Influenza -- known commonly as the flu -- is a viral infection that affects between 5 and 20 percent of the U.S. population each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Because influenza is a virus, it does not respond to antibiotics, but there are natural alternatives to treat the flu that include herbs, diet and lifestyle changes. If you think you have the flu, its best to work with your doctor or other qualified health care professional before self-medicating with herbs.
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Elderberry -- also called Sambucus nigra -- is the premier herbal antiviral treatment for influenza. According to a small study published in “The Journal of International Medicine Research” in 2004, elderberry syrup reduced the duration of the flu by four days compared with the placebo. Research published in the “Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine” revealed that elderberry syrup improved the symptoms of influenza in 93.3 percent of cases within two days, while in the control group 91.7 percent of patients took six days to experience symptom relief. Elderberry has also proven to be useful in treating secondary bacterial infections that can cause severe complications during an acute influenza infection such as bacterial pneumonia, according to a study published in “BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine” in February 2011.
Other Herbal Allies
Herbs can also be used to lower fever naturally without the side-effects common to non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. Diaphoretic herbs open the pores and stimulate sweating when taken as a hot tea, which can lower fever without turning off the body's immune response. Diaphoretics include peppermint, ginger, boneset, yarrow and elder flower. The Chinese herbal formula Lianhua Qingwen appears to be as effective as pharmaceutical antiviral drugs at reducing the duration of influenza, according to research published in the “Chinese Medical Journal” in September 2011. Lomatium -- known also as biscuit root -- is an herb that was used by a number of Native American tribes to treat upper respiratory illnesses including influenza, according to herbalist Todd Caldecott.
Influenza infections can also be treated and prevented by the addition of appropriate supplements. According to Dr. Mark Hyman, people with a vitamin D deficiency are 11 times more likely to get a cold or the flu, and supplementing with vitamin D can reduce colds and flu by up to 42 percent. Dr. Joseph Mercola recommends that adults take an average of 5,000 international units of vitamin D-3 per day during the cold and cloudy winter months to support the immune system. Research published in the “Journal of Manipulative and Physiological Therapeutics” revealed that large doses of vitamin C -- 1,000 milligrams per hour for the first day and three times daily thereafter -- relieved and prevented flu symptoms compared with the control group.
Diet and Lifestyle Modifications
It is important to drink plenty of fluids and to keep the mucous membranes moist by using a saline wash or humidifier to prevent the flu, according to Hyman. He also recommends avoiding simple sugars, because refined sugar is known to suppress immunity. Eat plenty of fresh whole foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts seeds and legumes. Spices such as garlic, ginger, onions and turmeric can support immunity and act as antimicrobial agents, according to Hyman. Adequate sleep, healthy physical activity and managing stress are all important lifestyle considerations for preventing and treating influenza.