Fight Germs with Herbs in Hand

The world is alive with germs of all kinds, especially bacteria and viruses. Most of the time our bodies do an excellent job of fending off these microbes. This self defense is due to the immune system, which notices any pathogen (disease-causing agent), and attacks it with immune foot soldiers including macrophages, lymphocytes and phagocytes. But sometimes our bodies can’t fight off disease-causing agents without help. This is when certain herbs can come in handy.

Working Two Ways

Herbs can help to fight germs in two ways. On the one hand, herbs can bolster the immune system so that our bodies can respond more powerfully to germs when they attempt an invasion. On the other hand, some herbs can even kill germs outright. Let’s examine a few common germ-fighters in the herbal world.

Garlic – Sometimes called the stinking rose, garlic has long occupied a special place in natural healing. This fragrant and pungent member of the allium family enhances overall cardiovascular health, fights various types of cancer cells well, and is a potent immune booster. But garlic goes beyond this, actually killing many of the types of bacteria that cause food poisoning. Heavy use of garlic is prevalent in places and cultures where food preparation hygiene may be poor, and where refrigeration is not always available. Adding fresh-pressed garlic into food, or cooking with garlic, may prevent sickness due to bacterial contamination. And if you have a cold, press a clove of garlic into a cup of hot water, add the juice of a lemon, mix in a teaspoon of honey, and drink it down. This shot to the immune system will help you to get rid of the cold faster.

Ginger - This common root contains two classes of compounds known as gingerols and shaogals. These are powerful antioxidants, so they help to prevent premature destruction of cells, a very handy function indeed. But these same agents also increase the proliferation of immune cells, thus providing more ammunition for the body to ward off disease. Ginger also contains a group of compounds called sesquiterpenes, which kills rhinoviruses, the agents that cause colds. So when you have a cold, several bracing cups of fresh ginger root tea can help you to reduce the severity and duration of that unwanted event. Ginger tea also relieves a sore throat, providing immediate relief.

Green Tea - Many people know green tea simply as a pleasant, low-caffeine beverage. But green tea’s antioxidant compounds, called the polyphenol catechins, also boost overall immune function.

One of the functions of these compounds is to inhibit tumor growth. Studies of human populations show decreased incidence of some types of cancer among green tea drinkers, and animal studies show specific immune activity against various types of tumor cells. This is not to say that green tea is a cancer cure. But drinking green tea daily can reduce your risk of cancer overall, by enhancing immune function. This same immune-enhancement helps to protect you from various pathogens in the air and in water and food.

Elderberry – In some small studies, elderberry has demonstrated anti-flu activity. This is due to a group of antioxidant flavonoids in elderberry that bind to the influenza virus and prevent infection. Some researchers question the real efficacy of elderberry as a flu-fighter, but it does demonstrate some value. A recent study of elderberry extract and the (new scary) H1N1 virus showed that the antioxidant compounds in the berries inhibit the proliferation of that virus. While further work must be done on this, the study suggests that at least, elderberry may help to reduce the activity of this flu.

Hot peppers – Not everybody likes hot peppers, also known as chile peppers. But for chile lovers, these peppers not only pack a hot wallop, they provide immune support as well. You can use hot peppers fresh and raw, cooked, or as hot sauces. Like garlic, hot peppers enhance immune function, thereby making your body more resistant to disease. They do so thanks to the presence of capsaicin (think really hot), the oil that gives peppers their heat. This is also the same oil used in topical capsaicin arthritis creams. Like garlic, hot peppers also kill bacteria outright. In West Africa, people commonly make a paste consisting of finely ground hot peppers, ground coarse salt, and minced onions, which have a similar effect as garlic. This paste is eaten in small amounts alongside food that might contain bacteria.

Herbal Pick of the Week

I derive absolutely no income or favors from the makers of Tabasco sauce, but I will say that this common and well-loved hot sauce is a regular part of my personal health regimen. Made only with tabasco variety hot peppers, this sauce shows up almost everywhere in the world. Not only does Tabasco contribute zip to foods, but it’s a great natural medicine to carry when you travel. You can definitely find hotter and more exotic sauces, but in my book Tabasco reigns supreme.

Hippocrates famously stated “Let food be thy medicine.” In the herbs above, we have common foods that also play valuable germ-fighting roles in nature’s medicine chest.

Chris Kilham is a medicine hunter who researches natural remedies all over the world, from the Amazon to Siberia. He teaches ethnobotany at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where he is Explorer In Residence. Chris advises herbal, cosmetic and pharmaceutical companies and is a regular guest on radio and TV programs worldwide. His field research is largely sponsored by Naturex of Avignon, France. Read more at

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