Written by Elliott Brinkley, Clinical Herbalist & Owner of Dancing Willow Herbs
Snow is falling, the holidays are upon us, and everyone seems to be getting sick. Nobody likes to be sick, especially during the busy holiday times. Luckily, there are a bounty of herbs that have a seasonal affinity for keeping us well during the winter months. These herbs are best when used to help prevent illness from ocurring in the first place, but some can also be supportive if you do catch a bug!
There is something about this time of year that encapsulates magic- like light within the snowflake’s structure. Our collective celebration of light, during the darkest part of the year, brings me comfort that the darkest days can also be some of the most beautiful.
This guide is designed to help support you in finding the most beauty during this winter season by staying healthy with herbs. In the colder months, we lean on herbs that nourish the immune system, improve circulation, and strengthen the respiratory system to ward off illness. Here are some of my favorites that not only support our physical bodies, but help connect us to the winter season overall.
I love to work with pine during the winter season because it is one of the only plants that you can still abundantly harvest. Pine needles are high in vitamin C (especially when they are young and fresh), are antimicrobial, and anti-inflammatory. They have been used traditionally to prevent colds, support coughs and fevers. My favorite way to use pine is in a respiratory steam. To complete a respiratory steam, bring a pot of water to boil then remove from heat, add a handful or two of pine needles, then place your head over the pot under a towel or blanket- testing until the temperature is nice and warm but not hot enough to burn you. In this way, the volatile oils of pine will be carried on the steam and met directly with your respiratory tissues. When used in a respiratory steam, pine brings its antimicrobial properties to the respiratory tissues helping to prevent and remedy respiratory infection.
In a respiratory steam, tea or tincture, pine is a stimulating expectorant. It is a tremendous ally for breaking up boggy wet mucous and helping the body expel it from the lungs. It is warming and aromatic, which helps to relieve congestion in the lungs and the sinuses. Pine is a great ally for when you are sick, but it can also be worked with on a daily basis to help support seasonal wellness.
All species in the Pinus genus are medicinal and can be used interchangeably. Research what pine trees grow in your area and ensure you are using proper identification guidelines to harvest the needles safely.
Elderberries are always a part of my winter wellness regimen. They are very food-like, and can be taken on a daily basis to help prevent viral illness.
Elderberry is extremely rich in vitamin C and protective antioxidants called bioflavonoids. We all know that vitamin C supports the immune system, but it also plays a major role in overall health. Vitamin C is the primary antioxidant in the brain and works within the fluid between the nerve cells. It is also a precursor to collagen formation, which is responsible for maintaining skin elasticity, as well as lubricating and strengthening ligaments and tendons.
The other major antioxidant group that exists in Elderberries are called proanthocyanidins. These specifically protect vascular tissue and can be helpful for varicose veins, preventing atherosclerosis, or other damage that may occur within the blood vessels. Proanthocyanidins also take everything that vitamin C does to the next level by helping fight infection, supporting collagen, and upcharging the activity of vitamin C antioxidants.
Elderberry not only stimulates the immune system by replenishing it with these antioxidants and other co-factors, it has an affinity for strengthening the respiratory system. Madeline Mumcuoglu, Ph.D. of Hadassah-Hebrew University in Israel studied Elderberry’s effectiveness against the flu virus. Of those taking the Elderberry, 20% of the subjects reported significant improvement within 24 hours, 70% by 48 hours, 90% in three days. Contrastingly, the group who received the placebo took 6 days to recover (Medical Herbalism 8(4)). The effectiveness of Elderberry during viral infection works best when taken preventatively as a daily tonic.
A good daily dose of Elderberry would be 1 tablespoon of the syrup daily. If exposed to someone who is sick or you are feel something coming on, you can double or triple the dose. If I feel a tickle in my throat I will take as many as 6 tablespoons throughout the day. Luckily, our Elderberry syrup is delicious so this isn't a challenging thing to do! It always seems to nip it in the bud, and strengthen my immune system unlike anything else.
Here are our favorite products for you to work with Elderberry:
- Our famous Elderberry Syrup, purchase here.
- Elderberry Glycerite, purchase here.
- Our delicious fruity and tart High C tea, purchase here.
- Our fruity, earthy and sweet Berry Good for You tea, purchase here.
Medicinal Mushrooms are another food-like medicine that helps to strengthen and regulate the immune response. As opposed to taking something that is going to stimulate your immune system daily, like Echinacea, (which may result in long term fatigue or may not be appropriate for some folks- those with an overactive immune system) mushrooms slowly build your immune health over time. Medicinal mushrooms contain complex starches called polysaccharides that are absorbed through the mucous membranes. The body perceives these polysaccharides as a threat, which signals a response from the immune system. Fortunately, these polysaccharides are benign and therefore train our immune systems to function properly. This allows our immune cells and pathways to fight true pathogens such as common colds or flus.
Medicinal mushrooms help to train the intelligence of the immune system in helping it identify self from non-self and signaling a proper response. This is important in the case of autoimmunity, which is becoming more and more prevalent in modern culture. Medicinal mushrooms bring balance to an immune system if it is over or under reactive.
In our tinctures, we double extract our mushrooms. This means that we extract the mushrooms in both water and alcohol to optimize the constituent profiles which nourish the immune system and support overall well-being.
Here are some of our products which feature medicinal mushrooms:
- Our very delicious Southwest Mushroom Cacao Cordial, purchase here.
- Double Extracted Reishi Tincture, purchase here.
- The immune building formula, Reishi Vitality, purchase here.
- Our Extra Medicinal Mulling Spices, purchase here.
In the winter, one of the most challenging aspects for many is the feeling of being chilled to the bone. Ginger helps to improve circulation, and the cultivation of inner warmth as well as warmth to the periphery. It helps to cultivate fire in our digestive systems, which is well indicated for holiday season where we may be eating heavier foods. Ginger is also antimicrobial and can be very supportive for keeping you well when taken on a daily basis, as well as when you are sick. Ginger is warming and diffusive, which makes it great to work with for a fever. It works best during the earlier stages of fever where the individual is chilled. It will help warm them up, open the pores and allow the fever to do its job of killing the pathogen. Discontinue use in a fever if the individual is dehydrated, their skin is tight and they feel hot.
My favorite way to work with ginger is to drink it as a decoction. Chop up your fresh ginger (30g by weight), add to a pot of water (2 quarts) and bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer and cook until the liquid is reduced by 1/2 (1 quart remaining), then strain the herb. I like to add a little honey and/or some lemon. It is spicy, warming and very delicious!
You can also work with ginger in the following Dancing Willow Herb products:
- Fire Cider, purchase here.
- Our delicious, warming and aromatic Fire Tea, purchase here.
- Ginger Tincture, purchase here.
- Warming Herbs Tincture, purchase here.
- Tummy Calm Tincture, purchase here.
- Ginger Essential Honey, purchase here.
If you want to learn more about other herbs for winter wellness, join us for our upcoming class Winter Herbal Medicine on December 8th at 6:30 PM at Dancing Willow Herbs.
This class will be a celebration of the winter season! We will discuss the plants that have long been used during this time, such as evergreens like Pine, Juniper & Cedar, and their medicinal qualities. We will go into other practices to help you feel more aligned with the season, some folklore around this time, and ways to support yourself moving into the holidays. You will learn about herbs that will help support our immune systems, circulatory systems, and the descent into the darkest days of the year.
Everyone will get a chance to make their choice of winter seasonal herbal medicine, to take home with them and use for themselves (or gift to a loved one).
Wishing you all of the herbal wellness during this holiday season! May you glisten alongside the twinkling lights, gift your loved ones something from the heart, and revel in the sweetness of family or friends.
Warm holiday wishes,
Elliott and the team at Dancing Willow Herbs