In a world of allergens, viruses, and air pollution, our respiratory systems frequently need some extra support.
Herbs can provide a world of help for your lungs and other parts of your respiratory system: nasal passages, sinuses, throat, etc. There are many choices and each have a unique action in your body to address many different types of complaints.
Here's a look at some of the best and most used herbs for the respiratory system and how they can help you breathe easier.
A Quick Look at Herbs & Your Respiratory System
Before getting into the specific herbs for respiratory support, it's important to realize that the best herbal choice will depend a lot on the particular situation you're dealing with.
In general, there are four common types of herbs used for lung health with some overlap between the groups:
- Demulcent Herbs- This group helps by soothing and bringing moisture to the tissues in your respiratory tract. They are often slippery in nature and are excellent for dry conditions.
- Astringent Herbs- This group tones and tightens tissues and often has a drying effect. They can be useful for respiratory issues of a "wet" nature.
- Aromatic Herbs- Aromatics are known for their strong fragrances and contain volatile compounds that can stimulate and "open up" your lungs. They are typically slightly drying and usually paired with demulcents.
- Expectorant or Mucolytic Herbs- This group helps to thin and clear excess mucus from your airways and are helpful for congestion and mucusy conditions.
Keep these categories in mind when choosing an herb or herbs for lung support. Matching the right herbal action with what's going on in your body will give you the most relief!
Of course, herbs often work best in combination with one another, like in this Respiratory Relief tea.
Top Herbs for Respiratory Support
Mullein is one of the top tonic respiratory herbs (meaning you can take it long-term for respiratory support) and is both a demulcent and expectorant. It's particularly beneficial for the upper respiratory tract and has been used for asthma and dry or spastic coughs for hundreds of years. (1)
An herbal tea is the most common way to use dried mullein for the lungs. Strain it through cheesecloth or an empty tea bag to get rid of the tiny hairs that can be irritating.
Marshmallow root is an herb with a high mucilage content, which gives it strong demulcent properties. It's most frequently used for irritation and inflammation related to dryness but can also hep to loosen mucus and calm coughing. (2)
To extract the most mucilage from marshmallow, make a cold infusion with the dried root. The result will be a very slippery, thick liquid that is soothing for dry tissues.
Slippery elm is another demulcent herb (hence its name) that forms a slippery, soothing mixture when combined with water. It can soothe irritated and inflamed respiratory tissues as well as your mouth, throat, and GI tract.
Slippery elm is frequently used as a tea made from the dried powder for upper respiratory issues, asthma, and irritable coughs.
Plantain leaves don't have the same slippery quality as marshmallow root and slippery elm, but they still have a powerful demulcent action on your respiratory system. In fact, plantain is approved by the German Commission E for coughs and infections of the upper respiratory tract. (3)
If you have plantain growing in your yard, pick and use the fresh leaves. Otherwise, the dried leaf can be used to make a soothing tea.
Licorice root has several benefits for respiratory relief. It acts as a demulcent to soothe inflamed mucous membranes (as well as a sore throat) and also has decongesting and expectorant properties. Licorice even has anti-inflammatory action and can enhance the effects of other lung-supportive herbs. (4)
Licorice is best used short-term and can be made into a tea by using the dried root.
Catnip is an aromatic herb that has antispasmodic and bronchodilatory properties, which means it can help to relax the muscles in your lungs and widen the airways. This gives it benefits for soothing coughs and aiding other lung complaints like asthma. (5)
The dried leaves of catnip are most often made into a tea that can also be helpful for fevers because of its diaphoretic action.
Yarrow is an astringent herb that can be helpful in formulas for respiratory aid because it helps to tone tissues and has anti-inflammatory properties. Yarrow can also break up mucous and enhance the effects of expectorants. It may even be able to help protect lung tissue from damage, according to one study. (6)
Use dried yarrow flower as part of a respiratory tea, preferably combined with demulcent and/or expectorant herbs, depending on your need.
Elderflower, which comes from the elderberry plant, is another astringent herb that also possesses antiviral properties. It supports overall lung health and is often included in herbal syrups for coughing. You can also use elderflowers as a long-term tonic in a tea or syrup to strengthen your respiratory system.
Elecampane is a classic expectorant herb that is also slightly aromatic and can soothe irritated tissues. It's one of the most frequently used herbs for coughing and is also an aid for those with chronic respiratory irritation. It even has antiseptic properties and can ease congestion.
Elecampane is most frequently taken with other herbs as a syrup or herbal extract due to its bitter nature.
Eucalyptus is a very invigorating herb with well-known benefits for the lungs. It's especially good at breaking up mucus and clearing congestion, which is why eucalyptus oil is often an ingredient in vapor rubs.
The essential oil can be very effective for respiratory distress when diluted and applied to your chest, diffused, or used in an herbal steam. Eucalyptus leaves can also be made into a tea to help clear your airways and ease coughing. (7)
There are several other aromatic herbs that can be useful for respiratory distress, especially when used as an herbal steam or tea.
Thyme is a common culinary herb that has expectorant and antispasmodic properties and a long history of use for coughing and congestion. Oregano (and oil of oregano) has similar effects and can also soothe a sore throat.
Fennel seed is another aromatic herb that is soothing for your respiratory system as well as helpful for opening airways.
While all the herbs listed are generally safe, some are not suitable for long-term use (like licorice root) or use during pregnancy and breastfeeding.
Be sure to consult your midwife or herbalist before starting a herbal regimen during pregnancy and talk with a health expert if you are taking medication or have an existing condition.
Of course, severe respiratory problems will require medical attention.
Herbal Formulas for Respiratory Help
For lung health, several herbs are often combined into a more powerful and more balanced formula. If you don't want to go through the work of making herbal combinations yourself, try some of these options:
And don't forget to choose herbs that match the needs of your respiratory system for the best results!
Disclaimer: This post is for informational purposes only. It does not constitute medical advice and should not be substituted for medical advice. Please consult your health care provider, herbalist, midwife, or naturopathic physician before taking herbs, supplements, etc. Here's the link to our full disclaimer.