At the most basic level, the respiratory system is a site of gas exchange between the lungs and the outside environment. This exchange delivers oxygen through the blood vessels to all the organs, muscles, and tissues in the body, and removes carbon dioxide.
The respiratory system is much more complex, however, than simply inhaling oxygen and exhaling carbon dioxide. This system, which includes the upper respiratory system—nostrils, nasal cavity, mouth, and throat—and the lower respiratory system—lungs, bronchioles, trachea, and diaphragm—plays crucial roles in immune system function, pH balance, digestion, nervous system function, and so much more.
The Tender Organ
Because of the complex nature of the respiratory system and the role it plays in the overall health of the human body, respiratory health support is of utmost importance in the world of herbal medicine. In Chinese medicine, the lungs are called “the tender organ” because they are at the gateway or entrance to the human body. They are particularly susceptible to the external pernicious influences, known as pathogens in Western medicine.
One approach to body system management that separates herbal medicine from conventional medicine is an herbalist’s ability to break down any given system into energetic and temperature patterns that lead them to the right herbs for restoring balance. Typically the patterns we see in the respiratory system are combinations of damp, cold, hot, and dry. To identify these patterns, observe the quality of the mucus; for example, a cold and damp respiratory pattern often shows up as profuse clear or white secretions. A good herbalist is able to differentiate between patterns in the respiratory system and choose the specific herbs to effectively achieve symptom relief and restore respiratory balance.
Hot and Dry
The hot and dry respiratory pattern often shows up in either the presence of infection or the absence of appropriate respiratory secretions. The mucus will either be yellowish or greenish, sparse, sticky and difficult to expectorate. The goal in working with the hot and dry pattern is to cool down and lubricate the respiratory mucosa, while also treating any underlying infection or tissue deficiency that is creating the dryness and inflammation.
Respiratory Demulcents: Respiratory demulcents are the first step to restoring balance in a hot and dry respiratory pattern. Marshmallow root is full of polysaccharides that create a calming, cooling, protective layer of mucilage along respiratory tissue, which soothes inflammation. Slippery elm is another wonderful respiratory demulcent that also creates a protective mucilage layer along the respiratory tract; it should be noted, however, that this herb is endangered and should be used sparingly in the effort to preserve it.
Relaxing Expectorants: In addition to respiratory demulcents, relaxing expectorants help to loosen the sticky mucus and facilitate its removal from the lungs. Red clover and mullein are both herbs that have traditionally been used by herbalists to treat inflammatory conditions of the lungs. In Eclectic Materia Medica (1922), Eclectic herbalist Harvey Wickes Felter explains how red clover “relieves irritability of the respiratory tract, alleviating dry, irritable, and spasmodic cough.”
Antimicrobial Herbs: To address underlying infection that may be creating the hot and dry pattern, antimicrobial herbs that have a cooling energetic are also of great benefit. Oregon grape root and Echinacea are excellent choices in this category and should be used in conjunction with the demulcent and relaxing expectorant herbs.
Cold and Damp
The cold and damp respiratory system pattern is the most common, and is characterized by profuse mucus secretions that are either clear or milky white. The best approach to the cold and damp respiratory pattern is to choose herbs that are both warming and drying in order to dry up excess secretions and clear away the mucus build up. Ginger, cinnamon, cayenne, and sage are all warming and drying, with the added benefit of being antimicrobial. Goldenseal, while not overtly warming, is one of the best herbs for damp, boggy conditions of all mucosa in the body; it has traditionally been referred to as “king of the mucus membranes” and is known for its ability to regulate mucus secretions.
For profuse secretions of the upper respiratory tract, especially with a runny nose or post-nasal drip resulting in a sore throat, the Eyebright-Bayberry extract by Gaia Herbs is the best product to get rid of the constant mucus flow.
While the hot/dry and the cold/damp patterns are the most common pairings of respiratory energetics, hot/damp and cold/dry patterns can certainly show up. The most common example of a hot and damp respiratory condition are seasonal allergies that are characterized by inflammation of the respiratory mucosa combined with profuse secretions as the body tries to rid itself of the allergens. Allergies are approached in a similar manner to the energetic strategies described above, however involve a different method of immune system management specific to managing seasonal allergies.
Tonifying the Respiratory System with Amphoretics
Once the energetic pattern has been restored to balance, the next step towards achieving optimal respiratory health is using respiratory amphoterics to tonify the respiratory tissue. An amphoteric is an herb that acts like a food for a particular organ or tissue in the body, helping to nourish and balance it for healthy function. These herbs are particularly important to use after recovering from a respiratory infection to rebuild and restore health and function to respiratory tissue, or for protecting those who get respiratory infections like clockwork every year. In the case of the latter, these amphoteric or tonic herbs help build the resilient quality of respiratory tissue, normalize respiratory secretions, and promote normal immune system function within the respiratory tract.
Licorice: Licorice is similar to marshmallow in that it has a soothing, demulcent effect on dry and irritated lung tissue. In addition to this, licorice actually works at a deeper level to stimulate tissue repair, making this herb an excellent remedy for damaged lung and mucosa tissue or for tissues with a highly sensitized immune response. In individuals with high blood pressure, licorice should only be used under the supervision of a trained professional.
American Ginseng: American ginseng is a slightly bitter and cooling remedy that functions to tonify lung tissue and support immune function. Because ginseng is also considered to be an adaptogenic herb, it is of particular use to individuals who become especially susceptible to respiratory infections during times of stress. In Chinese medicine, the ginsengs are considered to be Yin tonics, and the lungs are viewed as one of the primary Yin organs. Eclectic herbalists used this remedy for both atonic laryngitis and bronchitis, and in cases of general debility.
Astragalus: Astragalus much like ginseng, is adaptogenic and most beneficial to individuals who get respiratory infections every year like clockwork, or even several times per year. The best way to take this herb as a preventative for respiratory infections is to begin taking it two to three months before the season you typically come down with the infection. In Chinese medicine, however, this herb is believed to hold in the good with the bad, so if an infection does occur, stop taking astragalus and begin using herbs described above based on the energetics of your infection.
Much like any aspect of health and wellness, maintaining respiratory health involves aspects of dietary and lifestyle practices as well. The way we live, the food we eat and how me manage stress all has a profound impact on the integrity of our respiratory system, especially if one is prone to recurrent respiratory infections.
Consuming foods rich in mixed carotenoids, including beets, winter squashes, red and yellow peppers, pumpkin, and carrots help promote a healthy immune system and reduce inflammation in the body. The only exception to this recommendation is for individuals who smoke; recent studies show an increased incidence of lung cancer in individuals who smoke and are eating a diet rich in beta carotene. Eating a diet rich in healthy fats, such as avocado, nuts, seeds, olive oil, and coconut oil helps to lubricate tissues throughout the body and maintain the integrity of cellular structures in the body. These are especially important in individuals who trend towards the cold and dry pattern. Taking a fish oil supplement helps ensure adequate intake of high quality omega-3 fatty acids for tissue health and reduced inflammation.
One of the most profound lifestyle choices for maintaining lung health is the decision not to smoke. Smoking profoundly impacts all systems of the body, but particularly lung and respiratory tissue, making maintenance and repair of this system much more difficult.
Practicing deep breathing techniques is a great practice to institute for lung health, as well as nervous system health and digestive health. Most humans are shallow breathers, meaning they don’t breath into the bottom third of their lungs. This results in a build of stale air and metabolic waste in the lung tissue. Practicing deep breathing, even for just two minutes a day, circulates fresh air throughout the lungs and clears out that stagnant air.
Deep breathing also helps to strengthen and promote resilience of the lung tissue, much like weight lifting builds muscle strength in the arms and legs. Because the lungs are directly connected to the nervous system, deep breathing actually helps shift the body from sympathetic mode (fight or flight) to parasympathetic mode (rest and digest), promoting a much more calm and quieted nervous system; this strategy is of particular use in individuals who experience stress-induced asthma.
Deep breathing also helps to promote digestive function because as the lungs expand, they press down on the diaphragm, which in turn massages the transverse colon; this action stimulates the release of hydrochloric acid, promotes the peristaltic action of the digestive system and increases nutrient absorption across the digestive epithelium.
Specific pathophysiologies of the respiratory system, such as asthma, pneumonia, and bronchitis, require a much more personalized approach and for safety reasons are best treated when under the care of a professional herbalist or naturopath.
Written By Betsy Miller, MS, CNS, LDN
Clinical Herbalist, Nutritionist and Health Coach at A Balanced Life Wellness
Betsy's practice focuses on integrating herbal medicines, nutritional counseling, and lifestyle coaching, that helps her clients move towards a new and positive state of well-being.Contact Betsy