Herbs for the Respiratory System

The arrival of late autumn brings beautiful, crisp mornings, the first frost, and...that first tickle at the back of your throat. Cold and flu season has arrived.

Around this time of year, I get lots of questions about which herbs to use to help ease symptoms and speed up recovery for respiratory illnesses. There are so many herbs out there, and so many herbal teas lining the shelves of the market that it can be really overwhelming to try and figure out which one might actually help - especially when you're feeling ill and too fuzzy-headed to think clearly.

So! I'm going to do my best to round up a few of the herbs that I rely on when I'm under the weather, and lay out a simple way to choose which ones will be best in certain situations.

But before we do that, let's take a minute to talk about an energetic approach vs. an allopathic one.

Basic Energetics

An allopathic approach is, essentially, a sort of oversimplified, encyclopedic way of thinking about medicine. If you have this problem, take this; like finding matching pairs. While this makes sense for many areas of modern medicine (this medication is proven to work for that ailment, this course of treatment is the best for that disease), plant medicine works a bit differently, and a good herbalist will not operate this way. 

Instead of straightforward matching, we ask questions about the specifics of a particular situation. Is there inflammation? Coldness? Dampness? Dryness? These are the energetics of a condition, and knowing these things can help us narrow it down so we can be sure that we're picking the right herb.

If you have a damp cough, feel cold, and have a runny nose, you'll want to counter those energetics with a herb that's warming and drying. If you've got a dry, nagging cough and feel hot and inflamed, you'll want something moistening and cooling.

Let's go through an example. You're feeling under the weather and have a cough, so you pull out an herb book (or ask Grandmother Google) and look up herbs for the respiratory system. You'll probably see dozens or more listed. Or maybe you drive to the health food store and stand in front of the rows and rows of herbal teas, many of which claim to help with a cough.  Licorice, marshmallow, elecampane, mullein...these all sound pretty ok. But how do you know which one will actually work?

Well, because you're clever and understand energetics now, you're able to think through it. You have a wet cough, a runny nose, and you feel chilled. The basic energetics here are: damp and cold. So you need something warming and drying. You look up marshmallow and see that it's moistening and cooling - not what you need, and it might even make you feel worse! What about this herb next to it on the shelf, elecampane? You do a quick google or scan your trusty herb book and see that elecampane is a drying, warming herb for the respiratory system. Perfect! 

I should note that it's totally acceptable to use multiple herbs in a formula, too, as long as you make sure the overall energetics of the blend lean in the direction you need them too.

Now let's take a look at some herbs that act specifically on the respiratory system.

Herbs for The Respiratory System

Elecampane (Inula helenium)

Energetics: warming, drying, bitter

Parts used: root

Used as: infusion, tincture, syrup

Elecampane root is a strongly aromatic, bitter, and warming expectorant herb with an affinity for the respiratory system. Many herbalists like to use it for deep chest congestion, as it helps to break up stuck stuff and get it moving out of your system.

Unlike other roots, I find I don't need to make a decoction for elecampane to be effective. A simple tea is often enough to feel an effect.

Yerba Santa ( Eriodictyon spp, leaf)

Energetics: warming, drying, bitter

Parts used: leaf

Used as: infusion, tincture, syrup

Yerba santa is a bitter, aromatic herb that is used to address persistent congestion in the upper respiratory system. It can be very drying, which makes it wonderful for cold, damp conditions. 

It can be taken as a tincture, but I like to use the dried leaf to make a tea when dealing with respiratory issues - just inhaling the aromatic steam coming up from a nice hot mug of yerba santa tea can have beneficial effects. I find it pairs very well with elecampane.

Horehound (Marrubim vulgare)

Energetics: cooling, bitter

Parts used: leaf

Used as: tincture, infusion

Horehound is an extremely bitter member of the mint family. Horehound has long been used by herbalists to break up 'tough' phlegm and expel it from the lungs.

It's best taken as a tea, although it will be very bitter and might be best with the addition of more palatable herbs.

Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra, root)

Energetics: slightly warming, moistening

Parts used: root

Used as: tincture, decoction

 A demulcent expectorant, licorice is a soothing plant to use in situations where the airways feel tight, dry, and congested. Because licorice tastes really nice, it's often used in small amounts to take the edge off of very bitter blends (I'm looking at you, horehound...).

The roots of licorice can be decocted and drunk as a tea or taken as a tincture - both will work well.

Marshmallow (Althea officinalis)

Energetics: Cooling, moistening

Parts used: leaf, root

Used as: tincture, infusion

 Marshmallow is a cooling, demulcent plant that helps to keep the respiratory tissues moist and flexible. It can help to break up dry, stuck mucus and get it out of the airways. It's also very soothing to the throat and stomach.

The root is the part most often used, but I think the leaf can be effective as well. The root can be decocted and the leaves made into an infusion. You can sometimes find the root available in powder form, which makes it easy to stir into your drink.

An infusion or decoction of marshmallow can be drunk hot, but the best way to extract all that soothing gooey stuff it is to do a cold infusion - just add the root or leaf (or powder) to cold water and let it sit for a several hours (at least an hour) before straining and drinking.

Mullein (Verbascum thapsis)

Energetics: Neutral to cooling, slightly moistening

Parts used: leaf

Used as: tincture, infusion 

Mullen is considered an invasive weed to many here in the northeastern U.S, but it's one of the greatest allies we have when it comes to lung health. The leaves are moistening and cooling, and are often taken as a tonic for the respiratory system. 

Mullein helps to keep the lungs clear and strong, and as a gentle expectorant can help move stuff up and out of the lungs and airways The leaves can be used fresh or dry to make an infusion - one important caveat is that after steeping, the brew should be steeped through something very fine (I recommend a coffee filter) to remove the small fibers that cover the leaves.


Energetics: warming, drying

Parts used: needles, sap

Used as: infusion, syrup, tincture

The citrusy, Vitamin C-packed, antimicrobial needles of most conifers are excellent at clearing up congestion in the chest and sinuses - and the best part is, it's very likely that you can harvest them from trees growing near you. White pine (Pinus strobus), fraser fir (Abies fraseri), and norway spruce (Picea abies) are some of my favorites to work with. Just be very sure you aren't harvesting yew (Taxus spp.), which is very toxic.

Conifer needles can be made into a delicious syrup, or chopped up finely and infused in hot water to make a strong tea. A tincture is all right in a pinch, but you'll get more benefit from breathing in the steam from an infusion or syrup simmering on the stovetop. (If you'd like more info about evergreens and how to use them, check out this post.)



Be well,






All the information shared here is strictly for educational purposes and is not intended to treat, cure, or diagnose any disease. Always do your own research and consult a doctor before starting a herbal regimen.



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