Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Herbal Remedies for Coughs - Part Five

This is part five of my series on using herbs for colds and the flu. The first four articles can be seen here: 

Herbal Remedies for Coughs
Many people, when faced with a cough, head to the local drug store for a “cough” medicine. Unfortunately, too few people understand the benefits of having a cough as well as the different types of coughs.

Benefits of a cough? Yep, that's right. Coughs are the body’s mechanism for clearing the lungs of pathogens and excessive phlegm. Most of the time we do not want to suppress the action of coughing because to do so would trap the yuckies down in the lungs. 

Rather than thinking about “cough herbs” here are some ways that herbalists use herbs for coughs

  • to thin mucus making it easier to expel from the lungs
  • to address inflammation and infection in the lungs
  • to stop spasmodic dry coughs that keep someone from sleeping
  • to address pathogenic heat in the body (yellow mucus/tongue coating)
  • to address pathogenic cold in the body (white mucus/tongue coating)

This article will look at various ways we can use herbs for coughs in a way that supports the body and thereby shortens the duration of a cold or flu. 

Part I - Productive Coughs

Productive coughs are the coughs that expel a lot of mucus. Or to be more clear, with each cough mucus is expectorated and you can easily hear congestion in the lungs. 

Productive coughs are your body’s attempt to expel mucous from the lungs. It is potentially very harmful to suppress this type of cough with medication or herbs. This could result in prolonging an illness or even causing pneumonia from trapping mucus inside the lungs. 

Instead, when we have a wet, productive cough we can use expectorant herbs to help promote the flow of mucous, thus getting the gunk out of our bodies.

In the case of a productive cough with excessive phlegm stimulating expectorant herbs are used to thin and expectorate mucus making it easier to expel from the lungs. In this way we support the cough by aiding the body’s natural function, not by suppressing the cough. 

Stimulating expectorants include elecampane, ginger, bee balm, horseradish, cayenne, evergreens like pine and douglas fir, mustard, poplar buds, and horehound.

Generally, stimulating expectorants are taken when there is a large amount of mucous present. They especially excel at boggy or clogged mucus. 

However, if mucous membranes are dry, stimulating expectorants can exacerbate the problems and soothing expectorants should be used instead.

Relaxing expectorants include plantain, marshmallow, linden and slippery elm. 

In the next part of this article series we’ll take a closer look at herbs for congestion which also have a strong bearing for this type of cough. 

Marshmallow infusion soothes sore throats and inflamed lungs. 

Part II - Unproductive Coughs

There are at least two ways of understanding unproductive coughs. 

The first is a cough that has little to no mucus expectoration but there is obvious feelings of mucus congestion in the lungs. The person may feel like their breathing is “tight”. In this case the mucus could be stuck in the lungs but it is not coming up. Both stimulating and relaxing expectorants or demulcent herbs can be used to help thin the mucous making it easier for the body to expel. 

Dry spasmodic coughs
Another type of unproductive coughs is the insistent dry hacking that keeps someone from sleeping and burns the throat. I use a two pronged approach to these debilitating coughs. 

Demulcent herbs can be used throughout the day to moisten the lungs. Marshmallow, licorice, linden, plantain and slippery elm are some of my favorites. I generally recommend these as a tea. 

The second part is to use anti-spasmodic herbs for when the coughing is too excessive or the person is trying to sleep. (Often times this type of cough becomes more pronounced at night or when the person lays down.) 

Antispasmodic herbs for coughs include california poppy, valerian, mullein, thyme, and red clover. I often prefer these as a tincture. 

Although I have done my best to organize the following herbs into well-defined categories, in reality plants don’t really behave in this manner. They often have several actions and a myriad of ways of working within the body. Also, remedies for coughs are often formulated to include herbs with different herbal properties. So although these herbs are introduced singly, as your herbal knowledge grows you may find yourself combining herbs to get more broad-spectrum results. 

The Color Of Mucus
The color of mucus and phlegm can be an important diagnostic tool for the herbalist. This can be both the color of mucus that is expectorated as well as the color of the tongue coating. 

Yellow indicates heat: herb formulations should be more cooling. 
White indicates cold: herb formulations should be more warming. 

Part III - Honey and Vinegar for Coughs

Honey for coughs
Often times herbal remedies for coughs are delivered in a honey or sugar base. I personally prefer honey as it offers a wide range of beneficial properties and I can also get it locally. 

Honey and sugar are both expectorants in themselves and they also have the ability to soothe inflammation in the respiratory tract. Honey is antimicrobial, making it even more beneficial during times of illness. It’s also delicious.

Honey for coughs. 

Vinegar has a long history of being used for sore throats, coughs, and other lung issues. William Cook, a physiomedicalist, writes that vinegar by itself has a concentrated effect on the respiratory passages. He suggests that herbal preparations with a vinegar base focus their actions to the respiratory tract.

Combing honey and vinegar: Oxymels
Oxymels are preparations using both vinegar and honey. These mixtures have a long history of use in western herbalism, dating as far back as the ancient Greeks. Hippocrates was an advocate of oxymels for coughs but cautions against its use for people with a cold and dry constitution (these people are commonly always the coldest in the room, wearing sweaters when others have on t-shirts, and may have dry skin, dry eyes, etc.). He also suggested heating these mixtures gently when they are being consumed during cold weather.

There are a variety of ways to make oxymels:

Oxymel variation #1
Decoct one ounce of herb in one quart of water, simmer until 1⁄4 of the liquid remains. Strain and add four ounces of vinegar and four ounces of honey. Mix until it forms a syrupy consistency. This preparation works best with roots or leaves. Because of the long decoction it is not well suited for aromatic herbs because the simmering will boil away the aromatic properties. Pine needles, plantain and elecampane work well with this preparation. 

Oxymel variation #2
If wanting to use aromatic herbs you can simply combine an herb-infused vinegar with an herb-infused honey. I would suggest the commonly given ratio of one part of vinegar to five parts of honey. Bee balm, thyme and other aromatic mints work well with this preparation. 

Oxymel variation #3
Lastly, another variation of oxymels is to simply decoct the herb of choice with vinegar and then add 5 parts of honey to each part of vinegar.

Bee balm oxymel

Part IV: Herbs for Coughs
Here’s a closer look at herbs commonly used for coughs. 

Elderberry Syrup for Coughs
This recipe is a combination of stimulating and relaxing expectorants that is combined with the immune supporting qualities of elderberries and boneset. 

70 grams dried Elderberries 
20 grams dried Marshmallow root
15 grams dried Elecampane Root 
10 grams dried Orange Peel 
10 grams dried Cinnamon bark 
5 grams dried Boneset
5 gram dried Licorice root
And honey to taste

Place all the ingredients in a small saucepan and add two cups of water. Bring to a boil and then simmer for 30 minutes. Strain off the herbs and add an equal part honey, or to taste. By adding an equal part of honey you’ll preserve the syrup for a longer period of time. Once the mixture is combined you can simmer it further to create a thicker consistency. Store in the fridge.

Click the link above to see my recipe for herbal cough drops. 

Elecampane (Inula helenium
Elecampane has a strong affinity for the lungs. It has powerful stimulating expectorant qualities that can loosen stuck phlegm or help to dry out copious amounts of phlegm. It is a warming, stimulating and bitter herb. 

Elecampane root is especially pungent and bitter, so making an infused honey
really helps the medicine go down. To make the honey, fill a jar with sliced fresh root, cover in honey, stir to get the air bubbles out, and let sit for at least three days for best results. I like to turn my jar over a couple times a day to help with mixing. This will keep in the fridge indefinitely and is a good thing to have on hand. I use elecampane honey for sore throats and coughs - a teaspoonful as needed.

Elecampane can also be taken as a tea or tincture. It works very well infused into port wine. 


Garlic and Onion Honey
These culinary herbs are warming, antimicrobial, and stimulating expectorants. You can make syrup or honey out of one or both of these spicy herbs for coughs and sore throats. Simply mince the herbs finely, fill a jar half full with the herbs, then cover them with honey. In a couple days the honey will become more of a syrup consistency. Keep it in a cool place to avoid it fermenting. There is no need to strain the herbs but after awhile they will be rubbery in texture. It’s best to make this up in small amounts so that you can use it as fresh as possible. 

Slippery Elm Gruel (Ulmus fulva)
Slippery elm can be made into a gooey substance that can soothe and inflamed throat and lungs. To make gruel, place a tablespoon of powdered slippery elm into a pint of water and stir well. Occasionally stir this mixture until it has reached a thick slippery consistency. This nutritive gruel is an easily digestible food for those too weak to eat normal foods. Slippery elm can also be added to cooked oatmeal.

Slippery elm is an at risk plant. Look for sustainably cultivated sources or consider using Siberian elm as a substitute. 

Marshmallow tea (Althaea officinalis)
To make marshmallow tea simply put 1⁄4 cup of marshmallow root in a pint size jar. Fill this jar with cold to lukewarm water and let sit for a minimum of four hours. You will notice that this brew will get more mucilaginous and slippery with time. Strain when ready and drink as desired. 

You can also simmer marshmallow root, although a luke warm water extraction is considered to be a more pure extraction. 

Linden Flower (Tilia spp.)
A popular remedy in Europe, especially in France where my mother in law drinks this daily, Linden flower tea is delicious and cooling to an inflamed throat and sore cough. Its antispasmodic qualities quell relentless coughs and Linden’s gentle nervine qualities can soothe the mind as well. Besides drinking linden flowers when sick, I love this sweet drink iced on hot dusty days. To make it I put one ounce of linden in a mason jar. Fill with freshly boiled water and let sit for two hours before straining. If using for a cough, I warm it before drinking.

Linden tree full of blossoms

Plantain (Plantago major, P. lanceolata)
In the herbal world plantain is most well known for its ability to draw poisons from the skin, as well as to heal rashes, eczema, and psoriasis. Besides being a magical healer externally, plantain tea internally can sooth a cough and help to bring up phlegm. It is also a demulcent herb that soothes inflamed mucous membranes – helpful when you’ve spent the last hour coughing so much your insides hurt. 

Thyme (Thymus officinalis) or  Bee Balm (Monarda spp.)
Often thought of as only a culinary herb, thyme has a strong affinity for the lungs. It’s a stimulating expectorant that is great for wet congested coughs.  I take my thyme or bee balm tea after it has infused for about twenty minutes (covered).

Bee balm growing wild in Montana

Mullein (Verbascum thapsus)
Although mullein has a long list of varied uses, I primarily think of its leaves as heaven sent to those with chronic or acute respiratory problems. It’s been used for bronchitis, asthma, coughs, lung congestion, and throat inflammation for thousands of years. One of the best attributes of mullein is that it probably grows close to your front door. I gather the first year leaves of mullein (before a flower stalk springs from the center of the leaves) in the spring and summer while they are looking vibrant. Its thick woolly leaves can be hard to fully dry in a humid environment and they may need to be placed in a dehydrator.

I use the dried leaves for infusions – filling a mason jar a quarter of the way and then filling with freshly boiled water. To strain off the leaves I pour the mix through a finely woven stainless steel strainer additionally lined with cheesecloth or a coffee filter. The abundant hairs on mullein leaves can actually irritate the throat and lungs if not properly filtered out.

Mullein leaves were traditionally smoked for lung issues. Although this may seem counterintuitive to the health of your lungs, this has been shown to be very effective, especially for deep spasming coughs. One way to do this is to burn mullein balls as incense and inhale the smoke (thanks to jim mcdonald for that tip).

California Poppy (Eschscholzia californica)
California poppy is a fabulous anti-spasmodic herb that can effectively stop the dry spasmodic coughing that often gets worse at night. It can be used for children and adults and it is one of my most used herbs for people with whooping cough. I prefer it as a tincture, titrating the dose up until it is effective. 

California Poppy can stop spasmodic coughing and promote sleep. 

Wild Cherry Bark
Wild cherry bark is famous for stopping those dry spasmodic coughs. I've used our local Prunus virginiana with great results. You can also commonly buy wild cherry cough syrups such as this one. 

Herbs are phenomenal at supporting a person when they have a cough. Rather than throwing in a “kitchen sink” of cough herbs, the real effectiveness of herbs for cough comes in the diagnosis of what kind of cough it is. Productive? Unproductive? Heat? Cold? Spasmodic? 

By looking closer at the energetics of the mucus and the cough itself we can more effectively use herbs for cough. Herbal formulas can be created to to fit the person and the cough even more precisely. While our goal isn't always to stop coughing outright, it is to bring more comfort and by supporting the natural functions of the body, shorten the duration of illness. 


Anonymous said...

Thank You so much for this valuable information. God has placed these herbs on earth for us to use and then he uses people to spread the good word.

narf7 said...

I get very excited whenever I see your new posts...the great thing is that here in Tasmania Australia we are in the heart of summer. I am more than aware of the flu epidemic that is sweeping the northern hemisphere and know that the odds are that we will get at least a touch of this flu in our coming winter season. I plan on stocking up on natural remedies using your blog. Thank you, in advance, for your wholesome and comforting all natural recipes :)

cyra01 said...

I do believe you've outdone yourself with this Cold/Flu series:) This series of excellent, well-written articles is covering all bases, and so...thoroughly! The articles are succinct, yet simple,(delivered in easy-to-understand & digest "bytes"). Your photography (or featured photos) are clear, vibrant, and lush. Soooooo, is it time for a book in print, yet? Your readership awaits...!

gina maria comaduran said...

thanks so much for this posting. i have a few questions that i hope you'll be able to get to at some point.

i made the 1st variation of the oxymel that you have under the Honey & Vinegar segment and am wondering about a few things:

1) i bought dry marsh mallow root to use as the decoction and it never really got a thick gooey consistency. this is either because it was bought packaged dry and/or i didn't decoct it properly. or maybe something else that i'm not thinking of? i had the ratios correct (pretty close) but i set the heat to high and let it boil till it reduced. it took probably 1 hour or so. should i have made it work longer? i thought the boiling action may have broken something down, but i'm pretty new to these processes and i'm not sure what happened. so anyway, it was much more like tea, not thick at all.

2) i went ahead and mixed the oxymel anyway, thinking that the honey would thicken it, but it wasn't enough to make a syrup. between the watery decoction and the vinegar, the honey never really had a chance. i've used it anyway, and my last question is: what is the dosage or administering protocol for this? i've been swigging from the jar (i'm the only one going to use it), probably about a teaspoonful at a time, just when the coughing starts happening or when my throat has felt hot and burning. this "as needed" method is acceptable, i hope? just checking in.

anyway, hope all is well w you and just want to tell you how much i appreciate your sharing your knowledge. i come back to the MVH website time and again.


Rosalee de la Forêt said...

Hi gina,

I am not sure why your marshmallow root didn't get gooey. Perhaps the amount of root you used wasn't enough? Also, lukewarm infusions can make a more demulcent end result. Or maybe perhaps the root was old?

Using it as needed is fine. If you take too much your tummy will get upset and then you'll know to back off a bit.

I hope that helps and thanks for your kind words!

gina maria comaduran said...

thanks rosalee for your quick response.

i think i am going to try to decoct more slowly and use more herb. i know alot of this is trial and error so i'll see what happens.

gina maria comaduran said...

just to follow-up:

i used more herbs and simmered it nearly 3x longer (lower heat) and got a much better consistency. i think i still didn't reduce it enough, but it is def more syrupy. the oxymel is much more able to coat my throat.

i hate to think the herbs are old (i just bought them!) and i believe they are from a reliable source (sf herb co. should be pretty reliable). i do still think i'm not cooking them long enough, so there's that thought.

thank you again rosalee.
:) gina

gina maria comaduran said...


hanna said...
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Janice Jones said...

Thanks so much for this very informative post. When making the elderberry cough syrup, should the
70 grams Elderberries
20 grams Marshmallow root, etc
be measured using fresh or dried elderberries, marshmallow, etc.

Rosalee de la Forêt said...

Those are dried Janice. Thanks for asking that clarifying question, I'll make that change in the article too.

clevelandsbride said...

ThanK you!