Have no fear, herbs are here

'fraid of the flu? Your body can fight it off without the vaccine

Call it the Tickle Me Elmo Syndrome.

The shortage of flu vaccines in America has prompted thousands of people to queue up for flu shots like hordes rushing the doors at a Wal-Mart grand opening. Yet standing in line can be worse than the disease: At least one person in the U.S. died after fainting and hitting her head while waiting in the sun for several hours. And now it appears a new Wellington flu strain that started in New Zealand is not covered by the current vaccine. It's like getting Tickle Me Elmo home only to discover he doesn't laugh.

About 36,000 people die annually from flu complications, but contrast that statistic with numbers from the Centers for Disease Control, which reported that in 2003, 69,301 people died from diabetes. A 1999 article in the Journal of the American Medical Association reported that 280,000 American deaths could be attributed to obesity. Nonetheless, the Texas Diabetes Institute on Zarzamora Street stocks its vending machines with Coke and Reese's Cups. That's not funny, either.

If you can't get a flu shot this year because you're not in a high-risk group, or you prefer to avoid the vaccine for personal or philosophical reasons, medicinal herbs can help strengthen the immune system and allow your body's defenses to ward off illness or to lessen the symptoms should you get sick.

Although federal law prohibits herbs and supplements from being marketed to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent disease, many kitchen pantries are stocked with echinacea capsules and goldenseal tincture for a stronger immune system, slippery elm tea for sore throats, calendula and aloe balms for skin irritation, and chamomile tea for upset stomachs.

A few cautionary notes before we proceed: Herbs affect people differently. For example, some people with pollen allergies also react badly to chamomile. Taking herbal remedies and prescription drugs can produce side effects. Some studies have purportedly debunked the effectiveness of herbs such as echinacea; others support users' claims that echinacea staves off or weakens bugs that are bombarding your immune system.

Now, back to the garden.

Herbalist Kendra Moorin has a special immune-building concoction using herbs that can be grown in Texas climate:

One part (could be an ounce or a cup, depending on how much you want to make) each of dried peppermint, elderflower, and yarrow.

Put 1 tablespoon of herb mixture in a tea infuser and steep in a cup of boiling water for 15 minutes.

Drink to your health.

If you don't grow your own herbs, look for trusted brands such as Gaia or Eclectic Institute, which use only certified organic herbs. And unlike fish, herbs should have an odor. They can even stink.

"All herbs should smell," Morrin says. "If they're not fragrant, they've gone bad."

Yet, herbs should be only part of your health regimen. Diet and exercise - yes, you've heard it a million times, but it's still true - also contribute to a strong immune system.

Medicinal herb and health resources

* www.herbs.org
* www.gentlewellness.com
* www.amfoundation.org
* The Healer Within by Roger Jahnke

* The San Antonio Herb Society meets Thursday, November 11 at 6pm at the San Antonio Garden Center, corner of Funston and North New Braunfels. Their presentation is titled "Herbs: Beneficial Plants for South Central Texas."

The group's website, www.saherbs.org, includes links and email addresses for people interested in medicial herbs. Contact Carol Lee Fisher at 681-6815.

Herbalist and Qi Gong instructor Mary Martha McNeel says she teaches her students to tap into their bodies' ability to heal.

"People want to get back into a mode of learning how to use herbs and vitamins," says McNeel. A lot of our health also has to do with the food we eat. "We need to eat foods that are in season. Tropical fruits tend not to be good for our immune system. Northern fruits are better: apples, berries, and pears."

McNeel also advises people to eat root vegetables such as carrots and turnips for their high vitamin content, and to avoid dairy because it creates mucus, which you don't need more of if you have the flu.

She recommends some form of daily gentle exercise - Qi Gong, Tai Chi, or yoga - to combat stress, which lowers your body's defenses, and to stimulate the immune system. "Movement circulates T cells and lymphocytes `white blood cells involved in the immune system` and the body becomes strong," McNeel explains.

While McNeel uses a combination of herbs, diet, and exercise to maintain her health (14 years ago she used homeopathic remedies to recover from severe cervical dysplasia, a precursor to cervical cancer), people have to experiment to discover what methods work best for them.

So if you've missed the flu vaccine, you still have the power to fight disease. As McNeel says: "The most profound healing is within us."

By Lisa Sorg

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