Supporting the immune system and keeping yourself as healthy as possible seems a sensible way to prevent catching the flu and as herbalist we would recommend regular doses of Echinacea to both support the immune system and as an anti-viral. Although there has been some debate as to whether Echinacea can raise the risk of a ‘cytokine storm’ in someone who has a swine flu, there is no evidence for this and most herbalists are happy to use Echinacea as a prophylactic. However, it would be wise to use different herbs once someone has contracted the virus and in particular during a fever.
The belief is that because Star Anise is used in Tamiflu, taking it will therefore ‘cure the flu’ – this has lead to shortages and price increases of this oriental spice. Firstly, no herb or drug can cure the flu – all they can ever do is reduce the symptoms or reduce the risk of you contracting it in the first place. Secondly, the so-called ‘magic ingredient’ in Star Anise, Shikimic acid, actually has no anti-viral properties of its own, but is only used as a precursor in the manufacture of Tamiflu. That said, Star Anise does contain linalool, which is anti-viral so it may be worth taking, but there are more effective herbs in this area. If you do decide to take Star Anise, make sure you use the Chinese Anise (Illicium verum) rather than the similar looking Japanese Anise (Illicium anisatum) which is highly toxic.
Elderberries have traditionally been used to help patients with colds and flu and recent studies seem to back up Elderberry’s ability to reduce the duration and severity of virus infections. One study in particular in 2009, by Roschek et al showed elderberries ability to bind directly to the H1N1 virus particles, stopping them entering the body’s cells to reproduce. In fact, elderberry juice seems to ‘mop-up’ the virus in the body and helps reduce the spread of the disease, significantly improving recovery times. Elderberry, either as a juice, tincture or syrup, would be seem to be the preferred treatment for reducing Swine flu severity and can also be used prophylatically in combination with Echinacea.
Bonset, or Eupatorium perfoliatum, though not being widely touted as treatment for Swine flu by the chattering classes on the Internet, is valued by herbalist for it’s ability to reduce flu symptoms and was used to great effect in America of the great flu outbreak of 1918. A native to North America and first used in western herbalism by the Eclectics, this bitter herb seems to reduce fevers, sooth aches and reduce the chances of secondary infections such as pneumonia. However, as with all Eupatoria species professional care is advised and this herb should only be taken under the supervision of a qualified medical herbalist.