Respiratory health

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. The focus was on strengthening these innate defences to prevent infection with deadly diseases like tuberculosis – a disease that in earlier times provoked the same fear in the population as things like cancer and AIDS do now. 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.

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. In holistic medicine, the respiratory system is also seen as an extension of the digestive system – this is supported by the fact that the lungs in a human foetus develop from the digestive tract and share common nerve supply – and therefore very susceptible to diet, lifestyle habits and environmental changes.

Here I discuss asthma and herbal approaches to treatment. For advice on how to ward off colds, flu and tonsillitis, have a look at my blog posts Herbal Medicine for Infectious Disease, and Herb(s) of the Month: Infection Control.



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.

Case study (Source: Mills & Bone, Principles & Practice of Phytotherapy, 2013):