What You Should (& Shouldn’t) Do When You Start to Get a Cold

Everyone who knows anything about herbs knows that you take Echinacea at the first onset of a cough, cold or flu.

But is that really true? More importantly, is that really holistic or in accordance with the vitalist understanding of herbal medicine. Is it possible that taking a squirt of Echinacea every 30 minutes at the onset of a cold does more damage than good?

A central teaching to all vitalist schools of medicine is that the body contains within it an innate intelligence, and that symptoms are a language- a way the body communicates a message to us to say that something is off. I’ve heard it said that there is no cure for the common cold because the common cold is the cure… I’ve thought about this statement a lot and I believe there is some profound wisdom to it.

When do people usually get a cold? I would argue that they probably haven’t gotten as much sleep as they should, they maybe haven’t been eating that great, their stress levels are higher than usual, and in general they have been pushing themselves a little bit too hard. All of these things ultimately stack up in a way that depletes the core vitality of the system. One way this core vitality expresses itself on a physiological level is through the immune system.

I believe the common cold is an intelligent response of the body telling us that it’s time to slow down, to rest, to eat better, and to take some time to replenish, rebuild and restore our vitality. Now if we take say some Day-Quill and suppress that communication from the body what kind of effect might that have on the system and is that really different from loading up on Echinacea?

Of course, Echinacea is waaaaay better than Day-Quill- don’t get me wrong here!! BUT, the point I want to make here is that whether you take some over the counter medication or Echinacea to make your symptoms go away, you are enabling yourself to keep doing what you’ve been doing that got you sick in the first place!! This is not vitalism!!

Oftentimes folks will load up on the Echinacea and say “whew… glad I nipped that cold.” But if they took the loading dose and kept eating poorly, not getting enough sleep, were still stressed out and pushing themselves, are they really healthier for it? Sure they maybe didn’t get that sick, but the core underlying pattern hasn’t changed. The communication of the body was in a way suppressed and that person may have gotten more sick on a deeper, more vital level.


Chronic suppression of acute symptoms leads to chronic disease.

It’s no wonder we have so many chronic diseases in our modern western culture- our entire system of medicine is based on suppression of acute symptoms!!

So then what does one do (and not do) at the acute onset of a cold?

Here’s a few simple things that I can recommend that are foundational- before you even think of taking herbs! (And yes it’s probably everything your mother used to do for you when you were a kid)

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5 Things to Do

  1. REST: If there’s one thing the body is trying to say, it’s “slow down!!” This doesn’t mean you have to sleep all day, but engage in restful activities.
  2. HYDRATE: Let’s face it, most people are dehydrated. Drinking adequate amounts of not just water, but teas and broths are essential to keeping your physiology clear of metabolic waste products.
  3. NOURISH: There’s an old saying “fast a fever and feed a cold.” It’s best to eat simple, easy to digest foods during a cold. This is why soups are common recommended for they are water rich, full of vegetables and easy to digest meats (white meats are best). Plus soup is a great delivery for medicinal herbs already in your kitchen, like onions, garlic, thyme, oregano, and rosemary.
  4. BREATHE: One of my favorite simple things to do is to steam tents. Simply boil some water (let it cool a little so you don’t burn your face!), and place aromatic herbs or essential oils in the water, drape a towel over your head and the pot and breathe deeply. I also suggest sniffing the fumes of your herbal teas! Breathing these volatile plant constituents gets a direct topical antiseptic action right at the site of infection.
  5. BATHE: Hot baths I believe are one of the best simple therapies for a wide variety of health problems, but are especially great for the common cold. I usually like to make it as hot as I can stand, with some nice bath salts and pouring a strong tea of aromatic herbs in the water or a few drops of some essential oils such as Silver Fir, Pine, Eucalyptus, or Cedar (of course there’s many more). Drinking hot tea of Lemon Balm, Elder flower, or Peppermint is good to get you sweating a bit and if you can stand it doing a few bursts of cold shower and getting back in the hot bath is great to stimulate circulation and immunity.

5 Things NOT to DO

  1. EXERCISE: Your body is trying to tell you to slow down, so by all means- slow down! Rigorous exercise triggers the stress response of the body which lowers your immune function. I like to recommend some super gentle stretching or yoga to give your body some movement- but running, hiking, or anything intense should be avoided.
  2. SUGAR/DAIRY: Sugar has been shown when consumed in high amounts to have a directly suppressive action on the immune system and can also promote inflammatory processes, so it’s suggested to avoid any and all processed and refined sugars. Dairy also tends to lead to excessive mucous production- especially in the sinuses- so it’s best to cut back on the milk, cream and cheese too!
  3. GET COLD: They do call it a cold for a reason, and the invasion of cold temperatures into the body can have a detrimental effect. It’s best to stay warm, keep indoors for the most part and stay as relaxed as possible. If you do need to go outside, it’s important to make sure the back of the neck is covered with a scarf or cowl, as that is the entry point for wind and cold.
  4. WORK: Of course we all have lives to live, bills to pay, and families to support, but it is best to take a few days off from work to stay home and rest. This is not only for your own sake, but also for those you work with!
  5. TAKE OTC DRUGS: Of course if you are here reading this, the likelihood that you take over the counter drugs is probably low- but it’s important to mention here. While things like Day-Quill, Nye-Quill and Robitussin do work magically in the way your symptoms just disappear- they are unfortunately completely suppressive and will turn a 3-4 day cold into a 7 day cold. I would include here avoiding over-dosing on immune stimulant herbs like Echinacea for they can over stimulate the system and can be potentially draining the vital force.

Here are my 5 top simple home remedies for the treatment of a cold:

  1. GARLIC: Everyone usually has some in their kitchen. This is probably one of the most incredible herbs ever! It has a very wide range of medicinal properties: is a broad spectrum antiseptic, expectorant, circulatory stimulant, diaphoretic, and tastes really great in your food! I always recommend putting ample amounts in soups and broths.
  2. GINGER: Also pretty common in the kitchen. Ginger is excellent not only in its flavor, but in its broad range antiseptic properties, digestive stimulant (carminative), circulatory stimulant, and stimulant diaphoretic. I really love using Ginger both in my decoctions but also in soups and broths as well.
  3. ELDERBERRY: This is probably the main herb I use during a cold. I find it more effective and less stimulating than Echinacea. It has a nice broad spectrum antiviral and antiseptic property, but also helps to sedate excess heat and irritation in the tissues and mucous membranes. While the berries are said to be immunostimulant, I also consider them to be trophorestorative and tonic to the immune system, with a certain replenishing and restoring action. The flower of Elder is also a wonderful relaxant diaphoretic to for the treatment of fever.
  4. HONEY: While not technically an herb, good quality, organic, raw, unfiltered honey is actually an incredible medicine- don’t treat it just like a sweetener!! It is a wonderful demulcent for dried out, irritated, and inflamed mucous membranes and also has antiseptic properties. Not to mention, it makes your other teas taste much better!
  5. LEMON BALM: This is one that is commonly used for children but I’ve been using it more and more for adults as well. The infusion of Lemon Balm has a wonderful flavor to it, but more so has some antiviral properties (this is why it’s used topically for herpes outbreaks), a relaxant diaphoretic action, as well as a nice gentle nervine sedative property. Let’s face it, being sick sucks and it can be a little bit frustrating at times. So having a gentle nervine effect of something like Lemon Balm is really nice.

Here’s some formulas that I like:

Simple Cold Decoction:

3 parts Elderberries

2 parts Lemon Balm

2 parts Ginger (fresh is ideal, but dried works too- maybe reduce to 1 part for dried as it’s much warmer)

Honey to taste

Bone Broth

8-12 oz of hot bone broth

1 clove Garlic crushed

1/2 tsp salt

1-2 slices of Ginger root

1/2 tsp Ghee

pinch of Black Pepper

If things really start to get serious, that’s when I’ll start to pull out some of the heavier hitters, such as: Osha (Ligusticum porteri), Lomatium (Lomatium dissectum). Usnea (Usnea spp.), Red Root (Ceanothus spp.), Poke (Phytolacca decandra), Echinacea (Echinacea purpurea or angustifolia), or other lymphatic, alterative, expectorant, and immune  type remedies.

What herbs do you like to use for a cold? But more importantly, what other things do you always do besides taking herbs? Post below, I’d love to hear from you!!

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Alchemical Herb Profile: Elderberry (Sambucus cerulea)

While we were out harvesting Elderberries on our land this summer, we wanted to share some info about the medicinal virtues of this invaluable herb with you! Now that the winter is rolling in, this is the perfect time to be pulling out the Elderberry for immune support, so check out this short video to learn how to use this herb when you need it the most! You’ll also probably learn a few new things about Elderberry that you didn’t know before…

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