Learning About the LungsOur 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 (i.e. avoiding smoking) is the key. If you have a history of lung weakness, add a daily dose of a general lung tonic herbs 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.”
Common Lung ProblemsThe 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.
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. 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.
Natural medicine does very well with many respiratory ailments. THE LUNGS HAVE THE ABILLITY TO HEAL QUICKLY. 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.
Tonic Lung HerbsLung herbs are mild and well suited to making into teas.
The average dose for these teas is :
2-3 ounces of dry herb, brewed, daily, for acute symptoms
1ounce for maintenance.
ELECAMPANE ROOT (Inula helenium) is 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. Excellent for cool, wet, endless springtime climates such as Oregon.
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.
Stop the Coughing with These HerbsOSHA 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.)
LIGUSTICUM, 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.
SLIPPERY ELM (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.