Dec 21, 2013 - The Indigenized Winter Illness Survival Kit, By Linda Bishop-Jones

Stop it. No…seriously…put that disgusting, grape-flavored cough syrup down.  Put it down! I know it’s difficult. I know your chest hurts and you are tired of spitting out thick, green mucous. I know you simply want to get some rest and feel like you are alive again. But that bottle you are grabbing will often do more harm than good.

Repeat after me: “Store bought cough syrup is not the answer.”

In my opinion, some the worst drugs we give to ourselves and our children are cough medicines – in particular, a class of cough suppressants with drugs like dextromethorphan. This medication doesn’t promote any type of healing; rather, it acts on the brain to reduce the urge to cough. First of all, research shows that suppressants don’t work for many people. Second, when you have mucous or other foreign matter in your lungs, you need to get it out…that is usually why we cough. The focus should be on making your cough more productive, rather than on suppressing it. Suppressing a cough can actually lead to worse illnesses, such as pneumonia.  If you are desperate to calm a cough, clinical trials have shown that plain, natural honey works as well as cough medicines. (But more about that later.)

I have often talked about the dangers of prescription and over-the-counter medications. For influenza, many people are given anti-viral drugs, which, when taken within the first 72 hours of symptoms, might inhibit the development of the flu virus. However, they might also lead to drug-resistant viral strains, or “superviruses,” dizziness, vomiting, diarrhea, and even “behavioral changes.” (I contacted the CDC to ascertain what they meant by “behavioral changes,” but no one could clarify. They urged me to discuss it with my physician.)

Viruses, like the ones that cause the common cold and influenza, love cold weather.  According to virologist Peter Palese, “dry, cold conditions pull moisture out of droplets released by coughs and sneezes, which allows the virus to linger in the air. Additionally, cold, low humidity air dries out the nasal passages and makes virus transmission more likely” (ScienceDaily, Jan 1, 2008). So, while cold weather does not cause the flu or the common cold, it definitely makes it easier to spread and catch these types of viral illnesses.

So what do we do during a long, cold winter when illness strikes us or our loved ones?

Well, here is my guide to putting together your very own “Indigenized Winter Illness Survival Kit.”

1)      Get a humidifier.

As I stated above, viruses like cold, dry weather. Keeping your home and work places warm and humid is vitally important to inhibiting the spread of illnesses.

2)      To irrigate or not to irrigate?

This is a question that can only be answered with time and personal experimentation. I have some friends who swear by neti pots or other nasal irrigation devices.  However, I have other friends who say that neti pots do absolutely nothing for them, and still other folks claim they make sinus issues worse.  The principle behind nasal irrigation is to use some device (neti pots, squirt bottles, etc.) to flush out your sinuses. When we are exposed to irritants such as smoke, pollen, or germs, the lining of our sinus cavities swell, which leads to an increase in mucus production.  Excess mucous may cause sinus congestion and infections.   If you have consistent sinus problems or if your head feels like it is stuffed with frybread dough, then I suggest giving nasal irrigation a try. Don’t ever use plain water in an irrigation device, because it will certainly dry out your sinuses and lead to infection. Instead, use saline solution, which may be infused with any number of sinus-conditioning herbs such as goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis) or Oregon graperoot (Mahonia aquifolium). Simply heat 1 c. of the saline solution with 1 TB of the herbs and simmer for 20 minutes. Let cool completely before using.

3)      Make and use elderberry syrup.

Elderberries (Sambucus nigra) are absolutely amazing. They are delicious, and yet incredibly effective in preventing and treating viral illnesses.  Researchers at Justus-Liebig University in Germany found that an elderberry tincture inhibited the spread of both influenza A and B viruses and even repressed the growth of bacteria associated with upper respiratory infections!  Elderberries not only aid in healing, but they also help to prevent illness before you begin having symptoms.

The easiest way to use elderberries is as a tea or as a syrup. The fun part is, both are delicious, and the syrup can be eaten on your breakfast pancakes! For elderberry tea, simply add a tablespoon of dried elderberries to your favorite tea, or you can boil a cup of the dried berries in 3-4 cups of filtered water.  Drink with lots of raw honey or stevia. The syrup is easy to make and you can cater it to your taste preferences. Here is my favorite recipe:

Easy Elderberry Honey Syrup

2 c. dried elderberries

8 c. fresh clean water

4 c. raw local honey

Add elderberries and water to a pot. Cook for at least 20 minutes. Strain. Add honey until dissolved. Pour into clean glass bottles or jars. Refrigerate. Take 1TB an hour for cough, flu or cold. Take 1TB a day for immunity support. When you cook the elderberries, you may wish to add a cinnamon stick, 1 TB fresh ginger, 3 cardamom pods, or a couple of cloves. (These herbs are very warming when you have the chills, and they add delicious flavor as well.)

4)      For coughs and congestion, use honey mixed with herbs and lemon juice, a chest poultice made with crushed herbs, or a homemade vapor rub.

When the mucous in your nose, sinuses, throat and lungs feels thicker than pea soup and as immovable as cement, you need some type of expectorant to thin the mucous so that you can cough it up or blow it out (gross, but bear with me).

Try any of the following expectorant teas:

1 TB juniper berries (Juniperus spp.), goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis), slippery elm (Ulmus rubra), mullein (Verbascum thapsus), ginger (Zingiber officinale), licorice root (Glycyrrhiza glabra), or curly cup gumweed (Grindelia squarrosa).

1-2 c. filtered water

1 tsp fresh lemon juice

1 tsp raw honey

Heat herbs in water for 5-10 minutes.   Add lemon juice and honey.

Chest poultices are wonderful, and they work as well as vapor rub without the greasy mess. All it takes is some crushed, moistened herbs and a soft cloth (a piece of flannel or terrycloth, for example).  Do not put these herbs directly on to the skin, as they can be very warming and cause a sort of “burn.” Do not use chest poultices on young babies or on very elderly people with thin or sensitive skin.

  • If using fresh herbs: simply crush enough herbs to cover the chest, and wrap in a warm, moistened cloth. Keep the poultice warm with a hot water bottle or by re-wetting the cloth in warm water.

  • If using dried herbs: soak the herbs in just enough hot water to reconstitute, and then use them as you would fresh herbs.

  • Some excellent chest poultice herbs are: onion, garlic, mint, ginger, mustard seeds, or curly cup gumweed.

If you prefer to use a vapor rub, then I implore you to make your own at home. It is so incredibly simple, effective, and inexpensive. Most importantly, it DOES NOT CONTAIN PETROLEUM. Store -bought vapor rubs and even most lip balms contain petroleum, which is a by-product of the oil industry and is terrible for the environment.  Petroleum jelly was originally found coating the bottom of oil rigs, and now we are using it on our babies’ skin! Here is my recipe for homemade vapor rub. You can find these ingredients almost anywhere.

¼ c. plantain (Plantago major)

¼ c. juniper berries

1 c. olive oil

1 oz. melted beeswax

5-10 drops camphor essential oil

5-10 drops eucalyptus essential oil

Heat the herbs in the olive oil in a crock pot over night. In the morning, strain the herbs, reserving the oil. Add the melted beeswax to the oil. Add the essential oils. Pour into tins or a clean jar.

5)      For clogged sinuses, use bear root and hot sauce.

Yes, hot sauce.  Simply swallow a teaspoon or two of your favorite hot sauce. You already know it works, because we all get runny noses when we eat spicy food.  If you can’t handle the heat of chili peppers, you can use bear root, also known as osha root (Ligusticum poteri). I carry pieces of bear root around with me everywhere I go. Let me be clear: I have never met a single person who did not find relief with bear root To aid in decongesting sinuses, simply burn a pieces of the root and inhale the smoke. It should burn slightly and your eyes will water for a moment, but this remedy provides reliable, almost instant relief.

There it is – your Indigenized winter survival kit. Remember, if you (or whoever is ill) spikes a fever or has difficulty breathing, seek medical advice immediately. Chicken soup goes great with any of the above remedies. Make these items as gifts and give them to elders or family members for Christmas.  Stay warm; stay safe, and take good care of those you love.

Disclaimer: The uses of plants contained herein are not intended as medical advice. Linda Bishop-Jones, lastrealindians, and any associates do not accept any responsibility for any adverse effects from the uses of any plants. Always seek advice from a professional before using a plant medicinally.  Always seek advice from your physician before you stop taking any prescription medications.

Linda Bishop is an ethnobotanist and restoration ecologist. She is a faculty member at Sitting Bull College, and enjoys teaching her students about the plants of the Great Plains and surrounding areas. Linda also loves to spend time with her two sons, who are members of the Standing Rock Nation.

Last Real Indians