My son has asthma and is currently on a nebulizer to treat his “attacks.” I just hate the thought of keeping him on a sustained regime of medications. Can you please give me some information on a natural asthma treatment?
—C. S., Fallbrook, California
Keville responds: How about having your son inhale a steam of lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) essential oil? In between attacks, bring 2 to 3 cups of water to a simmer in a pan, then add about 5 drops of the oil. Have him deeply inhale the steam for about 5 minutes. The treatment can be intensified by placing a towel over the back of his head to capture the steam, but use caution — the steam can burn. Lavender often works like magic if you use it at the first signs of an attack, but no one wants to hover over a pan of steam while they’re trying to catch their breath. If this is the case, set the pan nearby. Very young children can be held over a bathtub of steaming water to which 10 drops of lavender oil have been added. Sometimes this will completely stop the attack; at the very least it can lessen the severity of an attack.
Another idea is to give your son herbs that strengthen the lungs, particularly the bronchioles, as well as the immune system. You can find combinations in a health-food store similar to the tea blend I suggest, or you can buy the herbs and blend them yourself. Some of my favorites for asthma and lung congestion are very common herbs. Blend the following dried herbs:
• Mullein leaf (Verbascum spp.), for the lungs, 1 teaspoon
• Elecampane root (Inula helenium), for the bronchioles, 1 teaspoon
• Chamomile (Matricaria recutita), to ease the allergic-type reaction, 1/2 teaspoon
• Echinacea (Echinacea spp.), to strengthen the immune system, 1/2 teaspoon
• Ginger (Zingiber officinale), for its antihistamine properties, 1/8 teaspoon. These are the proportions of herbs to add to 3 to 4 cups of water — depending upon how strong you like it — to make a tea.
Important note: It doesn’t matter in what form your son takes the herbs, but be sure to adjust the amount for his weight. An adult dose is 1 to 2 cups of the above tea daily; follow the label directions for dosages of tinctures or pills. Product label directions provide dosages for a 150-pound adult. So, if your child weighs 50 pounds, he should receive one-third of the adult dose. For the tea I suggested, the dose would be 1/3 to 2/3 cups daily for a 50-pound child. Your son should take the tea, every day if possible, for several weeks as a tonic, then take it every other week for several months. Fortunately, the essential oil treatment and the lung-strengthening herbs will not interfere with prescription drugs.
Khalsa responds: First, have hope. Asthma can be treated very effectively with natural methods. Bronchial asthma, now properly called reactive airway disease, is characterized by chest tightness, coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath.
From a natural healing point of view, asthma is an adrenal disease manifesting in the lungs. Long-term resolution of asthma involves treatment of the adrenal glands to increase production of adrenal hormones — both stress hormones and anti-inflammatory hormones. Usually, that resolves asthma rapidly. In natural healing, we want to treat the lungs as well with specific pulmonary herbs to soothe and strengthen lung tissue. Short-term asthma symptoms can be relieved with natural remedies, but even lifelong asthma can eventually be resolved permanently with the use of long-term adrenal and lung tonics.
Under no circumstances should you withdraw your son’s conventional asthma medications without a physician’s permission. Usually, I would add the natural remedies to the existing program to improve the situation. If the patient is well stabilized, a qualified practitioner can gradually reduce the drugs while monitoring progress. This most often works well but must be done with expert medical supervision. Expect to allow months to complete the switch.
Probably the preeminent herb for asthma is cubeb (Piper cubeba), which conveniently does double duty as a lung and adrenal tonic. This warming, drying peppercorn is an excellent long-term lung-tissue builder, and also an adrenal builder. An adult dose is 10 capsules or 1/2 ounce of the dried herb as tea (prepared with as much water as you like) per day, so adjust the dosage for your child based on the instructions listed above. Start with a small dose of cubeb, as it can upset the stomach. Schisandra berry (Schisandra chinensis) is specific for asthma as a long-term lung tonic, and can be taken in capsules (2 to 4 per day is an adult dose) as part of a long-term asthma reduction program.
Good long-term pulmonary herbs you can choose from (find one your son likes or tolerates well and work it into his routine) are coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara), elecampane root, mullein, nettle (Urtica dioica) and eyebright (Euphrasia officinalis). The average adult dose for these teas is 2 ounces (dry weight) of the herb daily for acute symptoms or 1 ounce as a tonic.
Magnesium can relieve muscle spasms, including the smooth muscle of the bronchi. There is considerable evidence that asthmatics are frequently magnesium deficient. A Journal of the American Medical Association study published in 1989, among others, showed significant improvement in subjects treated with magnesium as compared to a placebo, including lower hospital admission rates than for the placebo group. An adult dose of 1,000 to 1,500 mg per day is usually helpful within bowel tolerance. Magnesium also reduces the histamine response (asthmatics typically show excessive histamine release, which leads to constriction of the bronchi). Studies show vitamin B6 supplementation decreases frequency and severity of asthma attacks.
A great story illustrating the success of natural asthma treatments is that of my patient Jeff, now 42. Jeff was diagnosed with asthma at age 5, and it came and went as he got older. “I was constantly medicated,” he says. “I took all the prescription drugs, including experimental ones, and got all the shots. I was hospitalized twice for asthma, at age 8 and 11.’’ The asthma continued into college, when Jeff used inhalers and had frequent colds that “went to his chest’’ and created infections that made his asthma worse.
At 23, Jeff moved to the Northwest. By now he had developed hay fever and allergies. He could not visit the home of anyone with a cat — the sneezing, wheezing and watery eyes would drive him away immediately. A couple of years after that, his asthma took a sharp turn for the worse and he resolved to get more proactive about natural medicine for his asthma, so he came to see me. We were able to put together a program of botanicals to build up and heal his lung tissue, as well as support and strengthen his immune system.
“I haven’t had a real asthma attack in over six years,” Jeff says. “We’ve been house-hunting lately, and we went into one house and I could smell a cat and said ‘Oh, no, they have a cat!’ But nothing happened. No wheezing, no watery eyes, nothing.”
Kathi Keville is director of the American Herb Association ( www.aha herb.com) and author of 11 herb and aromatherapy books including Herbs for Health and Healing (Rodale, 1996). She teaches seminars throughout the United States.
Karta Purkh Singh Khalsa has more than 25 years of experience with medicinal herbs. A licensed dietitian/nutritionist, massage therapist and board member of the American Herbalists Guild, he specializes in Ayurvedic, Chinese and North American healing traditions.