Written by Tania Ocean. Updated 1/8/21
Wishing anyone reading this health, happiness and support during this difficult time. Please reach out with more questions or if you cannot access herbs that you are looking for.
So, you probably already know about how the “Rona” spreads and how to use good hygeine and social distancing to reduce spread. If not, please read about it via the CDC here .
What I would like to share is a Western Herbal perspective on at-home tools for those interested in this holistic approach including herbs and daily habits.
First and foremost: Herbs for a cough when a cough is not just a cough. There are wet coughs, dry ones, productive, spastic and more, and a they can change with time. An herbal tactic is to balance out the system. Since the virus is commonly seen with a cold, dry cough, the aim is to employ herbs which warm up, disperse, moisten and expectorate the congested lung cough.
Adding herbs that also posses antimicrobial and anti-viral properties is also helpful. While this is a virus, it’s not uncommon for bacterial infections to also occur or intensify when the immune system is busy fighting off a viral infection.
Next, we need moisture, because the cough is dry, even if there is phlegm that comes up occasionally. And we need warmth, to thin and allow expulsion of the stuck phlegm. To aid in the breaking up and expulsion of phlegm are the expectorants. This is a property that an herb has, and can be found in many different herbs, some cooling and some warming. And lastly, it would be great to add an herb with anti-microbial properties in support of our own hard working white blood cell defense.
OK, so may be asking “Well then which herb should I use for this?” This question is well suited to an allopathic approach, but is not as objective within the broad paradigm of traditional healing systems such as Western Herbalism. Often, answer is usually “Well, there are many options, but it depends.” What is depends on is the issue a person is having, what other imbalances and health qualities that person possesses. This includes their organ system or immune weaknesses or excesses (for example, does this person have respiratory allergies?), their history, mental state, lifestyle and what medications they may be taking. And also important, is the fact that many herbs do so many things that if I looked up “Lung Herbs”, I could find a list of 100’s, in not more, different herbs that help the lungs in one way or another. They are very different and can have very different affects on the lungs. One can be perfect for one person and cause more issues for another. This is often a mismatch of “this good herb” for an specific issue, but sometimes it’s also just a mysteriously bad match for someone.
OK are you still with me? Good. Now let’s get into the Herbs and healthy habit.
Garlic – A classic, raw garlic is warming, stimulation (easily penetrates through the body), is potently anti-microbial against both bacteria and viruses. It is warming and drying, though it does contain a bit of oil for lubrication. Great teammate to have and benefits greatly with other complimentary herbs.
Elecampane– This pungent herb is not as common, but posses strong moving, warming and expectorant properties.
Coltsfoot – A little goes a long way to help and unproductive cough to ramp up for a bit, effectively expel annoying phlegm so that a cough can then settle back down.
Licorice – While licorice root is often underrated, it is mildly helpful in so many ways that it almost seems unlikely. It is moistening to the respiratory tract and is an expectorant. It is mildly anti-viral, it soothes digestive issues in a wide range (from constipation, indigestion and loose bowels notably). It is naturally sweet and little bit in a formula compliments both the flavor and action.
Marshmallow Root – This soothing herb is very different than the above ones in flavor, feel and effect. Instead of being spicy or stimulating, this herb is neutral to almost sweetish in flavor, and becomes slimy in texture. When is comes to dry, irritated tissues and mucus membranes, slime can be your friend. The slick quality of Marshmallow soothes and protects the respiratory and digestive systems. This can help soften up stuck mucus so that it can more easily dislodge from the lungs. It also soothes an irritated throat. For irritation in the stomach, with for example acid reflex (possibly exacerbated for some with garlic or tomatoes consumption), this herb helps to coat and neutralize the burning.
With the above herbs, which together are a great team, you could make a strong, simmered tea with the Elecampane, Coltfoot and Licorice, eat a bit of raw garlic with a meal and between meals add some Marshmallow to water and drink it down. This would ideally be done 3 times a day if mild symptoms were present. For strong tea, use at least a tablespoon of each herb per cup of water (use a tsp for Coltsfoot).
Note: I am not a doctor and this information is for educational purposes only. For specifics in doses and measurements, please see the resources below.
So now that you may feel excited to try these herbs, you may not have access to them. That’s OK. These are great examples of useful herbs, but they are not the only, or “best” ones. So, here are some great substitutes.
Instead of Garlic, Ginger, both fresh and dried, also posses strong antimicrobial, warming and diffusive properties. Other spicy herbs such as Cayenne also help to loosen phlegm and warm up the body with enhanced circulation.
Instead of Marshmallow, Slippery Elm is used in a similar way and for similar purposes. In you can’t find that, then Linden is good, and if you’re thinking “I’ve never heard of these!” then just know that if you have flaxseeds or chia seeds, then the slime of them can suffice (if prepared as to access their slime, ex. making and consuming flax “gel” instead of just eating dries flax).
Cinnamon – Another underrated herb, classic cinnamon possesses warming, moistening and mild anti-microbial properties. Personally I find this herb to be delicious and relish adding the powder onto fruits (especially apple), in desserts, over coffee or into Chai tea (yes, even though Chai often already has Cinnamon). It can also help to sweeten up an herbal formulas with some of the more bitter tasting herbs listed above
If you can’t find Coltsfoot or Elecampane, then Yerba Santa is a great option for dispelling lung phlegm. It is a resinous leaf that is common in the Southwest portions of North America and especially the drier areas in California. Thyme is also a nice substitute.
Bonus for those with Asthma and Allergies: Nettle is a nourishing herb that slowly, with consistent use, can help to build the strength of the respiratory tract and lower the allergic response. Also known as Stinging Nettles, this herb is also a great food herb and it’s high nutrient and mineral content supports general health and more specifically hair, nails and bone health.
Preventative Immune Support
These herbs are taken consistently and ideally taken at least a few weeks before an infection arises. At least one dose per day is great.
Mushrooms – There are mushrooms that are more intense in their support of immune strength, but all mushrooms are at least a little bit helpful due to their Beta-glucan content. The heavy hitter for now though is Reishi, though Chaga and Shitake are also great. What’s great about mushrooms is that even the heavy hitters with many impressive studies under their belts, they are still very safe and can often be consumed in large and consistent doses. Soup, tea, extract and double-extracted tincture are all great. They just must be proceeded in a way that makes them bio-available, such as heat (boiling) or as with powdered mycelium. Top or bottom (fruiting body or mycelium), it’s all good!
Astragalus – A great, moistening and immune building herbs with a particular liking for chronically inflamed or past-injured lungs. A daily tea is great or it can be added into soup stock.
Dandelion Root – This herb stimulates digestion and supports liver function. If you are someone who deals with constipation, uses substances that are hard on the liver (alcohol, for example), eats processed or hard-to-digest food often, eat excessively or has an excessive hormonal load (ex. acne associated with the menstrual cycle), then your body and immune system may be more distracted by “cleaning up” extra metabolic waste and associated inflammation. This strains the eliminating organs (the liver and skin in particular), and in their excessive maintenance, they may not have as a robust response to an infection and the extra toxic load of spent white blood cells piling up. The metaphor is that when the body has extra support in decluttering and thus quelling excess inflammation, it can focus more efficiently at supporting a strong immune battle.
I can’t help myself, I have to mention sleep, nourishing food and mental and emotional hygiene– you need them if you want to support your immune system. Journaling, meditating, stretches, breath work and other self care practices go a long way to ease the mind so that your immune system can stay focused and strong. Relaxation supporting herbs include Passionflower, Skullcap and Chamomile.
Other Supportive habits
This virus thrives in cold. Keeping warm by eating hot tea and food, dressing warmly and yes, refriening from galavanting in the cold rain, are helpful. The idea of choosing to support a mild fever can be important to note even if it’s a controversial idea. While rarely a fever can increase to a harmful excess, a mild fever is a natural response by the body to kill invading pathogens. Personally, I like to encourage a fever until it breaks with some hot, spicy tea, a hot bath and a nap wrapped in two blankets.
Fasting. Intermittent fasting seems to benefit a healthy immune response, and is a way to reduce the work load of the whole body from digestion (an energy heavy process) to general body maintenance (healing inflammation) and active immune defense. (See sources below for studies on fasting).
Vitamin D supplementation. Because of the lack of strong sunlight in winter months (in much of the world outside of the equatorial zone), and rarity of eating traditional foods high in Vit. D such as liver, many are deficient. Vitamin D assists the immune system (and well as many other bodily systems) and there are various studies linking supplementation with better viral outcomes (here is one). Note that the RDA may be higher than previously thought, so ask a doctor or natural practitioner about dosing.
Sugar reduction. Refined, added sugar can unfortunately suppress our immune system. Be aware of and avoid added sugar, but don’t worry too much about natural sugars in whole foods like fruit. (For a handy guild to differentiating the sugars in food, check out this guild to understanding the new food nutrition label. Thankfully it’s easier to differentiate between the sugars now!) Tip: Tasty sugar-free recipes and tips to start your year off well here.
Bonus! Herbal steam. Inhaling warm, herbally aromatic vapor can help to calm a cough, loosen phlegm and enhance relaxation (especially with Lavender). You can use fresh or dried herbs such as Eucalyptus, Thyme or Lavender. You can also use the essential oils of these herbs, though use caution with both the doses (a little goes a long way) and make sure the steam isn’t too hot. (While I don’t endorse any particular essential oil brand, just try to find a local, Organic source ideally and one that’s not part of a MLM scheme).
Note: some herbs can be wildharvested in a way that threatens their endangered status. Please be aware of your sourcing. If you are a local in Portland, Home Grown Apothecary sources Organic and Ethically wild-harvested herbs.
Sources and Additional Links
I want to express gratitude for work many nationally recognized Herbalists and holistic medical professional are doing. They are spending their time researching, testing and compiling information to give out free for the benefit of the people. Special thank you to Dr. Aviva Romm, Jim McDonald, Yarrow Willard, 7Song, Paul Bergner and many more! Your insights are so valuable.
On Garlic’s antibiotic power: Allium sativum: Antibiotic and Immune Properties by Paul Bergner
More info in Fasting by Dr. Françoise Wilhelmi de Toledo. A video here and compilation of studies here (Note, this doctor works with short (ex. intermittent) and long fasts (3+ Days). Longer fasts should only be done with medical supervision and ideally as prevention.)