, tablets, and in homeopathic form. Using herbs in all their forms can keep you well during the flu season.
An excellent herbal tea for colds consists of elder flower, peppermint, and yarrow in equal parts. The tea should be drunk three times a day as hot as possible, breathing in the vapors as you drink. Caution: Yarrow is VERY bitter, so just add a tiny amount. (3)
Herbs can also be added to a hot bath by placing a handful of dried herb in a sock, tying a knot, and throwing it into the bath. (Here yarrow would be ideal)

Cayenne Pepper (Capsicum frutescens)

Although cayenne is an herb that adds zip to many dishes, it has many medicinal applications. It is quite high in vitamin C. Cayenne increases blood flow, is an antiseptic gargle for sore throats, a powerful decongestant, anti-inflammatory; anti-catarrhal (breaks up mucus), and a diaphoretic, inducing a fever. Fever is another way the body attempts to kill viruses and eliminate waste through the skin, but over-the-counter fever reducers stress the liver, pose certain health risks, and lowering a fever artificially can also prolong the illness.
Dosage: A little cayenne can go a long way. It can be found in capsules as well, but anywhere from ¼ teaspoon to a full teaspoon can be taken for a cough, preferably in a hot drink. (Contraindicated for those taking anti-asthma medications like theophylline as it may increase levels of the drug, and use with caution in pregnancy. (4)

Garlic (Allium sativa)

Garlic is a natural anti-biotic, and is anti-viral, hypotensive (lowers blood pressure), anti-parasitic (expels and kills worms and other parasites), anti-fungal and diaphoretic. The volatile oil in garlic is excreted through the lungs and is therefore extremely effective in all respiratory infections, chronic bronchitis, bronchial asthma, whooping cough, recurrent colds and flu. (5)
Garlic is simply a miracle herbal food and the best preventative for any infection. Probably the only negative aspect of garlic is the lingering aroma, which some people find offensive.
Dosage: Garlic is totally safe and there are no restrictions. The best way to eat garlic is in its natural state, raw, chopped into a salad, or included in dishes. Some supplements contain up to 4,000 mg per tablet. (6)

Ginger (Zingiber officinalis)

Among its many properties, ginger is a natural expectorant, antimicrobial, antitussive (cough suppressant), anti-inflammatory, analgesic, anti-pyretic (brings down a fever), and in the case of the flu, helps with nausea and headache.
Dosage: As a tea, one teaspoon chopped fresh root (or dry powder) into one cup of boiling water. Drink as needed. (High doses contraindicated in pregnancy) (7)

Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis)

Rosemary is an essential ingredient in many Italian dishes, but is also an excellent remedy for colds and flu. It is antiseptic and anti-spasmodic, soothes the achy muscles and joints of the flu, and calms the digestive tract and nervous system. It can also alleviate the depression often accompanying debility. Leaves and flowers are best for tea, dried or fresh from your garden.
Dosage: Pour one cup boiling water over 1 to 2 teaspoons. Infuse for 15 minutes and drink three times a day. (Contraindicated in pregnancy) (8)

Sage (Salvia officinalis)

Every good cook knows sage is an essential ingredient in turkey dressing, but sage is probably one of the best anti-bacterial herbs we have. It is effective in killing strains of strep and staph, acts as a fever and sweat reducer, and is excellent for sore throats.
Dosage: As a tea or gargle, one cup boiling water poured over 1 to 2 teaspoonfuls of the leaves. Drink three times a day and gargle as needed. (Contraindicated in pregnancy, and not for long term use.) (9)

One of my favorite concoctions to knock out any cold or flu is:

Into twelve ounces of hot water, with a little honey and one tablespoon lemon juice, add one tablespoon each of freshly chopped garlic, grated ginger root, and ½ teaspoon cayenne pepper. Cover the glass or mug for 10 minutes, then drink slowly.

Other herbs bear mentioning in treating coughs. Marshmallow, mullein, and slippery elm are all demulcents, which soften mucus, making it easier to expectorate. Hyssop, elecampane, and licorice are excellent expectorants and are for thick catarrh and bronchitis. (Licorice is contraindicated in hypertension.) Wild cherry bark tincture is also an effective cough suppressant, expectorant, and sedative. It is added to many cough formulas because it tastes good, making it an excellent choice for children.

A holistic approach in treating any illness means examining diet, lifestyle habits and psychological health. A healthful diet, especially for getting well from a cold or flu should include, quality protein, at least eight glasses of water daily, raw nuts and seeds, fresh organic vegetables, and fresh whole fruits not fruit juices. Additional vitamin C supplementation ensures a speedier recovery. 1,000 to 3,000 mg per day is a reasonable dose.

Lifestyle habits like smoking and drinking alcohol only undermine health. White sugar, white flour, and all prepared foods made from these are never good for your health, but especially when you are sick. Avoid them. Dairy products create excess mucus in the body, so they should also be avoided. Yogurt is the only exception, because it provides healthy bacteria.

Home Hydrotherapy

One of the most valuable tools in getting over a cold and breaking up a cough is steam inhalation. Steam baths, wet saunas, or even a pot of boiling water on your stove can all speed your recovery. Adding eucalyptus oil will break up mucus faster.
For home steam inhalation just bring a large pot of water to a low boil, lean over the pot with a medium sized towel hanging over your head to form a tent over the pot. Breathe deeply. Essential oil evaporates quickly, so be prepared to add it several times during your treatment. Do this for at least 5 to 10 minutes, 2 to 3 times a day, if possible.

These foods, herbs and natural healing suggestions have been extensively researched and should help you get over a cough from a cold or flu. If, however, after trying any of the above-mentioned remedies, symptoms have not subsided, please visit your naturopathic physician or health care professional.

Q: Which two minerals, essential for immune system health, are dangerously depleted in American agricultural soil?
A: Zinc and Selenium

  1. Book: Blacklow, Robert S. (Ed), et al, Macbryde’s Signs and Symptoms, 6th Edition (1983) J.B. Lippincott Company pp.321-327
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  3. Book: Blacklow, Robert S. (Ed), et al, Macbryde’s Signs and Symptoms, 6th Edition (1983) J.B. Lippincott Company pp.328-329
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  5. Book: Hoffman, David, The Holistic Herbal, 2nd Edition (1988) Element Books Ltd. p. 191
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  7. Book: Tilgner, Sharol, Herbal Medicine From the Heart of the Earth,1st Edition (1999) Wise Acres Press, Inc. p. 48
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  9. Book: Hoffman, David, The Holistic Herbal, 2nd Edition (1988) Element Books Ltd. p. 196
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  11. (see footnote 5)
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  13. Book: Hoffman, David, The Holistic Herbal, 2nd Edition (1988) Element Books Ltd. p. 197
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  15. Book: Hoffman, David, The Holistic Herbal, 2nd Edition (1988) Element Books Ltd. p. 223
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  17. Book: Hoffman, David, The Holistic Herbal, 2nd Edition (1988) Element Books Ltd. p. 222
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Other references:
Book: Krause & Mahan, Food Nutrition & Diet Therapy, 7th Edition (1984) W. B. Saunders Co.
Book: Bose, Anna dePlanter; Church, Helen Nichols; Pennington, Jean A.T. Food Values of Portions Commonly Used 15th Edition (1989)

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