One of the challenges of using herbal medicine is having the right remedies available when you need them most. This is one of the reasons why over-the-counter (OTC) medicine is so popular: it’s pre-made and easily available when you need it. Home herbalists have to look ahead to each season and identify what herbal remedies to make and store.
Though sore throats and illness can appear any time of the year, upper respiratory complaints prevail during the colder months when we spend more time inside, often having more and closer contact with people who may harbor a virus. Our schedules and diets change, increasing stress levels sometimes, and resulting in a weakened immune system. One of the first signs of illness is a sore, scratchy throat – we recognize it as an initial symptom of an illness but many of us ignore it until it becomes tender and painful with inflammation. We seek relief of the symptoms with over-the-counter lozenges and sprays but most commercial products only numb or mask the symptoms and generally offer little in the way of assistance to our bodies’ natural response to eliminate the virus or bacteria causing the illness.
Numbing or masking the symptoms tricks us into believing that we are better so we continue with our normal load of work and responsibilities rather than reducing our work and resting. This is one cause of long infections – never quite eliminating a cough, tiredness, and a general sense of malaise. Herbal remedies, like herb-infused honey, can help relieve painful symptoms and support the body’s defensive response to viral and bacterial infections.
The Healthy Benefits of Honey
Honey is rich in antioxidants, loaded with phytonutrients, promotes the growth of healthy bacteria in our intestines, supports digestion, and helps with sleep. It helps reduce coughing and produces a soothing and moistening effect on inflamed throats. Because of its ability to create hydrogen peroxide, honey is also considered anti-bacterial and anti-fungal and in fact, is being used in topical dressings for burn victims. Unlike cane sugar, honey does not cause sugar spikes because it has a healthy glycemic load. And amazingly, honey never goes bad.
But these benefits only apply to raw honey, which is most often sold by local beekeepers. Honey found in grocery stores (in those cute little bear bottles) is usually pasteurized and filtered which means that the honey has been exposed to extreme heat, killing any beneficial enzymes. Several years ago, an investigation found that grocery store honey is often adulterated with corn syrup and other unhealthy additives.
You can find raw honey at farmer’s markets and stores that sell natural health products. The label usually states if honey is in raw form (unpasteurized). Support your local beekeepers and invest in a 1/2 gallon of raw honey (I use about a gallon of honey per year). Learn how to replace your use of white sugar with healthier and more sustainably produced honey.
Medicinal Herbs for Infused Honey
Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis) Delicious in both savory and sweet dishes and my personal favorite for sweetening tea. Lemon balm is soothing to the digestive and nervous systems and aids in healing cold sores.
Sage (Salvia officinalis) A must-have for the winter months! Sage’s anti-bacterial, anti-viral and anti-fungal properties soothe inflamed throats and help with drying mucous.
Elderberry (Sambucus spp.) – With its anti-viral properties, elderberry honey is another remedy staple for cold and influenza viruses. Fill a canning jar half full with dried elderberries, cover with honey, and steep for several weeks. Eat a spoonful for sore throat, use it as a tea sweetener, or use it as a sweetener in baking.
Garlic (Allium sativum) – Stop making that face! Chopped garlic steeped in honey is not as bad tasting as you are now imagining. Some of us actually like it. Garlic is a potent medicine (be sure to let it sit for 10-15 minutes after mincing to increase its medicinal value) for cold and flu viruses: it stimulates your immune system, kills pathogens, and helps clear lung congestion. Another added benefit? Keeps the vampires at bay.
Ginger (Zingiber officinale) – Ginger has a long history of medicinal use and is especially effective with upper respiratory infections. It’s the go-to remedy for upset stomachs and nausea. When you have the chills, a tablespoon of this delicious syrup produces a warming sensation in the body. And like the other herbs mentioned here, ginger honey is ideal for a sore throat. Avoid using ground ginger; peel & chop fresh organic ginger. Because of the high amount of moisture in the ginger rhizome, it creates something akin to ginger syrup. I make small batches and store them in the fridge. I add a teaspoon of ginger honey to my chai teas which makes them the perfect winter drink.
Bee Balm (Monarda spp.) – A potent medicine for the cold and flu season, bee balm offers a spicy, sweet taste. The flowers and leaves are anti-microbial and are well-suited to help with sore and inflamed throats. Like ginger, it also produces a warming sensation in the body.
Thyme (Thymus vulgaris) – Another culinary herb that was used medicinally long before it found its way into our soup pots. Thyme-infused honey helps with bacterial infections of the throat and helps control coughing spasms (the ones that keep you awake all night).
Rose Petals (Rosa spp.) – First, the key to benefitting from rose medicine is to only use roses that have a scent. Many of the cultivated roses were modified through plant breeding and lost their scents in exchange for other attributes. Wild roses grow throughout North America, often on rural lands where they are viewed as a weed. Rose petal honey is incredibly aromatic and just smelling it makes you feel better! Rose has astringent properties and can help with inflamed tissues like sore throats. It’s also absolutely delicious on scones!
Lavender (Lavendula spp.) – A fragrant floral honey that is meant to be drizzled on ice cream, pound cake, scones, biscotti, etc. Lavender can have a calming effect and is antimicrobial.
How to Make Herb-Infused Honey
- Raw (unpasteurized) honey – Minimum of one quart
- Glass jars – pints are perfect for small families and for making a variety of different herbs but if you want to share some of your honeys then use quart jars. Be sure the glass jars are thoroughly cleaned and sterilized in boiling water for 10 minutes.
- Chopstick & silicone spatula
- Freshly cut herbs are preferred but dry herbs can be used.
1) Some herbs hold a lot of moisture in their leaves and roots. Allow them to wilt a bit for 8-24 hours to remove some of the water. Honey is hygroscopic which means it absorbs moisture. Fresh ginger is an exception; I prefer the syrupy honey it creates.
2) Remove stems and roughly chop herbs. Both leaves and flowers can be used, depending on the herb.
3) Fill the jar almost full with fresh herbs. (If using dried herbs, fill half full)
4) Fill the jar with honey, completely covering the herbs. Warming the honey slightly in a double boiler can make this step easier but be sure to only warm and not cook or boil the honey.
5) Stir with a chopstick to remove air bubbles and thoroughly coat the herbs.
6) Cover with a tight-fitting lid and always label with the herb name and date.
7) Place it on a sunny windowsill or simply leave it on your counter for a week. The herbs will move to the top so I like to turn the jars upside down each day to move the herbs through the honey. After a week, move the honey to a counter or shelf and allow it to steep for a few more weeks. Some herbs will color the honey, and some will thin the honey.
Uses: For medicinal use, take a teaspoon of honey each hour while symptoms are present. Herb-infused honey can be added to teas, smoothies, and yogurt. In the kitchen, herb honey can be used in salad dressings, marinades, savory sauces and brushed onto grilled meat, fish and vegetables.