Herbs for Health: Herbs That Ease Respiratory Allergies

Learn which herbs will help hyperinflammatory reactions that cause an array of symptoms.

| April/May 1996

  • Ephedra Photography by Steven Foster
  • Ginkgo
  • Stinging nettle
  • German chamomile
  • German chamomile under cultivation in New Zealand
  • Roman chamomile
  • Papaw
  • Lemongrass
  • Spanish moss

Respiratory allergies are hyperinflammatory reactions that cause an array of symptoms, including watery itchy eyes, a stuffy or runny nose, itchy nasal passages, lung congestion, and, in severe cases, asthma. Sensitivity to household dust or animal dander can cause symptoms year round, but the most common cause of respiratory allergies is plant pollens. In the early spring, tree pollens are a major culprit. In late spring, it’s grasses. In late summer, the sneezes of hay-fever sufferers announce the release of pollen from the inconspicuous greenish flowers of ragweed (Ambrosia spp.). Goldenrods, which bloom in abundance at the same time, especially in the eastern United States, have been unjustly blamed for late-summer pollen allergies, but their pollen, unlike that of ragweed, is sticky and carried from flower to flower by insects.


The best natural treatment for allergies is probably prevention by avoiding the allergen. But when you can’t do that, you may wish to turn to ephedra, stinging nettle, goldenseal, or ginkgo to relieve some of your symptoms.

Perhaps the best-known and most widely used herbal products for relief of symptoms of respiratory allergy are derived from the Chinese herbs known as ma-huang (Ephedra sinica, E. intermedia, and E. equisetina), whose stems contain 1 to 2.5 per­cent alkaloids, primarily ephedrine and pseud­oe­­phe­­d­rine.

The pharmacological effects attributed to therapeutic doses of ma-huang and its alkaloids include stimulation of the central nervous system, constriction of peripheral blood vessels leading to elevated blood pressure, and dilation of the bronchi (the tubes leading from the windpipe to the lungs). It is this last action that gives rise to the use of the herb and its alkaloids in products that relieve symptoms of respiratory allergies. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved ephedrine and its salts (ephedrine hydrochloride, ephedrine sulfate, and racephedrine hydrochloride) as decongestants in nasal sprays and as bronchodilators for the treatment of mild asthmatic spasms. The over-the-counter drugs Primatene and Marax both contain ephedrine salts.

Pseudoephedrine and its salts (pseudoephedrine hydrochloride and pseudoephe­d­rine sulfate) are approved for use in oral decongestants used for the treatment of colds, hay fever, other upper respiratory allergies, and sinusitus. Because it stimulates the central nervous system to a lesser extent, pseudoephedrine is preferred to ephedrine for products taken orally. The over-the-counter drug Sudafed contains pseudoephedrine.

While these alkaloids and their salts are registered as over-the-counter drug ingredients, ma-huang itself is defined as a “dietary supplement” under the provisions of the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994. The medicinal effects of pure ephedrine and pseudoephedrine should not be confused with the effects of ma-huang, just as you wouldn’t confuse the effects of pure caffeine with the effects of a cup of coffee. However, according to Varro Tyler in Herbs of Choice, a tea made from a heaping teaspoon of high-quality ma-huang (containing at least 1.25 percent alkaloids) placed in a cup of boiling water and simmered for about 10 minutes should contain about 15 to 30 mg of ephedrine, or approximately the FDA-approved dosage in decongestant products.

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