A few nights ago we walked our muddy road as the final light faded behind Camel's Hump, and listened to the first Woodcocks of the season. Their "peenting" filled the wet fields as we passed, followed by the whistling song of their twirling flight and descent.
As we arrive at the spring equinox- a time of quickening, greening, thawing, and returning to the light half of the year- we find ourselves having to adjust to this new reality of social distancing and staying at home as much as possible.
It still feels like things are changing constantly, and the great many unknowns can feel so overwhelming. These are scary times, and it is easy to fall into despair, especially as community events we were looking forward to get cancelled and we are faced with the reality of spending a lot more time alone. The following are ideas and tips collected from many sources over the past few weeks, to keep your immune system strong and your spirits up as we take care of ourselves, in order to better take care of each other.
*I am certainly no expert when it comes to addressing COVID-19. I have no experience with this virus, and am not recommending that you treat it with herbs. Please follow the medical advice and seek medical attention if you need it. The following is a consolidation of a bunch of general advice for staying healthy and keeping your immune system strong. Breathe deep and enjoy!
Eat lots of Vegetables
Maintaining a healthy microbiome is an important place to start when it comes to having a resilient immune system. The naturally occurring microbes in our body help form protective barriers against pathogens and inform our immune system. A great way to support your microbiome is to increase your intake of vegetables! Our gut microbiome benefits greatly from having a wide variety of vegetables (high-fiber) and fermented foods. fermented foods that benefit the gut microbiome include sauerkraut, kimchi, yogurt, kefir, pickles and miso. Making sure you are getting a wide variety of vegetables is also the best way to get all those important vitamins and minerals that support the immune system.
It is really important to avoid refined sugar and sweeteners as much as possible. Sugar causes inflammation and significantly lowers immune function for up to several hours after consumption... As someone with a real sweet-tooth I know how challenging this can be, but reducing your sugar intake is a simple way to keep your body strong right now!
This is also a wonderful time to incorporate more broths into your diet. Lots and lots of broths! brothy soups, bone broth, miso soups, etc.
Supplement Vitamin D
Vitamin D is important for healthy immune function and it is very hard to get enough vitamin D without supplementation, for us living in the north.
Wild Greens and Micronutrients
As the sodden fields relinquish their blankets of snow and clear the stage for the mating dance of the woodcocks, we have the opportunity to collect some wild spring greens! Two amazing spring tonic herbs come to mind here: Dandelion and Stinging Nettle.
Dandelion leaves can be found growing in fields, lawns and gardens, well before the plant is in flower. The spring leaves are full of vitamins and minerals including potassium, phosphorous, iron, zinc, and other trace minerals, vitamins C, B2, A and E!
The leaves are also a good source of fiber, and the bitter taste serves a great purpose: It helps stimulate the production and excretion of bile, which in turn improves our ability to digest food. Dandelion also supports the liver and helps it function smoothly, which is why it is considered such a good spring cleansing herb.
I like to harvest dandelions with a butter knife, and I cut the leaves off just at the top of the root so that the leaves will grow back. leaves can be washed and chopped and eaten raw in a salad, or steamed and eaten as a side dish or added to a stir fry or omelet.
Stinging nettles are another great source of fiber and nutrients. Nettles contain chlorophyll, Vitamins A, B complex, C, D, E, and K, folic acid and many minerals and bioflavonoids! Nettles are an amazing tonic herb that nourish the whole body including the adrenals, and act as a wonderful anti-inflammatory. The nettles in my patch here at home are just appearing! Nettles can be harvested fresh (I wear gloves!!), and then steamed well to remove their sting, or added to soups and stews. If you do not have a good source of fresh nettles nearby, you can also purchase dried nettle at some health food stores or coops, a local apothecary or online from Mountain Rose. I like to add dried nettle into my soups, and sprinkle it into my eggs or even oatmeal as I'm cooking it, to add some extra plant nutrients.
*If you are wild harvesting please make sure to follow good protocol: don't harvest near roads or polluted areas, check in with the plants and offer thanks, and don't take more than 10-20% of what's in that area.
Staying well hydrated is another way to support your body's natural defenses and maintain a healthy microbiome and mucus membrane.
Movement is important in maintaining your overall health, and it really has been shown to have an impact on your immune system! Exercise helps to mobilize your white blood cells by getting your blood flowing, and helps those blood cells do their job of finding and fighting infection. This is true for everyone, and anything is better than nothing. Getting outside and moving your blood is ideal- maybe you start with the goal of a short walk and slowly increase that to an hour long walk every day. If walking is not your thing, other movement is great too! Maybe you put on your favorite music and dance for 20 minutes.
It is so easy to let anxiety and fear get the better of us, especially when we want to stay informed and are sitting alone, addicted to Facebook. But it is important to remember that fear doesn't help anything in this situation. (Fear is very helpful when there is an immediate threat like our house being on fire and we have to make split second decisions and physically respond). But ongoing fear and anxiety leads to elevated cortisol levels, and cortisol and other stress related hormones compromise the immune system. This means that our fear actually makes us more susceptible! So it's really important to find ways to channel that fear and anxiety into action, and other emotional responses that support, rather than hinder our immune function.
Exercise: I already talked about the importance of movement for keeping the immune system strong, and another benefit to exercise is that it helps reduce cortisol levels and increases hormones that promote relaxation and even sleep.
Call on the Nervines
Plants are amazing allies when it comes to reducing our experience of fear, stress, and anxiety. Some of my favorite herbs for reducing stress and supporting the nervous system include:
Making and drinking herbal tea every day provides a wonderful opportunity to incorporate a simple ritual of slowing down, bringing your attention to the present moment and nourishing yourself.
Getting enough sleep is so important for our overall health and resilience. It allows our body time to heal and restore, and helps keep our immune system strong. I know that a lot of people are experiencing increased anxiety that is making it difficult to get a good nights sleep. It can help to "unplug" a couple of hours before you are actually going to sleep and take an initial dose of sleepy time herbs. If you are feeling lonely and anxious, instead of turning to news or social media consider calling someone on the phone, writing a letter or listening to music and drinking tea. Herbs are also great allies for helping us sleep! Some of my favorites include:
Don't forget to breathe! Given the general fear of contagion, and the fact that COVID-19 impacts the lungs, it's not surprising that we are all walking around literally holding our breath!! But breathing deeply helps reset our nervous system, lowers our blood pressure and helps return our heart rate to normal. Deep breathing is also a way to get your blood and lymph moving, even while sitting still. Whenever you catch yourself feeling tight and restricted, pause and take three deep breaths. Take time before bed or in the shower, and count ten or twenty deep nourishing breaths.
It has been shown that not only are our heart and brain in constant communication, but the heart actually sends more signals to the brain than the other way around. During times of anxiety and stress the neural signals traveling from our heart to our brain actually inhibits our higher cognitive function and our bodies resilience. A powerful way to counteract the internal disharmony caused by feelings such as fear and anger, is to focus on feelings of love and gratitude. This has been scientifically proven! Taking time to focus on and feel gratitude for something in your life increases your sense of well being, and your immune function.
Ways to focus on gratitude include: writing in a journal for ten minutes every morning about something you are grateful for, making lists of things you are grateful for, taking intentional time before every meal to visualize and really feel into something you have gratitude for, sitting in nature and observing with gratitude, etc. In the moments when fear or anger overwhelm, try taking a breath and intentionally focusing on something that you love. Hold that image and breathe more love into it until you feel your heart rate come back to normal.
Praying and mindfulness can also be ways of feeling gratitude. When you pray try to ground your prayers in a deep place of love and gratitude, (instead of fear or scarcity). Take ten minutes before bed to hold images of places or people you love in your minds eye and see and feel them surrounded by love and light.
Letting Grief Move
Even with the intention to focus on gratitude, it is still important to feel grief deeply. Many of us are experiencing increased grief as we are unable to physically touch friends and loved ones, as we witness (and anticipate) the impacts of this virus on the most vulnerable communities, and see even more plainly the viciousness of capitalism and scarcity narratives. Feel the grief and focus on helping it to move. Cry, dance, scream, spend time in nature, exercise, drink water, take a bath, pet your animals, call a friend, call on your ancestors... feel it all, and keep it moving. In the Chinese Medicine five-phase energetic theory grief is associated with the lungs, and in my personal experience stuck grief can exacerbate common sickness into real respiratory infection and distress.
Connecting with and helping others is an intrinsic human need. We all benefit from feeling connected, loved, and needed. As we move into the great awakening and unfolding of spring take time to figure out how you are going to participate in the need for mutual aid, care and solidarity. What extra resources do you have to share? Who in your community is most vulnerable and what specific needs might they have? How can we all continue to highlight and support those who will be most vulnerable to this pandemic- including refugees and people who are homeless or in prison?
Make phone calls and talk to loved ones. Write letters. Keep reaching out.
If you have elderly or otherwise high risk friends and neighbors, maybe you visit their yard, do an interpretive dance and wave to them through the window. Get creative!
Finally- as so many are recommending in this time of unprecedented change, take the time to connect deeply with family, yourself, and the wild. Pick up old hobbies and crafts, enjoy the slowing down, get off the computer (thanks for reading this far!) and do things that feed you in deep ways. I am finding so much solace in envisioning how this great slowing down is offering some respite to the earth.
Herbs for Immune Support
Turkey Tail (Trametes versicolor)
Immunomodulating mushrooms are some of my favorite go-to allies for ongoing and preventative immune support. Turkey tail mushrooms are used to improve immune function, increase vitality, and reduce dampness and phlegm in respiratory infections. They have been shown to have antiviral qualities. (Generally considered very safe).
Reishi (Ganoderma tsugae)
Reishi is another wonderful immunomodulating mushroom that supports the body through times of stress. This is another great tonic for keeping healthy right now.
Astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus)
Astragalus is a polysaccharide-rich root that improves immune activity partially by increasing white blood cell activity and encouraging red blood cell production. This is another herb that can be taken as a tonic to boost the immune system, but is not indicated during acute illness. This is a really great tonic herb to be taking right now. (Generally considered very safe, may have some contraindications in some autoimmune or other immune compromised conditions).
Garlic (Allium sativum)
Garlic is a wonderful antimicrobial/antiviral herb that is therapeutic in respiratory infections. Incorporate raw garlic into your daily diet. In culinary doses garlic is considered very safe. (may cause some GI distress and increase heartburn in excess).
Elderberry (Sambucus nigra)
Elderberry syrups have gained great popularity as a go-to winter remedy, and with good reason! Elderberries are anti-inflammatory, directly anti-viral and immune stimulating, providing a nutritive source of Vit C. Elderberry is considered safe and can be taken as a preventative tonic. There has been some concern about elderberries causing a cytokine storm in relation to COVID-19. This is based on speculation, and herbalists who have been my teachers, and who I trust, are still recommending elderberry syrup to boost the immune system when you are healthy. If you are sick discontinue taking elderberry. (there may be some contraindications for individuals with certain autoimmune conditions or other immune compromised conditions, along with contraindication during high fever).
Echinacea (Echinacea spp)
Echinacea is an immunomodulator, meaning it supports the immune system to function at an appropriate level. This is a great herb to take as a preventative during an outbreak of sickness to boost the immune system, and is also helpful when you feel the first inklings of sickness coming on. (Echinacea is generally considered safe including during pregnancy and nursing. May be contraindicated in some autoimmune and other immunocompromised conditions).
Fire Cider: This is an apple-cider vinegar based tonic that includes some general combination of pungent herbs including garlic, ginger, horseradish, onion, cayenne, etc. This can be made at home, and supports the immune system, keeps things moving, and helps thin mucus.
Herbs I personally like during sickness:
Ginger (Zingiber officinale)
Ginger is a very warming antiinflammatory that promotes increased circulation. I like to cut up fresh or frozen ginger and make a strong tea that I try to drink a lot when I first start feeling chills and a scratchy throat, and continue on with it throughout my sickness. (generally considered very safe).
Thyme (Thymus vulgaris)
Thyme is another very warming herb that is strongly antimicrobial. I love thyme for respiratory infections, and since I most often tend to get sick with cold and chills, sore throat and respiratory infection I will add thyme to my ginger tea. I also love doing steams with a strong thyme tea or drop of essential oil. (Caution with thyme essential oil, do not use internally, the plant itself is very safe, use caution in pregnancy).
Elecampane (Inula helenium)
Elecampane is a root that is a broad spectrum antimicrobial and expectorant. I personally love elecampane for respiratory infections when I can't seem to clear the infection and my cough is not very productive. Elecampane helps move things up and out. (Generally considered quite safe, use caution in pregnancy).
White pine (Pinus strobus)
This is an accessible remedy that I love. Even if you are unable to get to a store, or access many of these herbs, you can probably find a white pine tree, or ask a friend to gather some needles and twigs for you. White pine is an antiinflammatory expectorant and antispasmodic. It is antimicrobial and contains Vitamin C! I love white pine for colds, flus and respiratory infections. It is also a grounding protective medicine. It helps make a cough productive while soothing the mucus membrane. You can simply gather a handful of needles (while practicing good wild gathering protocols) and make a strong tea, or a cough syrup. (generally quite safe for short term use as in a cold or flu. I would not recommend white pine long term as it could cause kidney irritation).
When there is fever:
Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)
Yarrow is an aromatic, diaphoretic bitter which makes it helpful in fever management.
(yarrow is contraindicated in pregnancy and should not be taken long term).
Elderflower (Sambucus nigra)
Elderflowers are cooling and promote diaphoresis which is helpful in managing a fever appropriately. The flowers are also antiviral and help to thin mucus.
(flowers are generally considered quite safe- note I suggest elderflower with fever, and not elderberry).
Peppermint (Mentha piperita)
peppermint is a lovely cooling diaphoretic. It can help reduce sinus congestion, the frequency of coughs, and fevers. (contraindicated with GERD or reflux, generally considered safe as a tea).
These three herbs can be combined as a tea and drunk at room temperature for fever management.
*do not attempt to treat an acute illness or any fever without seeking medical advice. None of this information is meant to substitute medical treatment or advice.
Dear friends and loved ones, please reach out if you have any questions or need herbal remedies or more specific information than is provided here. Please take all the recommended precautions: washing your hands, social distancing, staying home, etc. and seek medical help when necessary.
We are all in this together, and our resilience depends not on what we can hoard away, but instead on our ability to support one another and show up in every way possible. Take time outside and listen to the sounds of the natural world waking up. Woodcocks are dancing, sap is flowing, the geese will be returning soon, the ground is thawing and water is moving. May this spring equinox bring the gentle gifts of balance, flexibility and hope, as we tenderly hold each other in our hearts, and watch the green world unfold, as it always has, with grace and splendid wildness.
Hannah Morgan, March 19th 2020