I admit at the outset: I am not an expert on respiratory health. To be honest, aside from seasonal allergies and asthma, I haven't thought much about lung health until these California fires.
Yet I have friends who are still struggling with respiratory problems since the North Bay fires, and given the ongoing exposure to smoke and particulates in Southern California, I feel compelled to offer some easy and approachable ways to support your lungs and help them heal.
When it comes to respiratory health, we want to come at it from all angles. Lung health goals (which may vary, depending upon your lung condition) include:
- Soothing nasal passages and airways;
- Breaking down and expelling congestion (this is the "expectorant" part of a cough syrup);
- Reducing oxidation and inflammation caused by toxic exposures, particulates and the body's histamine response;
- Calming the release of histamines, which is part of the immune system's response to foreign pathogens;
- Relaxing the respiratory muscles to quiet coughing.
Now, the most obvious measure to take in the midst of the fires is to stay indoors, wear a protective mask, and avoid strenuous activity outside.
But there's a lot more you can do, and I highly recommend you take your lung protection/soothing a few steps further.
Here we go:
- Stay hydrated. Drink water, preferably with lemon juice. Our respiratory tract is lined with a mucosal layer. This layer is protective, but we want it thin, not gummy, so it doesn't hold on to bacteria, viruses and debris. Drinking water helps thin this mucosal layer, which makes breathing easier and reduces coughing. By adding lemon juice, a source of Vitamin C, you're adding a powerful antioxidant and immune support.
- Avoid foods that gum up your mucosal barrier: namely dairy, fried foods and sugar.
- Eat cruciferous vegetables, like broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, arugula, kale, bok choy, collard and cabbages (there are more...). Cruciferous veggies AND onions and garlic are rich in sulfur. Sulfur is like a Venus fly trap for toxins in the body. Sulfur also boosts our glutathione levels. Glutathione is the mother of all antioxidants in the body. Exposure to toxins and pollution deplete this hugely protective molecule.
- Supplement with magnesium, which can decrease lung inflammation, eliminate mucus, and relax lung muscles. This anti-inflammatory and stress-reducing mineral is found in leafy greens, like spinach and chard (neither of which is cruciferous, by the way), almonds, pumpkin seeds, and avocado.
- Look for magnesium in the form of glycinate, malate or citrate. Shoot for at least 600 mg/day, which is above the RDA.
- Get your magnesium on by soaking in an Epsom salt bath or by spraying magnesium oil onto your skin.
- Take cod liver oil. The Vitamin A naturally occurring in cod liver oil protects the respiratory tract and helps repair damaged lung tissue. It also contains Vitamin D which decreases inflammation. Cod liver oil is rich in anti-inflammatory omega 3 fatty acids. Here is a link to an article and product recommendations by the Weston A. Price Association, a go-to resource for fat soluble vitamins.
- Sleep with a humidifier. Humidifiers can help expand lung capacity and loosen mucus.
- Take in the magic of lung supportive herbs. See list below.
- Ingest the herbs in food or in tea form and/or put them into a pan of steaming water, put your head over the steam (CAREFULLY!) and place a towel over your head to create an herbal steam bath for your lungs.
- Use lung supportive essential oils. See list of recommended below.
- Even better than an old run-of-the-mill humidifer, get an essential oil diffuser which also serves as a humidifier. Diffusers are usually around $20-$25. They can be found at Whole Foods, Bed, Bath and Beyond and online.
- Put a few drops of essential oils in a pot of steaming water, place your face above it (CAREFULLY!) and put a towel over your head. Breathe in the steam for 5 minutes.
- Simply open the bottle of essential oil and inhale the oil directly for several seconds.
- To learn more about essential oils and to source them, check out this resource from herbalist Mindy Green. Also, because these potent oils deserve respect and must be used with caution, please refer to this safety information from the National Association of Holistic Aromatherapy.
- Please look for organic essential oils. Aura Acacia is available at Whole Foods and often is organic. Please check the individual labels.
- Not all the herbs listed below are available here, but I have purchased my EOs from Pure Haven, a company I trust for its high standards. If you'd like to purchase here you can follow this link to my friend's Pure Haven webpage. One blend I really like and use regularly is Be Well, containing lemon, eucalyptus, tea tree and peppermint oils.
Lung Supportive Herbs/Essential Oils
There are many herbs that are good for different aspects of lung health. I chose the ones that are familiar and readily accessible in a number of forms. As you experiment with these herbs/essential oils, please listen to your body and exercise caution (see links above). Discontinue use if you develop any kind of reaction.
- Eucalyptus. It contains a compound called cineole that is an expectorant, and can help ease coughs and loosen congestion. It also soothes irritated sinuses. A eucalyptus steam can dilate the bronchiols.
- Peppermint. According to herbalist John Summerly, peppermint contains menthol which is a decongestant that soothes the muscles of the digestive tract and promotes easier breathing. Peppermint has an anti-histamine effect and contains protective antioxidants.
- Oregano. This powerhouse of an herb contains compounds that are decongestants and histamine reducers, which will help open up the nasal passageways.
- Thyme. According to Christa Sinadinos in her article on herbs and respiratory health, thyme is helpful as an expectorant and helps with dry, irritated coughs.
- Cannabis. According to Summerly, "vaporizing cannabis opens up airways and sinuses, acting as a bronchodilator," also "a provien method to treat and reverse asthma." For a vetted source of cannabis products, I recommend Octavia Wellness. In order to purchase these products, you will need a medical marijuana license.
- Licorice Root. Very soothing and cleansing to the mucous membrane. Licorice root is anti-inflammatory, expectorant, antitussive, and anti-bacterial. Not for continual use for anyone with high-blood pressure. It should not be used beyond six weeks of continual use, according to Brigitte Mars, herbalist and author of many herb resources.
One product recommended by Dr. Edward Group is Allertrex, which contains a variety of respiratory supportive herbs.
Again, I am recommending common herbs here, but you'll read about many other lung supportive herbs that are less familiar like plantain leaf, mullein, coltsfoot, elecampane root, lungwort, osha root and lobelia.
If you take away anything at all, is the point that your respiratory system, once aggravated by air pollution, will need some ongoing support even after the fires and smokes have subsided. Please nurse those lungs of yours back into a less aggravated and less inflamed state.
If you find that after a few weeks of support, you're still showing signs of inflammation and irritation, please see your doctor.
Wishing those of you affected by the fires healing, resilience in the face of such awful trauma and loss, and a quick return to normalcy.
Take good care of yourselves and each other.
Resources for further reading:
"Herbs for the Respiratory System," by Christa Sinadinos
"Plants and Herbs that Boost Lung Health, Heal Respiratory Infections and Even Repair Pulmonary Damage," by John Summerly
"The Nine Best Herbs for Lung Cleansing and Respiratory Support," by Dr. Edward Group
"Glutathione: The Mother of All Antioxidants," by Mark Hyman, MD.
"Bronchitis Signs and Symptoms Plus 13 Natural Remedies," by Dr. Josh Axe (also includes a great list of supportive supplements).