Herbs for the Respiratory System
by Christa Sinadinos

Respiratory infections most commonly occur in the winter season when cold, wet, damp weather affect the functioning of the lungs and other respiratory organs.  Fortunately, therapeutic herbal treatments can have a profound influence on respiratory afflictions.  Demulcent herbs contain mucilage which soothes dry, irritated tissues; they are specific treatment for a sore throat or a dry cough. Antitussive agents reduce respiratory spasms and are most beneficial for coughs which have a dry, irritated character and for the treatment and maintenance of asthmatic conditions.  Antimicrobial agents are important to include in a respiratory formula to address the source of the infection. 

Angelica (Angelica archangelica)
Angelica root acts as an antispasmodic to the smooth muscle tissues.  A decoction (or 30-60 drops of the extract) can be used to allay respiratory spasms, which can be beneficial for dry, irritating coughs and asthma.  Because it is a warming herb, angelica is most specific for lung conditions with white, clear, or cloudy mucus. 

Contraindications: Do not consume angelica during pregnancy since it has emmenogogue actions.  Angelica may also cause photosensitivity in some individuals.

Coltsfoot - Eastern Coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara)
Coltsfoot leaves and flowers have demulcent and emollient properties.  A tea of the leaves can be useful for lung ailments such as bronchitis, laryngitis, asthma, whooping cough, and sore throat.  A traditional European tea recipe used for the conditions previously listed contains equal parts of coltsfoot, mullein, hyssop, and peppermint.  Like comfrey and borage, coltsfoot contains small amounts of liver-toxic pyrrolizidine alkaloids (P.A.s).  The effects of the P.A.s are cumulative. 

Contraindications: Coltsfoot consumption should be avoided during pregnancy, or limited to short term use, due to its pyrrolizidine alkaloid content.  There is little known about the effects of the P.A.s on the fetus.  Any person with debilitating liver conditions or compromised liver function should also avoid using coltsfoot.   

Elecampane Root (Inula helenium)
Elecampane can be used as a respiratory tonic and can also help to speed the recovery process for lingering lung infections.  It is specific for respiratory conditions with excessive bronchial secretions, such as bronchitis, and for irritation of the trachea and bronchi that results in persistent and irritable coughing.  Elecampane exerts a soothing action, but also acts to reduce excess mucous.  Drink a hot decoction of the root to induce sweating and to help break a fever.

ucalyptus (Eucalyptus globulus)
Many people are familiar with the strong aromatic and camphorous odor of eucalyptus.  It is often used as an antiseptic spray in sick rooms, and it is added to liquid soaps for similar reasons.  It exhibits a strong antiseptic action in both upper respiratory diseases and infections of the digestive tract.  Steams with either the herb or 1-3 drops of the essential oil are useful in clearing nasal passages.  Eucalyptus steams dilate the bronchioles and can aid in breathing.  The steams also encourage expectoration of excess mucous of the sinuses and lungs.  Eucalyptus is therefore useful for sinusitis, bronchitis, bronchial asthma, and for chronic post-nasal drip.  It also exhibits a diaphoretic action, encouraging secretion of the sweat glands and thus reducing fevers.  Contraindications: Discontinue using eucalyptus essential oil or herb if it aggravates asthma or any other respiratory conditions.  Use caution during pregnancy.

Fenugreek Seed (Trigonella foenum-graecum)
Fenugreek tea can be used to relieve dry cough and sore throat.  The tea has demulcent and astringent actions, which helps to soothe the mucus membranes and to improve their structure.  Fenugreek encourages the expectoration of mucous, while at the same time helps to reduce excess mucus production.  Fenugreek can be used as a recuperative tonic after a long, debilitating illness.  Although the seeds have a maple syrup-like smell, they have a moderately bitter-sweet flavor.  Add fresh lemon, honey, licorice, or Indian sarsaparilla to improve the taste of fenugreek tea. Contraindications: Fenugreek consumption should be avoided during pregnancy; it can also alter the smell of urine.

Hyssop (Hyssopus officinalis)
Hyssop can be used to treat ailments of the lungs including bronchitis, asthma, and respiratory conditions associated with coughs and colds.    

Juniper (Juniperus communis)
Juniper berries have antimicrobial properties, and can be used to treat upper and lower respiratory infections.  Juniper has warming actions and stimulates the production of white blood cells, and thus can be beneficial in the first phase of a cold or flu.  The hot tea has diaphoretic actions, and can help in treating a fever.   
Contraindications: Avoid using juniper during pregnancy and lactation, and in children.   Discontinue using juniper if it aggravates the kidneys.  Individuals with kidney problems or existing kidney damage should avoid use.  Juniper is best used as a short-term treatment.

Mullein (Verbascum thapsus)
An infusion of mullein is a useful remedy for dry, irritated lung conditions or a dry, raspy throat.  The leaf encourages secretions in dry mucus membranes.

Warning – The author recommends wearing a mask and using caution when mixing dry leaves of mullein, as inhaling the fine “hairs” on the leaves can irritate the lungs of some individuals. One can also strain the tea through a paper coffee filter to avoid potential irritation of the tissues.

Osha Root (Ligusticum porteri)
Osha encourages the thinning and expelling of mucus, which is very appropriate for dry, hacking coughs.  Additionally, it increases oxygenation in the lungs.  The tea or tincture in hot water acts as a diaphoretic, which causes sweating and helps to break a fever.  This aids in the elimination of toxins which is especially useful in the first phase of an infection.  It is also useful for fevers which waver from hot to chilled, allowing the body to conserve energy.

Contraindications: Avoid use during pregnancy.  Discontinue use if the condition is aggravated.

Thyme (Thymus vulgaris)
Thyme can be used in the treatment of numerous conditions of the respiratory tract including colds, flu, bronchitis, asthma, sinus infections, and whooping cough.  Thyme also has antitussive actions, and can be helpful for dry, unproductive coughs. 

Usnea - Old Man's Beard (Usnea barbata)
Usnea contains lichen acids. Usnea may be helpful against the following bronchitis, pneumonia, sinus infections, and pleurisy.  Usnea is poorly water-soluble and is best used in the extract form. Take 30-90 drops of the extract 3-4 times a day.

Wild Cherry (Prunus serotina)
Wild cherry bark is a respiratory sedative and antitussive agent.  It can be very helpful in alleviating rapid or shallow breathing that results from asthma or a bronchial infection.  It helps to relax and strengthen the respiratory system in cases of infection, and is often used in cough syrup and other cough formulas.

Contraindications: Avoid the use of wild cherry bark in individuals who have very low blood pressure, respiratory depression, or cardiovascular depression.

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