"When we draw on a breath, we share that air with all other human beings and all other life on our planet. The respiration, our "oneness with trees becomes a manifest fact and our communion with the oceans has immediate impact. The reality of the planetary whole reveals itself with implications for all human life, through the circulation of the gases and the energy of the atmosphere, this vision underlies holistic healing, as much as it does ecology. The anatomy and physiology of the respiratory system is a complex and beautiful embodiment of integration and wholeness."
This is a quote from one of my absolute favorite and most referred to books, Medical Herbalism by the brilliant herbalist, David Hoffman, and I thought it would be a wonderful intro to this blog where we are going to talk about a few herbs that are really beneficial for our respiratory tract and how to think about using those herbs and the best ways for you.
I wanted to take a bit of time to share some helpful herbs for our lungs and respiratory tract as we're well into cold and flu season. People are starting to get coughs, whether they be productive, wet coughs or dry, hacking coughs. It's definitely going around. Plus, there are still many of us that have been dealing with a lot of the aftermath of wildfire smoke. If you're not still immersed in the middle of it, it's super clear to me that the lungs of our planet and the lungs of our body are screaming together.
There are quite a few ways to think about the way herbs work and act on our respiratory tract and it gets pretty deep, but for today, we're just going to do a quick little overview. So when you have a productive cough where you're producing a lot of that gnarly, nasty, phlegmy, wet, gooey stuff, that is actually a good thing because it's your body's way of removing all of the icky germs and pathogens that are causing you to be sick. That's one of the ways in which your immune system is helping your body fight off all of the illness. When you've got a productive cough, you might want to consider herbs that are called expectorant herbs; they help your body do its job. Expectorant herbs loosen up the mucus and phlegm and help you to expel all the yuck out.
You can also have an unproductive cough and that's the one where it's dry and it's irritated and it's scratchy and it's hot and it just doesn't produce any phlegm. You know you want to get something out, but that cough just keeps coming on. It's hot, it's painful and you definitely feel the inflammation. For those types of cough, you might want to consider demulcent or very cooling coating, soothing herbs or maybe even one that might have more of a cough suppressant or an antispasmodic type of herb that has an affinity for bronchial spasms to help relax and ease that whole coughing process.
So as we get into a few of my favorite herbs for the respiratory system, I thought I would take some time to share this incredibly lovely quote from one of my absolute favorite books. My favorite and most used book is Medical Herbalism by David Haas Hoffman. I just feel like this quote really speaks to the relationship that we have with the plants and with this planet and how it's so incredibly important that we all really just begin to wake up to this level of awareness.
Anyway, don't judge me for my nerdiness and please take in this quote from David Hoffman:
"When we dry it in a breath, we share that air with all other human beings and all other life on our planet. Through respiration. Our oneness with the trees becomes a manifest fact and our communion with the oceans has immediate impact. The reality of the planetary whole reveals itself with implications for all human life, through the circulation of gases and the energy of the atmosphere. This vision underlies holistic healing, as much as it does ecology, the anatomy and physiology of the respiratory system is a complex and beautiful embodiment of integration and wholeness."
As I read this quote, it also speaks very loudly to me, not only of our direct relationship with one another and this planet and the plants, but also what is currently happening right now with the Corona Virus and how we're all sharing the same air and how it's really important that we try to come together and help stop the spread of this virus by doing very simple things like wearing a mask when we're out and about. Now that this is out there, let's chat about some of the herbs that can help us with our own lungs, and our collective lungs of the planet!
One of the first herbs I want to talk about is one that just makes me smile every time I think of her, and part of that is because, well, my niece is named after the Latin name of this plant. Though, really she's named after the Grateful Dead song --bonus points to you if you already know what I'm talking about - if you don't, I'll let you know, it's Althea officinalis! Also known as Marshmallow and it's not your State Puff Marshmallow Man or anything like that. In fact, it's this incredibly beautiful plant that grows nice and tall with lovely creamy whitish, and can sometimes be pink and other colors, five pedaled flowers, and the leaves are just so soft and tender and loving. I just really love Althea and the way she can present in your garden.
I also love Althea because she's a really great demulcent, meaning that she's very cooling and soothing. She's also a rich and mucilaginous herb and that just simply means that she is going to produce this kind of almost slimy, cooling, coating effect that actually does a wonderful job of protecting the respiratory tract, which is pretty darn neato. It's great for the digestive system and various other systems as well. She's also a relaxing expectorant who can just kind of calm the spasms going on in the respiratory tract; and she's cooling so that means she's going to ease inflammation and help your body expel some mucus. So for those that are dealing with a very dry raspy hacking cough, Althea can absolutely be a delightful friend to have on board.
I like to make a tea of the leaves of the marshmallow plant for really great soothing benefits. It's super simple! If you've got some dried leaves, add one to two teaspoons depending on how strong you like your tea, and just pour some hot water over it. Let it steep for 10 to 15 minutes and drink up!
You can also make a cold infusion of the root, which is where you really get to see that mucilaginous stuff come into play! Play with maybe a teaspoon or so of the root and pour about four ounces of cold water over it and place it into the refrigerator for the night. The next morning you're going to see this crazy slimy, ooey-gooiness that very much resembles clear snot. Don't be afraid that it looks and feels like snot, it's actually really, really, really good stuff! That goo is the cooling and coating stuff that is going to go down and protect the respiratory tract. So believe it or not, the slime in this case is absolutely your friend.
The next herb I want to share with you about is another absolutely beautiful plant named Elecampane (Inula helenium). Go figure, plants are not only healing for their medicinal properties, but healing for the beauty that they provide for our souls, which is so necessary. Elecampane is a really good friend to have around if you've got the super congested cough and your body just might need a little extra help in getting that yuckiness out. It's particularly beneficial for kids in the time of cough.
I think that Elecampane is really cool because it's both mucilaginous -- so it has that cooling, coating sliminess effect -- but also a nice, relaxing effect on the cough. The essential oils of the plant also bring about stimulation to help your body expel the mucus. So it's both soothing to the dry, irritated cough, and it helps get rid of all the nastiness of a congested wet cough. Plus, it's got some of its own beneficial antibacterial properties to fight off various pathogens. So awesome, right?
Elecampane is a fantastic friend to have around for various respiratory conditions. I like to use the root and infuse it in honey. The root is relatively soft and you can chew on it. I prefer to chew on it after I infuse it in the honey, because it's pretty gnarly tasting. It's got a very bitter flavor to it, which has its own medicinal attributes to it as well, but once you infuse it in the honey, it's not quite as yucky. Plus the honey has its own antibacterial properties and helps your body to fight off bacterial and viral infections. You can also add that honey to your tea and help sweeten it up a bit and just really get that overall cooling, moistening sensation into the respiratory tract. Elecampane is really beautiful to grow too and growing your own herbs is pretty darn cool. You can grow your own medicine chest, who doesn't want that?
Another respiratory herb that I love is majestic Mullein (Verbascum thapsus)! It's a beautiful, towering plant that grows on a spike. I see it a lot just over the hill from where I live on Mount Hood, on the slightly drier side. It grows in other places too. As a matter of fact, once it starts growing wherever you are, you might want to watch it because it will self seed and start popping up all over the place, which for me is cool because the bees and the butterflies and the caterpillars totally love it.
When those spikes grow up, it's got these beautiful, creamy, yellow flowers; it just demands attention and presence. Mullein leaves are just super soft and fuzzy and you almost want to snuggle 'em! It's really funny because we use mullein leaf in our Respiratory Rescue and every time that we go to make Respiratory Rescue, it is the absolute worst to breathe in. I'm quite sure it's because of those fuzzy little pieces of the mullein leaf and it just definitely gets into the bronchial system and creates this super irritated cough going on. We wear masks anyways when we're making tea, because we don't want all of those little particles into our lungs and such, but if somebody ever forgets, they've got an irritated throat for the rest of the day, which is so funny when you're talking about an herb that happens to be an herb that is really beneficial for the lungs.
It's also a really great herb to have around during wildfire season because it's good for the unproductive cough. It can provide that relaxing bit that the respiratory tract might need. Antispasmodics, or the coughing reflex, is a spasm of the bronchials and antispasmodic herbs specific for the bronchials are going to help ease and soothe a cough or, as some may know, be somewhat of a cough suppressant. It also has some of the cooling properties to also ease that dry, raspy throat.
Another herb that is really great is probably sitting in your kitchen cabinet right now. You probably use it in quite a few of your meals if you love to cook at home, and it's Thyme (Thymus Vulgaris)! Thyme has some really great expectorant properties when it comes to loosening up congestion and mucus. It does a really wonderful job of helping to just expel that mucus once it's broken up and to open up your bronchials in general. I like to drink thyme as a tea. I absolutely love it in a nice broth if I'm sick to just warm me up and I'll add in some garlic for the antibacterial and antiviral properties that garlic has to offer and, of course, onions. You can also make a thyme infused honey.
Another thing I love to do with thyme and other aromatic herbs if I'm very congested is to just do a nice herbal steam. All you have to do for that is put some of the herbs into a bowl --I like to use a glass bowl-- and pour hot water over it. Place a towel over your head and you're just going to hover your face over the bowl and breathe in the steam for as long as your sweet heart can handle it. It's really nice...and it feels great on the pores of your face too. I just love that thyme is so readily available in everybody's kitchen. Unfortunately, in our society today, so few people use it for its medicinal value, though. It's another herb that's super easy to grow in your garden too!
One of my absolute favorite, near and dear to my heart things I like to use for respiratory issues is not even a plant, it is a lichen. And if you haven't heard me say this before, a lichen is an algae and fungi that have come together and taken a "lichen" to each other. And I happen to be very fortunate to live in some fairly dense, very healthy, luscious woods, and that is where this particular lichen, loves to live. It's called Lungwort. So interesting that it would be called lungwort and it being specific for lung health in our world. It's also called Lobaria pulmonaria and that "pulmonary" like the pulmonary action going on relative to the lungs. Have you looked at this lichen? It looks a lot like lung tissue. I've got a few videos out and about in the interwebs.
Lungwort (Lobaria pulmonaria) is truly amazing! I don't know much of the science behind how Lungwort lichen works, but I know that it works and it's so funny because it was one of the first things that made me realize "If you listen, they will teach you"...a beautiful quote often used by the wonderful organization, United Plant Savers.
Towards the beginning of my herbal studies, I was fortunate to go to the Breitenbush Herbal Conference and I was on a plant walk with this wonderful woman named Jane Bothwell, who has an herb school in Northern California, Dandelion Herb Center. I went on this walk with her and she was talking about the doctrine of signatures. And that's where I also learned about this Lungwort lichen. I left that conference so stoked, thinking 'Oh my gosh, herbs, herbs, herbs! I want to do everything with herbs for the rest of my life.' And so here I am.
A few months later I got my first case of bronchitis. I was sick and hacking and yucky and nasty for at least three weeks, and I'm the type of person that I just can not be happy unless I'm going outdoors. I love to be surrounded by nature, as I think we all might. I couldn't stand the fact that I wasn't able to go out and play so I made my partner, Kris, take me up the Salmon River Trail by where I live on Mount Hood. It is an incredibly luscious, lovely, old growth forest. If you visit it, please take your trash and don't break into your neighbor's cars.
We went there and, you know, I was still sick, but I just had to get my nature fix. Every 10 steps or so I had to stop to hack out what felt like my entire lungs. And, as I would do that, every time I would look down, there would be this Lungwort lichen at my feet. I'd walk 10 more steps and try to catch my breath. And what do you know? I looked down and there's Lungwort again. So I'm looking down and, here's this lichen and finally I'm like, Ohhh yes, if you listen, they will teach you. Oh my gosh, maybe this lichen is talking to me and wants me to know something? And so I finally decide I'm just gonna take some of it home with me. And I do. I take just a small hunk of Lungwort. The cool thing about this stuff is that like it blows down after storms, particularly around the Pacific Northwest, often. It is actually a sign that the forest is healthy, so you can just gather it from the ground; you can do it in a very sustainable fashion. So I take my little piece home and I make a little cup of tea. Within 30 seconds of my first sip I was able to take my first incredibly awesome deep breath that I had taken in over three weeks.
Ever since then, we've had this relationship where it just pops up right when I need it. It's just this incredible lichen and I love that. It means that I'm in a healthy forest when it's around, because it won't grow in heavily polluted areas. It is another avenue of lungs for our forest.
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*Always remember to contact your healthcare provider when considering the use of botanical medicine as a possible treatment option and the medical considerations. While the information in this article is absolutely relevant, herbs work differently for each person and each condition.
**I am a trained herbalist and not a licensed or registered healthcare practitioner. I cannot diagnose health conditions, nor prescribe medicines legally; I am not a medical doctor. However, I will recommend or suggest medicinal herbs for various health complaints, as I do believe in the safety and efficacy of botanical medicine.
***The information I’ve provided is not intended to be a substitute for medical treatment. Please consult your medical care provider before using herbal medicine, particularly if you have a known medical condition or if you are pregnant or nursing.
About the Author: Melissa Mutterspaugh
Melissa lives in Oregon, in the foothills of Mount Hood. She's a clinical herbalist, environmental educator, mother, wilderness therapist, lover, nemophilist, music loving maniac, and the founder of Mountain Mel's Essential Goods. She is passionate about inspiring others to take better care of our planet, through taking better care of themselves, naturally!