As well as providing us with natural anti-infectious agents like garlic, onion, thyme and echinacea, there are many ways that herbs support the underlying respiratory physiology to help fight against infection and protect against other types of respiratory disease, like asthma and chronic bronchitis.
Colds, flu & tonsillitis
In traditional Chinese medicine, the lungs were the organs most in contact with the outside world, and they were therefore seen as the primary organs of defence in the body. Today, although we have the luxury of resorting to antibiotics in urgent cases, the rise of drug-resistant bacteria and ever more virulent viruses means that traditional strategies of supporting defences are no less of a priority.
The incredible potential of herbal medicines as new-age antimicrobial substances in the fight against antibiotic resistance has yet been untapped.
Truly remarkable herbs like Echinacea, Andrographis, garlic, ginger and sage contain potent anti-bacterial, anti-viral, anti-fungal and immune-modulating activity. One clove of garlic, crushed and swallowed, can stop a cold in its tracks, while sage & propolis tincture keeps tonsillitis at bay better than any over-the-counter preparation.
As well as acute preparations, herbs called 'adaptogens' are given to improve resilience to infections in the long term. Astragalus is one example - it acts on our adaptive immune response, stimulating an increase in the various types of antibodies we need to fight infection.
However, herbs work best in combination with good diet and lifestyle habits. Our resistance to infection starts in the immune system of the gut, which is influenced by the food we eat. Fruit, vegetables, pulses, wholegrains, nuts & seeds… Gut bacteria feed on fibre, breaking it down to initiate an array of positive physiological effects via the digestive system, the immune system and the nervous system.
As well as knowing how to look after our gut health, it’s important to keep ourselves happy, fulfilled and occupied with activities that both inspire us and help us relax. A contented mind leads to a contented body and therefore a more robust one.
Asthma is a complex, inflammatory disorder where the immune system is in a chronic state of imbalance, which causes the body to overreact to common everyday stimuli (dust, peanuts, cold weather etc) and provoke attacks.
Many factors can contribute to the condition and holistic medicine considers things like digestive function, stress, emotions, diet and the health of the mucous membranes all equally important in maintaining the health of the asthmatic patient.
Herbal treatment for asthma is therefore very specific to the individual patient, focussing on correcting the underlying immune imbalance rather than providing treatment for acute attacks.
Key herbs for asthma include anti-allergic herbs like baical skullcap, albizia & ephedra, anti-catarrhals like eyebright, elecampane, plantain & elderflower, immune-modulators, anti-infectious & anti-inflammatory herbs like echinacea, astragalus, Siberian ginseng, boswellia, ginkgo, andrographis & thyme, and herbs to improve the health of the mucous membranes like golden seal and mullein.
With acute and chronic sinusitis, drainage of the sinuses is partially blocked, usually by congestion and swelling in the tissues, which then allows infection to take hold.
Factors involved in the development of sinusitis include pollution, dust exposure, tobacco smoke, adenoids, allergy (especially in children), cold and damp weather, dental problems, trauma and flying. A deviated nasal septum or other structural causes may be present.
Dietary factors can also cause excessive mucus discharge, particularly dairy products, salt and wheat. The condition may also be aggravated by low fluid intake.
Many cases of chronic sinusitis turn out to be fungal - a result of antibiotic treatment or a high sugar diet - in which case anti-fungals like garlic, thyme and calendula are given alongside probiotics and fermented foods.
Immune enhancing herbs like Echinacea and Andrographis are given, along with anti-catarrhals such as eyebright, plantain and mint. Herbs to thin the mucous include garlic, horseradish and ground ivy, while goldenseal is a wonderful restorative herb for the mucous membranes.
In chronic cases, herbs that stimulate lymphatic clearance are indicated, such as cleavers and poke root, along with a low salt/sugar and dairy free diet.