Viruses are a type of microbe known to cause human sickness and infection. They act differently than bacteria do and can be a bit trickier to deal with.
You're probably familiar with certain viral infections- the common cold, the flu, HIV, hepatitis- but there are over 200 known viruses (as of 2012) that can infect humans, causing a wide range of problems. (1)
That's a lot of viruses for your body to defend against!
Of course, they don't all attack you at once, and your body has some built-in protection- your immune system.
To naturally provide your immune system with some extra support, you can turn to powerful antiviral herbs for added defense.
A Word on Viruses (and Herbs)
Bacteria and viruses are the two potentially pathogenic microbes that many people are most familiar with, but each one works differently.
Bacteria are living organisms that can live on their own and be killed (by antibiotics, for example). Viruses, on the other hand, need a host in order to survive and replicate by "taking over" healthy cells in your body.
The best defense you have against viruses is your own immune system, which can eradicate viruses before they take hold and also destroy cells that have become infected.
This is important because herbs don't work by simply seeking out a virus and killing it.
Instead, most of them strengthen your immune system so that it can fight off the virus itself. That being said, many herbs do also have specific action against certain viral infections to either keep them from taking hold or to help your body get rid of them.
Top Antiviral Herbs and How to Use Them
At this point, elderberries are one of the most well-known antiviral herbs because of all the attention they've received over the last decade or so.
Studies have shown that elderberry can both inhibit the influenza virus and shorten the duration of cold and flu symptoms. This isn't surprising since elderberries have been used for hundreds of years as a remedy for viral infections (including colds, flus, herpes, shingles, and upper respiratory infections). (2)(3)
Use It: A traditional elderberry syrup is still one of the best ways to take this herb. You can make your own or buy a ready-made syrup to have on hand. Elderberry extract is also potent and effective. Both are suitable for children.
Echinacea has strong antiviral properties and also helps your immune system out by stimulating some of its natural defenses.
Use It: Echinacea is most effective when taken as a tea or tincture at the first signs of illness. Don't use it long-term (unless recommended by an herbalist). Instead, save it for after a virus has hit.
Garlic is very potent when used as a medicinal herb and has strong immune-enhancing properties. It can help stimulate the production of white blood cells and boost overall immune function.
Use It: Feel free to cook with loads of garlic (particularly during cold and flu season) as long as it doesn't upset your digestion. You can also try taking an aged garlic supplement or using garlic extract.
Ginger is an herb with many uses. It fights nausea, boosts immune health, and stimulates circulation.
The fresh root also has antiviral properties than have proven to be especially potent against certain viruses that cause respiratory infections. As a bonus, ginger has a decongesting effect on your chest and sinuses. (8)
Use It: For the most powerful effects, chop or grate fresh ginger root into water and simmer to make a tea, adding lemon and honey if desired. You can also use dried ginger root if the fresh version isn't available.
Lemon balm is a deceptively mild herb that hides some very strong antiviral properties beneath a soothing, citrusy exterior. In fact, it's long been used by herbalists in formulas for herpes and shingles (and studies back up its antiviral properties). (9)
Lemon balm is a great herb for children and adults alike who both appreciate its gentle nature and refreshing flavor.
Oregano is a powerful antiviral herb as well as an antibacterial agent, mainly due to a potent plant compound known as carvacrol. It's been shown to specifically inhibit the herpes virus, murine norovirus (main cause of stomach flu), rotavirus, and a virus that often causes respiratory infections. (10)(11)
Oregano can also help you feel better if you do get an infection due to its decongesting and throat-soothing properties.
Use It: Oil of oregano is one of the more powerful versions of this herb and can be taken as needed in capsules. You can also diffuse oregano essential oil to "clear the air" or use the dried herb to make a tea.
Licorice root has notable antiviral properties due to the action of glycyrrhizic acid and other plant compounds found in the root. It can also help stimulate your immune system to further ward off invading pathogens. (12)
Astragalus can help your immune system out during cold and flu season, has shown action against the herpes virus, and has adaptogenic properties. (16)
Use It: Astragalus is most often used as a dried root, which you can use to make tea or broth by simmering it in water for 15-20 minutes.
Andrographis is yet another herb that is frequently used in Chinese medicine and also has a history of use in Ayurvedic medicine. It possesses both antiviral and antibacterial properties due to the powerful compounds present in the plant.
Traditionally used for the flu and malaria, andrographis is sparking interest today because of its ability to restrain virus replication and pathogenesis. (17)
Use It: You can take andrographis as a tincture or a concentrated extract in capsules.
Medicinal mushrooms are varieties like reishi, turkey tail, and chaga that have especially potent health properties. Almost all types have an immune-enhancing effect and some trigger the production of immune cells that go after cells infected with a virus. (18)
Use Them: Most people find medicinal mushrooms easiest to take in powdered form when added to smoothies, coffee, etc. You can also use certain types (dried) to make a potent broth.
Not just a kitchen herb, sage packs some powerful antiviral compounds into its soft green leaves. According to herbalist Rosemary Gladstar, sage is a "well-known cold and flu fighter" that can also soothe inflammation and a sore throat. (Gladstar. Medicinal Herbs: A Beginner's Guide, pg. 87)
Studies have also shown that sage extract can inhibit HIV and other viruses. (21)
Olive leaves surprisingly have antiviral properties, due in part to a powerful compound known as oleuropein. Olive leaf extract has specifically shown activity against HIV and may also be effective against the shingles virus. (22)(23)
Use It: Olive leaf is mainly available in capsule form. Make sure you buy from a reputable brand that does testing for the purity of its products.
When using antiviral herbs, it's important to research each one individually before taking it, especially if you are pregnant, nursing, or have a medical condition.
Remember, herbs are not drugs and will not guarantee that you don't get a viral infection. They work with your body to offer extra support and enhance immune function. To boost their effects, practice healthy habits like getting enough sleep, eating well, and reducing stress.
Boost Your Defenses with Antiviral Herbs
Knowing which herbs have antiviral properties gives you a headstart when it comes to boosting your immune health and helping your body ward off infection.
Keeping herbs like elderberry, echinacea, oregano, and astragalus on hand helps to protect the wellness of you and your family, particularly during the fall and winter months. Experiment with using a variety of herbs until you find out what helps your body the most.
Disclaimer: This post is for informational purposes only. It does not constitute medical advice and should not be substituted for medical advice. Please consult your health care provider, herbalist, midwife, or naturopathic physician before taking herbs, supplements, etc. Here's the link to our full disclaimer.