When I woke this morning it was -22 degrees Fahrenheit with the windchill factor. I sit before my computer in the basement this afternoon wearing a pair of tights beneath my pants, wrist warmers, a scarf around my neck, a hot water bottle in my lap, a cup of tea and a blanket on my lap. That’s what the cold feels like during a cold snap in Minnesota. Going outside fills me with a feeling of dread and even indoors with the heat on–the cold just sort of seeps in. This traditional January weather got me thinking about warming remedies.
Warming herbs have wide-ranging applications. In these northern climes we might casually consume warming herbs and spices or warming teas just because they feel so pleasant during the winter months. Or we may use those same herbs for acute upper respiratory illness, when our lungs and sinuses are full and wet and goopy and our headaches and we have chills or body aches. For some of us cold is temporary energetic condition of our bodies brought on by the weather or a virus, but others chronically suffer from cold conditions. Some people have poor circulation to their extremities, or suffer from chilblains. You might feel literally cold in your trunk, hands or fee,t but cold is also a metaphor for overall lowered function in the body. In the language of Traditional Western Herbalism we call this the depressed tissue state.The blood is not moving into the capillaries and extremities as it should. Lowered immunity can be described as a cold or a sign of depressed function. These poor folks seem to struggle through the whole winter and maybe throughout the year with frequent colds and respiratory illness, an inability to shake off the illnesses they contract and an overall lack of robust, good health. Digestion is often weak in these cold people. Hormonal function may be low. Hypothyroidism is an excellent example of a cold/depressed state.
Whether you are experiencing a temporary chill or a more chronic cold condition there are herbs that can help you on your journey to a healthy warm condition (but not hot or inflamed because that is different imbalance altogether). Let’s explore the warming herbs!
The Basics: Warm, Increase Circulation, Drive out Mucus and Kill Germs with Aromatic Stimulants
The herbs: Cayenne, Garlic, Garlic,Thyme + many more
Nowadays everybody is all about the immune system. Naturally minded people chug Echinacea and take zinc tablets because we’ve been told it will boost our immune systems. Most likely, however, your immune system does not need boosting. It probably works quite well. Getting sick once, twice, three times a year is not a sign of poor immunity. It’s normal to get sick a bit. It’s normal for small children whose immune systems are still developing to get sick even more often.
Historically, when a person was ill with a common cold warming remedies were the first thing people turned too. In traditional and folk herbalism as it is practiced today, we still turn to the warming remedies first. There is a reason that we call minor illnesses “colds.” Intuitively we all understand that common viral illnesses make us feel cold, run down and cause us to function less than optimally. It stands to reason that to treat cold you would use heat, right?
Warming remedies are used to dispel the chill. Most basic warming remedies are circulatory stimulants. They are peripheral vasodilators. In other words they make your teeny tiny vessels at the edges of your body open up and they push more blood into them. This makes you feel warm. Right now I am sitting here, freezing, because I am so still. Only my hands and my brain are working. If I were scrubbing my kitchen cabinets the blood would be flowing and I would feel much warmer.
These types of remedies are typically rich in volatile and essential oils. That’s why we call them the aromatic stimulants. They smell good (most of them) or at the very least you could say they smell strongly. Volatile oils are potent antimicrobials. These are the ultimate herbs that kill two birds with one stone. They both warm you up, make you feel pleasantly warm while killing the germs causing your upper respiratory issues.
Some of the aromatic stimulants are strong enough and pungent enough that they can affect a lot of drainage. Herbs like Cayenne, Garlic, Onion, Horseradish thin your mucus secretions and cause them to drain away. Upon consumption they give the feeling of burning out the mucus.
Ginger (Zingiber officinale) Ginger is the undisputed queen of warming remedies. Ginger has been used medicinally for as long as we have a written record of medicinal use European writers mention it as far back as the late 1500s and the Chinese have been writing about it’s medicinal virtues for over 200o years. This is a great entry level herb for yourself or for your skeptical loved-ones because you can really feel the effects of Ginger when taken orally or used topically. Warming Ginger stimulates blood flow and gets rid of stagnation it helps you throw of the cold and drive out mucus. Ginger contains numerous anti-viral constituents. Ginger is a diaphoretic. In other words, via circulatory stimulation at the periphery, Ginger causes you to sweat and help reduce or break a fever. Ginger is used for nausea, in fact, it’s one of only a handful of herbs that help alleviate nausea and it’s used for diarrhea. As a stimulant it should be noted that Ginger has a reputation as an aphrodisiac. Writes one old, old source: it “transforms frigid women in to enchantresses.”
Using Ginger: Ginger is so versatile You can use any type of preparation powdered, candied, tea, in food, real ginger ale etc. You can use Ginger fresh or dried, but they do have slightly different energetics. Dried Ginger, in the absence of the watery element, is considerably hotter which may or may not be desirable. Ginger tea or fresh squeezed juice can also be used topically for sinus pain and congestion.
Garlic (Allium sativum) If Ginger is the queen of warming remedies, then Garlic is her royal consort. Like Ginger, people have been writing about Garlic as medicine for as long as people have been writing. The ancient Egyptians had over 200 uses listed for Garlic as medicine. Garlic contains allicin, a strong antimicrobial and is useful for sore throats, colds, flu, bronchial and lung infections and is used to combat worms and parasites. Allicin, like other volatile oils is not stopped by the gut. Volatile oil rich herbs are excreted via the lungs, bowels, skin, urinary tract and breastmilk. That means these oils and their antimicrobial powers reach all the remote systems of the body. Apparently Garlic does for the fellas something similar to what Ginger does to the ladies because in 5th century Greece they wrote “it is the truth, garlic gives men youth.”
Ginger and Garlic Recipes
Garlic and Ginger pair so well together. They warm, they drive out mucus, they stimulate circulation. They kill germs. Below are several recipes that involve Garlic and Ginger for winter warming. These are not my unique ideas. Garlic and Ginger recipes and preparations are common in the herbal community and go back a long, long ways. We are all a part of this living traditional practice. The Garlic Syrup recipe that I share and have adapted by adding Ginger and Cinnamon bears a lot in common with the herbal preparation commonly known as Fire Cider. Here, herbal elder, Rosemary Gladstar, writes about the history of Fire Cider and shares her original recipe.
Ginger aids circulation and breaks up painful stagnation and relieves muscular and joint pain. Use a ginger compress or poultice on headaches, sinus infections, sore and aching muscles and on a woman’s back during childbirth.
Grate fresh ginger and tie up the Ginger in a length of cheesecloth. Place the cheesecloth ginger bundle into a pan of hot water or a crock pot. When the liquid is fragrant dip a rag or washcloth into the liquid. Apply to affected area, when it cools, dip it in again and reapply as needed. A good place to do the compress is in the bath. (Hot water is all around you.)
This makes a spicy invigorating warming drink for chills and colds, that really burns out the mucus.
- Heat water and fill a big cup with the hot water.
- Squeeze ½ lemon juice into cup, or 1 Tablespoon bottled lemon juice
- Stir in powdered ginger to taste, probably ½ to 1 tsp per glass
- Stir in a pinch of Cayenne to taste
- Adding a clove of pressed or diced Garlic increases the power of this preparation, but makes the taste difficult for some people.
Recipe from East West School of Herbology textbook by Michael Tierra
Note that this method of syrup making actually is like making a vinegar tincture and adding sweeteners. No cooking involved.
½ lb. Peeled chopped (need not be minced, roughly chopped is fine)
Apple Cider Vinegar (app. ½ quart)
Water (app. ½ quart)
1 Cup glycerin
1 Cup Honey
A few cinnamon sticks (0ptional)
A few inches of chopped fresh Ginger (optional)
A few fresh hot peppers, chopped and seeded (optional)
Place the garlic in a wide mouthed quart jar. Almost fill the jar with equal parts apple cider vinegar and distilled water. Cover and let stand in a warm place for four days, shaking a few times each day. Add one cup of glycerin and let it stand another day. Strain and filter the mixture through a muslin cloth or cheesecloth, squeezing out as much liquid as you can. Add one cup of honey and stir thouroughly until well mixed. Store in a cool place.
Cayenne (Capsicum annuum) Cayenne is a really hot remedy. It pairs well with Garlic and Ginger and really helps thin out thick, sticky mucus and promote drainage. Cayenne is a powerful stimulant to the circulation which can help those with cold extremities and it can open the pores and cause a sweat to help break a fever. This is the paradoxical effect of hot vasodilators. They warm you up, but they can also cool you down by causing sweating. It is interesting to note that in many very hot climates of the world people eat hot and spicy peppers. Initially you are quite warm but ultimately your pores open and internal heat is released. Cayenne may also make you feel good because the burning sensation on your tongue signals to your brain which releases endorphins which in turn induce a feeling of well-being. Cayenne is also high in Vitamin C, which conventional wisdom holds is helpful when you are ill. Personally, I don’t take Cayenne as a simple during upper respiratory illness. I like it blended with other herbs which helps to moderate it’s intense energy.
Thyme (Thymus vulgare) Thyme is an ancient medicinal plant used in the Mediterranean regions of Europe, Africa and the Middle East. Thyme is energetically warming and stimulating and is high in anti-microbial volatile oils. Thyme (or derivatives from Thyme) are still used in contemporary products including vaporrubs, cough syrups, shampoos and mouthwashes. There are not a lot of plant based preparations that survived the 20th century obsession for all things synthetic in medicine and personal care. As an herbal medicine it is widely used for infectious respiratory illness, including bronchitis, highly irritated mucosa with constant coughing and whooping cough in children. It relaxes the bronchial tubes which is why it’s helpful in asthma and whooping cough. It’s an expectorant which helps people bring up mucous.
Other Warming Remedies
There are so many warming herbs. Many of them happen to be culinary. Cinnamon, Cloves, Horseradish, Fenugreek, Angelica …and the list could go on and on. Most all of them are full of pungent, fragrant volatile oils that work as antimicrobial infection fighters, circulatory stimulants, carminitives (dispel gas and cramping from the g.i. tract) and expectorants. They have similarities but also things that make them unique as plants and as remedies. Research them. It will be rewarding.
Wow! You are Really Sick: Deeper Remedies for Chills, Body Aches, and Really Bad Illness
Sometimes the basic culinary aromatic stimulants aren’t enough. The chill goes really deep or the illness is really entrenched.
Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum) is one of the most valuable western herbs we have to heal from influenza with chills. This remedy native to North America comes to us from the traditions of the Native Americans via the 19th century physicians who also worked with plant based medicines. It is a deep, profound remedy impacting the immune system used traditionally for Malaria as well as Influenza. Boneset contains polysaccharides, a type of plant chemical, also found in Echinacea which is considered by many to be the constituent responsible for immune stimulation. Some older clinical studies suggest that Boneset polysaccharides may be several times stronger than those of Echinacea.
It is best to take at the onset of the illness characterized by chills. It is appropriate when there are simply chills or alternating fever and chills. It is helpful whenever the chill is accompanied by aching deep in the muscles or when it feels like even the bones aches. Other indications include congestion, throbbing headache, aching eyes, diarrhea and vomiting.
This is a profoundly bitter tasting herb. In traditional practice it was taken as a hot tea. I prefer to give it to my clients as a tincture. Boneset has no known toxicity or dangers associated with use, but it is a strong herb. I find it effective in small doses of 1-3 drops. I recommend using these tiny doses under the tongue every 2-4 hours.
Elecampane (Inula helenium) This tall, beautiful biennial member of the Sunflower family is excellent when your cold is a bit more intense and isn’t responding to a little extra water, a little ginger and garlic and a little extra rest. One of my teachers, Matthew Wood writes that “Elecampane is a warming, stimulating, pungent, aromatic bitter that permeates the bronchial tree.” Truly nothing else tastes like this herb. I love it as a tincture. It is effective in small doses. I can feel it sinking down into my body and permeating me, warming up the gut as well as the periphery. I also love it as an infused honey or elixir. This year I made an Elecampane Elixir with fresh Elecampane root and cinnamon infused in raw, local honey and glycerin and upon straining I squeezed in the juice of fresh squeezed organic oranges and a little Cointreau for preservation and extra orange flavor. Divine! My friends, it’s divine. You can make it too. I love to take spoonfuls throughout the day whenever I am ill. Elecampane is a specific for infected green or yellow mucus. It is great for sinus infections or coughs or infections and chest complaints, like bronchitis. Use it when there is post-nasal drip and stomach irritation from swallowing all that gross mucus. Herbs can have interesting, complex and paradoxical effects. David Hoffmann writes “this remedy shows the complex and integrated ways in which herbs work. The mucilage has a relaxing effect accompanied by the stimulation of the essential oils. In this way expectoration is accompanied by a soothing action which in this herb is combined with an anti-bacterial effect.” While safe doses of this herb are quite large, up to 40 drops, 3 times daily, I find that it works quite well, when indicated at the level of 1-5 drops every 4 hours during your waking day. Incidentally, sometimes this is a great remedy for hypothyroid clients.
Help for the Chronically Cold
My three favorite remedies for cold hands and feet are Thyme, Rosemary and Wild Ginger.
Thyme (Thymus vulgare) As mentioned above Thyme is a warming anti-microbial used for coughs and congestion, however, Thyme is also an excellent circulatory stimulant for those with cold hands and feet. I have used this herb in my practice for those constitutionally cold types who are cold and miserable throughout the winter (more miserable than the rest of us!). They do not have seasonal affective disorder; it is not depression that ails them, it is feeling chilled and cold all season and struggling with one illness after the next. Those with weak lungs, who seem susceptible to every illness and each cold goes into the lungs instead of just remaining in the sinuses and throat benefit from this herb. Matthew Wood writes that a specific indication for Thyme is when the pads of the fingers are dry. Finally, this is a bit of an aside, but Thyme essential oil is fantastic for killing nits and lice without resorting to neurotoxic over the counter products. Just saturate the hair with coconut oil with a little Thyme mixed in and wrap the head with saran wrap over night.
Rosemary (Rosmarinus offinalis) Rosemary has long had a reputation as an herb for the aged and aging. It is used as a tonic for the heart, a tonic for the hair. It is famous for improving memory. Rosemary for remembrance. It’s used for arthritis. While people of all ages can be afflicted with cold hands and feet is it extremely common for the elderly to have poor circulation, cold hands and feet and a susceptibility to chill. This might be at least partly explained by the decrease in capillary function and density as people become less active and/or the prevalence of diabetes and heart disease among the aged. (See below) While these issues should be addressed systemically, herbal allies like invigorating Rosemary can be very helpful. Rosemary is another warming herb that is rich in volatile oils. Remember for a moment the last time you ran your hand across a Rosemary plant. Fragrance is immediately freed from the plant. It’s in the air. It’s on your hands. Those oils really get the blood moving, stimulating blood flow to the head, brain, liver, g.i. tract, lungs, hands and feet. Consider it also in times of acute upper respiratory infection; it’s good for fevers, phlegm, coughs, colds and chest infections.
Wild Ginger (Asarum canadense) is an excellent circulatory stimulant that drives blood to the surface of the body. It also improves weak digestion, which mentioned above is common in those with a cold constitution. It warms and brightens one’s outlook on life and helps people be vulnerable and experience the warmth of life and express the warmth in their personality. Wild Ginger has a lot in common with the aromatic stimulants like culinary Ginger, Garlic, Cinnamon, etc. but it is toxic in large doses. For the reason it is not suitable for casual, everyday use, but should be chosen and and administered carefully and used in low dosages. You can read my comprehensive article about Wild Ginger here.
Your Capillaries: Better Circulation with Exercise
Bodies are amazing and adapt to stimulus (or the lack thereof). When you exercise your body responds to the increased demands you are putting on it by improving cappilary function, increasing capillary density and if you exercise often enough over an extended period of time your body actually makes more capillaries. This amazing process is called vascular recruitment. It’s use it or lose it, folks. Or perhaps more accurately, use it often and make it even better! While herbs can be excellent allies for cold hands and feet consider that your body may be calling out for more movement and this is good for your health in so many ways. It shouldn’t surprise us that the elderly are often cold. Illness, frailty and muscular-skeletal aches and pains can be make exercise difficult.
Diabetes is also very bad for your circulation. High glucose levels cause capillaries to narrow and harden decreasing circulation to your extremities. It is essential to maintain good blood sugar flow if your are prediabetic or diabetic and exercise.
Other Remedies for the Constitutionally Cold
Prickly Ash (Xanthoxylum americanum) This abundant, native small tree is a very warming stimulant. It is also among a few remedies that are considered diffusive. Diffusiveness is a sensation in the mouth, it’s a tingling spreading feeling. A few other plants share this feeling including Echinacea and Lavender. All diffusives are stimulants. Stimulants get things going when function of organs and tissues are depressed. Prickly Ash is used to stimulate throughout the system but especially of the nerves, the mucous membranes, circulatory, digestive and lymphatic. Writes eclectic physician Finley Ellingwood, “It is diffusible, producing a warm glow throughout the system and nervous tingling, as if a mild current of electricity was being administered.”
Like most warming remedies it works to increase circulation. It is a diaphoretic that increases surface capillary circulation provoking a sweat when used during a fever. It can be used for circulatory weakness that shows up as cold hands and feet, chilblains, leg cramps and varicosities (Hoffmann, p. 596). It is also used for Raynaud’s disease which is spasms of the vasculature during cold or under stress and causing discoloration of the skin and pins and needles sensations. It is also used for rheumatism and arthritis; many stimulants are used to deal with arthritic symptoms.
Spikenard (Aralia racemosa) This is a deep woodland plant in the Ginseng family. It is warming and like Ginseng, I use it as an adaptogen, for those folks whose bodies need help dealing with the stressors of being alive and maybe of aging. It is excellent for those individuals who chronically suffer from illness in the lungs. For these people a simple cold always turns into something deeper and often they feel a sense of pressure and heaviness in the chest and lungs. Sometimes it is good for cold, dry people with hormonal issues as well. Spikenard is aromatic and shares many characteristics with other aromatic stimulants.
Black Walnut (Juglans nigra) Black Walnut is an indispensable herbs in my practice. Black Walnut is deeply warming, however, it is not much of a circulatory stimulant. Black Walnut addresses some of the other ways discussed above in which a person can suffer from cold or depressed tissue state or function. Black Walnut is one of the best remedies we have for hypothyroidism, the epitome of a cold imbalance. There is a feeling of cold, low energy, sluggish metabolism, sluggish digestion, lack of energy, brain fog, depression. It’s all cold symptoms rolled into one! Black Walnut is wonderful for these people, who are most often women. It stimulates and invigorates at a very deep level. Sometimes very cold/depressed people are also susceptible to infections or various sorts, not just viral or bacterial but longer-term fungal infections, parasites and other worms, warts. It is like their bodies are not robust enough to fend off the little creatures that want to set up shop. So the creatures move in and they stay their for the long haul. Black Walnut is great for all manner of infections on the skin mucosa.
Baptisia (Baptisia spp.) This warming prairie plant is has some in common with other immune system remedies like Echinacea and Boneset. It is well suited to conditions that call for deep immune stimulation. Historically it was used for typhoid and septic conditions.Today we use it for cases of mono, either active cases or to treat lingering effects from a past case, wounds that won’t heal, deeply depressed immunity, strange infections that linger. I have used it for people who suffer from chronic or intractable strep infections in formula. Consider it as a remedy for use with Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis. It’s been used for ameobic dysentery or bowels infected from travel that the person is having trouble bringing back to balance. A good specific indication is a dusky complexion. (King’s and Cook)and poor venous return indicated by blanching the skin and slow return to color.
Calendula (Calendula officinalis)
Calendula is a lymphagogue, that is, a remedy that treats the lymph system. Additionally, it is a warming lymphagogue. Many lymph remedies are cooling (Violet Leaf, Chickweed) or moistening (Red Clover, Mullein, Chickweed, Violet, Cleavers). There are not many warming lymph remedies. The lymphatic system is intimately tied up with our immunity. Calendula is excellent for chronically swollen glands or for people whose glands become swollen each time they get ill or sometimes instead of getting sick. In every consultation I am sure to ask people about swollen glands. It’s an area that herbalism has a lot to offer. Calendula may be indicated when the tongue shows signs of imbalance in the lymphatic system evidenced by inflamed, bright red, protuberant papillae. Herbalist Lise Wolff teaches that Calendula is useful for depression. Calendula is a European folk remedy for protecting against cold and illness and was used in soups and stews. Some speculate that this where the common name Pot Marigold comes from, because it was tossed in the pot. There are many health promoting recipes for the winter that involve Calendula.
This article is not an exhaustive list of warming remedies found in the Western Materia Medica. There are most certainly others. Feel free to mention them in the comments section or ask me any questions you may have.