Winter is upon us, and blessing us with an abundance of snow.
Fortunately, nature has also provided a bounty of herbal options for those who find themselves under the weather, and caught with the unpleasant situation of a bronchial illness.
Coughing is a protective mechanism that helps to clear the lungs and throat of irritants and fluid. Coughing may be also a symptom of more serious upper respiratory conditions such as croup, bronchitis, or pneumonia. Continuous, spasmodic coughing is exhausting, and can cause difficulty sleeping at a time when rest is critical.
When the chest is full of congestion, and coughing is not helping to expel the phlegm, a decongestant herb may be useful. Yerba Santa, Eriodictyon spp. is used as a bronchial dilator and expectorant, and also is considered a mild decongestant (1). The smoke of Yerba Santa is an antispasmodic herb, which can be particularly useful when bronchial spasms are rudely persistent. While it might seem contrary to reason to smoke a substance during a respiratory illness, for this particular herb, a scant amount of the smoke can provide a welcome relief from coughing spasm.
Yerba Santa is one of those herbs that smells truly medicinal. It has that turpentine-type odor that seems to dredge up dormant memories of our great-great-great-grandmother's cough syrup--even if we never had to privilege of meeting her--it seems to me to be an instinctual body memory of some sort. Take a sniff and you'll know what I am talking about! While the odor is strong, the taste is somewhat sweet.
To prepare a Yerba Santa decoction, take a tablespoon of the dried, ground leaves and add to 1 cup boiling water. Boil for 10 minutes, let it cool for 20 or so minutes, strain, and drink. Up to 1 ounce of the dried herb can be consumed safely throughout the day (1).
Another lung herb is Mullein, Verbascum thapsus. People with a predilection for being outside all summer long, might fondly refer to Mullein as Toilet Paper Weed, as it offers itself up for emergency use. It is also called velvet plant, blanket leaf, and Gordolobo in NM. Mullein is a sedative to the lungs and also helps to relax bronchial spasms. Mullein leaf smoke is also considered antispasmodic and have been used for centuries in smoking mixtures for asthma and bronchial infections (1).
To prepare Mullein tea, take a tablespoon of the dried chopped leaves and add to 1 or 2 cups water and bring to a boil. Immediately remove from heat, add honey or maple syrup, cool to a drinkable temperature, and drink slowly (1).
A third herb that is useful for lung conditions is Elecampane, Inula helenium. Elecampane is indicated when a cough has lingered much too long, thus turning chronic. It is specifically used for bronchitis and asthma. Elecampane is an expectorant and due to its warming, carminative properties it also helps to decrease mucous in the body (2).
A strong decoction of Elecampane is made by using 1 oz of the dried root to a pint of water. Bring to a boil, and let steep for 20 minutes. 1 to 3 cups of this tea can be drunk throughout the day (2).
A fourth effective lung herb is Coltsfoot, Tussilago farfara. Coltsfoot is an expectorant, is anti-inflammatory, demulcent--which is soothing to the throat and stomach, and helps to reduce spasmodic coughing. Coltsfoot should not be consumed by pregnant women, or by children under the age of 6, as it contains very small amounts of pyrrolizidine alkaloids (PA). Both the leaves and flowers contain PA, which are known to be associated with venoocclusive liver disease with excessive or prolonged use. Coltsfoot should not be taken during pregnancy and lactation, and should not be given to children under 6 years old. Most herbalists consider short-term use of coltsfoot for acute URI quite safe in older children and adults (3).
Coltsfoot tea is prepared by using one ounce of dried leaves and flowers to a pint of water. Bring to a boil, remove from heat and let steep for 5 to 10 minutes. This can be drunk 1 to 2 times a day for 2-3 days if necessary.
Finally, Lobelia, Lobelia inflata, also called Indian tobacco, is another very effective herb for spasmodic coughing caused by bronchitis and other upper-respiratory infections. Lobelia is and expectorant and an antispasmodic (2). Because it is an emetic, and is commonly employed to induce vomiting for other types of illnesses, it is best to use the lowest dosage necessary to help relieve coughing spasms. The leaves and flowers of Lobelia are commonly employed in smoking mixtures to relieve bronchial spasms, and is particularly suited to certain asthmatic individuals (1).
Bronchial herbs are generally quite specific in their actions, and are used for short periods of time, until relief is felt. The herbs listed above can be combined with other herbs to create formulas specific for the illness at hand. I've found these particular herbs to be very effective in reducing coughing spasms, and for bringing relief during an upper respiratory infection.
I've observed that when a sickness progresses to the chronic stage, that is, when an illness has worsened or continues to linger for more than two weeks, people are often inclined to head to the doctor seeking antibiotics with the hopes that the antibiotics will kill off whatever has been infecting them, and to prevent (as the doctors love to say) the illness from going "deeper".
However, this idea that antibiotics are going to cure the chronic cough has not been proven effective, and in fact it may do more harm than good. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported the consumption of 235 million doses of antibiotics in 2001. It is estimated that 20-50 percent of these were unnecessarily prescribed for viral infections (4). Antimicrobial drug use rates have been highest for children (5) with inappropriate prescription of antibiotics accounting for at least 40 % of antibiotic prescriptions (6).
The main rationale for antibiotic prescription, despite the known lack of efficacy, lies in the premise of preventing complications (i.e. pneumonia) from secondary bacterial infection (7). Data suggests that this practice is ineffective, and analysis of five randomized clinical trials concludes there is no substantial evidence of a protective effect against secondary infection (8).
Moreover, this practice has caused conflict amongst medical experts. It is primarily due to excessive antibiotic overuse that some pneumococci are resistant to all oral antibiotics. Recent antibiotic use is now considered a risk factor for developing invasive illness with pneumococci and there is increased risk of clinical treatment failure when treating certain pediatric diseases (8, 9, 10, & 5).
According to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), antibiotics are extremely cold in nature. If a viral illness is presenting with symptoms that TCM considers to be cold in nature (i.e., with chills, achiness, low-grade fever, and intolerance of cold) antibiotics tend to drive the illness deeper into the body, and generally cause the body to take longer to recover. If an illness is presenting symptoms of heat (i.e., high fever, headache,, irritability) the antibiotics may cause symptomatic relief temporarily, as they work to reduce the heat. However, when an illness is viral in nature, the antibiotics are really only affecting the symptomatic response to an illness, and not truly working on the sickness at all.
In my opinion, it's better to save the antibiotics for those times they are truly needed so as to prevent our bodies and bacterium from developing resistance to these medicines. They truly do serve a purpose, but generally NOT for a viral illness.
As this winter progresses, may we all be strong and well, and may we be appreciative of the amazing capacity of our immunity. Herbs can be very useful allies to keep us well and whole, and to be used for specific purposes, as needed.
(1) Michael Moore, 2003. Medicinal Plants of the Mountain West, Revised and Expanded Edition. Museum of New Mexico Press.
(2) Michael Tierra, 1998. The Way of Herbs. Washington Square Press, Published by Pocket Books.
(3) Aviva Romm, 2004. Upper Respiratory Infection (URI) in Children: The Emerging Need for Botanical Strategies. Journal of the American Herbalists Guild, Spring/Summer 2004.
(4) MacKay D 2003, Can CAM therapies help reduce antibiotic resistance? Alternative Medicine Review. 8(1):28-42
(5) Dowell S, Marcy M, Phillips W, Gerber M, Scwartz B 1998, Principles of judicious use of antimicrobial agents for pediatric upper respiratory tract infections Pediatrics. 101(1):163-165
(6) Besser E 2003, Antimicrobial prescribing in the United States: good news, bad news Annals Of Internal Medicine. 138(7):605-06
(7) Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 1998a, Careful antibiotic use: pharyngitis in children. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta, GA
(8) Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 1998b, Careful antibiotic use: resistance and antibiotic use. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta GA
(9) Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 1998c, Careful antibiotic use: rhinitis versus sinusitis in children. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta, GA
(10) Rosenstein N, Phillips W, Gerber M, Marcy S, Schwartz B, and Dowell S 1998, The common cold- principles of judicious use of antimicrobial agents Pediatrics. 101(1):181-184