My son Dave is the reason I became an herbalist. He had severe asthma and allergies as a child and when he was four, our pediatrician said it was time to put him on steroids. Unwilling to go that route unless it was absolutely necessary, I began my quest for other options. With the help of herbs, Dave’s health was restored. He has not had an attack of asthma since that time.
His lungs, however, do remain his weakest link, and he remains susceptible to pneumonia or bronchitis during the winter inversions when Salt Lake valley air is so bad that people are advised to stay indoors.
During a recent red alert night, his hacking cough woke me up. He clued me in to what herbal therapy was necessary when he said he was trying to clear his lungs.
Osha, or bear root, Ligusticum porterii, is my go-to herb for serious “lung grunge,” as my teacher, Michael Moore, called it. It is antimicrobial, antiviral and promotes efficient expectoration, meaning it pushes congestion out of the lungs. I keep a jar of the tincture on hand. I put three droppersful into a glass of water and Dave drank it down. The herb worked beautifully. In a short time his labored coughing ceased and the house was quiet for the rest of the night. He took three more droppersful in the morning for good measure. You do not have to have as fragile lungs as my son to be concerned about keeping your breathing apparatus healthy and less susceptible to illness during the bad air months, nor do you have to get really sick before you address the potential problem.
Osha is big medicine and, because of its potency and strength, should be used on an as-needed basis. But there are many other gentle and easy-to-use herbs. Try using some of these herbs regularly to prevent irritation from lodging in your respiratory tract where it can develop into something more serious.
GARLIC. You probably know that if you eat a lot of garlic, your skin excretes the chemicals and you smell like, well, garlic. The good news here is that it’s also excreted through our lungs. Thus, garlic offers us an easy, everyday therapy we can use to keep fluids moving so the lungs don’t become congested. I like to infuse warm butter or olive oil with fresh garlic and pour it over veggies or dip bread into it. Cooking causes the flavor to be milder but for best therapeutics only cook it for about five minutes. Use fresh. Available everywhere.
LICORICE. Among its many skills, licorice works as a fluid balancer in the body, moistening dry membranes. Singers use it to keep their throats in tip-top shape for performance. So if you have a dry, scratchy throat or tight, dry lungs, add licorice root to tea, tincture, lozenges or just chew on a root. The herb tastes sweet. It does not have the flavor of black licorice (which may be a pro or a con for you). Use dried. Widely available in a variety of preparations where herbs and herbal products are sold.
MARSHMALLOW and SLIPPERY ELM. These herbs can be used interchangeably in hot or, preferably, cold infusions. They help ease a dry, scratchy throat because of their mucilaginous properties.
Make a cold infusion by putting a heaping teaspoon of either herb in a cup of room-temperature water. Let it sit for at least an hour and then gradually sip the gooey liquid. It coats the throat and should diminish the irritation.
Prepared teas that are already blended for therapeutic effect are a good option but you can save a lot of money by buying small quantities in bulk and storing in glass jars at home. Mountain Rose Herbs online lets you order as little as a quarter pound of dried herb.
MINT, GINGER, CAYENNE PEPPER. These offer varying degrees of vasodilation which makes for increased secretions to keep respiratory pathways clear. Think of eating hot salsa. Your nose runs and eyes water. It gets everything moving in the mucous membranes. Use these herbs regularly on bad air days to help avoid irritation in the airway. Mint: fresh or dried. Ginger: fresh or dried. Cayenne pepper: dried and ground. Choose organic whenever possible.
Eucalyptus helps to open the airways when inhaled or rubbed onto the chest in diluted form such as a liniment or salve. Eucalyptus along with essential oil of sage helps to kill germs in a sick room.
Good quality humidifiers and easy, inexpensive steams can keep airways moist and open. I just simmer water in a pot and add one drop of these oils to it. I remove the pot from the stove, drape a towel over my head and the pot and breathe deeply. Use caution and make sure the steam is not too hot or it will burn.
The heavy hitters
What if, like my son, you get sick and the illness lodges in your lungs? This is where we call on stronger botanical medicine to help us. I have already explained what Osha does. Here are a few more options to consider if conditions worsen. These herbs are much stronger-acting in the body and can really help turn around more challenging and persistent lung problems if they begin to worsen.
PLEURISY ROOT. Helps to moisten membranes. It has been traditionally used for cases of dry non-spasmodic asthma; acute, dry bronchitis; acute, dry pulmonary cough; influenza (dry, hot, asecretory); pleurisy; recuperation from acute bronchial pneumonia with difficult expectoration.
ELECAMPANE. This herb, a tall plant with scraggly, sunflower-like blooms, grows well here in Utah. For medicine, we use the root. It will knock down a spastic cough very nicely. Use it with osha to create a productive cough with efficient expectoration. This is an important point: You do not want to make coughing stop if your lungs are full of congestion.
LOBELIA. This ancient traditional herb relaxes that body from the waist up so it is useful for asthmatics or spastic conditions of the respiratory tract. It is also potentially toxic unless used in only very small doses.
As always, if you need to go to a doctor, go; but herbs may help diminish symptoms and irritations which may mean you will not get as sick and you will recover more quickly. For some of these stronger acting herbs, consult a qualified practitioner who can put together a formula, a combination of herbal tinctures, to specifically address your respiratory health weaknesses and concerns.
House plants to clean your air
Fill your home with air-purifying plants! NASA recommended the following to improve the air quality in the space station—they’ll work for you, too. NASA suggests 6-10 plants per 1,800 square feet.
• English ivy (Hedera helix)
• Spider plant (Chlorophytum comosum)
• Golden pothos or Devil’s ivy
(Scindapsus aures or Epipremnum aureum)
• Peace lily (Spathiphyllum ‘Mauna Loa’)
• Chinese evergreen (Aglaonema modestum)
• Bamboo palm or reed palm (Chamaedorea sefritzii)
• Snake plant or mother-in-law’s tongue
• Heartleaf philodendron
(Philodendron oxycardium, syn. Philodendron cordatum)
• Selloum philodendron
(Philodendron bipinnatifidum, syn. Philodendron selloum)
• Elephant ear philodendron (Philodendron domesticum)
• Red-edged dracaena (Dracaena marginata)
• Cornstalk dracaena (Dracaena fragans ‘Massangeana’)
• Janet Craig dracaena (Dracaena deremensis ‘Janet Craig’)
• Warneck dracaena (Dracaena deremensis ‘Warneckii’)
• Weeping fig (Ficus benjamina)
• Gerbera daisy or Barberton daisy (Gerbera jamesonii)
• Pot mum or florist’s chrysanthemum (Chrysantheium morifolium)
• Rubber plant (Ficus elastica)
Merry Lycett Harrison, RH (AHG) is a clinical herbalist, creator of Thrive Tonic and professional member of The American Herbalists Guild. She teaches classes and enjoys helping people understand how to safely integrate herbs into diet and healthcare. Visit her at the Downtown Alliance’s Winter Market. www.millcreekherbs.com.