There are many Western herbs for helping the respiratory system: stimulating or relaxing expectorants, anticatarrhals, antispasmodics and relaxants, support for the immune and cardiac systems, antimicrobials, demulcents. Then there are the respiratory tonics like elecampane, coltsfoot and mullein. I have already talked a little about mullein. David Hoffmann describes this category as:
“…pulmonaries, or amphoteric expectorants, have a beneficial effect upon both lung tissue and function.” (321).
I like that explanation of respiratory tonics because elecampane, mullein and coltsfoot can be used more generally than other categories. They do, however, have their specific indications as well. Matthew Wood says (147) says that it along with other big leaved plants (mullein, comfrey, burdock)
“…have strong actions on the skin and lungs” as they “stand for surface area and gas exchange or breathing hence the lungs and the skin”(147).
Let’s look at elecampane. Preparations of the root of this Asteraceae family member have been used as an expectorant (on the stimulating side), diaphoretic, antimicrobial, and antitussive to stop coughs (560). Hoffmann states that it is indicated for “copious catarrh” and in bronchitis acute and chronic, asthma, tuberculosis, and “irritating bronchial coughs, especially in children” (560). It is more that simply relaxing the lungs, it also has an stimulating expectorant quality useful for wet bronchitis.
One of the ways herbs shine for the respiratory system is that they can both help symptomatically and aid in fighting an infection. Combine elecampane with echinacea, propolis, goldenseal, thyme, astragalus or others for bronchial infections.
Like many roots, elecampane has a mucilage quality that soothes irritation. The root also contains a fair amount of inulin (as indicated in the botanical name), an polysaccharide. Because inulin is indigestible in the stomach, when it reaches the gut it stimulates the growth of beneficial bacterial flora (Wikipedia). How much inulin is available in an elecampane tincture is unknown, but I imagine that eating the roots or drinking a decocted tea would provide more available inulin. Other natural sources of inulin are onions, Jerusalem artichokes, chicory, jicama, burdock, garlic, dandelion root, agave and wild yam. Yet another reason to employ the vitality of wild foods!
Practically everyday I find myself using mints for one reason or another. Here are a few of my current favorites.
Skullcap: Scutellaria lateriflora for mental exhaustion
I have been drinking infusions of this cooling bitter nervine, as I usually do after a mercury retrograde when thinking, communication, and information dissemination are often difficult and confusing. Though I have heard that the fresh tincture is best for acute burn-out conditions, I am using the tea is as a brain tonic to promote a clear mind. Skullcap can be a good ally for mental tension, nervous fear and even dread. Ah yes, this plant is very effective for tension of all sorts, even high blood pressure during pregnancy. Guido Mase of Vermont mentioned that skullcap is useful for acute drug withdrawal symptoms (use frequently) as well as breaking addictions in general, especially that of pain-killers and other receptor-site addictions. I hear that skullcap and motherwort are used to treat sunstroke; luckily I haven’t had to try it.
Sage: Salvia officinalis for a sore throat
Currently I am gargling with a strong sage tea right before bed and upon waking to treat a sore, scratchy throat. I like the spicy astringency of sage for sore throats because it seems to promote reduction on the soreness in a stimulating manner, almost as if it is gently scratching my irritated tonsils. During the winter I often opt for the soothing, coating, mucilaginous ways of slippery elm, especially when the sore throat is a cold or flu symptom, whereas currently I have an infection of the tonsils. Sage seems to prompts a healing response and tone up the rawness I see in the back of the throat. Helium.com has a sums up the common uses of sage. Phyllis Light and Matthew Wood mentioned sage for ‘male menopause’ when there are signs of wasting, premature aging, nervousness and shaking when a man passes mid-age, as it converts hormones to be used by the adrenals. They also cite sage for cystitis caused by mucus congestion in the bladder.
Thyme: Thymus vulgaris for a respiratory infection
About a week ago I awoke with an intense pain in my lungs, as if my chest and ribs were beaten to a bloody pulp. To my dismay, I had another respiratory infection. Feeling wiser since my last infection, I promptly took care of myself the best I could. Acupressure, deep breathing, saunas and steams, light soups and steamed veggies, gentle movement to circulate lymph, mustard plasters (you know it’s bad when you skip the onion plaster and go straight to mustard) followed with chest massage with essential oils, echinacea, goldenseal and osha tinctures, and lots and lots of thyme tea.
Spicy and warm thyme is an expectorant, antiseptic, and anti-infective, which makes it so useful in protecting the lungs from a worsening infection. I use it for both acute coughs and lung congestions, as well as for recovering from chronic infections. Looking back, I should’ve taken thyme for a longer duration after my last respiratory infection–I know I will now! Use it for pneumonia, tuberculosis, cold and flu, whooping cough, and sore throat. I read somewhere that it is not the best for chronic bronchitis where there are a lot of secretions, but rather indicated in dry coughs.
Pennyroyal: Mentha pulegium or Hedeoma pulegiodes as an emmenagogue
A few years at an herb conference in North Carolina, a complete stranger came over to me while I was making some tea. When she read the ingredients of the formula, she scoffed and said, “why are you using pennyroyal of all things? It’s a very dangerous herb best let to practitioners, young lady!” “Yes”, I told her, “I am well aware of the dangers of pennyroyal, and make sure to never ingest the essential oil” and continued on with my tea time. Common sense tells me it is always wise to employ caution when using herbs and essential oils. However, I am not about to be scared away from responsibly using pennyroyal herb after hearing a few stories. According to drugwarfacts.com, “Each year, use of NSAIDs (Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs) accounts for an estimated 7,600 deaths and 76,000 hospitalizations use of NSAIDs in the United States.” (NSAIDs include aspirin, ibuprofen, naproxen, diclofenac, ketoprofen, and tiaprofenic acid). Would this woman have reacted in the same manner if I took out a bottle of aspirin?
Pennyroyal is one of my favorite herbs to have around to use both premenstrually during the first few days of bleeding. It is a well-know emmenagogue, antispasmodic and sedative, while calming nervous tension that settles in the stomach . I can feel its warm, diaphoretic action almost immediately; pelvic congestion and fullness with a bit of coldness or stagnation is allayed. A few drops of the essential oil in a spray bottle with plain water is one of my favorite mosquito repellent.
Lemon Balm – Melissa Offinalis as a calmative
Volatile oil-rich Melissa is hands down one of my favorite herbs. It is so sweet yet tart, cooling yet uplifting! Could there be a more tasty herb? During the long Minnesota winter, melissa is a melancholy sun-mourners best friend (along with Saint John’s Wort, calendula and rosemary), as it seems to dry up the dreariness and cheer one out of any funk. In true Scandinavian style, the winter darkness doesn’t seem to bother me. In fact, I thrive off of the most yin time of the year. Rather, I like to drink lemon balm tea in the summer to healthfully align myself to the yangness of the long sunny days. I say healthfully align because I have a tendency to be overstimulated in the expansiveness of summer, so much so that I drain my adrenals with too much all-day physical activities and late-night projects. Melissa helps me stay calm in the face of nervousness and insomnia, so I can be more appropriately active. I appreciate its carminative and somatic properties after eating too many raw and cool foods.
Peppermint – Menta piperita as a cooling beverage
I inherited a community garden plot that is chock full of gobs of healthy peppermint. When I initially laid out my garden beds, I transplanted all the peppermint to its own designated spot. With a little bit of conscious planting and watering, this former weed is now the prime example of health and vitality in my garden. Every time I come back from the garden, I take a hand full of peppermint with me to make into a deliciously aromatic sun tea. What says summer like fresh mint tea? To my roommates requests, we will probably be making mojitos soon.