PORTLAND, Maine — As a Maine winter approaches, the boats go into shrink-wrap and the signs for flu shots come out. “Did you get yours today?”
While no one wants to fall prey to the winter scourge, how Mainers fend off aches and pains is not a one-shot-fits-all response.
For some, the answer lies in the spice rack, produce aisle or neighborhood juice bar.
“A lot of people now are using food as preventatives,” said Jeanette Richelson, co-owner of vegan cafe Roost House of Juice in Portland, where soups, spices and freshly pressed juices are meant to both nourish and heal. Beyond the pharmacy, alternative flu remedies abound.
“If you are feeling sick, adding ginger or garlic to anything can help,” said Richelson, a holistic health coach with a few tricks up her sleeve. “Garlic is an antibacterial and ginger is very cleansing.”
No one would think of grinding up a penicillin pill and sprinkling it in soup, but ancient cooking staples such as turmeric, the key ingredient in Roost’s coconut curry butternut squash soup, can naturally ward off the chills, said Richelson.
Turmeric may help to stave off both cancer and Alzheimer’s disease and has anti-inflammatory properties to help soothe muscles and joint aches, according to Grandparents.com, an education site for elder well-being.
Plus, says the green guru, “there’s a nice spice to it.”
Last season, Richelson said she drank copious amounts of this concoction and escaped the clutches of the flu all winter.
“If you pay attention to what you are consuming you can build your immune system with every sip,” she said.
Public health experts, however, caution that there’s no scientific evidence that herbal or homeopathic remedies protect against the flu. Dr. Sheila Pinette, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, says eating healthy is foundational when fighting disease, but not sufficient by itself.
“These are more holistic remedies,” she said. “They are not evidence-based. I’m certain that there are a lot of anecdotal stories, but influenza is a virus.”
According to Pinette, the best way to stop the virus from spreading is with a vaccine.
“The cornerstone of therapy is the flu vaccine, by everybody getting immunized we can contain it,” she said.
The federal CDC recommends that everyone six months and older get a yearly flu vaccine. But many alternative practitioners resist it.
Lauren Pignatello of Swallowtail Cottage Apothecary in Portland fills glass bottles with syrups and elixirs that distill the essence of wild herbs and flowers. Elderberry syrup, a viscous potion that tastes like a sweet summer bouquet “is a specific remedy for flu. It really cuts the virus, helps with the immune system. It’s safer and gentler,” than over-the-counter remedies, says Pignatello, a community herbalist who teaches winter wellness classes. “I’m a DIY person.”
Thick like cough syrup minus the medicinal aftertaste, her treatment “helps decongest the body, helps with fever and is very high in antioxidants and flavonoids,” said Pignatello.
Plus it’s tasty and won’t make you grimace. “It’s a food as well as a medicine, you get vitamin A, C, and E … it’s an overall immune system builder that acts as a good body tonic, builds up the blood,” she said.
Pignatello compares elderberry syrup to chicken soup, which is “a natural antibiotic and a Jewish grandmother’s secret weapon.”
Made with whole chicken, deriving broth from the carcass, soup helps build bones and cartilage, she said.
“Bone broth is so good for you, it’s like a bodybuilder,” Pignatello said. “It helps your body at an integral level.”
As anyone who has suffered through a serious bout with influenza can attest, a multipronged approach may be the only way to fight this beast.
Pignatello says thyme, lavender oil or cinnamon sticks simmering in a pot of water can loosen the chest and boost the spirit.
“It cuts the bacteria in the air and the back of the throat and is uplifting to the spirit,” she said.
Think parsley, sage, rosemary, and especially thyme.
“I use a lot of thyme,” says Pignatello, who creates her own thyme tea with hot water and gargles to “kill off mucus and bacteria.”
At Roost House of Juice, the “flu shot,” a vibrant cocktail of beets, ginger and organic lime, is promoted as a blood purifier that aids digestion and can soothe headaches. It’s not the flu shot most doctors recommend, but Richelson says the $4 drink is a painless way to “build up resilience in the body” as winter descends.