Winter can be harsh on the respiratory system. Everywhere we go, we hear people coughing! We need relief and we need it now!
Herbal Support for a Healthy Respiratory System
The respiratory system is the site of exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide. Oxygen is an integral component in turning the food we eat into fuel to give the body energy to perform its myriad functions. This vital system helps the body to get rid of viruses, carbon dioxide (a metabolite of turning food to fuel), pollen, particulates, bacteria, etc. that enter the body. The upper respiratory (nose) detects odors and is where the vocal cords reside (throat). The rate of breathing and depth influence both blood composition and blood and lymph transport.
Many factors can effect the function of the respiratory system. Let’s explore powerhouse wild and garden plants and aromatherapy known to strengthen and heal lung tissue and all mucosa, including the lungs, throat, sinuses, and ears; also herbal care for congestion, inflammation, infections, and allergies.
Devil’s Club ~ Oplopanax horridus
The panaxosides in Devil’s Club act as a smooth muscle relaxant in the respiratory system to calm down coughing spasms. Devil’s club also helps to remove excess phlegm from the lungs and sinuses. It pairs well with western coltsfoot.
Western Coltsfoot ~ Petasites frigidus var. palmatus
The name Petasites comes from the Latin petasi – broad brimmed hat. The mature leaves of western coltsfoot are large and definitely fit the bill of being broad brimmed.
The sesquiterpene petasin found in western coltsfoot is a smooth muscle relaxant, which is so welcome in relieving convulsive coughing during viral and bacterial infections, and allergic reactions.
Polysaccharides in the leaves and rhizome are anti-inflammatory and aid in relaxing aggravated lung tissue. The polysaccharides also work as an expectorant and help to force surplus phlegm and mucus from the lungs. Working together, flavonoids and polysaccharides present in coltsfoot enhance the immune system as well as encourage a vigorous respiratory system. In the large leaves, the mucilaginous saponins soothe irritated lung tissue.
Incidentally, Tussilago, the east coast coltsfoot, does not contribute much of the antispasmodic effects that west coast Petasites does.
Lavender ~ Lavandula spp.
Lavender as a respiratory herb? Yes indeedy! Lavender contains the terpenoid ketone camphor, an antiseptic expectorant and the monoterpene fenchone, a secretolytic, which increases production of mucus in respiratory tract and makes it thinner and less viscous. What a fab combo! Thinner, less viscous mucous that is easily brought up from the lungs. Yay team!
Nettles ~ Urtica dioica
The early spring nettle is my go-to herb for opening up the breathing passages in the sinuses, throat, ears, and lungs. Not just for common congestion due to colds and sinus issues, nettles are also recommended for eliminating mild to severe allergic reactions where the throat feels tight and breathing is difficult. Nettles are best utilized fresh in tincture form for allergic reactions as the effect is much stronger than when taken as a tea. The medicine in the tincture will go to work almost immediately. Tinctures dropped directly into the mouth will enter the bloodstream much faster than teas, which need to first travel into the digestive tract and then into the bloodstream. This can be life saving. Bear in mind that the dose may need to be taken several times over the course of a few hours in moderate to extreme cases. Best to use caution and be very aware of symptoms.
How do nettles work this way? The early spring plant contains adenosine, a vasodilator and respiratory stimulant, and the antioxidants ascorbic acid which is anti-asthmatic and antihistaminic, aesculetin which acts as an anti-inflammatory and anti-asthmatic, and the anti-inflammatory scopoletin. Nettles also contain the anti-allergic action of one of the members of the B vitamin complex – pantothenic acid.
Tonic usage of nettles can be of help to heal lung tissue and support its function. Nettles can be so beneficial to those who are weaning from smoking and wish to return the lungs to their best health.
I’m a big fan of making nettle pesto in the spring and freezing it in small containers for use as needed. It not only tastes fab, but also provides a bucket ton of nutrition and respiratory relief.
Dock ~ Rumex officinalis
Common names: Dock, Water Dock, Red Dock. The leaves of dock commonly have little red naturally occurring splotches on them. In the doctrine of signatures, the red splotches identify dock as being iron rich and “feeding the blood.” Dock is high in minerals and vitamins such as magnesium, iron, calcium, vitamins A and C, which are so needed when health is compromised. The root soothes and heals upper respiratory issues stemming from colds, allergies, bronchitis, asthma, pneumonia, and emphysema. I find that a fresh dock root oxymel is just the ticket for its bitter yet soothing attributes. Dock root infused in local honey is also a good choice.
The roots of dock contain chrysophanic acid, an anthraquinone which has laxative effects. A not very pleasant effect of ingesting iron rich plants is constipation. The laxative effects of chrysophanic acid and rumicin in the roots of dock aid in easily and smoothly removing waste from the body.
Traditional Chinese medicine says that the tissue related to the lungs is the skin. In treating disease in the lungs and strengthening lung function, the skin is also positively affected. It makes sense then, that cleansing action of dock is often used to treat skin issues such as eczema and psoriasis. Coming full circle, dock aids in the elimination of waste from the digestive system, skin, and respiratory system.
Cottonwood ~ Populus balsamifera
Cottonwood leaf buds contain anti-inflammatory and fever reducing salicylates and anti-microbial constituents. For a hot dry cough with a lot of hacking but little relief plus feverishness, balm of gilead resin works well to cool the lungs and expectorate the mucous. After a windy winter storm, find fallen cottonwood branches near rivers, streams, and lakes. Pick the sticky resinous buds off the branches.
As always, I wish you happy harvesting and medicine making. Until next time, I leave you Wild About Plants!