Few of us make it through winter without coming down with a cold, cough or sore throat. But popular over-the-counter (OTC) medications are notorious for causing side effects such as drowsiness, blood pressure spikes and dry mouth.
For common winter ailments, I often recommend what I call “mint medicine.” Even though the mint, or Lamiaceae, family is most widely recognized for culinary spices, such as basil, rosemary, thyme and marjoram, it also includes several medicinal herbs. You probably know about peppermint and spearmint, but many lesser-known yet effective medicinal herbs also should be on your radar—especially during winter cold-and-cough season. My three favorites…*
• Horehound might be familiar to some as an old-fashioned candy/cough drop. For centuries, it has been used to treat ailments of the respiratory tract, including bronchitis, colds, sore throat and cough. Horehound is especially useful because it has expectorant and decongestant properties, so it helps the respiratory tract rid itself of mucus or phlegm. Because horehound dries up mucus, you should use it when you are blowing your nose a lot or coughing up or spitting out phlegm many times throughout the day. Don’t use horehound if your cough is dry or if your throat is raw. Even though horehound candy has traditionally been used as you would a cough drop, many brands contain a lot of sugar. The tincture, however, doesn’t have sugar and it’s more potent—thus more effective—for respiratory ailments. Typical dose: 30 drops, in two ounces of water, taken on an empty stomach, four times a day until symptoms improve. If it’s too bitter for your taste buds, stir the tincture into a teaspoon of honey.
• Hyssop, like horehound, is best used with colds and respiratory conditions that lead to congestion and lots of mucus. Hyssop works synergistically with horehound, so if you’re looking for a stronger effect, try combining the two herbs. For example, you can combine hyssop tincture with equal parts horehound tincture and take 30 drops of the mix in two ounces of water four times a day until the illness is gone.
Great gargle for sore throat: Hyssop tea, sweetened with honey, acts as an antiseptic and soothes inflammation. Gargle with hyssop tea as often as desired. Hyssop tea also can reduce a fever, especially when combined with peppermint. For this, steep one teaspoon of dried hyssop and one teaspoon of dried peppermint leaves in eight ounces of boiled water for five minutes, then strain. Sweeten, if desired, with honey, and drink one cup of tea every two waking hours until you have had four cups. Do not exceed four cups in one day—astringent herbs can slightly irritate the stomach if you overdo it.
• Catnip is widely used in Europe for colds. Like horehound and hyssop, it has a drying effect but also is calming and gentle on the stomach. Catnip is a good bedtime tea if you have trouble sleeping because of a productive cough or nasal congestion. What to do: Pour eight ounces of boiling water over two teaspoons of dried herb. Cover and steep for 10 minutes, then strain. Drink up to four cups daily, including a cup at bedtime, if needed, until you feel better.
*As with any herbal medicine, talk to your doctor before trying if you have a medical condition or take medication.