Monday, 9 January 2012

Herbs Ancient and Modern for Chronic Conditions of the Respiratory System

Research chronic diseases of the chest – emphysema, tuberculosis, pneumonia, COPD. What did the ancient herbalists use for these conditions? What do herbalists use now and why?

When I was a student nurse the first thing we had to learn was what is health? This was boring as it involved theory and looking at statistics and I wanted to be doing something but I now feel it was correct as how can you look at disease without knowing something of the anatomy and physiology in a healthy person? Of course feelings of wellness are subjective. So once again I’m starting with the A & P, a recap on biology lessons from school to refresh my memory.

 We breathe because we need oxygen; we don’t have to think about it our bodies automatically do it. We breathe in (inspiration), the lungs expand, the diaphragm goes down and the ribs go up and out. When we breathe out the opposite happens (expiration), and we breathe out the gas we need to get rid of, carbon dioxide. Changes in the pressure in the lungs along with the concentration of carbon dioxide trigger our breathing. We can over-ride the lungs and consciously change our breathing if we want to, with meditation for example.
Diagram of the Respiratory System

 Air enters the mouth and nose and goes down the trachea. Fine hairs and mucous in the nose filters out dust and particles we don’t want to breathe in and the air is warmed and moistened. The trachea splits into the bronchi and air is directed to each lung. The bronchi split into bronchioles which take air to little sacs in the lung structure called alveoli. The alveoli are small but are created to have a large surface area and the walls are very thin. The alveoli are surrounded by blood capillaries which also have thin walls and gases can easily transfer between the alveoli of the lungs and the blood stream because of this.
Diagram of gaseous exchange between an alveolus and a blood capillary

So What Happens In Chronic Lung Problems?

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) or Chronic Obstructive Airways Disease (COAD)

 Diseases such as bronchial asthma, chronic bronchitis and emphysema have in common some degree of obstruction of the air passages and the term COAD refers to these. Symptoms of airway obstruction include coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath. COAD is often a combination of chronic bronchitis and emphysema.


 The name emphysema means full of air and when a person with this condition breathes out the little alveoli sacs do not empty, they remain full of air. The first measurable symptom is that the person cannot breathe out so much air. Later, the alveoli get damaged; some of the alveoli sacs get joined together and enlarged which gives less surface area for the oxygen and carbon dioxide to cross. The lungs become permanently inflated because they have lost their elasticity. To adjust to the increase in lung size, the chest cage increases in size leading to the “barrel chest” appearance. As the disease progresses the damaged alveoli develop into areas of thick connective tissue which can’t let oxygen through.

 Emphysema is generally caused by long term lung irritation to air pollution, industrial dust or cigarette smoke. It seems that cigarette smoke deactivates a protein that prevents emphysema and prevents repair of affected lung tissue.

Bronchial Asthma

 Bronchial asthma is a reversible obstructive airway disease with symptoms of coughing, wheezing and difficulty breathing. This is brought on by spasms of the smooth muscle that lies in the walls of the smaller bronchi and bronchioles causing the airways to partially close. Mucus membranes that line the respiratory tract become irritated and excrete excessive amounts of mucus that may clog the bronchi or bronchioles and worsen the attack.
 About three quarters of asthma sufferers are allergic to edible or airborne substances such as wheat or dust.


Bronchitis is inflammation of the bronchi which typically gives a productive cough with thick greenish-yellow sputum signifying an underlying infection. Cigarette smoking is the most common cause of chronic bronchitis – that is bronchitis for 3 months of a year over 2 consecutive years. Other influencing factors are a family history, air pollution, respiratory infections and reduced antibodies.


Pneumonia is an acute infection or inflammation of the alveoli. The alveoli get filled up with fluid which reduces the amount of air space in the lungs and oxygen has difficulty getting through the inflamed alveoli.
 The most common cause is the pneumococcus bacterium and the most susceptible are the elderly, infants, the immunosuppressed, smokers and people with obstructive lung disease.

Tuberculosis TB

The bacterium Mycobacterium Tuberculosis produces this infectious disease which most frequently affects the lungs. The bacteria destroys part of the lung tissue and the body replaces it with fibrous connective tissue (like scar tissue) that is inelastic and thick, it does not snap back after expiration and large amounts of air are retained. Gases cannot diffuse easily through fibrous tissue.
 TB bacteria die in sunlight so it is sometimes associated with crowded poorly lit housing. TB used to be known as consumption.

What Did Ancient Herbalists Use For These Conditions?

The Chinese

 An ancient herbal from 5000 years ago lists liquorice as a respiratory treatment.

 The Egyptians

Hieroglyphs tell that the Egyptians used to inhale the fumes from herbs; it seems that frankincense was amongst those used.

The Ebers papyrus gives instructions:

"Thou shalt fetch seven stones and heat them by fire, thou shalt take one thereof and place a little of these remedies on it and cover it with a new vessel whose bottom is perforated, and place a stalk of reed in this hole; thou shalt put thy mouth to this stalk so that thou inhalest the smoke of it."

Hibiscus was used by either putting it in bath water or using it in a steam inhalation and liquorice seems to have been used all over the ancient world for chest complaints.

On the whole, in the ancient world natural cures were used alongside religion and magic.

The Greeks

Hyssop was used by the likes of Hippocrates and Galen for bronchitis. Hippocrates was one of the earliest physicians to link respiratory conditions and the environment.

 Mullein was recorded as a treatment for breathing problems by Dioscorides and its medicinal and spiritual uses have been included in Greek and Roman stories.

The Hebrews

The ancient Hebrews believed that God held the power to heal them so looked to the bible and sacred texts.
 A religious book called the Talmud advocated the use of asafoetida, an oriental gum resin which was used for asthma, whooping cough and bronchitis.

 The Romans

 The Romans used white horehound; the medical writer Celsus described treatment for respiratory problems with horehound juice.

The Doctrine of Signatures

This theory stated that God had left us clues with plant medicine, whether it is by colour or actual physical representation. So, lungwort which has spots on its leaves and has resemblance to a lung was for pulmonary disorders.

Old English – Bald’s Leech Book

I love this entry, I think this recipe must include every respiratory herb the writer could think of and the magical number 3 keeps occurring.

For a cough and for disease of the lung, take a bail of swail, and sulphur, and incense, equal amounts of each, mix with wax, lay it on a hot stone, inhale the smoke through a horn, and let him eat three pieces of old bacon or butter afterwards, and sip it with curds. For lung disease, take betony and horehound, agrimony, wormwood, felter, rue, oak bark, gale, boil in water, boil down to a third of the water, take from the plant-drink a warm cupful in the morning, let him eat three pieces of food with some of the brew which joins on hereafter: Make a brew for lung disease, take betony, horehound, wormwood, hindhealth, the lower part of wenwort, lupin, elecampane, radish, boarthroat, parsnip, pound them all very well and boil in butter and wring it out through a cloth, scatter barley meal on the juice, stir it in a dish without fire until it becomes as thick as porridge, let him eat three pieces with a warm drink. Again, boil in honey a single horehound, add a little barley meal thereto, let him eat it having fasted overnight, and when you give him porridge, give it to him hot and let the man rest after the hour of dawn on his right side, and have the arm stretched out.

John Gerard (16C)

 In the sixteenth century Gerard recommended horehound syrup for respiratory ailments. Gerard was a follower of the doctrine of signatures.
White horehound

Nicholas Culpepper (17C)

In the seventeenth century Culpepper recommended white horehound “There is a syrup made of this plant which I would recommend as an excellent help to evacuate tough phlegm and cold rheum from the lungs of aged persons, especially those who are asthmatic and short winded.”
He said liquorice was good for a dry cough, hoarseness, wheezing, shortness of breath and TB and thyme was a good strengthener of the lungs.
 Culpepper used astrology rather than the doctrine of signatures. The respiratory system was governed by Mercury and Mercuric plants bore finely divided leaves such as fennel, dill and carrot.

Victorian Times

Dr Quinlan publicised an Irish TB treatment; a handful of fresh mullein leaves boiled with 2 pints of milk, strained and sweetened with honey, to be taken twice a day.

Looking at these examples of herbs used by ancient herbalists, most look familiar and are surprisingly still in use.

What Do Herbalists Use Now For Respiratory Conditions and Why?

Herbs for Chronic Bronchitis

 Richard Mabey combines expectorant herbs with soothing demulcent herbs and adds antibiotic herbs.
 Commission E, the expert panel that judges the safety of herbal medicines for the German government has approved couch grass in the treatment of bronchitis, if anyone would like to try this out I have an allotment full of it!

Expectorant herbs:

·         White horehound

·         Coltsfoot

·         Elecampane

·         Blood root

·         Squills

·         Senega

·         Plantain

Demulcent herbs:

·         Mullein

·         Comfrey

·         Marshmallow

·         Flax seeds

·         Liquorice

·         Violet leaves

·         Irish moss

Antibiotic herbs:

·         Eucalyptus

Herbs for Asthma

 Richard Mabey suggests herbs to relax the bronchi and expel mucus along with herbs to support the nervous system and a soothing expectorant which also supports the adrenal glands.

To relax the bronchi & expel mucous:

·         Grindelia

·         Pill-bearing spurge

·         Sundew

·         Coltsfoot

·         Skunk cabbage

·         Honeysuckle - antispasmodic

Herbs to support the nervous system:

·         Wild lettuce

·         Hops

·         Chamomile

·         Lime flowers

·         Skullcap

·         Holy basil

·         Wild oats


·         Elecampane

·         Thyme

·         Hyssop

·         Garlic

·         Coltsfoot

·         Ginger

·         Mullein

Expectorants which support the adrenal glands:

·         Liquorice

·         Borage


·         Nettle

Herbs for Tuberculosis (TB)

·         Julie Bruton-Seal and Matthew Seal say self-heal has been found to be effective against Mycobacterium tuberculi, the bacteria which causes TB.

·         Michael Castleman says garlic kills Mycobacterium tuberculosis but the garlic needs to be crushed so as a compound in garlic called alliin comes into contact with an enzyme in garlic called allinase and then allicin is formed. Allicin is a powerful antibiotic and is the compound that kills the TB bacteria.

·         Hops may be effective against Mycobacterium tuberculosis.

·         In laboratory tests mullein inhibited the growth of the bacteria for TB.

·         1 laboratory test found red clover to be effective against the bacteria.

Herbs for Emphysema

·         Julie Bruton-Seal and Matthew Seal say mint is a traditional remedy.

·      Israeli researchers found ginseng increased lung capacity in people with emphysema.
·         It has been suggested that horsetail which contains silica can speed up the rate of tissue repair and promote strength and elasticity in new tissues.
Herbs for Pneumonia
· Matthew Wood recommends a few drops of lavender oil in a bath.

· Mustard seed pack on chest (Wood).

· Horseradish as a poultice to the chest to thin stuck phlegm, use a cloth between the horseradish and the skin or it will burn.

· Expectorant herbs as listed for asthma and bronchitis.

· Vitamin C in elderberries, bilberries and rose hips stimulates the mucociliary escalator to help clear phlegm.
Bruton-Seal, J. and Seal, M. (2008) Hedgerow Medicine: Harvest and Make Your Own Herbal Remedies, Merlin Unwin Books: Ludlow
Castleman, M. (2003) The New Healing Herbs: The Classic Guide to Natures Best Medicine, Hinkler Books Pty Ltd: Dingley
Mabey, R. (1988) The New Age Herbalist, Gaia: London
McIntyre, A. (2010) The complete Herbal Tutor, Gaia: London
Pollington, S. (2000) Leechcraft: Early English Charms, Plantlore and Healing, Anglo-Saxon Books: Norfolk
Tortura, G. and Anagnostakos, N.P.(1990) Principles of Anatomy and Physiology (6th Edition), Harper Collins: New York
Wood, M. (2008) The Earthwise Herbal, North Atlantic Books: Berkeley


  1. How wonderful to have all of this information in one spot! Makes it so easy to contrast and compare methods through the ages, and in different traditions:) Very nice share! Thank you very much!! xxxx

  2. Great post. It's so interesting to read the plants that were used by different cultures as well as in different ages. I wonder how the old bacon works! I love White Horehound, so nice to see it popping up in lots of different references. Take care x

  3. Thank you both, I think it's amazing how many herbs we still use today even after more than 2000 years, and others such as the bacon make me smile although perhaps they knew something we don't! x

  4. The only thing I dare to imagine with the old bacon, is for the slippery/greasy effect, like the butter? To soothe the throat after the smoke treatment? I just adore trying to decipher the why in old herbals! I love it when we are seen to use many of the same herbs today. So verifies and embraces our pasts. xxx

  5. Brilliant post, Jackie! You might want to think about how each herb works in more than one way eg hyssop being both expectorant and a muscle relaxant so works on different types of cough and that's why it's always associated with coughs in general. I'm starting to be wary of just having one herb in one list rather than thinking about how it acts and therefore you starting to think around corners rather than in straight lines. (Not sure that makes any sense, but it's about development, not about right/wrong! Hugs)

  6. Wonderful post Jackie, you have obviously spent many hours on this,
    I am doing the elder salve this week

  7. I am not sure of the cause of COPD emphysema in my case. I smoked pack a day for 12 or 13 years, but quit 40 years ago. I have been an outdoor person all my adult life. Coughing started last summer producing thick mucus, greenish tint to clear. I tried prednisone and antibiotics, but no change. X-rays are negative, heart lungs and blood and serum chemistries all are normal. I have lung calcification from childhood bout with histoplasmosis. I am 75 years old and retired.My current doctor directed me to which I purchase the COPD herbal remedies from them ,they are located in Johannesburg, the herbal treatment has effectively reduce all my symptoms totally, am waiting to complete the 15 weeks usage because they guaranteed me total cure.