Foraging plants for the respiratory system

Reclaim your health autonomy by foraging plants for your respiratory system

The respiratory system is our interface and connection with all of life, via the gases that permeate our atmosphere before permeating our blood. Through the mechanisms of the lungs we receive oxygen in the form of O2, and release carbon dioxide (CO2), as a result of ongoing cellular respiration.

However, due to the open nature of the lungs we will also encounter a continual bombardment of foreign matter and harmful, disease-spreading, pathogenic organisms.

The respiratory system represents the following tissues, muscles and organs.

  • The nose and mouth – The beginning of the airways. Oxygen is brought in to the nose and down to the trachea. When carbon dioxide (CO) is expelled, it comes back through the trachea to the nose.

  • The pharynx – Part of the digestive system as well as the respiratory system, because it carries food and air.

  • The larynx – Otherwise known as the voice box. It sits at the beginning of the trachea and essentially is a short tube that contains a pair of vocal chords.

  • The trachea – Essentially a smooth muscle and pipe-shaped airway, it is protected by the sternum and spine. Divides into left and right bronchus tubes.

  • The lungs – They connect to and begin at the trachea. Acupuncturists view the tongue as an extension of our lung.

  • The bronchi – These increasingly small air tubes carry the CO2 / oxygen to and from the lungs from the trachea.

  • The diaphragm – This muscle contracts when breathing in, and expands when exhaling CO2.

The pulmonary system has its own circulatory system. Deoxygenated blood is pumped by the heart to the lungs where it becomes oxygenated. It then flows back to the heart and is pumped around the body and brain, delivering oxygen and nutrients to every cell.

During a normal day, we breathe nearly 25,000 times, and take in large amounts of air. The inhaled air contains mostly oxygen and nitrogen. But air also has things in it that can hurt our lungs. There are two major causes of problems with the respiratory system – pollution and smoking. Obviously there are diseases and other issues also.

Many illnesses of the lungs are as a result of infection. These can be in the throat, or in the airways down towards and inside the lung itself. The inner surfaces of tissues in the respiratory system are coated with a film of mucus to aid peristalsis higher up the airway, as well as facilitating the ejection of foreign particles which can come to lodge themselves in the lungs.

Some disorders of the respiratory system, with suggestions of herbs we can forage to treat it.

Be careful about reading health books – you may die of a misprint!” – Mark Twain (1835-1910)

To facilitate treatment of the respiratory system, herbalists usefully distinguish between the lower and upper halves. The upper consists of the structural conducting organs: nose, sinuses, larynx and pharynx, whilst the lower half consists of the conducting air-ways of the trachea, including the bronchus tubes, respiratory bronchioles and alveoli.

Pulmonary tonic herbs are plant remedies with a wide range of actions on the system, strengthening and restoring tissues and membranes. They include mullein, plantains, elecampagne, and coltsfoot and are typically recommended by herbalists for treating symptoms of respiratory disease and to strengthen tissues and function. Coltsfoot has been called the best remedy for children.

Coughs can be treated in a number of ways with various herbs exerting different effects.

Anti-tussives inhibit the cough reflex. Aside from the well known and controversial opium poppy (containing the effective anti-tussive opiate alkaloid -codeine), these herbs include coltsfoot – the plant named in honour for its all round abilities to alleviate coughing; wild lettuce – which specifically sedates and dampens down the cough reflex in a similar way to the opiate codeine (an ingredient in many cough remedies); and wild cherry bark (Prunus avium) which is believed to work due to the presence of saponins.

Expectorants are a wide range of plants used to facilitate and accelerate the expulsion of mucous or sputum from the bronchial tubes. These may be relaxing or stimulating.

  • Relaxing expectorants are useful for easing spasm and to loosen mucous from the airways. They usually contain some soothing mucilage and are of great benefit when treating dry and irritable coughs. Both Ribwort and rats-tail plantains, as well as coltsfoot, marshmallow, and burdock have all been traditionally used.

  • Image of rats tail plantain
    Rats tail or greater plantain is a traditional herb used to treat the respiratory system
  • Stimulating expectorants such as thyme, mullein, elecampagne and garlic are good for productive coughs. They work by irritating the bronchial tubes, which initiates a reflex to cough. Plants with either of these components help to reduce mucosal viscosity, thereby enabling sputum to be passed more easily up, out, and away, via what doctors sometimes call the muco-ciliatory escalator.

Demulcent herbs typically contain substantial amounts of mucilage. Plants such as comfrey, the plantains, coltsfoot, chickweed, marshmallow, and mullein will all soothe, protect and heal damaged, exposed surfaces of the respiratory system. These plants are often soft to touch, and broad-leaved. They often work through reflex action of the gut nerves, easing irritation in other areas such as the digestive and urinary systems.

Image of chickweed, an emollient medicinal herb that helps the respiratory system.
Chickweed is an emolient herb used to treat the respiratory system.

Anti-catarrhal herbs reduce the amount of mucous and phlegm produced. The following herbs have been used for centuries with success: Garlic, coltsfoot, yarrow, lungwort, plantains, elder, elecampagne, and mullein.

Asthma is a chronic inflammatory disorder of the lungs characterised by wheezing, coughing and chest tightness. One proven and powerful herb useful for asthmatics is Ephedra sinica (Ephedraceae family). This plant is a well-known bronchial dilator, which helps dry up sinuses and decongests the bronchioles, allowing more air into the lungs.

Comfrey, coltsfoot, elecampagne, white horehound, and mullein will be of value, as will regular massaging of the chest and back with essential oils such as lavender or thyme.

image of Inula helenium - elecampagne, a popular remedy for the respiratory system
One of the finest respiratory herbs, elecampagne (Inula helenium) is also stunningly beautiful!

Anti-septic and anti-bacterial herbs for the respiratory system

Anti-septic herbs are useful for treating throat infections. Mullein, garlic, thyme, calendula, and coltsfoot are all traditional herbs for infections of the bronchial tubes. It can be beneficial to help the lymphatic system cleanse the blood following infection and so plants such as cleavers or burdock are helpful. Sage is a great anti-septic gargle when inflammation of the tonsils or other throat glands occurs.

Anti-microbial remedies are often combined with any of the above where infection has or is likely to occur. Thyme and garlic are renowned anti-microbials. Peppermint, oregano, sage, rosemary and many other essential oil containing plants, when taken as steam inhalations, are also effective anti-microbial plants and antiseptics.

Find out more about foraging on one of my foraging walks or courses.

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