December 4th, 2009 § § permalink
Coltsfoot Tussilago farfara. Another asteraceae family member, coltsfoot has antitussive, expectorant, astringent (due to tannins), sedative, demulcent, antispasmodic and diuretic properties. The genus name tussilago means “cough dispeller”, and indeed it is a general respiratory tonic. “Coltsfoot was so popular in medieval times that it was chosen as the emblem to identify the local apothecary” (Gladstar, 324).
Relating to the doctrine of signatures, Matthew Wood said that “Hairy or hirsute leaves and stems are a signature for the…hairs of the mucosa” and that “leaves that are thick from the content of mucilage (Slippery Elm, Coltsfoot) are good lung and mucosa remedies” (21). I first met coltsfoot while at Sage Mountain, often as a garden companion to another Old World respiratory remedy lungwort (Pulmonaria officinalis). It grew abundantly along the edges of the gardens, its broad, gray-green leaves spilling over into the lawn. The leaves are interesting to the touch, squishy and thick with a fine hairy layer that rolls off between your fingers.
Since coltsfoot is a soothing antispasmodic, it’s useful for chronic respiratory conditions for general coughs and bronchial congestion. More specifically, use coltsfoot for constant or chronic coughing with lots of phlegm that doesn’t want to come up. Sometimes the coughs are dry or spasmodic. Coltsfoot spills over into being used for asthma, emphysema, recovery from smoking and wheezing, not just for acute coughs (Tierra, 71).
Coltsfoot is quite mucilaginous, a cold infusion of the dried leave yields a tea for soothing a dry and irritated throat and airway. It makes a fairly pleasant tasting tea. I use the tincture for it’s relaxing expectorant qualities. Mills says it is “a particular standby for children’s coughs, associated as these are with a nervous, spasmodic element” (481).
Gladstar, Rosemary. Family Herbal.
Mills, Simon. The Essential Book of Herbal Medicine.
Tierra, Lesley. Healing with the Herbs of Life.
Wood, Matthew. The Book of Herbal Wisdom.
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.
December 13th, 2007 § § permalink
What is a bitter user to do when she realizes they are too cold for her? Reach for the warm side of digestive remedies!
Aromatic digestives are to be used for cold conditions, along with “circulatory stimulants as wells as ‘warming’ expectorants” for congestive dyspepsia, gas and belching, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and colic, often with a white slippery or sticky coat on the tongue, depressed circulation, copious urine, respiratory congestion, and arthritis as seen in cold-dampness affecting the digestion (Mills 423-4, 430). Both bitters and aromatic digestives stimulate the appetite, and act on assimilation of food in the digestive track, both work on “dampness” (cold-damp and damp-heat, respectively).
Carminatives are rich in volatile oils, relax the stomach thus relieving gas, and stimulate peristalsis of the digestive system. In some herbals carminatives and aromatics are grouped together. Both contain herbs that have strong yet pleasant tastes and odors, and are used to “flavor” and “warm up” medicinal blends. No wonder I like to add cinnamon and cardamom to practically every herbal formula! And no wonder that most of these are used as culinary herbs the world ’round. Below are some common aromatics and carminatives.
Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) is a great illustration of a warming carminative which “harmonizes digestive functions” including digestive weakness (even debility with anorexia), gas, belching, and basically any epigastric problem that is relieved with pressure or heat (425).
Another common example is cardamom (Amomum cardamomum), with it’s strong warming action on “congestive digestion with abdominal pain and distention, diarrhea, nausea and vomiting” (427). When fatigue and weakness seem related to poor food assimilation, cardamom is indicated because it is thoroughly warming without being too stimulating (which can further weaken the person). Mills says it has traditionally been used in difficulties during pregnancy due to digestion and weakness.
Angelica (Angelica archangelica) illustrates that carminatives/aromatics can be effective in respiratory congestion. Mills ventures to say that “there is probably no better convalescent remedy in the Western materia medica” (412). Its not a far-off statement when one considers that angelica not only warms the digestion, soothes intestinal overactivity, stimulates appetite (useful for anorexia), but is also an expectorant for coughs and bronchitis (Hoffmann, 175). I use the tincture when my chest is sore during a cold, with or without a cough. It seems to relieve the tension not by relaxation but by the warming sensation.
Warmer yet than angelica is cinnamon (Cinnamomum verum). In Chinese formulas, one use of cinnamon is to warm the interior, which is a different than a diaphoretic. It is both carminative and astringent due to tannins, so it can be used for tonifying the digestion and “as a symptomatic treatment for diarrhea” (Mills 413). Like angelica, it can be used for feverish conditions, and at the start of a chest cold (with fresh ginger) to prevent chest infections (413).
Dill‘s (Anethum graveolens) anti-spasmodic action makes it an excellent choice for colic in children. It has starred in my Gripe Waters over the years. Also has been the supporting actor in formulas that increase breast milk flow.
Anise (Pimpinella anisum) is also anti-spasmodic an aromatic like dill, and is also an expectorant. Use it with colic and gas, as well as in irritable coughs and bronchitis (Hoffmann 176). In Indian restaurants you may find candied anise and fennel seeds to snack on after-meal–especially useful when you ate too much creamy masala.
Ginger (Zingiber officinale), a known soothing carminative with diaphoretic and stimulant properties, promotes circulation, warms the chills, promotes perspiration during fevers and soothes upset stomachs. Keep on hand flu season. Wonderfully effective for reversing phlegm conditions and coughs–use with garlic (Mills 420),