With rapid spread of coronavirus, or COVID-19, most people are experiencing fear and anxiety. We can support ourselves, our family, and our community by staying calm, practicing good personal health habits, and remembering that our bodies are resilient. This is an opportunity for us to slow down and reconsider what will best support our health. It is also a potential time to strengthen relationships with the land. How can we cultivate and utilize local foods and medicines around us? How can we build a strong and resilient community?
The symptoms of COVID-19 include fever, cough, and shortness of breath. Older people and those with serious medical conditions are at greater risk. Please follow the Center for Disease Control and World Health Organization for updates. COVID-19 is new in humans, and we don’t know what medicines will treat the disease yet. This blog includes general recommendations, including supportive plants and foods. It is not meant to diagnose or prescribe. Check with your health care provider to make sure herbs are safe to use with your medications.
General Recommendations for Boosting Immunity
Minimize Exposure – Simple actions such as washing hands, avoiding crowds, using hand sanitizer when you contact high-touch places in public, cleaning and disinfecting your home and workspace, staying home if you are sick, and boosting immunity with good food, medicinal herbs, and supplements can make a big difference.
Get Enough Rest – Sleep helps your body cleanse and rejuvenate on a daily basis. Without it, your immune system is less able to fight off disease.
Reduce Stress – One of the best ways to avoid getting sick is to keep stress in check. Research shows that the nervous and immune systems are intimately connected. Seek tools to stay calm and find joy in your life. Avoiding allergens also prevents body stress.
Eat Well – Eat whole foods that are high in vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants including greens, veggies, fruits, proteins, and good quality fats found in fish, nuts, seeds, and avocados. Colorful veggies and fruits are high in Vitamin C. Vitamins A and D are also important for immune health as well as zinc. Fermented foods like sauerkraut, yogurt, and miso promote gut health and immunity. Avoid sugar, as it depresses immune function. Foods with preservatives, additives, and poor-quality fats also put an extra load on your eliminative organs and create fertile ground for harmful microbes.
Stay Hydrated – Water helps flush waste products from your body and keeps tissues and organs hydrated so they can function well. Keeping the mucosal lining in your lungs and sinuses hydrated will reduce your chance of getting sick. Drink water throughout the day.
Spend Time in Nature – Spending time in nature has many positive effects on our health including reducing anxiety, improving immune function, sleeping better, and improved mental health. See the many benefits of taking time to be outside here.
Plant Your Own Garden or Get Involved with a Community Garden – This is a great time to learn about growing your own food and medicine. Many communities have local seed banks, community gardens, and gleaning organizations where you can access free food.
Build Community –This is a powerful time to care for each other. Many communities are creating platforms for people to get support. For example, commit to staying in touch with another person or family so you can deliver supplies or find care for each other if needed. Are there elders in your area who need support? See this example from Seattle.
Your kitchen likely contains remedies that will build immunity and ward off respiratory illnesses. Here are a few kitchen superstars:
Garlic – Allium sativum. Garlic has been used since the Stone Age for food and medicine. In addition to being antimicrobial, it promotes digestion through stimulating bile in the liver. Both garlic and onions may help to lower blood pressure and cholesterol. Chopped garlic cloves can be infused in olive oil for a day or two, then strained and used for cooking. This oil is also excellent for helping to combat ear infections, and as a topical rub for coughs and colds. The oil is applied to babies’ feet as a safe way to help fight respiratory infections. You can smell it on their breath a few minutes later. When cooking with garlic, chop it and let it sit several minutes to stabilize the medicinal properties.
Ginger – Zingiber officinalis. Ginger is a warming remedy that promotes blood flow and can help break a fever. It contains potent anti-inflammatory compounds and is a useful remedy for sore throats, asthma, arthritis, prostate inflammation, and other conditions that are improved by reducing inflammation. Ginger also helps to expel mucus and can ease coughs and deep-seated respiratory congestion including bronchitis. You can make ginger tea with honey and lemon for sore throats and coughs, or add it to soups and other types of dishes.
Horseradish – Armoracia rusticana. Horseradish is in the mustard family. The large white roots are spicy and pungent. It is from Eastern Europe and Asia and has been cultivated since ancient times. It is high in mustard oil and has strong decongestant and antimicrobial properties. Once you grate the roots, put them into vinegar or honey immediately to prevent the loss of medicine. Most wasabi in Japanese restaurants is made from Horseradish
Licorice – Glycyrrhiza glabra. Licorice root is a sweet and soothing medicine for sore throats and dry coughs. It is healing to irritated tissue and helps reduce inflammation and coughing (anti-tussive) while increasing immune function. Licorice also has antiviral properties. Try sucking on the root for sore throats, coughs, or when quitting smoking. Licorice is not advised with high blood pressure or during pregnancy.
Mint – Mentha spp. Mint is full of volatile oils that have antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, and decongestant properties. It is most specific for respiratory infections that feel hot, inflamed, and congested with spasming. Just smelling crushed mint or mint essential oil helps some people to clear their sinuses and lungs. Try adding it to a roll-on, chest rub, or aromatherapy diffuser.
Onions – Allium spp. Cascade Geller was firm a believer in the efficacy of onions for breaking up lung congestion. She sautéed onions in a little olive oil, placed them on a cloth, applied it to the chest when still warm, and let it sit for about half an hour. This remedy has been popular around the world for centuries. The aromatics in raw onions can help calm a cough, and as educator Kim Gaffi points out, they also help promote social distancing. My German friend, Sonja Gee, grew up drinking onion tea (basically a thin onion soup) to break up lung congestion.
Oregano – Like rosemary, sage, and thyme, oregano is intensely aromatic, warming, and antibacterial. It is a favorite remedy of herbalist Robynne Edgar, and she calls her oregano tincture “Winter Warrior.” I have used it effectively many times to ward off a sinus infection or a cough. Oregano oil is also used in capsule form, but be careful not to use it for long periods of time, as it is very strong and can be taxing to your liver.
Sage – Salvia officinalis. Garden sage is used for decreasing excess secretions in the body including respiratory and sinus mucus. It is cooling, drying, anti-inflammatory, and antimicrobial. Gargle sage tea for sore throats or add it to soup, infused vinegar, infused honey, and cough elixir. Do not drink sage tea if you are pregnant or nursing because it may dry up breast milk.
Shiitake Mushroom – Lentinus edodes. Medicinal mushrooms can boost immunity by providing polysaccharides—complex sugars that stimulate an immune response. They are helpful as preventatives during cold and flu seasons but are also useful when actively fighting an infection. Shiitake is highly prized as food. It is especially high in zinc and has antiviral and antibacterial properties. It protects the liver and helps lower cholesterol. You can cook shiitakes fresh or make dried ones into a broth.
Rose – Rosa spp. Rose leaves, stems, and hips are astringent, meaning they tighten inflamed tissue including sore throats. Try adding rose petals and hips to tea. Rosehips are used to prevent colds and flu. They are high in Vitamin C and have a tart berry flavor. Flavonoids in rosehips have antioxidant properties and protect the heart, arteries, and veins. You can dry your own or purchase cut and sifted rosehips. Steep (covered) 1-2 teaspoons per cup for about 20 minutes and drink 2-3 cups a day. Rosehips combine well with mint.
Rosemary – Rosemary is one of the most versatile culinary herbs and is hands down my favorite tasting kitchen herb. I add it to teas, soups, sauces, meats, vegetables, breads, and even desserts like cookies, cakes, and chocolate. It is antimicrobial, antioxidant, aids in circulation, has a warming quality, and promotes memory retention.
Thyme – Thyme might be one of my favorite remedies for coughs. It is full of volatile oils that excite lung tissue, break up congestion, fight bacteria and viruses, and promote expectoration. You can add the herb to many types of dishes including soups. I add it to my cough elixir, fire cider, and cough and cold teas.
Other Powerful Spices – Cinnamon, cardamom, and clove are antimicrobial and have been used traditionally to treat colds and flu. Hot peppers including cayenne stimulate circulation and help break fevers. Roasted peppers are used to promote expectoration in Central America. Fire-roasted salsa was my saving grace several times when I had a cough that turned into bronchitis – nothing worked better for breaking up the mucus and promoting expectoration. Nettle leaf, cilantro, chives, mint, and parsley are very nutritious additions to foods.
Teas for Immune and Respiratory Health
This is a delicious daily tonic to boost your immune system.
1 part each Astragalus, Cinnamon bark
½ part each Licorice, Orange, Elderberry, Ginger
Use 1 teaspoon per cup of water. Simmer for 15-30 minutes. Drink up to 3 cups a day. Star anise is also a nice addition to this tea.
Cold and Flu Tea
This traditional tea helps fight infection, is cooling and anti-inflammatory, and helps to ease discomfort from colds and flu.
Equal parts Elderflower, Peppermint, Yarrow
Elderberry, Rosehips, and Orange peel are also nice additions
Use 1 tablespoon per cup, steep 15 minutes. Drink hot to help break a fever.
Essential Oils for Immune & Respiratory Health
Essential oils can be inhaled directly, added to a diffuser, or used in a steam to thin mucus, increase expectoration, fight microbes, and boost the immune response. They are extremely concentrated, so you will only need a drop or two at a time. Make sure you buy pure essential oil and not fragrance or diluted oil. You can also add a few drops to a bath, but it is best to dilute it into a few teaspoons of oil like sunflower or olive, or swish it into the water so it does not stick together and cause skin irritation. If you are taking a shower, try putting a washcloth with 10 drops of essential oil in the bottom of the shower. As it heats up, you will inhale the scent and create your own wet sauna. Use caution with essential oils as some people can be allergic, and they can aggravate some allergies and asthma.
Citrus Oils – All citrus oils are uplifting and have a reminiscent smell of summer sunshine. They are also disinfectant, hence their heavy use in cleaning products. Citrus oils are astringent and are added to skin toners to reduce puffiness and wrinkles. They are also used to stimulate lymph drainage.
Eucalyptus – There are two species of eucalyptus commonly on the market. E. globules thins mucus, opens respiratory passages, and stimulates expectoration. E. radiata is antiviral and is more appropriate during pregnancy, for elders, and for children. Eucalyptus is a favorite for saunas, room diffusers, and chest rubs.
Evergreen Trees – Many types of tree needles are distilled including balsam fir, grand fir, Douglas fir (not a true fir), Scotch pine, and spruce. They all have similar properties in fighting microbes, thinning mucus, and promoting immune function. Seek local distillers, like Cascadia Botanical Apothecary, that make essential oils from regional trees.
Peppermint – Peppermint oil is clearing, cooling, and anti-inflammatory to irritated or congested tissues. It promotes clarity and focus, and can be uplifting and invigorating to the mind. Peppermint is also used for muscle tension and spasms, and is used in chest rubs and pain-relieving salves.
Rosemary – Rosemary is a popular oil for topical use because it helps to rejuvenate cells, reduce wrinkles, and stimulate hair growth. It has antimicrobial properties and is used in salves and lotions to relieve aches, pains, cramps, headaches, and poor circulation. It has been used historically to energize, uplift, and help improve memory and thinking.
Thieves Oil Blend – Herbalist, Elizabeth Campbell makes a roll-on essential oil blend for winter coughs and colds. I rub it into my temples, over my eyebrows, the sides and back of my neck, and on my hands when I am traveling or showing signs of getting sick. It contains essential oils including cinnamon, clove, eucalyptus, lemon, and rosemary in a carrier oil like sunflower oil, grapeseed oil, or jojoba. You can also buy the blend online. The story is that thieves during the bubonic plague robbed homes and escaped getting sick by using these plants.
Steams are like a mini sauna for your sinuses and lungs. They can deliver antimicrobial herbs to tissue and stimulate expectoration. Western red cedar (Thuja plicata) leaf is a powerful antibacterial, antifungal, and antiviral. It promotes immune function through stimulating white blood cell scavenging, increases circulation in the lungs, and promotes expectoration. Finely chopped about ½ cup fresh cedar leaves or crumble dried leaves. Eucalyptus, rosemary, oregano, peppermint, lavender, or thyme can also be used. Add 1-2 drops of essential oil if desired. Pour boiling water over the herbs until the bowl is half full. Put your face at a comfortable distance and cover your head with a towel. Breathe deep! Try to steam for 3-5 minutes to get the full effect. Add more hot water if necessary. For severe coughs or sinus congestion, steam several times a day.
This practice eliminates dead skin cells, enhances circulation, stimulates the flow of lymph, and aids in detoxification. Bay laurel, eucalyptus, grapefruit, lavender, lemon, marjoram, rosemary, and rose geranium are good choices. Before showering, place 4-6 drops total of essential oil in your palm and rub along the bristles of a natural bristle brush or dry loofa. Begin at the bottoms of the feet and move upward toward the heart with gentle circular strokes. Brush both sides of the hands and move up the arms to the shoulders. Brush the torso area including the back. Let the oils absorb a few minutes then take a shower or bath.
Homemade Hand Sanitizer
This recipe follows CDC’s recommendation of at least 60% alcohol to kill bacteria and viruses. Many essential oils can be used including cinnamon, lavender, lemongrass, orange, peppermint, rosemary, and thyme. Lavender, lemongrass, orange, and peppermint are favorites for kids. You can use rosewater, distilled water, or even boiled tap water in place of aloe.
2/3 cup 99% rubbing alcohol or 190 proof grain alcohol
1/3 cup aloe vera gel (purchased, not from a home plant)
25 drops essential oil
Blend all ingredients and place in a squeeze or flip-top bottle. Shake before using to blend aloe and essential oils! Use ¼ cup of aloe vera and 1 tablespoon of glycerin for more skin hydration.
If you only have 70% rubbing alcohol, blend 2/3 with 2 T. aloe vera and 20 drops essential oil.
Finding Medicinal Plants
You can find medicinal plants and immune-boosting foods at many health stores, food coops, and local herb stores. Now is a great time to support local food producers and medicine makers. Many products can be bought online if you are not going out. And perhaps some useful foods and medicines can be found right outside your door! Remember that spending time in nature will also boost immunity, reduce anxiety, and generally improve your health.
Plant a Garden or Get Involved in a Community Garden!
All of the plants in this handout can be grown in the Pacific Northwest. Many are beautiful and will easily fit in a small yard, and some can be planted in pots. Growing your own plants can be fun, stress-relieving, and empowering. There is nothing better than getting to know plants throughout the seasons, and many Native elders remind us that you can spend a lifetime getting to know just one plant.
During this public health crisis, people could easily put extensive pressure on medicinal plants. Plants are living things that have family, neighbors, and friends. They communicate with and care for each other. When we are in their space and are gathering them for food and medicine, how can we be respectful? How do we make sure we leave enough for the plant community to thrive? We can glean fallen branches of cedar without damaging living trees. We can utilize “weeds” like dandelion, cleavers, chickweed, plantain, and yarrow in yards and communal spaces. We can plant home and community gardens. It is an opportunity to connect with the land, become more self-sustaining, and build a more resilient community. Here are some guidelines to consider when harvesting plants:
Accuracy – If you are just learning, make sure you have the right plant!
Be Safe – Avoid harvesting from roadsides, railroad corridors, agricultural areas, or other areas that might be contaminated or sprayed with herbicides or pesticides. These chemicals can make us sick.
Ask Permission – Acknowledge whose land you are on. Do you have permission to harvest?
Slow Down and Look Around – How many plants are there? Are they healthy? How many can you harvest while still leaving a strong community? Many foragers take a maximum of 10-20% of the plants in a place. Leave enough for other animals that rely on the plants for food like pollinators, birds, and mammals.
Leave No Trace – Clean up so that you don’t make a visible impact. Fill in holes, etc.
What Can You Give Back? Some people leave a gift, a song, or a prayer as thanks for the gift they have received. Others may pick up garbage or remove invasive plant species.
Anticipate Processing Time and How Much You Need –Sometimes the bulk of the work comes when you get home and process the plants. Will you have time? And how much will you be able to actually use.