One day, decades ago, I was pregnancy checking a couple of hundred holsteins in a blizzard. It was a really cold, miserable day but at least one arm was warm (one of the few perks of being a dairy vet). On that particular day I was coughing my brains out. It seemed I’d been coughing like that for as long as I could remember that winter and I felt lousy. On the way home from the dairy I stopped in to see the doctor who’s office was across the street from my house…Old Doc.
Doc was a great guy and a brilliant diagnostician but his rough bedside manner was the stuff of local legends. He put a stethoscope on my back and told me to breathe. I did so…sort of.
“Well, ya got pneumonia.” he said. “I’ll get you some meds. Go home and go to bed for a week.”
“Oh, I can’t do that I’ve got to work” I replied smiling.
He looked at me briefly, his face completely dead pan and announced matter of factly, “Well…you’ll die.” and left the room to see his next patient.
I decided maybe I could take a few days off.
Since then, the lung has become one of my favorite organs…well actually, two of my favorite organs! I use mine all the time…every day in fact. I’ll bet you do too!
As important as they are, it makes sense to take good care of them. Fortunately, there are a lot of medicinal plants that have a strong affinity for the lungs. Whether it’s allergies, asthma, bronchitis, influenza or just a nagging, persistent cough, herbal remedies can often make a wonderful difference.
Let’s have a look at some of the herbal actions of various groups of plants and see if we can better understand their possible applications in respiratory cases.
Histamines are chemicals released by the immune system. They have two principle functions. One is to attract white blood cells to join the fight when something foreign is discovered in the body. The second function is to drive the foreign invaders out! Hence the sneezing, wheezing, coughing and runny noses and eyes we experience when suffering from allergy symptoms.
Some Herbs like Brigham tea, nettles and eyebright have direct anti-histamine functions. Others like burdock, Oregon grape or turmeric accelerate the elimination of histamines by stimulating liver function. Remember the old song “The Leg bone’s connected to the knee bone“..etc…? Well it turns out that the liver is connected to the nose. So, being nice to your liver can sometimes help you quit sneezing.
Anti-spasmodic herbs are muscle relaxants. many of the respiratory symptoms people experience can be caused by irritation and constriction of the muscles surrounding the wind pipe or bronchi. Herbs like Lobelia, gumweed and cramp bark can relax these muscle and open up the airways or calm a persistent unproductive cough.
Expectorants are herbs that help to move goobers out of the lungs. As I recall, there was a more complicated description for this in doctor school but that was a really long time ago. These plants work by making the mucus more thin, increasing the action of the cilia in the airways or both. Some of my favorites are elecampane and gumweed.
Wanna quit coughing? The inner bark of the choke cherry tree is a good cough suppressant. It’s called wild cherry bark in the trade. I’m not sure why as most of these trees are stately senior citizens that don’t get out much. My guess is it’s a branding ploy to try to get young people to buy herbs. Mullein is good too.
Some herbs have specific activity against viruses that attack the respiratory system. Elder, Lomatium and St. John’s wort inhibit the influenza viruses. Cinquefoil (Potentilla) inhibits respiratory syncitial virus (RSV). Rhinovirus, which causes the common cold, is inhibited by yarrow and Echinacea.
So, next time you’re fighting a respiratory infection, don’t go to the store to pick up an over-the-counter medication that will make you feel better so you can go to the office and infect all of your co-workers (Now THERE’S a marketing strategy!). Instead, go out to the garden and enlist the aid of some of your botanical friends.
Don’t have a garden full of botanical buddies yet.
No worries, go to
We have lots of gardens.