In Ayurveda (Indian medicine), ginger has both dry and sharp qualities, said Sonia Masocco, an instructor for Ayurvedic herbology at The Ayurvedic Institute in Albuquerque, N.M. The herb's dry qualities help to liquefy a cold, which may help stop a runny nose or watery eyes in its tracks. Ginger's sharpness is said to influence the quickness of its penetrating actions.
According to Masocco, the ratio used to make ginger tea in India is about four tablespoons of freshly cut slices of ginger root to one cup of water. She says the key to using this healing spice is its potency. Too much water will dilute the sharpness and dry aspects of ginger.
The tea is boiled or simmered into a pale yellow liquid that has a pungent taste. A ginger paste can also be applied to the chest or forehead to relieve congestion there.
Growing up in Canada as a member of the Mohawk tribe, Dr. Theresa Maresca learned to turn to the plants in her region for medicine. And if her throat started to feel scratchy, she would take a bite of "bitterroot," which is known among American Indians as a treatment for a sore throat or a cold.
Bitterroot goes by many other names including singer's root (the remedy is used for a hoarse voice), said Maresca, now a family medicine physician and director of the Native American Center for Excellence at the University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle. "You can even find it sold at health food stores as calamus root or sweet flag."
You take a little chunk of bitterroot or bite off a piece, which tastes quite bitter, as its name suggests. The root is hard, and as it softens up, it becomes spongy so you can suck on it for hours, explained Maresca, who typically carries a small piece of it with her when she travels in case she feels a cold coming on.
Bitterroot might work to soothe an inflamed throat or quiet a cough by increasing the production of saliva. And because it also helps calm the stomach, it's sometimes considered "Indian Tums."
American Indians might also turn to teas to ease their cold symptoms. One traditional brew that Maresca likes to steep is a combination of the herb peppermint and yarrow. A medicinal plant, yarrow is thought to increase circulation and promote sweating to help bring down a fever. She describes the tea as pungent with a distinctive, but pleasant smell.
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."
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.