Immune-Boosting Elixirs

Winter weather has finally arrived in our little corner of the world. While my mood seemed to lighten with the uncharacteristic sun in late autumn, there is comfort in the familiarity of blustery, wet seasonal weather. The wind is gusting hard enough to knock the outdoor wreaths against the window panes and unleash a torrent of pine cones and small branches. (Okay, maybe less bluster would be more comforting.) It is perfect weather for sharing one of my favorite, healthy cold-weather beverages.

I discovered hot cocoa as a teenager. We moved to Washington from Florida when I was 12 so I didn’t have a childhood history of sipping something warm after sledding like some kids. Swiss Miss hot chocolate (with tiny marshmallows, please!) was my drink of choice. It tasted even more decadent when made with non-dairy creamer. I loved to rip open a packet, dump in the “creamer” (because real cream was too unhealthy, you know), add hot water and chug down the barely-pronounceable ingredients. It was the 80s, when we liked our food processed and packaged (because we didn’t know any better). We also didn’t give much thought about what was in our food (or if it was actually food).

Interestingly, when I look up the Swiss Miss website now, I can’t find the ingredients for any of their products. They list the nutritional value (8% saturated fat!), but nary an ingredient to be found. However, the welcome video touts they use “real milk.” A search on the Internet turns up several sites that do list the ingredients in Swiss Miss. The first two ingredients are sugar and corn syrup. Depending on the product, corn syrup may be first, followed by sugar. Either way, the main ingredients in this packaged hot chocolate are sugars, plus some sucralose and “artificial flavor.” Ick.

In Traditional Chinese Medicine, white sugar is known as “white death.” It increases inflammation and depresses the immune system – not the best thing to be imbibing during flu season! According to the American Heart Association, most Americans consume nearly 20 teaspoons of added sugars each day, more than triple the recommended daily limit for women and double for men. Sugar-sweetened beverages are the number one source of added sugars in our diet.

Fortunately, one of the best – and easiest – ways to reduce your sugar intake is to make your drink at home. This homemade hot cocoa recipe is all grown-up. If you are new to dark chocolate, it might take you a bit to get used to the rich, bitter taste. But once you do, you’ll never go back! (I’m also talking to you, peppermint mocha and gingerbread latte junkies! I say that lovingly as a recovering Starbucksaholic.)

One of the additional benefits of making your own is that you can also transform your drink to an elixir. While homemade hot cocoa with cacao powder is an excellent foodie choice, it can be elevated to magical status with the addition of herbs. Literally. In common lore, an elixir is “a magical or medicinal potion” that can change metals into gold or prolong life indefinitely. In herbal-speak, an elixir is a solution with medicinal properties.

Cacao is a bitter herb, although you’d never guess it with the sugars and milk we use to dilute it. The cacao bean is high in antioxidants and its constituents have been shown to protect against heart disease, improve cognitive function and mood, and decrease fatigue and anxiety. To make your hot cocoa a true superfood, consider adding the immunity-boosting herb astragalus root (Astragalus propinquus aka Astragalus membranaceus).

Astragalus root has been used for thousands of years in China to strengthen the immune system. Human clinical trials and in vitro studies show that it increases the white blood cell count, decreases viral replication, and stimulates the production of T killer cells. When I began using astragalus root regularly, I stopped getting frequent colds. Along with recognizing when my body needed to rest, I credit astragalus root for boosting my immunity against every cold-flu bug that came my way. Astragalus is also recommended for improved energy (adrenal fatigue, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome), heart function, and liver and kidneys repair due to medications or viral infections.

The benefits of astragalus root occur over time. It is best taken like a food, which means daily and in large amounts, not small doses like medicine. The following recipe is adapted from Rosalee de la Forêt. To create your own elixir of life, use astragalus root. If you want to forego the astragalus and just make a delicious and still-nutritious hot cocoa, just use water.

Chocolate Elixir

20 g. astragalus root (~15 small slices)

2 T. cacao powder* (organic, if possible)

1/2 tsp. cinnamon (optional)

1/2 – 3/4 t. coconut oil (you may substitute ghee or butter)

1 1/2 t. vanilla extract

Honey, to taste

  1. Place astragalus root in 2 cups of water. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 20 minutes, covered.
  2. Allow to cool slightly and remove astragalus root. Whisk in cacao powder and cinnamon.
  3. Remove from heat and add coconut oil, vanilla, and honey.
  4. Optional: Blend with hand mixer or blender for 30 seconds until frothy.

*If your palate is not accustomed to bitter dark chocolate, consider “cutting” it with Dutch-processed cocoa. Dutch-processed doesn’t have the same herbal benefits as cacao powder, but it’s still good!

Notes: Avoid taking astragalus root if you already have a cold or the flu. Don’t use astragalus with immunosuppressive drugs.

Sources:

1. “Sip Smarter Infographic.” About Heart Attacks, American Heart Association, 2018, www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-eating/eat-smart/sugar/sip-smarter-infographic.

2,3. de la Forêt, Rosalee. Alchemy of Herbs. Carlsbad, CA: Hay House, 2017. Print.

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