Jordan Douglas, MS, HHC

Part of the magic of winter is the reminder that trees are the lungs of our planet. With bare branches cast against the pale winter sky, we see a striking similarity to our own respiratory tract. Our relationship with trees is symbiotic, we inhale their expelled oxygen and they inhale our expelled carbon dioxide in a delicate dance of breath. We need plants to survive and thrive, and there is no better time to turn our attention to tending to the health of our respiratory system. Herbal medicine has much to offer in terms of plants that support optimal respiratory functions. These herbs can help to reduce inflammation, promote the expulsion of mucus, soothe irritated mucus membranes, reduce congestion and promote healthy bronchial function. Here are five of my favorite herbs for supporting respiratory health and function:

  1. Elder (Sambucus nigra): You may be well-acquainted with elderberries already for their immune supportive properties, but here we are focused on the flowers of the elder plant. Elderflowers help to promote a sweat (diaphoresis), a key element of detoxification, and support a healthy inflammation response. Elderflower makes for a delicious tea that can be consumed hot or cold to support healthy respiratory function. It can also be used as a gargle for irritation in the throat.
  2. Mullein (Verbascum thapsus): Mullein is very soothing, cooling and healing. It has a long history of use in England and Ireland both internally as a decoction (essentially a strong tea) and externally as an infused oil of the flowers. Mullein is particularly supportive to the bronchial tissue and can be taken as a tea or tincture. A mullein-garlic infused oil is also commonly available for use as an ear oil.
  3. Thyme (Thymus vulgaris): Thyme is likely no stranger to your spice rack, but it’s also a standout in the kitchen farmacy for its medicinal herbal properties. Thyme is energetically warming and drying as well as soothing and calming to the respiratory tract. It is also rich in essential oils such as thymol, carvacrol and linalool, which confer its antimicrobial activity. Thyme tea with a bit of honey and lemon is a delicious winter tea. The tea can also be used as a gargle for mouth or throat irritation. Thyme can be used abundantly in cooking this time of year as food medicine. Thyme infused honey is one of my personal favorite applications.
  4. Elecampane (Inula helenium): Elecampane as a long and rich history of use for both digestive and respiratory issues. You may be familiar with inulin, an important prebiotic fiber, which was first isolated in 1804; elecampane is the highest known source of inulin. Elecampane is soothing, warming and slightly bitter – quelling inflammation and reducing irritation and congestion in the respiratory tissues. Elecampane can be taken as a decoction or tincture and is also found in many herbal cough syrups.
  5. Eucalyptus (Eucalyptus spp.): Eucalyptus is very rich in essential oils, polyphenols and flavonoids, conferring its potent antimicrobial, antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Warming and drying, eucalyptus helps to clear congestion and soothe inflammation in the respiratory tract. Eucalyptus can be consumed mindfully as a tea, or the essential oil can be used (diluted accordingly) in herbal steams, baths and other topical applications.

As with all herbs and supplements, be sure to consult your health care practitioner before integrating a new herb or product into your regimen. Want to dig deeper into respiratory wellness? Email to set up a free 30-minute virtual appointment.

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