Step Aside, Chicken Soup: Eight Cold Elixirs

Besides teas, steaming is another popular cold reliever in the American Indian tradition. Boiling water is placed into a bowl, leaves or needles from a fragrant tree (such as juniper or cedar) are added, then you create a tent over your head with a cloth or towel. Breathing in the scented steam helps to unblock sinuses, break up nasal congestion and promote mucus flow.


There is a plant known as wormwood that we have used for centuries as a cure-all for everything, said Frances Miller, a tribal doctor and Inupiat Eskimo, a group found in the Northern coastal region of Alaska. "It's a plant that my people have known about from way back and its medicinal value is highly respected."

picture of wormwood

Its nickname is stinkweed, referring to its distinct smell. The reason it's called stinkweed, she explained, is because when you go looking for the plant, you know you've found it when you can pinch the leaf with your fingers, touch them to your nose and it smells exactly like menthol.

The best wormwood is found in the coastal areas of Alaska, where the mixture of the salt air and the region's soil make the plant a stronger medication, said Miller, who is affiliated with the Southcentral Foundation's Traditional Healing Program in Anchorage, Alaska, which offers both traditional healing practices along with Western medicine to Alaska natives.

The plant can either be used "green," meaning freshly picked, or dried. It's placed in a pot and boiled for 20 minutes. You remove it from the heat and allow the avocado green liquid to steep. The tea can be served hot or cold.

At the onset of cold symptoms, you might drink a cup of tea, a couple of times a day. But, Miller warned, you need to have food with the beverage because it's a strong, potent medicine that should be used very cautiously.

Besides using wormwood as a tea, you can also gargle with the liquid. Or you can put it in a nasal spray bottle to clear the sinuses and allow the nasal passageways to drain, said Miller.


Pronounced oo-hah-LOW-wah, this native Hawaiian plant is well-known for its medicinal use among traditional healers. The plant looks like a weed, but it's the juice from the inner bark that's thought to be most beneficial for cold symptoms.

photo of uhaloa

According to "Native Hawaiian Medicine," a textbook translated by Malcolm Chun, the bark of the root is good medicine for a sore throat, tonsillitis and chest pain when breathing.

The bitter root from the inner bark might be chewed to release the juice inside the plant. Swallowing this juice as it mixes with the saliva in your mouth could help soothe a sore throat.

The root bark can also be boiled into a reddish-colored tea that's drunk for sore throats as well as for bronchial and bacterial infections.

Dane Silva is a native Hawaiian healer on the Big Island. He described some of the healing methods he might use for a cold: When someone has a cold, the family talks with each other, and we call this concept "ohana." A tradition of the ohana when caring for someone with a respiratory infection may include giving indigenous herbal medicines and massage, accompanied by prayers for spiritual intercession, guidance and protection.

"An herbal tea of uhaloa may be recommended to reduce the intensity of the immune response to the infection. Other herbal beverages made with turmeric [also known as 'olena'] may reduce the inflammatory symptoms," Silva said.

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