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What do marbled eggs served in Chinese restaurants and flu medicine have in common? Licorice-scented Chinese herb aka star anise. The aroma of star anise is also what you smell when you open a bottle of the common American flu remedy Nyquil.

The World's Most Popular Flu Medicine Is Derived from an Herb

And this tiny herb is essential to the making of the flu remedy oseltamivir, also known as Tamiflu.
 

Drug companies have been buying up a large percentage of the world's supply of star anise to use it as a source of a compound called shikimic acid. This organic compound does not have any anti-flu activity in itself, but it is used as the starting point of a multi-step process for the making of the drug. In the US and Europe, drug companies make shikimic acid with the help of genetically engineered E. coli bacteria, but many manufacturers still use the herb. Star anise tea, preferably made with tea bags according to label instructions, also helps maintain the healthy bacteria in your upper respiratory tract that train your immune system to fight the flu.

The simple fact is that when you feel you are coming down with the flu, you probably don't want to go to a specialty store to buy star anise. You don't want a week for the herb to arrive from an online vendor, either. Other herbs and spices are more practical, and even more powerful, for fighting your flu. Some are more effective for prevention and others are more effective for treatment, but elderberry extract is effective for both.

Elderberry Extract for Preventing and Fighting Influenza

There is possibly no better single herb for fighting the flu than elderberry extract. Dr. Madeleine Mumcuoglu discovered that elderberry contains a protein that interferes with the ability of flu viruses to attach to attach to cells before infecting them. This "hemagglutinin" protein literally stops the virus from poking its spikes into the lining of the cell. Elderberry extracts fight type A flu strains and type B flu strains, and laboratory tests have found that it also stops infection with H1N1. Unlike other treatments for the flu, elderberry is safe for people who are on chemotherapy or who are taking drugs for HIV, for infants, for children, for nursing mothers and pregnant women and for the elderly.

Elderberry is also widely available, especially under the brand name Sambucol, which is the preparation of the herb used to in clinical trials. Since elderberry prevents infection with the flu, it makes sense to take the herb from fall to spring, especially when the weather is warm. This is because H1N1, unlike other strains of the flu, is transmitted at the beginning of the cold-weather season and during winter thaws. A typical daily dose is ¼ teaspoon (½  ml) for children under 3, ½ teaspoon (1-2 ml) for children 3 to 6, 1 teaspoon for older children, and 2 teaspoons for adults, preferably taken with food or milk.

Elderberry extract is also helpful if you already have the flu. Clinical studies at Hebrew University in Israel found taking elderberry extracts reduces the duration of flu symptoms from an average of 6 days to an average of 2.5 days. You will get well faster and with fewer complications if you take Sambucol or another elderberry product. Elderberry jam also works, but the herb extracts are more reliable.

What About Echinacea for Treating the Flu?

The most commonly used herb for treating the flu is echinacea, but it has some limitations. Most importantly, echinacea is better for preventing flu than for treating it. In a clinical study reported in the European Journal of Clinical research a few years ago, 120 people were given either Echinacea purpurea juice or a placebo product, and told to take the product as soon as they noticed any symptoms. The echinacea preparation was provied by the German company that makes the North American product Echinagard. Only 40 per cent of people who took echinacea developed "real" colds or flu, compared to 60 per cent of those using the placebo. Of those who did go on to develop flu, echinacea use reduced the average number of days of symptoms from 8 to 4. The dosage was 20 drops every 2 hours the first day after noticing symptoms, and then 20 drops three times a day for 10 days.
People who benefit the most from echinacea for preventing the flu tend to have low white blood cell counts. People who benefit the most from echinacea for treating the flu tend to have normal white blood cell counts. Women who are trying to get pregnant should not use echinacea for more than 2 weeks, since it contains some chemicals that interfere with ovulation.

While it may take some effort to find the right herb combination, an even better way to use echinacea is in combination with the herb baptisia, also known as wild indigo. The two herbs together do more to strengthen the immune system than either herb separately.

What About Drug Interactions with Herbs and Spices to Fight Flu?

Most of the herbs and spices used to treat the flu are safe no matter what medications you may be taking for other health conditions. An exception is echinacea, but it's only one kind of echinacea that is likely to be problematic. That species of the plant is Echinacea angustifolia (not Echinacea purpurea), usually clearly identified on the label. And it's not even every part of Echinacea angustifolia that can cause problems. It's just the root, and it only interacts with certain medications.

The most likely problems from using this one kind of echinacea extract arise for people who also take:
  • Anabolic steroids, whether lawfully prescribed or otherwise,
  • The anti-cancer and anti-arthritis drug methotrexate, also known as Methotrex,
  • Nifedipine (Adalat) or captopril (Capoten) for high blood pressure, or
  • Viagra (sildenafil) for erectile dysfunction.
The interactions with these drugs center on this kind of echinacea's effects on liver enzymes. Echinacea, like grapefruit, can interfere with the enzymes that clear the medications out of the bloodstream, causing them to build up and have greater than expected impact on body processes. That means anabolic steroids might be more anabolic, methotrexate might deplete the body of even more of the B vitamin folic acid, the blood pressure medications might lower blood pressure excessively, and the use of Viagra might result in that "erection lasting more than four hours" warned about on the package and in the advertising. This form of echinacea may also interfere with the birth control pill in unpredictable ways, so avoid mixing Echinacea angustifolia with prescription medication.