Adding immune boosting herbs and spices to the menu is a great way to support immune function and overall health. We'll share our top choices to use as herbal medicines and in cooking, plus some of my favorites to grow in the garden.
Improving gut health is a great way to build a strong immune system. Many warming spices like cinnamon and black pepper are also anti-microbial and anti-inflammatory – and perfect for cold and flu season. From a hot cup of ginger tea to a rich soup broth loaded with herbs, it's easy to add some good food that's good for you.
Herb or Spice?
Generally speaking, the term “herb” refers to the leafy part of plants, whether is it used fresh or dry. “Spices” usually refers to plants where we use the roots, bark, and seeds.
That said, you may see a plant called an herb in one place and a spice in another, or even mixed in with the produce. For instance, garlic and onions are spices, but also have medicinal uses.
Many herbs are easy to grow, and make a great addition to the yard or garden. The article “11 Best Medicinal Herbs to Grow” shares some of my favorite herbs and growing tips. Many natural food stores also stock at least some fresh herbs, and a wide variety of dried herbs and spices.
Immune Boosting Herbs and Spices
From traditional Chinese medicine to Native American traditions, there are many different plant healing traditions around the world. There are far too many to cover in a single article, but these are some common herbs and spices that may stimulate the immune system.
- Purple Coneflower (Echinacea angustifolia and purpurea)
- Elderberry flowers or berries (Sambucus species)
- Calendula (Calendula officinalis)
- Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum)
- Chamomile (Matricaria recutita)
- Astragalus (Astragalus propinquus)
- Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)
- Plantain (Plantago species)
- Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis)
- Sage (Salvia officinalis)
- Thyme (Thymus vulgaris L)
- Oregano (Origamum vulgare L)
- Coriander, Cilantro (Coriandrum sativum)
- Spearmint, Peppermint (Mentha spicata, Mentha X piperita)
- Licorice Root (Glycyrrhiza glabra)
- Bay leaf (Laurus nobilis)
- Cinnamon, Ceylon, Cassia, Saigon (Cinnamomum verum, cassia, loureiroi)
- Ginger (Zingiber officinale Roscoe)
- Cloves (Syzygium aromaticum)
- Turmeric (Curcuma longa L)
- Cumin, black cumin, black seed (Cuminum cyminum L. Nigella sativa L.)
- Chili pepper, paprika (Capsicum annuum, Capsicum frutescens)
- Black Pepper (Piper nigrum L)
- Garlic (Allium sativum)
- Onion (Allium cepa)
Rule of thumb: Strongly scented and flavored herbs and spices come with strong oils that can add flavor, improve your health and often extend the life of your food.
“Must Have” Immune Boosting Herbs for the Garden
These are some of my favorite herbs that boost overall immune health and fight viral infections like the common cold and flu.
Elderberry immunity booster products became so popular in recent years that dried elderberries for making syrup were often out of stock. Thankfully, along with the increasing interest came an increase in growers, and more nurseries selling elderberry plants.
European elderberry (Sambucus nigra) is native to Europe, and American elderberry (Sambucus canadensis) is native to North America. Both have similar medicinal properties.
We put in our elderberry patch a few years ago, and now have enough berries for our use and to share with friends and family. The plants provide elderflowers, too, which are also medicinal. (Learn more about growing your own elderberry bushes here.)
Harvest elderflowers on a dry sunny day, selecting flowers in good condition with a fresh fragrance. Clip the entire flower head for drying, then strip the dried blossoms off the stems with a fork.
To make elderflower tea, use one heaping teaspoon of dried elderflowers per cupful of boiling water. Cover and infuse for three to five minutes, and then strain and drink hot. Elderflower is one of the best herbs to break a fever and encourage sweating. Combine with yarrow and mint in the early stages of a cold or flu.
Elderberries may reduce the length and severity of colds and flu. Elderberry glycerite and syrup are excellent for coughs, too. You can learn how to make elderberry syrup from fresh or dried elderberries here.
Echinacea is another well known immune boosting herb, though study results are mixed on its effectiveness. One study found that it reduced the odds of developing a cold by 58% and cold duration by 1-4 days. Another study found no difference between the plant and a placebo.
I suspect like any herb, it's more than the sum of its parts, and the whole herb works different than isolated compounds. Herb quality is also important.
Echinacea is easy to grow, though it will take some time before the roots are large enough to harvest. The entire plant is used medicinally. Coneflower leaves and flowers work best for tea, while roots work better for tincture.
The above ground parts have more polysaccharides, which are immunostimulant. The roots are high in volatile oils.
Those sensitive to the daisy family should avoid echinacea.
Mint is naturally cooling and soothing. It's my favorite herb for upset stomach, but also works well for fevers and congestion. Mild flavored mint tea is safe for both adults and children. Try mint in herbal gelatin for those who don't like tea.
Mint can help open airways and act as an expectorant to clear out phlegm. It's also antibacterial and anti-inflammatory. Enjoy mint tea hot or warm, breathing in the vapors. Mint essential oil is also popular for diffusing to open up airways.
Mint is an aggressive grower, and may try to take over your garden beds. I plant it where I can mow around the plants to keep them in check, or keep them in a container.
Sage is antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, antiviral, and antimicrobial. It prefers sunny, well drained soil – we have a plant that's taken over a corner of the greenhouse.
Try a sage tea gargle for sore throats, or sip on the tea at the first sign of symptoms. Sage is also a safe herb to feed to poultry to improve their immune health.
Best Cold and Flu Tea Recipe
- 2 teaspoons sage
- juice of one lemon (or one teaspoon lemon balm herb)
- Pinch cayenne pepper
- 1 tablespoon (15 ml) honey
To prepare the tea, pour one cup boiling hot water over sage and allow to steep for 10 minutes. Strain out herbs, add remaining ingredients, and drink hot.
Read “Sage Benefits for Home, Health & Personal Care” for growing tips and recipes.
Eupatorium perfoliatum is a perennial plant indigenous to North America. You may be able to find it in the wild on the edge of marshes or ponds, or you can try cultivating it in rain gardens.
What captured my attention about this plant was a story I read in “Edible & Medicinal Wild Plants of the Midwest. The author shared how boneset was used to cure a kind of influenza called “breakbone fever” back in the early 1800s.
“Breakbone fever” was a viral illness that made the muscles, bones, and joints of those afflicted hurt so badly they felt as if they were breaking. When treated with Eupatorium perfoliatum, they felt as though their bones had “set” or healed.
Boneset stimulates white blood cells to fight viral and bacterial infections. This is similar to the action of echinacea, but the two paired together are stronger than each used separately.
We were hit with some illness that matched this description back in October, and I wish I had known about boneset then. By this time next year we should have our own supply. The Holistic Herbal recommends a tea with 2 parts boneset and one part each elder flower and peppermint for influenza.
More Home Remedies
for Cold and Flu Season
Treat and prevent cold & flu naturally.
While herbs and spices are not a “magic bullet”, good nutrition is an important part of staying healthy. Adding these nutritional powerhouses to the menu and medicine cabinet is a good choice for a common sense home.
This post is for general information and is not intended to replace medical advice from a healthcare provider. Please see a trained healthcare practitioner if symptoms are severe or persistent. Check for contraindications if you are on any medication or you have a medical condition.
Originally published in 2011, last updated in 2022.