12 Herbal Remedies to Treat Your Cold or Flu the RIGHT Way (recipes included)

Shi Yao Lian, Practitioner Buddha’s Alchemy

February 6, 2018

The internet is saturated with DIY home remedies for colds and flu. Some of the information is helpful, and some is just so varied and contradictory that it is difficult to understand. It can be confusing to wade through the myriad of herbs and formulas, trying to choose (in many cases guess) what might work the best for you and your loved ones.

In this article, I will explain and give examples of specific patterns of imbalance, and why the energetics of herbs matter when choosing a treatment protocol. Properly assessing specific patterns, knowing the energetics of the patterns, and applying the right herbs and therapies will ensure results beyond those of the typical “hit and miss” approaches to treatment.

In TCM, colds and flus are generally classified as “invading wind”, or an external pathogen that has invaded and surpassed the exterior immunological defences (like wei qi) of the host. This invading wind can further be divided into “wind-heat” and “wind-cold”. If you guessed that each has distinguishing signs and symptoms, you are right.

External Wind-Heat (commonly seen with Influenza):

  • fever, but few if any chills
  • dislikes heat and wind, and always feels hot
  • sweating (sometimes profuse)
  • muscle and body aches and pains
  • thirsty (preference for cool drinks)
  • possible cough
  • discharges and mucous are yellow or purulent, and sometimes thick
  • very sore throat which may be swollen
  • red tonsils, may be pustules
  • headache
  • red rashes or eruptions
  • possibly dark coloured urine
  • possibly white or yellow coating on the tongue
  • The hallmarks of wind-heat are high fever without chills, sweating, and thirst

flu herbs yarrow


External Wind-Cold (commonly seen with colds):

  • No or mild fever with strong chills and shivering
  • dislikes cold and wind
  • no or little thirst
  • no or little sweating
  • mild sore throat, possibly itchy
  • discharges and mucous are clear or white
  • body aches
  • occipital headaches (at back of head), and sometimes a stiff neck
  • possible cough
  • lighter, paler urine
  • normal to thin white coat on tongue
  • The hallmarks of wind-cold are no fever with more severe chills, and no thirst or sweating

Depending on which pattern of invading wind is present, particular herbs or formulas with opposite properties help to dispel the offending energies and bring the body back into balance or homeostasis. Consideration must also be given to the special qualities of certain herbs that are not necessarily related to their energetic properties but are essential to their healing actions. An example of this would be Elderberries, which have potent anti-viral compounds.

Depending on which pattern of invading wind is present, particular herbs or formulas with opposite properties help to dispel the offending energies and bring the body back into balance or homeostasis. Consideration must also be given to the special qualities of certain herbs that are not necessarily related to their energetic properties but are essential to their healing actions. An example of this would be elderberries, which have potent anti-viral compounds.

Below are some examples of herbs and formulas from TCM, Ayurveda, and Western herbalism used for each external wind pattern.

Herbs for External Wind-Heat:

Many of the herbs used for treating typical flus fall under the TCM categories of “clear heat and resolve toxins” and “cooling diaphoretics”.

1. Lonicera and Forsythia Combination (Yin Chiao Chieh Tu Pien):

This classic Chinese formula clears heat and wind, and is diaphoretic (induces sweat). Lonicera japonica (honeysuckle) is cool, sweet, and regarded as an antibiotic herb, not unlike the Western herb Echinacea (which has unpredictable results in flu treatment). Forsythia suspensia is cold and bitter, antibacterial, drains dampness and fluid (diuretic), and alleviates phlegm and mucus. The honeysuckle flowers and forsythia seeds are used. Both of these herbs can be and are grown as Western garden ornamentals. There are a number of assistive herbs added to this patent formula.

2. Isatis Tinctoria/Woad (Ban Lan Gen):

A quintessential herb for viral infections and inflammations in TCM. It is very cold and bitter. The roots and leaves are used. I grew woad without difficulty in my herbal garden last year (zone 9a). Be careful with cultivation, as this plant spreads easily and is quite weedy. The patent formulas containing woad are easily found in North America.

3. Usnea Barbata or Longissima (Old Man’s Beard):

Found hanging from the branches of trees, this fungus/algae symbiosis resembles a stringy beard. It is cold and sweet and has a special affinity for the lungs. In addition to being antiviral, it is also effective against gram-positive bacteria, making it useful in conditions like strep throat and other upper respiratory infections. Usnea can be collected most easily after a wind storm has downed tree branches. Usnea is not very water soluble and it is best taken as a tincture for flu treatment.

4. Achillea Millefoliium (Yarrow):

Yarrow is a cooling diaphoretic, an immune stimulant and expectorant. It is bitter and spicy. The leaves and flowers of the plant are used. Yarrow has so many uses that I call it a first aid kit in a plant. For flus, it induces sweating to “release the exterior” (pathogens). Yarrow grows abundantly in the wild in North America and tolerates a variety of environmental conditions. It can easily be cultivated as a herb and garden ornamental. It is commonly associated with the mystic arts in both Western and Eastern cultures. The Chinese use it for I Ching divination.

5. Sambucus Nigra (Black Elder):

Black Elder is native to Europe and cultivated in North America and other countries. Both the berries and flowers are used in treatment of colds and Influenza. The elderflower is cool, bitter and acrid. Elderflowers can be combined with other cooling diaphoretics like peppermint and yarrow for an effective treatment for wind-heat. Elderflowers can cause nausea and vomiting in high doses.

Elderberries are cool and sweet, induce sweating, are diuretic, and have special antiviral qualities. They are both immunostimulating and immunoprotective. Although elderberries are cooling and suitable for wind-heat patterns, I have seen them used successfully in wind-cold conditions. Both the berries and flowers alleviate coughing and phlegm.

Black Elder is the most commonly used medicinal species of the elders. Other varieties like Red Elder are known to be more toxic, or at least irritating to the GI tract. Harvesting the flowers of Red Elder is common practice in my area of the Pacific Northwest where they grow in the wild abundantly and are used safely in herbal medicines, but the berries are generally avoided.

A favorite way to prepare elderberries is Elderberry Syrup, as seen in this video.

Unripe and uncooked elderberries of any species can be toxic and potentially poisonous, sometimes causing GI irritability. Generally, the bark is too potent for casual use.

Diaphoretic Tea for Wind-Heat:

Use equal parts of yarrow, elderflowers, and peppermint. Optionally, add 1/4 part licorice root, and a few slices of fresh ginger. Steep in boiling water for 20 mins at a ratio of 1:10 plant to water (grams to ml) for fresh herbs, and 1:20 for dried herbs. Strain and drink sweetened with honey if desired.

6. Eupatorium Perfoliatum (Boneset):

Boneset is a favorite traditional Western herb with great detoxifying and antipyretic (fever reducing) properties. It is cold, bitter and acrid. Boneset is especially good at treating wind-heat with a barking cough, and/or deep aching pains.

Boneset was so appropriately named for its effectiveness in treating Dengue fever (also called “break-bone fever”), which presents with high temperatures and excruciating bone and body aches.

Boneset is typically drunk as tea, often with other herbs that are heat clearing or diaphoretic, although Stephen Buhner says “the herb is bitter and about as much fun to drink as a tea made from earwax”. Too large a dose of boneset will cause nausea.

flu herbs boneset


Herbs for External Wind-Cold:

1. Trikatu:

Trikatu is a classic, widely used cold dispelling Ayurvedic formula. Trikatu will raise or increase pitta (hot fire element) to balance excess kapha (cold water and earth elements). It can be taken alone as a relatively simple mixture, or as part of more complex formulas. Trikatu translates as “3 pungents”. It is especially useful if there is indigestion or poor circulation present.

Trikatu can be purchased as a pre-made formula from Ayurvedic herb suppliers, or easily prepared from bulk herbs.

Trikatu Preparation:

Combine equal parts of powdered black pepper (Piper nigrum), long pepper (Piper longum) and dried ginger (Zingiber officinale). The combination may be taken as capsules, or mixed with honey to form a paste to take a few tsp daily.

2. Cinnamon Combination (Gui Zhi Tang): 

Cinnamon Combination is a patent Chinese formula used for wind-cold conditions in weaker constitutions with Qi deficiency, as it is Qi preserving.

Cinnamon is sweet, warm and pungent. It is combined with other herbs in this formula that are warming and tonifying.

3. Ocimum Tenuiflorum (Holy Basil/Tulsi):

A warm and pungent Indian herb that is diaphoretic, expectorant, antipyretic, nervine, adaptogen, antimicrobial, and immunostimulant. Holy basil eliminates phlegm and dampness and is good for lung and nasal congestion. We can see it is a multi-functional herb covering many symptoms that might be present in wind-cold. Although mild, it is considered a virtual panacea in Ayurveda, and dispelling wind-cold is only one of many uses.

It is commonly drunk as a tea. Combine holy basil and trikatu in an infusion to enhance pungency and cold dispelling properties.

Holy basil grows prolifically in my garden as an annual (zone 9a).

Hindus use holy basil for ceremonial purposes.

4. Zingiber Officinale (Ginger Root):

Ginger root is warm and pungent. The dry root is hot. Taken at the first sign of wind-cold, it is effective as a tea/decoction on its own, sweetened with a bit of honey. Infuse or decoct the fresh root for 5-10mins, keeping the lid on the pot and being careful not to let the volatile oils escape.

5. Sitopaladi Churna:

Another classic Ayurvedic formula that raises pitta and subdues kapha. The traditional mixture includes rock sugar, bamboo powder, long pepper, cardamom, and cinnamon. The powder can be taken alone, or combined with ghee or honey, both commonly used medicinal carriers in Ayurveda.

Honey is kapha and phlegm reducing due to its astringency. Aged ghee (clarified butter) is suitable for all dosha types and is anti-inflammatory.

6. Fir Species (Pseudotsuga Menziesii/Douglas Fir/False Hemlock, Abies Grandis/Grand Fir, Abies Nobilis/Noble Fir):

The conifers of the Pacific Northwest hold a special place in healing traditions of the area, and they are very dear to my heart. This list wouldn’t be complete without these wonderful life-giving trees.

Warming and drying in nature, the needles, pitch, and bark can be used for medicine. Fir is antimicrobial, astringent (drying), antiseptic, diaphoretic and expectorant. Fir needles have a high concentration of vitamin C (as does Pine, which can also be used in a similar way). A delicious fir needle decoction can be easily prepared and helps to induce a detoxifying sweat to eliminate pathogens and make coughs more productive. Blend the needles with other herbs like ginger for added effect and flavor. Fir tips also make one of my favorite medicinal honeys, which can be added to any tea for extra effect, or taken on a spoon.

New fir tips appear in Spring and are sweeter, but the older mid-Winter fir tips have the most vitamin C.

flu herbs usnea


Effective treatment of Influenza and colds ultimately depends on the energetic patterns present in the individual. Herbs, although generally milder and far less toxic than prescription medicines, do come with their own unique cautions and contraindications. Always check with a herbalist or other qualified practitioner if uncertain about the suitability of herbs to your situation.


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  3. Tierra, M. & Tierra, L. (2018). East West Herb Course Book: Section 3. California.
  4. Tierra, M. & Tierra, L. (2018). East West Herb Course Book: Section 2. California.
  5. Tierra, M. (1998). The Way of Herbs. New York: Pocket Books.
  6. Buhner, S. (2013). Herbal Antivirals: Natural Remedies for Emerging & Resistant Viral Infections. MA: Storey Publishing.
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  8. Gray, B. (2011). The Boreal Herbal: Wild Food and Medicine Plants of the North. Yukon: Aurora Borealis Press.

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