In this week’s post, I wanted to share with you some of the overarching categories of herbal actions and energetics and properties that are used to treat upper respiratory allergies and asthma. Upper respiratory allergies can sometimes be especially tricky to work with as an herbalist. Oftentimes it’s because what we see in a lot of over-the-counter herbal products is a singular approach based on studies that have shown this particular constituent helps with allergies. But as a holistic herbalist, we’re looking at things on a much deeper level. We’re looking at the underlying ecology of the tissues and what types of remedies and energetics and actions are going to help to balance the ecosystem of the tissues.
So this discussion is focusing on giving some lists of some remedies to consider for treating upper respiratory tract allergies, but really on a deeper level, looking at core actions and energetics and categories of remedies that you would consider and I’ll also share what can be literally a life-saving simple two-herb formula for treating asthma attacks.
What Causes Allergies
Oftentimes respiratory tract allergies can be traced back to food allergies. The body has a certain degree of an allergic load that it can tolerate. If a certain proportion of that allergic load is being taken up by a food that your body is intolerant to, when you get exposed to pet dander or certain pollens in the air and things like that, it’s going to tip the scales and then you’ll start expressing symptoms of that allergy. That said, some people are just predisposed to being very allergic to certain plants in the environment or certain pet danders. We could say it’s a genetic thing that there’s not really any way around. But we can work with plants to help mediate and moderate the symptoms. Asthma can be in that category too. Asthmatic conditions can also be food-trigger based. But the herbs that I typically would consider using for asthma are quite different than the herbs that I generally would recommend using for allergies. So I’m going to talk about them separately here.
Remedies for Allergies
With respiratory allergies we’re usually speaking of the upper respiratory tract, sinuses, throat area, neck up. This is oftentimes where we see most respiratory route allergies. So you get the sneeze and sinus congestion or leaky mucosal membranes, a runny nose, puffy or swollen eyes, redness in the eyes, sometimes a tickle or tingle in the back of the throat, and sometimes a bit of a cough as well. Typically what we see with most allergies is a pattern of dampness alongside heat because a true allergy is an immune-mediated response associated with histamine, which leads to inflammation, hence heat. But then there’s a vital response that happens here where the body is producing an excess amount of mucus to try to clean the local area out of the irritant.
There is this intelligent response of the body trying to wash the area clean by producing all this mucus, but this typically leads to some discomfort from swelling and stuffiness. Histamine tends to dilate things, and when the mucus membrane becomes relaxed, then you start to see that thin, clear mucus running out of the nose or the postnasal drip. Oftentimes the way we like to approach this is through decongestants, which are generally plants that help to drain fluids out of the upper respiratory system.
There are oftentimes two general categories here. One is diuretic plants. It’s kind of cool how some of our main plants that oftentimes are used to treat allergies also have diuretic properties. So here we see Nettle leaf is a big one, Goldenrod is a big one, and Eyebright is effective here too—I’m not sure how diarrhetic eyebright is—and also Elderflower, which is a little bit diuretic, but more diaphoretic. Diaphoretic plants are great too because they have an overall energy of moving up and out.
This whole area of the body is hard to get remedies to because the bone structures in here are really complex, the capillary beds are really small, so it can be hard to get circulation up there. So diaphoretics, through opening up capillary beds and generally moving things up and out, are beneficial for treating upper respiratory tract dynamics. Elderflower here is a big one, Yarrow is a good one, as well as a Peppermint. That’s a classic diaphoretic formula used in traditional Western herbalism—Peppermint, Yarrow, Elderflower—but it also works nicely to decongest the sinuses.
Goldenrod is also bitter, and bitters oftentimes will work through the mucosal membranes and help to drain fluids out. Nettles is great here because it drains fluids, but it’s also inflammation modulating and helps with that histamine response too. You touch Nettles and it initiates this histamine response when you get that sting from stinging Nettle. But internally it helps mediate the histamine response, and hence useful in the treatment of allergies. That being said, you’ve got to use typically a lot of Nettle leaf in order for it to be very effective for treating allergies.
The other side of decongestants is the pungent plants. Pungent, aromatic plants are spicy and bring blood flow up into that area. They’re oftentimes plants that you put in your mouth and they really just open everything up from the spice and heat they give off. These are really hot, spicy peppers in hot sauce or wasabi. The main remedy here that I think is the best is Horseradish. Very pungent, very good for dilating and opening up the sinuses, draining fluids, bringing blood flow. Black pepper can be used here too or Cayenne pepper. The spicier, the better. Even ginger can be effective as well.
The other category of plants useful here are astringents. So, as I said, more often than not when we’re talking about upper respiratory allergies, we’re usually seeing a damp relaxation tissue state. Postnasal drip, running nose, watering eyes, all these fluids are secreting out, but then everything gets swollen and stuffy in the nasal region. This is where an astringent is great to help tighten up those capillary beds, reduce the swelling, dry up fluid accumulation, and prevent that leakiness happening in the mucosa. Now, again, as I mentioned before, this is a vital response. Sometimes I’m a little hesitant to use astringents too much because it could be a little suppressive. A key remedy here actually is Goldenseal. It’s a reliable mucous membrane tonic. It’s very bitter, so it drains fluids, but it’s also very astringent. This is also why Eyebright is so effective at helping to alleviate eye inflammations and upper sinus issues, because it’s also quite astringent and drying to the local area.
Another useful category is aromatic plants, anything that’s going to help disperse stagnation and reduce inflammation. A lot of the mints are excellent here. Peppermint is the main one that I use, but even Spearmint helps too. The menthol-containing mints are great for dispersing, opening up, and relieving that stuffiness that you get oftentimes, and then helps to drop inflammation down too. One thing I learned from Paul Bergner is Chamomile Yarrow tea, and you could put some Peppermint in there to make it taste a little bit better, and then breathing in steam from the tea, helps to get the aromatic essential oils reducing the inflammation that occurs with an allergic response.
So those are some remedies that I consider for an acute upper respiratory allergic type response. Admittedly, these can sometimes be a little tricky. Sometimes certain herbs work well for some people, while other times they don’t work at all. I know people who have worked with Nettle leaf for years and swear by it. I’ve worked with other people whom it didn’t do anything for. So I think it just depends on the person constitution and finding which type of remedy will work best. And of course, formulas are also a great option too.
Remedies for Asthma
With asthma, especially people with serious asthma, I think it’s important for them to have their inhaler. We don’t want anyone to die from an asthma attack. But there is definitely a way that we can work with plants to prevent serious asthma attacks, especially if you catch it right at the acute onset. With asthma, we’re seeing contraction of the smooth muscles around the bronchials, oftentimes in response to some sort of allergy or even stress, restricting the airway, and thereby we have difficulty breathing.
The main category of remedies used here are antispasmodics or relaxants and those with a specific affinity for the lungs. To me, the number one remedy here is Lobelia inflata. I think it’s the most effective bronchodilator out there because it is just so profoundly effective at relaxing constriction and tension and spasm on the smooth muscle level. You could also use Crampbark or Viburnum opulus and another remedy that I like with a good affinity for the lungs is Skunk cabbage, Symplocarpus foetidus—not a popular remedy but it is an effective respiratory antispasmodic and also helps to clear dampness from the lungs.
Another thing with asthma is relaxing the constriction and spasm, but I also think paying close attention to what the underlying tissue states of the lungs are so that you can balance them out too. So if they’re really dry, maybe giving some demulcents like Licorice to moisten the mucus membrane. If they get really damp and phlegmatic, giving some pungent stimulant expectorants like Elecampane or Lomatium or Horehound, things that will clear the lungs of phlegm.
Looking back to our antispasmodics, Black cohosh or Cimicifuga racemosa can be great for relaxing bronchial spasm. I also love Wild lettuce here, or Lactuca—it’s great as it’s a nervine hypnotic, and it’s also a beneficial antispasmodic and relaxant, but it has this nice affinity for the pectoral region. Oftentimes when people take a really strong dose of Wild lettuce, they let out a big sigh. You can just see the whole pectoral region open up and relax. I use that plant a lot for people who have an acute cough or respiratory infection that’s preventing them from falling asleep at night. Wild lettuce is one of my go-to remedies. I’ve been using that plant a lot over the last few years, more often than not for pain management, but every now and then I get to use it in treatment of the respiratory tract and helping people to sleep from spasmodic coughs.
The other type of remedy that can be used here is what we would refer to as plants that are adrenergic, meaning that they imitate the response of the adrenal glands. The main remedy here is ma huang, or Ephedra, the Chinese ephedra. I don’t know the status of Ephedra these days. A while back it was very difficult to obtain and it was even banned completely because people were using it as a stimulant and were taking a lot of it and it was giving people some problems.
This is how inhalers work. Inhalers are essentially steroids. So you take the inhaler, you flood the body with steroids. Oftentimes people get a little bit of a rush from it, and then the steroids are imitating those adrenal hormones, in this case cortisol. What happens in a cortisol response, or the stress response, is that the bronchial passageway dilates, because you’re creating a fight-or-flight response, and in a fight-or-flight response, the blood flows to the periphery, so to the arms and to the legs, the pupils dilate, and the lungs open up so that you can run away to get more oxygen. It’s a survival mechanism. Unfortunately, those steroid inhalers when used over the long term have a whole bunch of side effects, mainly problems with the endocrine system, the adrenal glands, bone health, nervous system health. There are a lot of problems that people can have from excessive use of steroid inhalers. But that’s what we’re going for with a remedy like ma huang, is that it’s adrenergic, so it’s imitating the adrenal response there, and so you increase that adrenergic response, and all the bronchials dilate.
Another thing I learned from Paul Bergner is that a 50-50 pair of lobelia and ephedra should be in everyone’s herbal first-aid kit as an emergency asthma remedy. Because lobelia is in there, you would maybe start a little lower, depending on the severity of the asthma attack, I would say 10 drops every 10 minutes, maybe. Keep assessing. If they’re not getting too nauseous from it, give more until you’re gradually dilating and opening everything up. So that is a good, simple pair to have on hand.
Look at What You Can Control
Those are some of my thoughts for working with respiratory allergies and asthma—so some big-picture categories of plants, main actions that you want to consider, along with a couple of examples of some remedies for you to look into. I want to encourage you to look into these remedies and always of course make sure that those plants are suitable for the person, for the constitution.
Of course, we’re always looking at the tissue states, we’re always looking in the energetics of the herbs and making sure there’s a good match there. And of course we’re always looking at the whole person. We’re looking at their lifestyle, we’re looking at their diet, we’re really doing that investigative work of finding what their core trigger points are. The lifestyle dynamics are important here for a holistic approach to treating allergies and asthma and overall reducing the allergic load in that person’s life as much as possible with things that they can control. Obviously we can’t control the pollen floating through the air, but we can control the foods that we eat. We can control what types of products we use in our house, what types of soaps and shampoos and cleaners and things like that that we use.