(A Look Back at) Herbal Strategies for Winter Health

A lot of natural living bloggers featured "getting ready for cold and flu season" type posts last fall.

That is what savvy bloggers do. They plan ahead and know what people will want to read in a given month and they create content to fill that need.

Me, on the other hand, I'm was too busy enjoying fall in October to give much thought to writing about herbs for winter health. But what I did do was read those posts, as well as ordered some herbs to prepare our family to naturally treat winter sickness.

Now that spring is officially here I'd like to share my herbal strategies for winter health, based on our experience this past winter. If you decide to grow any of these herbs now is a great time to think about what you want to plant. And if you decide to buy dried herbs to make your own preparations it's never too early to plan what you need.

I know this sounds like a lame excuse for posting ideas after the winter cold and flu season but at least this way I can honestly tell you what did and didn't work for our family instead of giving you an "I think I might try this" approach.


We were once again blessed with great health this winter. During the first week of February, ironically while I was choosing to embrace winter, the kids had small colds that ran their course in a few days. Everyone was well enough by the weekend for our annual winter backpacking/camping trip. One minor illness was the extent of our winter sickness. 

There are a few things we do to build our immunity to prepare for and prevent illness:

  • Vitamin D supplements - We use a liquid form and take it daily from about September till May. We spend a lot of time outdoors in the summer and don't feel the need for it then. Damien has done all the research on this in our household. I take the dosage he recommends, I don't remember what it is. 
  • Nutrition - In this post I talk about our dietary guidelines. My thoughts are echoed in this recent guest post by Jennifer L. Sanders on nutritarian eating. For more nutritional resources check out my recommended books at FIMBY's Amazon affiliate bookstore
  • Exercise and rest - We listen to our bodies. When we are tired we sleep. We don't push ourselves if we feel we're coming down with something. We exercise (the kids and Damien on a daily basis, I am more irregular with that) and spend time outdoors.

thai curry veg

It's hard to know and would be impossible to scientifically prove whether our relative low sickness is due to our kids growing out of the "susceptible to every passing germ" stage or our increased nutrition and care for our well being. Both transformations happened simultaneously over the past five to six years. 

All I know is that we average one cold per fall/winter season (per person). And a fairly mild one at that.  

Here's a few of my herbal strategies for how I manage colds and lessen the uncomfortable symptoms. 

Herbal Preparations

Last fall, after reading the series at Keeper of the Home I ordered a large quantity of herbs from Mountain Rose Herbs. I wanted to be prepared, just in case. It turned out I was over prepared (our family doesn't need a lot of herbs for how much we get sick) and now need to figure out what to do with some of these herbs before we move. 

Herbs for tinctures:

Here's simple directions from the Bulk Herb Store for making a tincture and this is a video from Mountain Rose Herbs. 

  • Elderberries - Without a doubt this is my favorite herb to use for immunity. Easy to prepare and tastes good.

Last fall I made both a vodka tincture and glycerin tincture. After they were done infusing and I had strained out the berries, I mixed the two together for a not-so-potent but well preserved cold fighting medicine. Mixing the glycerin with the vodka cuts down on the strong alcohol content which I like since I mostly give this to the kids.

We use this tincture at the first sign of a tickle in the throat, a "run down" feeling or little cough. By the end of December (I gave some as a gift) it was nearly gone so I started a new batch. That batch still sits in my cupboard, hardly used. 

  • Echinacea - I almost always keep an echinacea vodka tincture on hand. I use this similar to elderberry tincture. My kids find it less palatable than elderberries but I often add it to my tea when I'm feeling a little "under the weather". 
  • Licorice - I use a glycerin licorice tincture to treat Brienne's cold sores (herpes simplex virus) which are more prevalent during winter. I administer this orally and topically. 

Herbs for teas, syrups and other remedies:

I use these herbs most regularly for making tea - both infusions (tea made with leaves, flowers, and light materials) and decoctions (tea made with bark, roots, seeds, and berries).

  • Slippery Elm - I use this for sore throats, cough syrup and digestive issues. If you use this once you'll know how it gets its name - it's kind of goopey. Techinically it's called a mucilaginous herb and is very soothing for internal or external inflammation.
  • Marshmallow Root - Used mostly for sore throats. Easy to grow in your own garden and is a good substitute for slippery elm. 
  • Mullein - Also easy to grow, basically a weed. It's recommended as an oil for ear infections. Also good for cough formulas and respiratory issues. 
  • Red Clover - Excellent for coughs, colds and bronchitis. Also rich in minerals. I blend it with other herbs for sore throat tea. 
  • Rosehips - High in vitamin C and antioxidants. I blend with other herbs for flavor and to boost the nutritional content of a tea.
  • Chamomile - So mild and wonderful for children. Calming and anti-inflammatory. I bought it to have on hand but honestly haven't used it much.
  • Peppermint - We drink peppermint tea almost every day. If the kids complain of a sore throat, headache, or upset tummy I brew a pot of peppermint tea. I can honestly say the bulk peppermint from MRH has been the best peppermint herb we've brewed.

I used a combination of the some of the above herbs (and a few others) to make cough syrup for the kids during their one cold. I have more than just these herbs in my cupboard but the ones I listed are those I use most often.

We tried horehound but found it very bitter for our tastes. Just ask my sister-in-law who received a large batch of bitter sore throat tea mix as a birthday gift (smile).


Like I mentioned above I bought more herbs than I could possibly use this past winter (live and learn). If you live locally and would like to buy some of these herbs from me for a very reduced rate I'd love to connect with you. 


In this post I intended to include foods we eat that I also use to treat colds (miso, lemon, ginger, garlic etc). But I decided this was long enough. That post is still in the works though so stay tuned. 

{And now the disclaimer: Use all this information at your own risk. I am not licensed to dispense medical information. None of these statements have been evaluated by the FDA and are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent disease.}

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  • Kika

    Kika on March 22, 2011, 4:06 p.m.

    One of my favorite teas is "Easy Day Tea" from MRH which contains blackberry leaf, linden leaf & flower, peppermint, lemon balm, and marshmallow leaf. when we're not feeling well we tend to drink plenty of tea (other favorites include a peppermint/chamomile blend, licorice tea and "Breath Easy") with raw honey or a salt/water gargle for sore throats which works so well. I like having elderberry syrup on hand each fall but it is soooo expensive so probably should figure out how to make my own.

    One thing that bothers me is that I don't know of any natural way of helping me deal with allergies to people's animals. Almost everyone I know has cats and dogs and when I visit their homes I have to take an allergy med which increases my heart rate and leaves my mouth feeling gross. Even when some of these people come to my home, they have animal hair on their clothing which causes problems for my girls and I! I do think building our immune systems in general with good food and rest/excercise helps but hasn't been a cure all.


  • Jennifer @ kidoing!

    Jennifer @ kidoing! on March 22, 2011, 5:01 p.m.

    Thank you Renee! I am in the last stages of planning my garden and will be planting some medicinal herbs this year, so this is really helpful. I made elderberry syrup in November of 2010 and I think we have about 75% left. While we luckily didn't need much of it, we swear by its effectiveness. Next up...I need to look around your site for info on herbs you use for beauty care products.


    • renee

      renee on March 22, 2011, 5:12 p.m.


      I don't have any experience growing herbs to use for "beauty" care, as such. I did write this post - Easy Recommendations for the Home Herbalist about herbs for topical skin care in general.

      In my homemade lotions and balms use plant essential oils, infused oils and other plant matter but I haven't written anything about that from an "herbal perspective", except as related to first aid care (rashes, insect bites, etc).

      The best place to get started to see what I have written is at Homemade Soap & Body Care. If you are thinking about plants for your garden you'll definitely want to read Herbal Insect Bite Relief.


  • Emily

    Emily on March 22, 2011, 7:58 p.m.

    You provide a treasure trove of interesting and useful information, Renee. This is right up my alley. I grow a lot of herbs in my garden, including comfrey, but I'm either too lazy/not motivated/no time to use them to their full potential. I've picked up remedies/syrups at the health food store and found much success, but I ask myself why I do this when they could be made at home for less $ and I know it's something I would enjoy doing since I love making soap and other concoctions. We've had a pretty good winter, too, as far as sickness goes, but I think you've taken the right approach; better to be prepared (for our families and others) than to be sorry later. Thanks for sharing all this goodness. You've inspired me. And, now I know what that not so pesky plantain looks like; my yard is full of it.


    • renee

      renee on March 22, 2011, 8:25 p.m.

      Plantain is one of my favorite backyard "weed" herbs. It's my go-to herb for any insect bites, bee stings, cuts etc. that happen outdoors during summer. 


  • Debbie

    Debbie on March 22, 2011, 11:38 p.m.

    I think eating well, sleeping well, and moving well, are all pluses when it comes to staying healthy. Here it is, almost the end of March and we (me and my family) haven't been sick since...well, I don't know about Fred and myself, but Isaac hasn't had a cold since September and it's been longer for Fred and I.

    Elderberry is our favourite too and of course we are big on oil of oregano. Isaac takes it on his tongue...no problem. These things definitely help keep illnesses at bay.

    Thanks for the post. I love seeing all the similarities that exist between me and my blogging friends. xo


    • renee

      renee on March 23, 2011, 12:11 a.m.

      Oh, I should tell you the time I tried to make my own oregano oil.

      I falsely assumed I could make some with dried oregano and olive oil (I'm like that, I'll try experimenting). After I spent 2 days simmering the oregano and olive oil in the crockpot it occured to me that oregano oil was probably an essential oil (I still don't know since I haven't researched it). My kids suffered through one salad with oregano infused olive oil dressing (to boost our immunity) and I composted it. The oil, although I'm sure not harmful, was so strong tasting and I was pretty certain wasn't the one all the natural health people talked about.

      Funny story. Someday I would like to try the real thing.


      • Debbie

        Debbie on March 23, 2011, 3:34 p.m.

        Well, Oil of Oregano IS indeed VERY strong. And while the oregano used in making oil of oregano (Origanum Vulgare) is different than that which we use to spice up our food (Origanum Marjoram) - I imagine what you made would have still had some healthful properties. Still, if you can't suck it back...what's the point. :) Isaac always has his drink right next to him when he takes it because it BURNS. (He calls it spicy.) And I put a few drops in a mouthful of apple juice...and down it. It is indeed awful...but so very good for you. Thanks for the story. I love making (or attempting to) my own stuff too. xo


  • Naomi

    Naomi on March 23, 2011, 3:32 a.m.

    Great post Renee! I appreciate your "afterthoughts" on the herbs you've tried out. We've been using yarrow tincture with vodka base, in addition to elderberry syrup, and have found they work quite well at discouraging common viruses from sticking around. I'm excited to try more herbs this summer. Well, not excited about having a reason to use them, but you know what I mean. Anyway, I did purchase Rosemary's book, and I'll be packing it in my bag for my next client's birth. Maybe I'll get the chance to pick out a few recipes!


  • Audrey

    Audrey on March 23, 2011, 2:41 p.m.

    Hello Renee,

    Thank you so much for your post on medicinal herbs. I made a horehound & sage honey this fall hoping it would be a great option for our family. It is really bitter! No one seems to be able to manage it. I will definitely try the ones you mentioned. I found your blog recently and shared your post on building a castle with my boys and it inspired them - thank you! We are unschooling and loving every minute of it! Our boys are 9 and 6 and always looking for something interesting to do. We live in a strawbale house,off-grid in the middle of the prairies and love every minute of it! I look forward to hearing more about your family adventures in days to come...


    • renee

      renee on March 23, 2011, 2:47 p.m.

      Audrey. I just checked out your blog. You live in SK! No way. I grew up near Edmonton, AB. Small world.  Strawbale, off-the-grid. Too cool. 


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