Lung disease kills one out of seven people in the United States each year. That’s nearly 342,000 Americans. Not only is lung disease a leading cause of death — fourth behind heart disease, cancer and stroke — but more than 35 million Americans live with chronic lung disease, according to the American Lung Association.
One of the most common medical conditions treated by primary care physicians is sinusitis, an infection of the sinus cavities. A costly disease, sinusitis affects more than 14 percent of the population and accounts for more than $2 billion in annual health-care costs. If we add up all the other respiratory diagnoses, such as bronchitis, asthma and lung cancer, it is obvious that conditions of the lungs and sinuses make up a pretty large chunk of the health problems people face.
Our lungs are the site of gas exchange: They are how we extract oxygen, required by every cell every minute, from the air we inhale and infuse it into the bloodstream. In the course of a single day, we inhale an amazing 8,000 to 9,000 liters of air. The air then meets the 8,000 to 10,000 liters of blood pumped through the pulmonary artery.
Although the lungs are located deep inside the chest, they are actually a continuation of the skin membrane that has folded into the lining of the respiratory cavity. As such, they share a common characteristic with external organs: They are constantly exposed to the world outside. With each breath, myriad alien substances enter the lungs — pollen, dust, microbes, animal dander, tobacco smoke and air pollution.
Natural medicines for the lungs are plentiful, but prevention (for example, avoiding smoking) is the key. If you have a history of lung weakness, add a daily dose of a general lung tonic and notice just how many fewer lung-related health issues you face. Remember the old Chinese saying: “Treating a disease that is underway is like trying to make weapons while a war is already occurring.”
The skin, digestive tract and urinary tract share similarities with the lungs, so remedies for these organ systems often overlap with lung remedies. The skin, digestive tract and urinary tract are lined with mucous membranes. These membranes tend to get inflamed and to have problems with fluid flow — too much or too little — across the membrane. So it is with the lungs. Common respiratory problems include bronchitis or asthma, caused by inflammation; congestion or pneumonia, caused by too much fluid (mucus or sputum); and irritated tissue or unproductive cough, caused by too little fluid.
A wet, or productive, cough produces lots of phlegm. If the phlegm is clear, chances are you’ve got a common cold. But darker yellow or green phlegm may signal a bacterial infection. A dry, or unproductive, barking cough brings up little mucus.
Bronchitis is an inflammation of the bronchial passages. As the irritated membrane swells, it narrows and shuts off the airways, bringing coughing spells, thick phlegm and breathlessness. In most cases the infection is viral, but sometimes it is caused by bacteria.
Coughing, sneezing and postnasal drip are reflex actions the body carries out to rid itself of irritants. As aggravating as these symptoms can be, they aren’t diseases in and of themselves, although they might be symptoms of more serious conditions.
Fortunately, natural medicine does very well with many respiratory ailments. The lungs have the ability to heal rapidly. To wit: After 10 to 15 years, an ex-smoker’s risk of premature death comes close to that of a person who has never smoked. The lungs have the richest blood and oxygen supply. If the tissues get what they need, they respond marvelously.
A note of caution: See your doctor if your sore throat or fever lasts longer than 48 hours, or if you experience swelling or pain around the eyes, a headache, a dry cough and/or discharge from the nose. You might need antibiotics.
Herbalists in every culture have developed a collection of general pulmonary herbs. While each of these herbs has specific effects, and is more effective if matched individually to the patient, they can be used fairly interchangeably. Everyone’s list will be a little different, but there is wide overlap of consensus. Often, these herbs are mild and well suited to making into teas. The average dose for these teas is two to three ounces of the dry herb, brewed, daily, for acute symptoms or one ounce for maintenance.
European herbalists would call elecampane root (Inula helenium) their No. 1 lung tonic. It’s warming for a cold, wet cough; it doesn’t suppress the cough but increases expectoration. It is specific for treating irritating bronchial coughs, especially in children. Revered in Ayurveda as a rejuvenative tonic for the lungs, elecampane reduces excess chronic mucus in the respiratory tract and nourishes lung tissue. Elecampane also may be used for asthma and bronchitis. British herbalists use it for bronchial catarrh, chronic bronchitis, tuberculosis, pneumoconiosis, silicosis, pertussis, emphysema and chronic cough in the elderly. Recent scientific studies have confirmed the antimicrobial properties of elecampane.
Coltsfoot flower (Tussilago farfara) is an ancient European herb Roman soldiers used when they were posted to foreign lands. An excellent lung tonic, it supports lung and bronchial tissue, and is useful for colds, flu, asthma, bronchitis and pneumonia. It’s a cooling expectorant that liquefies mucus, suppresses cough and also is a long-term respiratory builder. This is my favorite lung herb for the cool, wet, endless springtime climate where I live in Oregon.
Mullein (Verbascum spp.) is a common wildflower that grows almost anywhere. You likely have seen it growing along the roadside. Mullein is an expectorant and demulcent herb, and also might have antiviral properties. Mullein has a high mucilage content. Its effects also may be from the mucus-loosening saponins it contains. Use hot mullein tea for coughs, sore throats and other respiratory irritations. Mullein rarely produces striking effects, but it can soothe a sore throat and bring temporary relief. Mullein can be more effective when combined with herbs with similar properties, such as yerba santa leaf (Eriodictyon californicum) and elecampane root.
Licorice root (Glycyrrhiza glabra) is another good choice as a long-term lung builder. A lung tonic with adrenal effects (it contains compounds similar to the adrenal cortical hormones), in the short term licorice root is an expectorant. Use it for a sore or dry throat, 5 to 7 grams daily as a tea, for as long as needed (usually about four weeks). Avoid the herb if you’re pregnant or if you have high blood pressure, diabetes or a condition of the liver, heart or kidneys.
Osha root (Ligusticum porteri) grows in the high altitudes in the Southwest and Rocky Mountain states. It’s a traditional American Indian remedy for use at the first sign of a respiratory infection. The herb has antimicrobial and expectorant properties. (Because osha is at risk of becoming endangered, be sure to check labels and purchase from cultivated, rather than wildcrafted, sources.)
A related plant, Szechuan lovage root (Ligusticum wallichii), is a useful remedy in Chinese medicine. Most scientific studies of Ligusticum have focused on the Chinese species, but the plants are so similar that we probably can assume their effects are comparable. It’s clear that the herb contains anti-inflammatory ingredients. A 1994 Chinese study showed that this herb helps reduce respiratory inflammation, also reducing bronchial spasm and improving lung function. Chinese research also indicates that Szechuan lovage root can relax smooth muscle tissue and inhibit the growth of various bacteria. Take 15 grams daily, as a tea.
Ever wonder why cough syrup is so often cherry flavored? The bark of the native North American herb wild cherry (Prunus serotina) was the absolute standby for coughs in times past. The bark has a pleasant cherry taste when prepared as a tea. The plant contains cyanogenic glycosides, especially prunasin; once metabolized in the body, these glycosides suppress spasms in the smooth muscles lining the bronchioles, providing cough relief.
The slippery elm tree (Ulmus rubra) is native to North America. Slippery elm bark is another mucilage-containing, throat-soothing medicine. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has deemed the herb a safe, effective cough soother. Take 2 ounces (dry weight) of slippery elm as a tea daily. Commercial slippery elm lozenges also are available and can be used throughout the day.
Marshmallow root (Althaea officinalis) has been used medicinally since ancient Greece, and Roman physicians suggested it for irritated tissues. The root contains very high levels of mucilage and quells irritation and associated dry cough, according to European authorities. Take 2 ounces (dry weight) of marshmallow as a tea daily.
Karta Purkh Singh Khalsa, a frequent contributor to Herbs for Health, is an adjunct faculty member in the botanical medicine department of Bastyr University in Kenmore, Washington. He recently completed a practitioner’s textbook on fibromyalgia for Natural Wellness Publishing. Another of Khalsa’s books, Body Balance, is available on our Bookshelf, .