What is a virus?

Viruses are billions of years old. They’re among the oldest organisms on the planet, and are exceptionally good at what they do. Over time, they’ve learned how to bypass many of our immune responses, the aim being to gain entry to a human host so they can reproduce. Viruses inhabit a mysterious grey area between living and nonliving – in fact, they deeply challenge our ideas about what “living” really means. They carry genetic material, reproduce, and evolve through natural selection, but lack important characteristics (such as cell structure) that are considered necessary to count as life.

In comparison to viruses, plants are about a billion years old. The human species in its current form is about 35,000 years old, and western medicine about 200 years old (at a generous estimate.) Much of what we’ve learned about viral pathogens has only occurred in the last 50 years, so you can see, as a species, we’re somewhat on the back foot when it comes to dealing with new and emerging viruses.

When it comes to treatment, many people put their faith in vaccines. Without delving too much into the topic here, the fact is that these take rather a long time to produce, and as viruses are apt to continually re-arrange their make-up; this makes viral infections a very problematic issue indeed.

Anti viral herbs

Unlike humans, plants can’t run away from danger. Over time, they’ve devised a number of strategies to help protect themselves from the bacteria and viruses they come into contact with. These mechanisms have proven to be very useful for both the plants, and the humans who make medicines from them.

The best anti viral herbs not only attack specific viral pathogens, but also help boost the immune system. This is important when we consider that pathogens mutate, making them less responsive to treatment as time goes by. In addition, many anti viral herbs provide us with bonus side effects such as improving digestion, protecting the liver, or working as anti-inflammatory tonics.

Unlike pharmaceuticals, herbal medicines are unlikely to cause issues with resistance, are renewable, and arguably better for both humans, and the environment. They’re also readily accessible to ordinary people, being easy to grow and make into medicines without the need for expensive specialist equipment.

Supporting your immune system with a helping hand from nature

The aim of this post is to explain in general terms which herbal medicines may be helpful for strengthening the body’s natural defences. These are plants that have either been shown in studies to have anti viral properties, or are helpful in other ways when it comes to preventing, or fighting off coughs, colds and flu.

The Kitchen – Your first port of call:

Most people will already have an array of anti viral herbs in their kitchen cupboards. Good old fashioned garlic and ginger may seem rather benign in the face of an emerging viral crisis, but there’s a very good reason why these remedies have stood the test of time.


Not only is ginger a great remedy for the upset stomach that often comes with a virus, it also has special properties which help it wage war against the virus itself. Ginger has the ability to block the attachment of viruses to areas of the body that are infected first (like the mucous membranes lining your nose and throat.) However, if you plan to use ginger as part of your anti viral strategy, be sure to use the fresh root as opposed to the dried herb. The drying process means that the medicine will have lost a large percentage of the volatile oils that account for its therapeutic actions.

Recipe for ginger juice tea:

  • Juice a large piece of fresh gingerAnti viral herbs
  • Add the juice to a cup of warm water
  • Stir in a tablespoon of good quality local honey
  • Add a squeeze of lime and a dash of chilli pepper pick me up or a pinch of cayenne pepper

Drink one cup of tea every two to three hours.


There’s a Spanish proverb that goes “wherever you find garlic, you’ll find good health.” Garlic has a long history of use when it comes to combating infections, and studies show that the course of many ailments can be favourably influenced by consumption of the fresh plant. If you don’t mind the anti-social aspect of garlic, (this clever fellow really knows how to keep germs and people away!) the following home remedies are very simple and cheap to make.

  • Garlic infused wine: Chop or crush a clove of garlic, cover with 750 ml of white wine and let it sit overnight.
  • Garlic cough syrup: The method is the same as above, but replaces the bottle of wine with a jar of honey. Take one tablespoon (half the dose for children) every two to three hours.
  • Garlic/carrot juice. Blend three cloves of garlic up in six ounces of carrot juice. Let it sit for four to six hours.

Garlic cocktail:

  • 3 cloves of garlic
  • 1 tablespoon of red wine
  • 1 tablespoon of vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon of olive oil

Put all the ingredients in a blender and blend until smooth. Add one quarter of a cup of hot water and let the mixture stand for three hours. Do not strain. Add one third of this to a cup of hot water and drink. Continue to take doses every 3-6 hours until all the mixture has been consumed.

*In a study of chicken eggs infected with a coronavirus strain of avian infectious bronchitis virus (IBV), introducing a garlic extract 8 hours after the eggs had been inoculated with IBV had a significant inhibitory effect on the virus. In light of this study, it would certainly be of interest to discover whether increasing consumption of culinary garlic, or taking a garlic supplement could help to inhibit infection by coronavirus COVID-19.

(*Mohajer Shojai, T., Ghalyanchi Langeroudi, A., Karimi, V., Barin, A., & Sadri, N. (2016). The effect of Allium sativum (Garlic) extract on infectious bronchitis virus in specific pathogen free embryonic egg. Avicenna journal of phytomedicine, 6(4), 458–267. PubMed PMID: 27516987.)


Thyme means “to fumigate.” The aromatic, culinary herb was traditionally used as an incense to purify the air. It was an important remedy during the plague that swept throughout Europe from the 15th to 17th Centuries, and it’s antiseptic properties saved the lives of many soldiers during World War I. Thyme contains potent phytochemicals (the plant’s active ingredients) that can help break up congestion in the head and chest, and provide relief from coughs and bronchial spasms. It has a stomach settling effect, and can be used as a gargle for sore throats, or a steam inhalation to help expectorate phlegm.


Onions are a very valuable home remedy, being particularly effective for common respiratory conditions. A simple syrup can be made by layering chopped onion and garlic with sugar and left to steep. Once strained, the syrup can be added to warm water to make an immune boosting drink that even children can take.

Other general advice

Remember, food is medicine. Aim to include warming aromatic herbs such as cardamom, clove, anise, cumin, coriander, rosemary, and sage into your daily diet. Look after your gut health by ensuring you consume plenty of pre and probiotic foods like broccoli, cabbage, leeks, kefir, saurkraut and kale. Some mushrooms such as shitake and reishi are also well known for their immune boosting properties.

Vitamin C

Vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant, has anti-inflammatory activity, and supports the body’s ability to fight infection. It’s sometimes referred to as the “oil for the machinery of life” as it’s essential to so many of our body’s biochemical processes. In studies, vitamin C has been shown to shorten the duration of the common cold, and research is currently underway into the efficacy and safety of vitamin C for the clinical management of severe acute respiratory infection (SARI) the severe pneumonia which has been caused by the new corona virus strain, through randomized controlled trials during this current outbreak.

Foods rich in vitamin C include freshly squeezed orange juice, green peppers, grapefruit juice, papaya, cantaloupe, strawberries, tomato juice, potatoes, blackberries, raw spinach, sea buckthorn, blueberries, cherries, and mung bean sprouts.

Reduce your sugar consumption

There isn’t really much good to be said about sugar and its effect on immune function. High blood glucose is thought to compete with the absorption of Vitamin C, harming immune cell function and the health of mucous membranes. Eating or drinking too much sugar has a detrimental impact on the immune system cells that attack bacteria. This effect lasts for a few hours after consuming refined sugar products. Cutting them out and replacing them with vitamin C rich fruits is advisable if you find yourself coming down with a cold.

Over the counter herbal support:


Elder is a narrow spectrum anti-viral herb. Although the berries and flowers are the most commonly used parts of the plant, both the bark and leaves also have anti-viral properties.

  • In clinical trials, patients that were given elderberry syrup (4 times a day for 5 days) recovered on average 4 days faster than those who received a placebo
  • In 1995, the government of Panama sanctioned the use of elderberry juice to help bring an end to the flu epidemic
  • Elderberries are listed in the 2000 Mosby’s Nursing Drug Reference Guide as a viable supplement for colds, flu, yeast infections, nasal / chest congestion, and hay fever

The elder is therefore a very useful plant if you’re suffering from a cold or flu. Combined with echinacea and liquorice it makes a very potent and effective anti-viral mix.

Elderberry syrup with echinacea, liquorice and ginger is available from the dispensary during the cold and flu season. A recipe for making your own elderberry syrup and information about other winter wellness remedies can also be found here:

Home made elderberry syrup for winter wellness


Echinacea is one of the most popular antiviral herbs on the market. Its ability to charge up the immune system by stimulating the production of cells to help fight infections is well documented. It has a stimulating effect on the circulation, and when taken as a hot infusion can induce sweating, helping to bring down fevers, while at the same time enhancing the ability to fight off any pathogens that may have caused the fever in the first place.

Our potent Qi Force immune support tonic contains echinacea angustifolia and echinacea purpurea along with a selection of other herbs traditionally used to bolster the bodies natural defences.

Liquorice root

Liquorice is active against a wide range of viruses and is one of the active ingredients in my deep breath lung and nerve support syrup. It is a clever plant, which employs a number of versatile mechanisms. It is an immunomodulant and antiviral. It’s also moistening, supporting the mucosa of the mouth and throat. Liquorice may also have some anti-inflammatory activity. However, it is to be noted that people with high blood pressure or are pregnant should avoid taking this herb.

  • Liquorice root strongly inhibits the ability of certain viruses to create the membrane pores through which they’re able to enter the cells, effectively slowing the virus down or even killing it.
  • It stimulates the immune system to attack invading viruses, and is particularly effective against enveloped viruses (such as those responsible for the current outbreak.)
  • Liquorice is a synergist, meaning it combines well with other immune stimulating herbs, and increases their potency.

Liquorice root contains glycyrrhizin that has been shown to inhibit SARS-CoV replication with a 50% effective concentration. Further still several glycyrrhizin derivatives possess slightly higher antiviral bioactivity (Wu et al., 2004, Hoever et al., 2005).

The herbal dispensary stocks a range of anti viral remedies which have traditionally been used to help support immunity and improve natural defences.


In the event of a pandemic, healthcare and hospital resources are stretched to the limit. As many people may be unable to seek medical help, it is therefore of paramount importance to provide information to the general public on the safe use of self-treatment measures that could improve public health and reduce hospital admissions. In light of this, it is my fervent belief that further research should be done to investigate the efficacy and safety of commonly used culinary and garden plants, so that this can be put to use in the development of new medicines that can be tested and properly approved.

Please remember that not all remedies are suitable for all people and conditions. If you are pregnant, breastfeeding, have an autoimmune condition or are taking GP prescribed medications, please consult with your healthcare practitioner before taking any herbal remedies. 

All enquiries, or questions about the suitability of any of the herbal medicines discussed in this post can be directed to sarah@alchemilla.co. 

Medical disclaimer:

In regards to the current outbreak of the Covid-19 virus:

At present there is not enough information about how it compares to any virus with a longstanding history of infecting humans, therefore information about herbs that have been called “antivirals” in other contexts may, or may not be applicable in this case. The best approach to addressing any concerns about 2019-nCoV (or any viral illness for that matter,) starts with prevention and building your immunity. Please seek medical attention if you believe you may have come into contact with an infected person or are experiencing any symptoms. 

References & Further reading:

I am forever grateful for my many brilliant colleagues and fellow herbalists for sharing their knowledge. I would like to credit the following sources, from which much of the information contained in this post was adapted.


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