February 1st, 2010 § § permalink
A native Minnesota variety of an astragalus relative.
Astragalus membranaceaus is a native to China and other areas of Asia and is a member of the Fabaceae (pea) family. It tastes sweet, starchy, slightly warm and moist. According to Lesley Tierra, astragalus has adaptogenic, diuretic, antiviral, cardiotonic, antioxidant and hepatoprotective properties. Astragalus has gotten a lot of press as an adapotgen and for helping people with cancer and rightfully so as it “…helps prevent immuosuppression caused by chemotherapy and has tumor-inhibiting activity”(Winston, 149). It is a personal favorite of mine for preventing and/or treating regular-old colds and related infections.
The Chinese name of this herb is huang qi, huang meaning yellow (the color of the root) and qi meaning leader, as it is considered a “leader” among the tonics in the Chinese pharmacopeia because it can be used by a wider range of people than other tonics like ginseng. Astragalus strengthens spleen qi to aid weak digestion, nausea and vomiting, bloating, assimilation and lack of appetite. It also bolsters wei qi (protective energy or immunity) and lung qi. Not surprisingly, astragalus has been adapted into Western herbalism because of its use in strengthening the immune system and aiding in defense of colds, flus and infections of the respiratory system.
Astragalus is usually sold in root slices or pieces. It is mostly prepared as a tea although it also comes n powdered and tinctured forms. To make astragalus tea at home, bring 4 cups of water to boil, add about 4 tablespoons of the root and simmer covered for 20 mins. Let cool slightly before pouring a cup or two and straining. It is quite palatable, and people don’t usually have a problem drinking 3 cups of it in a day. A little honey or a simmering a cinnamon stick along with the astragalus extenuates both the sweetness and the moistening quality.
I like to drink astragalus tea daily in the winter, often for a month or longer, when everyone around me is getting sick or when I feel on the verge of a getting a cold. Just recently my husband came down with a horrible cold. I knew I’d be next, so I loaded up on astragalus tea so when I got the cold myself it wasn’t that bad – just a runny nose without a cough or constricted chest. It also combines well with other immune enhancing herbs like shiitake, eleuthero, ginger and echincacea, and is safe for children, pregnant women and the elderly.
November 24th, 2009 § § permalink
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!
November 23rd, 2009 § § permalink
Mullein, Verbascum thapsus, is one of the first herbs many think of for the lungs. It has many uses besides being a superb respiratory tonic and expectorant though. The flower can used for ear aches, topically with the leaf for the musculoskelatal system and as nervine.
Have you ever smelled mullein flowers? They are incredibly sweet, delicate and flowery to the nose. Mullein is a member of the the Scrophularia (snapdragon) family and originally from Europe, and is one of the easiest herbs to distinguish with its downy lobed leaves, yellow flowers and tall flower stalk. I welcome mullein into my gardens (even though they can proliferate quickly) because they remind me of garden sentinels, keeping watch and adding interesting texture and line to the garden horizon.
Just looking at the velvety soft lobe-like leaves one can see that they must have demulcent actions. At the same time, mullein is also a little irritating if it is rubbed in the skin too much. These soothing yet irritating qualities may seem contradictory, but this is precisely how respiratory tonics work. The demulcents soothe the tissues which encourages mucus stuck here to loosen. The stimulating action irritates the lungs and makes for more productive coughs. There herbs work to help the body along and fulfill the purpose of the cough: to clear the airways of mucus (Hoffmann, 322).
Wood says that “Mullein is definitely the remedy for harsh coughs which have worn down the villa of the lungs” (27). That is, coughs that shake the whole body, almost hurting the chest and ribs. He also says “it is useful for harsh, hacking coughs with a dry irritated membrane and irritated cough reflex, where there is a lack of secretion” (494). I have heard of a case where a smoker who refused to give up the habit asked an herbalist for something for a horrible hacking cough. Mullein was smoked along with the tobacco and the cough went away. It has been incorporated into smoking rituals, as it is calming to the mind and has a sweet and vanilla-like flavor.
Mullein can be taken many ways for soothing the lungs, but infusions are my favorite. Mullein leaves are extremely easy to harvest, they are much less delicate than most other leaves. Pick leaves from the first year rosettes, slice down the middle stem to ensure proper drying, and lay out to dry. I like to dry them in the fall, when the weather becomes dryer, otherwise they seem to reabsorb the moisture from the air. When you are ready for making an infusion, take out a leaf or two, break them up a bit, and steep in hot water.
You can also find mullein in tincture form. I like it for blending with other expectorants (David Winston recommends elecampane, yerba santa, horehound and grindelia)(87), but I prefer the infusions for taken specifically mullein. Perhaps this is because I remember learning that starches are not extracted in alcohol,
Hoffmann, David. Medical Herbalism.
Winston, David. Herbal Therapeutics.
Wood, Matthew. The Book of Herbal Wisdom.
February 1st, 2009 § § permalink
Thyme’s (Thymus vulgaris) anti-microbial, anti-spasmodic, expectorant and astringent actions and it’s volatile oil content make it very useful for respiratory infections, sore throat, coughs including chronic bronchitis and whooping cough. Here’s a bit about thyme from “My Favorite Mints” post.
Elderberry (Sambucus nigra) syrup is a well-known, time-tested, effective and utterly delicious respiratory tract tonic. David Hoffmann summarizes the research of this small tree; “The extract was effective in vitro against 10 strains of influenza virus. It also reduced the duration of flu symptoms to 3 to 4 days in a double-blind, placebo controlled, randomized study”(580). The flowers are handy to have around as well, as they are part of the old gypsy cold remedy of equal parts of yarrow, peppermint, and elderflower drunk as a tea, steeped strong and served hot. I like to add a bit of boneset in the formula to address the chills and body aches that often come with a bad cold or the flu. The flowers are a wonderful diaphoretic to open the pores, and they relieve chest congestion through their anticatarrhal action. Elderflowers is called by Matthew Wood “the great infant remedy”, especially in babies and children with red, dry skin on the cheeks and blue coloring around the eyes (457).
Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum) is a classic New World (American) herb, used by Native Americans and quickly adopted by Eurpeans. It was and still is “…one of the best remedies for the relief of symptoms that accompany influenza” (Hoffmann, 549). Hoffmann also writes:
“High dilutions of various sequiterpene lactones isolated from E. perfoliatum demonstrated immunostimulant activity. In addition, polysaccharide fractions from E. perfoliatum showed immunostimulant actions in granulocyte, macrophage, and carbon clearance tests.”
Have you ever had aches that felt like your bones were being crushed or that they just simply hurt no matter what position you take? Pain like that calls for boneset. It is the first herb that I reach for aches and pains. After having tried it for the flu with great success at relieving aches, I decided to try it for aching bones at times other than the when one has the flu. I found it successful for deep thigh and pelvis aches accompanying menstrual cramps, but unsuccessful for aches after strenuous activity. It doesn’t surprise me that boneset did not relive the latter aches; they were more from a muscular origin than from “the bones”. King’s American Dispensatory recommends it for the “‘bone pains’ of syphilis” (549). I use a tincture, and take it every hour as needed. Boneset is also a well-known diaphoretic, another reason why it is useful for the flu. Like elecampane, it contains bitter properties and is slightly stimulating to the large intestine.
Sage (Salvia officinalis) tea is effective for sore throats, as mentioned in this older post.
There are many other respiratory herbs to pick from, based on your specific symptoms. I tend to alternate between wild cherry and elecampane, though I sometimes use mullein, pleurisy root, coltsfoot, horehound, and less often use lobelia, osha and hyssop. Wild Cherry (Prunus serotina) has expectorant, astringent and antispasmodic actions. I have found it works well for those coughs that will not stop or are dry and ticklish with a sore upper chest (Tierra, Leslie). David Hoffmann writes, “because of its powerful sedative effect o the cough reflex, wild cherry bark finds its main use in treatment of irritating coughs” (575).
One of my favorite garden flowers, elecampane (Inula helenium) is indicated in cases with lots of mucus (often yellow or green) accompanying deep bronchial coughs. Elecampane is both effective on tough coughs and gentle enough for children. It is a tonic for the lungs, soothing to irritating tissues, a stimulating expectorant that actively works copious mucus out of the lungs, and an anti-microbial to help rid the body of the underlying infection. All in all, a pretty hand herb to have around! Use the root, either in tincture or dried and decocted as a tea. Hilltown Families has a good recipe for elecampane syrup; I can’t wait to try it! I find it interesting that elecampane has a marked effect of the large intestine, which is related to the lungs in Chinese medicine, as elecampane works on both.
Hofffmann, David. Medical Herbalism, The Science and Practice of Herbal Medicine.
Tierra, Leslie. Healing with the Herbs of Life.
Wood, Matthew. The Book of Herbal Wisdom.
Wood, Matthew. The Earthwise Herbal Vol. I.
December 7th, 2008 § § permalink
When the first case of influenza was reported in Wisconsin, it made the news. This was over three weeks ago and I don’t remember the details, except that the recipient was an 11 year-old boy. Isn’t it odd that something so common can evoke such dread? Practically everywhere you go, people are talking about it. And if you go the a pharmacy or clinic, people are royally freaking out about it: Cold and Flu Season.
I have had my fair share of colds and flus. In fact, you could say more than my fair share. During the 9 months that I was employed as a preschool teacher, I contracted four flus with vomiting and five run-of-the-mill colds (not to mention a never-ending case of pink eye). It was quite the learning-and may I even say spiritual-experience. Every ounce of my body, mind, emotions and spirit was taxed and worn down. Luckily, a friend had the sense to chime in to my incessant “why must I endure being sick all the time” with, “can you imagine having a really bad disease and feeling worse than this everyday for the rest of your life?”. Perspective is amazing.
There are many body systems to pay attention to; the immune system of course, the upper respiratory system (nose, ears, throat, sinuses) and the lower respiratory system (the alveoli, respiratory bronchioles). As our body systems are interdependent, we must also look at the other organs of elimination in addition the the lungs (which eliminate carbon dioxide from the blood in exchange for oxygen from the air we breathe), the skin, kidneys, and the bowels. Get to know the following action categories:
- expectorants (both stimulating and relaxing) to bring up phlegm from the lungs,
- pulmonary tonics to strengthen the system
- demulcents to sooth irritated tissues
- anticatarrhals to lessen mucus
- antimicrobial herbs to ward off invading pathogens
- immune stimulants to support the body’s ability to stay healthy
- antispasmodics to reduce spastic coughing
- astringents to tone and dry up soggy tissues
- diaphoretics to support the body during fever
- lymphatics to ease swollen lymph nodes
Let us not forget the dietary and lifestyle practices. In particular, it is very important to limit or avoid mucus-causing refined starches (white flour), sugar (which also lowers immunity), and dairy products. While working at an herb shop in my home town, I saw people with chronic sinus congestion/infections stop eating dairy prior to getting well. Once the owner said something like, “that damn ice cream!” after visiting someone who’s sinusitis would not give up. Personally, I know that sweet stuff is a trigger for a sore throat and cold for me. A whole foods diet with lots of vegetables, nuts, legumes, and grains rich in B vitamins, vitamin C, A and E, magnesium, zinc, selenium and quercetin are extremely important to prevent illnesses, fight them off, and recover from them in a timely manner. Warm, brothy soups and hot herbal teas are more than just comforting, the steam and warmth help to reduce pain and break up mucus congestion. Add a little scallion, horseradish, daikon and ginger to really open up the nose.
Exercise, stress reduction, sleep and deep breathing are also very important to staying healthy. Practically any form of exercise will do; it strengthens the muscles, bones, heart and lungs, and propels lymphatic fluid throughout the body. It also lifts the spirits, too. I just read that a daily walk outside is as effective as SSRI anti-depressants. The lymph system has vessels through which it circulates through the tissues like blood vessels, but unlike blood vessels, it does not have a pump like the heart. For lymph to properly circulate, it uses the tension created from the body in movement. Taking a few deep breaths can help keep the lungs healthy, and has been proven to lessen the chance of contracting pneumonia in the elderly.
A big contributer to susceptibility to respiratory infections that people (amazingly) often overlook when cold and flu season arrives is smoking. I personally find it an exercise in patience and detachment to not want to wring the neck of a smoker who doesn’t seem to know why they cough like crazy all day long, hack up nasty phlegm, get sick every winter or has chronic bronchitis. “Smokers are still more likely to die from chronic bronchitis than from lung cancer, and giving up smoking is the first and most important preventative measure” (Hoffmann, 329). Let us listen to our lungs! They are the living tree of our body.
More to come about cold and flu remedies.
October 29th, 2008 § § permalink
Plantain has done it again! This plant never ceases to amaze me in its ability to suck out splinters, dirt, bug venom and bee stingers. A few days ago, I got a nasty sliver in my index finger. It was deep under the skin, and in there so good I couldn’t see how it broke the skin. I tried the usual at-home surgical tools (sterilized nail clipper, pin, and tweezers), and after removing layer after painful layer of flesh, I realized it wasn’t going anywhere. I bandaged it up and went to bed. The next morning, I found a few succulent looking leaves in the yard, chewed them up and placed it on the sliver-laden finger. I used a fresh bandage to keep it in place for the afternoon. Three hours later, I took off the plantain band-aid to investigate; not only was the sliver gone, but the formally raw and bothered flesh was healing together quite nicely.
Plantain (Plantago major) can quickly pique the interest of a non-herb person when they see how easy it is to use the leaves and how effective they are (I think yarrow has this effect on herb novices, too). Just pick a leaf or two, chew, apply, wait and be amazed. Matthew Wood has a chapter about plantain in The Herbal Book of Wisdom, giving accounts of plantain as “the primary ‘herbal drawing agent'” throughout herbal history from the Greeks to the eclectics and phyisomedicalists, to Anishinabe herbalists. It is interesting to note that plantain was integrated into Native American herbalism after it was brought here by the colonists. It is often called “white man’s footprint”.
Count on plantain to draw out infectious material both topically and internally from the mouth, lungs and large intestine. “It is an excellent general tonic for the gums, pulling out infection and toning the tissues”, especially when there are infections here with mucus (392). For the lungs, it is cooling and moistening to irritated tissue. Wood says he uses it for coughs where it seems a like some particle is causing irritation (393). David Hoffmann says plantain “…acts as a gentle expectorant whilst soothing inflamed and sore membranes, making it ideal for coughs and mild bronchitis”(224 ). For internal use, it is best to prepare an infusion of dried leaves, drinking about 3 cups daily.
For the large intestine, the mucilaginous leaves of this cool temperature plant soothes and coats membranes. Plantain “stimulates the activity of the intestines, coats and soothes the walls, detoxifies the blood supply and assists elimination” (Wood, 394). Speaking of detoxifying the blood, Rosemary Gladstar states that she uses it both topically and internally for blood poisoning (106). The well-known fiber supplement psyllium is made from the ground seed husks of a species of plantain, which is employed as a soothing laxative.
Wood, Matthew. The Book of Herbal Wisdom.
Hoffmann, David. The New Holistic Herbal.
Gladstar, Rosemary. Family Herbal.