Treating Influenza-Related Respiratory Disorders
for the Breath
There are few sensations more distressing than being unable to breath well. Even in situations as simple and self-limiting as the common cold it can still be alarming to experience wheezing or a swollen, painful and stuffy face. Breath is essential to life and our bodies are well aware of that, and thus the feelings of anxiety and panic that can result from any impediment to our normal breathing patterns. Thankfully, herbs and other therapies (such as nutrition and lifestyle changes) are often very effective in reducing symptoms, preventing infection and even lessening the recurrence of moderate to severe respiratory issues such as bronchitis and chronic sinus infections.
Whatever climate we’re from, we’re all abundantly familiar with the respiratory issues stemming from cold/flu season that hits most places mid-Autumn and continue on through mid-Spring, often clearing up just in time for pollen allergies to kick in. This article is specific to influenza-related sinusitis, rhinitis, bronchitis and related maladies but you’ll likely find that many of these same principles relate to the treatment of the symptoms of allergic rhinitis and similar issues. Additionally, taking good care of the respiratory tract can help prevent chronic inflammation and bacterial infections year round.
There are of course myriad herbs other than what I’ve mentioned here with an affinity for the respiratory tract but, as per usual, I am only listing those I have personal experience with and use on a regular basis, most of which are local to me (with a couple of exceptions). The majority of these are also weedy plants or common garden herbs.
Note on the Format:
I have broken down the therapeutics for each symptom/energetic based entry into five categories. There is lots of overlap within these categories but I find it helpful to think of treatment broken down into more manageable components rather than a long list of
Nourishing Elements includes dietary approaches and nourishing food-like herbs that help support the whole body in a specific situation even if they do not provide immediate relief from symptoms. They are ways of providing your body with fuel and rest so that it can perform the most efficient and effective healing. This is, after all, what most holistic healthcare practitioners are really after – facilitating the natural processes of the body.
Primary Approaches are the foundational therapies for each symptom set, they usually help clear up the main complaint while also contributing to the healing of underlying issues as well. Primary approaches are classified by herbal actions to make substitutions with regional or available herbs easier.
Symptomatic Relief is just that…. and these methods can sometimes be suppressive to the body’s natural processes. Using astringents to clear up annoying and seemingly excessive mucus in an acute head cold with strong astringents is a good example of this. The excretion of mucus is an immune response and facilitates the flushing out of viral or bacterial overproliferation. Congestion and drippiness can certainly be uncomfortable (which should perhaps also inform you that your body thinks you should be in bed resting, not attempting to function for your dayjob), but it’s important to realize that you can slow down or complicate your healing process if you shut them down completely. On the other hand, if you’re chasing after a toddler or traveling, then these temporary measures can help you manage until you’re able to find someone to help care for your child or you’re able to collapse into bed. Some of these herbs are fairly drug-like in action and should be used short term and in moderation. Those herbs that overlap with the Primary Approaches category (and are thus shown in both) are more likely to be a sustainable approach to managing symptoms without suppressing the healing process.
Long-term Results are therapies that help prevent long-term respiratory weakness by supporting the overall health and integrity of the respiratory system. This can be as general as providing adequate body-wide nourishment or as specific as the directed action of mucus membrane trophorestoratives.
Considerations include the most likely complications from any given symptom set and brief recommendations for dealing with them.
-Upper Respiratory Tract-
The title says most of what you need to know, but this is when your face won’t quit leaking long enough for you to breathe or talk. This is usually clear, copious fluid from your nose but even your eyes can get to watering in a ridiculous fountain-like manner.
Rest and nutrient dense foods are usually the best way to get through this unfortunate but usually mild experience. Bone broths with aromatic herbs, and teas made with warming, aromatic herbs like Thyme and Sage can be soothing.
Astringents tone the tissues and hold fluids inside the tissue rather than allowing so much to flow out. Mild astringents can be helpful in relieving drippiness and soothing inflammation in head colds. Strong or long term use of astringents can be suppressive.
Ambrosia spp. - Useful in cases of acute sinusitis and rhinitis with watery (and often bloodshot) eyes and copious clear nasal discharge.
Rosa spp. - Not generally thought of as a respiratory herb in recent times, Rose flowers are astringent and have an affinity for the mucus membranes, especially hot, leaky, overactive ones.
Solidago spp. - Warming and aromatic, this astringent is a classic herb for leaky faces, whether from allergies or a head cold. Small doses work great, and I prefer to use the most aromatic species I can find.
Lycium pallidum - While it’s hard to say exactly how this plant works, its mucus membrane drying up effect is quite remarkable. Being a Solanaceae, it’s likely that it’s due in part to some mild anti-cholinergic effect. However it works, it works well. It’s action is simple and to the point. It does not address any underlying issues at all, and it may even aggravate your head cold by suppressing your body’s natural defenses if used often or to excess, but well, it does work.
This is usually just a short term phase of a cold, but if it dwindles a bit and then continues on after the rest of the cold or flu seems to have left your body, you may need some mucus membrane tonics to firm up the sinus tissues and help them to better retain their fluids instead of leaking them all over your face.
This is the “my face is filled with cement and my brain is made of oatmeal” sort of head cold. It require less tissue consumption but is more likely to addle your thinking process and result in the zombie-like state conducive to staying in bed all day.
If the mucus is clear to whitish and you’re still in the acute phase of the cold, this phase will often just pass on its own and eventually start draining in various noisy ways in a few days. If the mucus turns green/yellow and lasts beyond a week though, you’re much more likely to end up with a sinus infection and painful sinus inflammation.
Pretty much the same as the Drippy/Leaky symptom set. Rest, relax, try not think too hard (it’ll just make the oatmeal more cement-like anyway) or wear yourself out in ways that will prolong the misery. Eat nutrient dense food, especially with aromatic herbs and spice, which is the only way you’re going to be able to taste it anyway. Drink plenty of water to help thin out secretions and encourage movement in the respiratory tract.
Aromatics move stagnant stuff (fluids including blood and mucus around, stuck energy etc.,) usually in an outward direction. If they’re bitter aromatics, they’ll also help to drain things downward.
Anemopsis californica - Yerba Mansa is not only a remarkable decongestant but also a mucus membrane trophorestorative that is especially wonderful for people have chronic sinusitis that flares up into massive sinus headaches and low-grade infections at the first hint of a cold or allergy attack.
Artemisia spp. - Moonwort is both aromatic and bitter and is commonly used for just about any viral or sinus issue by many indigenous people in NM (and the entire West, as far as I know). It makes a great steam, a very bitter and perfumey tasting tea and a somewhat more palatable tincture. I would stick with the milder (as in not Artemisia tridentata) species for internal use.
Monarda spp - I like Beebalm best as a steam for congested sinuses, which not only clears them out so you can breathe for a while but also saturates the tissues with those lovely anti-microbial volatile oils. The strong tea is also great though, as is tincture.
Lycium again, see above Leaky/Drippy entry for more details. Neti pots are also great here, especially when made of saline tea of Rosa and Calendula. Symptoms will be temporarily aggravated before backing off in a big way in most cases. This particular symptomatic approach also works well long term and is beneficial all the way around.
If there’s a propensity toward this type of congestion, consider eliminating dairy products for a while (6 weeks to start with), drinking more water and including aromatic herbs in your diet on a daily basis.
Long-term stuffiness without drainage can lead to sinus infections. Paying close attention to how you feel instead of blocking out the discomfort will help you know when your crossing the line from temporarily stuffed up to infected. Using a neti pot with saline anti-inflammatory herbal teas and doing sinus steams with aromatic herbs will help prevent chronic congestion and bacterial proliferation.
You’re still congested but not in the wet, gurgle when you breathe through your nose kinda way, but rather in a dry, dusty sort of way that causes you to imagine that the inside of your head is encrusted with desiccated mollusks or some other equally bizarre and crusty creature. You’ll be able to breathe better than in the two earlier described situations, but your face is still likely to be sore, somewhat swollen feeling and clearly uncomfortable.
Eat soothing, mucilage containing foods like Okra and Barley (if you’re not gluten intolerant of course). Avoid very drying herbs, opt for herbs that are both aromatic and moistening like Cinnamon and Fenugreek rather than strictly drying ones like Thyme in your food.
Daily use of demulcent (slimy, gooey and mucusy) can help lessen systemic dryness and reduce overall discomfort.
Althaea/Malva (and allied Malvaceae spp.) - Just straight up cooling slime that lessens inflammation and promotes constitutional greater moistness.
Ulmus pumila and U. rubra - Very similar to the above, but less cooling.
Mucus Membrane Trophorestoratives
Chronically dry, inflamed sinus tissues will likely lead to infections and eventually, laxity and fluid loss (probably while feeling drier and drier).
Bidens spp. - Spanish Needles/Beggarticks is a common weed that has the fascinating ability to rejuvenate tired, dry sinuses by both increasing tonicity and juiciness in the mucus membranes. Tea or tincture works great.
Neti pot again, especially made with soothing, slightly slimy herbs like Violet or Plantain. Jim McDonald also has this to say about treating dry sinuses:
“In Ayurvedic medicine, there is a practice known as Nasya, which basically refers to the nasal administration of medicines. There are many forms of this, but one involves the use of oils or ghee (clarified butter), and this can be very beneficial for chronically dry sinuses. You can simply apply a few drops of sesame (or other) oil to the fingers and swab the insides of the nostrils, or, to deliver the oil deeper into the sinuses, hang you head off the egde of the bed a bit, use a dropper to put a drop in the nostril and then perform a good snort. I’ve seen very good results from this every time I’ve had someone try it (me included). It’s a too oft neglected practice.”
Drinking daily infusions that include slimy herbs such as Elm or Mallow may also help moisten tissues enough to prevent this sort of stuffiness. And again, Bidens is a great way to help restore long-term moisture to the mucus membranes.
-Lower Respiratory Tract-
This is usually a non-productive cough that sounds and feels dry and parched. The throat, sinuses and lungs may all feel dry, and eventually hot and burning as well as the tissues get more inflamed from the irritation caused by non-productive coughing.
Having a wood stove or forced air heat can contribute to the discomfort and frequency of a dry cough, so a vaporizer or just a pot of water left uncovered on the wood stove can be very helpful to soothe the aggravated tissues.
The systemic moistening effects of demulcent herbs, especially those with a respiratory system affinity can be incredibly helpful here, often soothing the cough and dry burning feeling nearly immediately. Continued use of these herbs can help reduce inflammation and result in quickened recovery of the irritated tissues.
Malva/Althaea (and allied Malvaceae herbs) - Ground Marshmallow root powder mixed with honey or water (or both) can provide both immediate and long-term results. Even the tincture can be helpful, although it’s far preferable to actually drink/eat the gooey mucilage rather than using any kind extract.
Ulmus rubra & Ulmus pumila - These Elm species are incredibly slimy and soothing. Like Marshmallow they soothe and heal dry coughs with remarkable speed and effectiveness.
The demulcents listed above are actually about the best symptomatic relief I know of for simple dry coughs with accompanying discomfort. Pharmaceutical cough suppressants may temporarily shut down the cough completely but don’t deal with the dryness factor and are likely to linger longer as a result.
If there is an overall tendency to constitutional dryness in the individual, then long/-term use of demulcent herbs such as the ones listed above and other similarly mucilaginous herbs may help increase moisture in the body and lessen the propensity to dry coughs when ill.
Spasmodic Non-Productive Cough
You can’t stop coughing long enough to breathe, eat or sleep. There’s often so much tension that it feels like there’s an ever-tightening band cinching around the chest. Even the simplest, smallest throat tickled induced cough will often result in a prolonged fit that leaves you panting, holding your ribs and possibly with tears in your eyes. Sometimes the tension will progress far enough that real coughing isn’t even possible and there may just be strained wheezing with gagging.
Avoid eating hot, spicy, stimulating foods including black pepper, chiles or similar things. Foods should be soothing and nutrient dense, especially since constant coughing can make it difficult to get things down. Don’t aggravate the cough by running or engaging in any vigorous physical exertion. DO rest, as spasmodic coughing can be exhausting all by itself. Avoid breathing very cold air, smoke or other irritating circumstances that can provoke a coughing fit.
Relaxants are often simply labeled anti-spasmodics and they excel at relaxing overly tense muscles, and depending the herb, can specifically affect the striped (skeletal), smooth and cardiac muscles or work in a general enough manner to mildly relax any and all. In cases of spasmodic coughing, they are often able to relieve enough to tension to lessen coughing and allow the body to rest and heal.
Allium cepa - Onion poultices and Onion syrup (see recipe below) can both be incredibly helpful in spasmodic, body-wracking coughs that just won’t stop. They’re also simply made, widely available and quick to prepare, making them invaluable to nearly any practitioner.
Asclepias tuberosa - Butterfly Weed (also known as Pleurisy Root) is both cooling and deeply relaxing. It is specifically indicated where there is stabbing or pricking pain in the side or chest from the tension and spasms. While it works admirably on its own, I am very fond of it combined with Lobelia.
Lobelia inflata - Small doses of Lobelia, especially when taken consistently and frequently, is one of the very best botanicals I’ve ever worked with for severe chest tension and spasmodic coughing. Even when the person can barely breathe through the coughing or can’t stop gagging, Lobelia will often relax the muscles enough to allow for rest, breath and healing.
Paeonia spp. - A cool relaxant herb with an affinity for smooth muscles and having the ability to reduce spasmodic coughing with chest tension and heat signs. It is not a tremendously strong anti-spasmodic herb on its own but I’ve had much success with it in formula.
Prunus serotina & P. Virginiana - Cherry bark syrup is the archetypal cough medicine. I tend to prefer the tincture (tea and cold infusions are also preferable) to the syrup, but it is indeed excellent at relaxing chest tension and quieting spasmodic coughing while still promoting effective expectoration.
Valeriana spp. - A warming aromatic relaxant, Valerian can be effective for quieting spasmodic coughs is those with some cold signs (pale tongue, subjective sensations of being cold, slow pulse).
While I am not generally a fan of any cough suppressants, I’ve seen enough people wear themselves out by coughing incessantly (and non-productively) and become progressively more exhausted and ill as the coughing keeps them awake and then gets worse from the over-tiredness to see the importance of shutting the cough down when its no longer productive, is causing pain and preventing rest. In some cases, the chest will get tighter and tighter feeling with each cough, and the tightness causes more frequent and severe coughing, resulting in a very uncomfortable and potentially dangerous cycle.
The relaxants listed above will often help relax the tension enough to allow sleep, breathing and eating. In some cases though, something stronger may be in order, at least at night. Small doses of straight Codeine seems preferable to many over the counter cough suppressants to me, but you’ll need to talk to your physician to see what s/he thinks is most appropriate when it comes to prescription meds. I have found that a tincture of Monotropa uniflora maybe sometimes be a strong enough relaxant to allow for rest and reduced coughing as well.
If spasmodic coughs become a consistent tendency in a person every time they get the sniffles, then it’s time to look at potential lung weakness and search for aggravating factors, including the possibility of mild asthma. In these cases, appropriate lung tonics should be considered, including Ganoderma and/or Glycyrrhiza.
Wet coughs sound boggy and sometimes almost bubbly. There is clearly an over-abundance of moisture in the lower respiratory tract but it can be difficult to expectorate. It may feel as if there is a heavy weight on the chest and breathing may be difficult.
Coldness and overall deficiency can accompany many wet coughs, so warming spices and foods can be very helpful here. Bone broths with Thyme and Sage are a good choice as are many curries and similar dishes. Avoid cold, wet foods like cucumbers, melons, raw greens as well as most dairy products (ghee or high quality butter is less likely to cause any aggravation) and citrus fruits.
Aromatic Stimulating Expectorants
Usually warm (but with certain exceptions) and spicy tasting, these plants can help both dry and move phlegm. They also tend to be anti-microbial in nature, which can prevent secondary infection from setting in.
Abies spp. - Fir needles, bark and resin can all be excellent for drying up wet coughs and resolving old, persistent coughs with sensations of coldness and a feeling of achy tiredness in the chest. Due to its volatile oils, Fir can help prevent secondary bacterial infection, reduce inflammation and lessen feelings of oppression and difficulty breathing. The needle decoction, elixir, infused honey or tincture are particularly good for addressing the pain of swollen, aching throats.
Allium sativum - Garlic is great for those who are very prone to cold/wet coughs and lung conditions, working not only as a treatment for a current condition but also as an excellent preventative when a virus is making the rounds of your community.
Inula helenium - Elecampane is closer to neutral-cool in energetics and so more appropriate for those who have a wet cough but with heat signs (red tongue, fast pulse, burning sensations in the chest). This incredibly aromatic (like eating perfume) root is wonderful for breaking up congestion and stimulating effective expectoration.
Ligusticum porteri - I don’t really know of anything as good as Osha for moving and drying phlegm while also disinfecting lung tissue. Lovage and Angelica root can also act similarly and are more widely available and easier to grow in a garden.
Pinus spp. - Many books and some herbalists cite only White Pine (Pinus strobus) as a medicinal, while many folks in the American Southwest are prone to only mention Piñon Pine (Pinus edulis). Truth is, any aromatic, resinous Pinus species is very useful. I personally work with Pinus edulis, Pinus ponderosa (Ponderosa Pine) and Pinus strobiformis (Southwestern White Pine) for medicinal uses, all with good success, although it is notably easier to harvest chunks of resin from P. edulis. Pines are similar to the aforementioned Firs in many ways, and are again quite effective in the treatment of old or wet unproductive coughs and that swampy feeling in the lungs. Pine, like Fir, also helps prevent bacterial infection and reduces respiratory inflammation.
There is often the tendency to want to take things (chemical or herbal) that dry out the mucus membranes as much as possible in order to eliminate the discomfort and the heightened chance of bacterial infection. However, it is my experience that it can be a mistake to simply dry out the tissues without also helping to move the phlegm up and out of the body. So rather than taking strong cold medication or very strong astringents, even for symptomatic relief I recommend the aromatic stimulating expectorants listed above for the best results. Sucking on some dried (or fresh) Osha root can definitely provide some welcome relief from bogginess and congestion.
Respiratory system trophorestoratives and tonics can help restore elasticity and juiciness to overly lax mucus membranes (which can be caused by long term inflammation or chronic infections) and thus help prevent further wet coughs or bacterial infections.
If there is also immunodeficiency present, consider immune tonics such as Astragalus and Ganoderma.
Very wet coughs that seem resistant to clearing up can result in severe bacterial infection and inflammation where pneumonia can set in. This is especially true for the very old and very young. Pneumonia can progress very quickly and should be generally be treated by someone familiar with it and competent to treat it (this may or may not mean a doctor, depending on your situation).
While most effective chest rubs are made with essential oils, I prefer to use a recipe without the EOs if possible. With severe congestion and spasmodic coughing though, I do sometimes resort to the more standard formula.
Beyond the obvious placement on the chest and throat, this works very well when rubbed into the soles of the feet, especially when one or two pairs of socks are put on over top.
2 parts Cottonwood (any aromatic/resinous Populus spp.) bud infused oil
1 part White Fir (Abies concolor, but most Pinus, Abies or Pseudotsuga etc., species would work as well) needle infused oil.
1 part White Sage (Salvia apiana, but other Salvia spp. would also work as long they’re strongly aromatic. Alternatively, Rosemary could be substituted) infused oil.
1 part Moonwort (Artemisia spp., the more aromatic the better) infused oil.
1/2 part Pinus edulis resin (other Pine resins would presumably work as well).
Standard salve making procedure. Upside to this salve is that it also works great for just about any general salve need.
Note: When I’m applying the chest rub, I sometimes add a little Lobelia inflata tincture to the salve as I rub it in.
1 Cup roughly chopped fresh onion
Handful of fresh or dried Sage or Thyme or Monarda
Enough honey to cover herbs
Just place the onion and other herbs in a jar, cover with honey, stir to remove air bubbles and cover. Let sit overnight. Use by the teaspoonful beginning the next morning. Some people like to eat the onion bits with the honey and some people prefer to strain the solids out. It’s up to you.
Mountain Roots Honey
This is lovely stuff for preventing and treating all sorts of lung grunge and irritating coughs. You could mix the recipe up a bit and add Balsamroot or Devil’s Club or whatever other appropriate regional roots you might have near you. This can also be done with dried roots and will work.
1 part chopped fresh Osha or Lovage root (Angelica could work too, but will be less tasty)
1 part chopped fresh Spikenard (Aralia spp) root
1 part chopped fresh Evening Primrose (Oenothera spp.) root
Enough honey to cover roots.
Place roots in jar and cover with honey.
Stir to remove air bubbles and cap.
Let infuse for 4-6 weeks before using.
I don’t strain this infused honey, preferring to hand out the root chunks for people to suck on slowly if they have a cough or some throat irritation.
7Song - Writings by and personal corresponsence
Bergner, Paul - Vitalist Actions & Formulating Lectures
McDonald, Jim - Surviving Sinusitis, Breathing Botanicals: Herbs for Respiratory Wellness
McDonald, Jim - Personal correspondence
Mills, Simon and Bone, Kerry - Principles and Practice of Phytotherapy
Moore, Michael - Medicinal Plants of the Mountain West
Moore, Michael - Medicine Plants of the Pacific West
Williamson, Darcy - Healing Plants of the Rocky Mountains
Wood, Matthew - Unpublished writings
Conversations with local NM/AZ Hispanic, Apache and Navajo folks