Breathe, Health Notes

Breathe easy with botanicals

By Josh Williams

Nature has some answers for the season of colds and bad air.

Can’t kick the cough? Chances are you’re one of many Wasatch Front residents struggling to breathe easy with poor air quality, wintertime inversion, and the daily battle of cold and flu season… all at the same time!

While we all may have occasional issues with respiratory health, this time of year can be especially challenging. In spite of our lungs  doing their best to keep us nourished and healthy, we often end up feeling our worst.

The good news is that we have many herbal allies that can help support a healthier respiratory system, easier breathing, better circulation and a strong immune system.

Under the radar until you’re under the weather

When healthy, the respiratory system works quietly to supply our body with oxygen and assist with the removal of waste. We can often go long stretches of time without really thinking much about our breathing until something challenges it. As an automatic function, breathing can drop out of our conscious minds into the background where it does its work without respite. Then along comes a tickle in the throat, a rattle in the chest, or a burning in the sensitive linings of the lungs and suddenly breathing is all we can think about!

When our respiratory system is challenged by air quality, illness or stress, there are many herbal remedies we can work with and many other types of therapies we can use to get back to balance. However, supporting a healthy respiratory system before something comes up is the best way to show some love to our lungs and respect to our respiration.

Support is superior

Support means that we’re aware of our sensitivities, know which seasons of the year tend to cause us the most trouble, and pay attention to how we’re breathing and what quality of air we’re taking in.

If you’re one of those folks who just knows that every February you end up with the worst cough that lingers into the spring, you know that by mid-winter you’d better start supporting, nourishing and protecting your lungs before the trouble starts. If you’re someone who struggles with springtime allergies, summertime dry cough, or autumn colds, you can use that experience to work supportive herbs into your wellness protocol in advance. We’ll explore some wonderful supportive herbs for the respiratory system later on.

Herbal energetics

If you have a book on herbs or some favorite websites filled with herbal wisdom, you can look up which plants are good for just about any ailment. But there’s more to the art and science of working with herbs than an A-Z list of “this herb for this condition.” The energetics of an herb allows us to really refine how we connect with the right plant for our purpose.

Maybe the cough is wet, phlegmy, and productive. If so, taking an herb that’s energetically wet, cooling, and phlegm-producing will only make matters worse. While this herb could very well be celebrated for its effects on the lungs, throat and respiratory system and might be listed as a great herb for a cough, it’s not the right herb for the particular type of cough you have right now. For a wet, productive cough we would want to look for an herb that’s on the dryer, warmer side to help harmonize the situation and provide the body with what it needs to heal.

Refine your search to include the characteristics of your cough or, if possible, work with a qualified herbalist to benefit from the energetic depths of plant medicine.

Herbs for respiratory support

The list of herbs traditionally used to support a healthy respiratory system is epic in length, so I’ll introduce you to just a few of my favorites. These herbs show up a lot for us in our work with inversion, poor air, and seasonal illnesses and they’re great allies to know about during every season.

Hyssop (Hyssopus officinalis)

Hyssop is a proud member of the giant Mint family (Lamiaceae) which is native from Europe to the Middle East but grows cultivated in gardens around the world. Hyssop is one of my favorite herbs to work with when a thorough cleaning of the lungs is desired. This gentle herb moves into the deep lungs to help loosen and expel built-up waste and toxins creating a more free, open breath. I like to blend hyssop with other supporting herbs into a delicious herbal tea which can be enjoyed in the morning for a week or two as part of a cleansing routine.

Mullein leaf (Verbascum Thapsus)

Chances are you’ve seen mullein growing in foothills and yards around the valley. Mullein can reach over six feet in height here in Salt Lake City and it puts on an impressive show of canary-yellow flowers that bloom throughout the growing season.

A biennial, mullein is small and unassuming during its first year of growth and reaches up with a giant flower-covered stalk on its second year. We work with mullein leaves as a demulcent herb specific to the lungs. This herb soothes, lubricates and protects the delicate linings of the respiratory system—much appreciated when there’s a dry, painful cough.

Mullein leaves are covered in tiny little hairs which can irritate the throat, so tea made from this herb must be strained through a paper coffee filter. Mullein leaf is a base for many medicinal smoking blends due to its smooth draw and sweet flavor.

Elecampane root (Inula helenium)

A bright member of the Sunflower family (Asteraceae), elecampane brings a unique gift to the respiratory system. Elecampane root simultaneously causes gentle expectoration while also soothing, protecting and relieving pain in the lungs. We use it in a tea or tincture blend whenever there’s inflammation and mucous in the lungs.

Yerba santa (Eriodictyon californicum)

Earlier I mentioned the importance of herbal energetics, and yerba santa is a great example of just how powerful this understanding can be. Celebrated as an herb for general respiratory wellness, bronchitis, cough and asthma, yerba santa is incredibly drying in its energy. This means that if you have a dry, irritated cough and take yerba santa, it may aggravate your condition or at least not help at all, even though it’s a fantastic respiratory herb. The drying nature of yerba santa makes it a great choice when the lungs are wet, bogged down with mucous, phlegmy or rattling.

Breathe deep

Herbal teas are an easy way to work with most respiratory herbs. I also love them in tincture form so that they can travel with us wherever we may go. Herbal baths, steams, smoking blends and compresses are other forms of plant medicine that work well with the whole respiratory system depending on the person and their needs. Do your homework or consult a qualified herbalist or healthcare practitioner if you have special issues or find yourself diving in deep.

When in doubt, brew a hot cup of your favorite herbal tea, inhale the warm steam as it dances away from your mug, and drink in the nourishment of your plant allies.


Josh Williams is a traditionally trained clinical herbalist and owner of Greenthread Herbs, a full-service herbal apothecary in the Avenues neighborhood of Salt Lake City.

This article was originally published on January 29, 2020.