Flu Shot Herbal Alternatives
Chinese Herbs & Supplements, Self-Care

Beyond the flu shot: Herbal medicine remedies to help prevent cold and flu

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Flu shots: A sure thing?

It can feel rather devastating to learn the flu shot was only 42% effective in preventing any A or B viral infection in people of all ages, last 2016-2017 season. Children aged 6 mo to 8 yrs did best with the shot, with 61% efficacy. For folks over 65, the flu shot came in at only 25% effective. It’s understandable that people question whether or not to get the shot. I don’t plan on telling you here what to do; so don’t read on for the answer to that question! I do, however, hope to introduce you to more options available to you as you move forward into winter, and the impending cold and flu season.

My Top 3 Herbal Remedies for Preventing Colds and Flu


In a 2011 study, Elderberry was shown to inhibit the replication of influenza A and B viruses. It also demonstrated antimicrobial effects against Strep. Even after one’s caught a bug, Elderberry still works to shorten the cold’s duration and symptoms. The great news, researchers found no unwanted side effects after 12 weeks of a 500mg/d daily dose. Yay!! I admit this is one of my go-tos for a daily boost. In short:

  • Use as a preventative at least 10 days before the season or travel (and up to 5 days after traveling)
  • Use throughout cold/flu to limit duration/symptoms
  • Consider making your own syrup to save some money

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For us Chinese herbalists, it’s not common to prescribe a single herb; it’s more common that we prescribe a formula. One of our most famous formulas for preventing cold and flu (which contains Astragalus) is Yu Ping Feng San, aka Jade Screen Formula. This formula has been shown to prevent viral infections (including even SARS) and enhance cellular immunity. These are also easy to transport and swallow (~5mm in size). In short:

  • Use as a preventative at least 10 days before the season or travel (and up to 5 days after traveling)
  • If cold/flu symptoms present, switch to a different formula
  • Caution with headaches; best to have an assessment before using if you are prone to these

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Medicinal Mushrooms

A number of medicinal mushrooms have been shown to demonstrate anti-viral effects. So, similarly, you’ll find these best serve when taken in a formula, such as Stamets’ MyCommunity or Stamets 7. In an ideal world, combine it with Elderberry for a daily tonic. In short:

  • Use as a daily preventative
  • Use throughout cold/flu to shorten duration
  • Caution with low blood sugar/pressure; avoid if you have a mushroom allergy 🙂
Chinese Herbs & Supplements

The Case for Probiotics: Just Who Do You Think You Are?

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How “human” is human?

In all our experience, there is what we see and what we don’t see; what we know, and what we don’t know. And how often do we let what we know be directly informed by what we see? Even in language what is actually said is worth less in communication than looks and tone. Most everyone has probably had opportunity to feel sarcasm and judgment in simple language. (I absolutely love a bit by Eddie Izzard talking about just this – the 70% is how you look, 20% how you sound and 10% what you say.)

So, with the body – there is what we see, which we call a human; but if you looked at what comprised that “human,” you would see we harbor 100 trillion microbes and that, in fact, 9 out of 10 “human” cells don’t even contain the human genome. In the gut alone there are 5600 known unique strains of bacteria just hanging out and loving life. Well, until you flush them down the drain, of course….

The benefit of probiotics

Probiotics are a great way to support the beneficial bacteria in your gut. You can find them in fermented foods like sauerkraut or kimchi. Alternatively, one can purchase them as a supplement in powdered or pill form. These supplements can range in quantity, some providing 1 billion to over 100 billion cells per serving. A number of companies now source dairy-free options as well.

Probiotics for the gut after antibiotics

Antibiotics can do a serious number on our good bacteria – washing it out with the bad. We often see symptoms of diarrhea and electrolyte imbalance here. I get a lot of questions about how to replenish what gets lost and whether yogurt is a good idea. I am immediately reminded of when I had strep as a kid. It was so painful, and I felt like I could hardly eat anything. At the time, I don’t think anyone in my family had even heard of probiotics, but we definitely knew about yogurt. And I’ll say – sure, it felt great to have something easy to swallow and cool to the throat – but boy, not 2 minutes later did the awful feeling come over me that I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to breathe… oh, mucus! Truth is, yogurt is pretty low in probiotics, and while it may not actual increase mucus in the body, it may increase the viscosity of mucus. And anyone who’s felt the heavy hand of mucus on their breathing can tell you – increasing its thickness is not ideal! Probiotics? Great idea!

Probiotics for mood

In 2011 they did a study on Lactobacillus rhamnosus in mice and found that the strain was able to actually reduce stress-induced corticosterone and subsequently modulate behaviours associated with anxiety and depression. In fact, 95% of the body’s serotonin is in the gut. Want to feel groovy? Think bowels!

For more on mental health and probiotics, consider reading my post, “Psychobiotics: How Gut Bacteria Mess with Your Mind.”

Probiotics for immune support

In 2009 they showed kids who supplemented with probiotics for 6 months had fewer sick days and missed less days due to illness than their peers. And kids have the upper hand in disease prevention – if you want to prevent eczema or allergy, you know it… consider probiotics!

A closing thought

If we are in part what we “aren’t,” consider where our lives might overlap with the lives of others. What do we share in common? How can we treat the lives of others–humans, animals, or other–with the same “humanity” each deserves? May we endeavor to be kind, and always consider that in any situation, there may be more there than meets the eye!