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!
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.