It’s wildfire season, and for many communities on the west coast and northwest regions this means dealing with poor air quality and all associated physical discomforts. While a certain amount of patience is needed to wait out the fires, the good news is that you can improve upon and even eliminate some of the physical symptoms of wildfire smoke right now with the help of our allies in the plant kingdom.
Some of the primary physical responses to the wildfire smoke, which contains both particulate matter and gasses, are coughing, sinus & throat irritation, headaches, shortness of breath, fatigue, chest pain, and eye irritation.
There are many wonderful herbs that provide significant respiratory and immune support when taken as teas or tinctures. This article will focus on a handful that are either local to the Cascade/Western region or easily available for purchase.
Elecampane root (Inula helenium)
Elecampane is anti-bacterial and works as a lung tonic and expectorant. It is highly effective in helping to loosen mucus so that it can be more easily coughed up and expelled, thereby avoiding congestion and stagnation in the lungs. Mucus production is a good thing in these smoky fire conditions, but we want to keep it moving. The body will continue to produce it as part of the immune response to smoke irritation, and we can best support this by staying hydrated and expelling the mucus as needed.
Licorice root (Glycyrrhiza glabra)
Licorice root is antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, and acts as a demulcent, lubricating the lungs. It helps to create “runny mucus” to assist in clearing the body of irritants. Mucus is important as it traps particles and defends sensitive tissue. In the case of continued wildfire smoke, drying up can occur. Licorice root can help to liquefy mucus so that the body’s defense mechanisms can function to their fullest. Note: Licorice root is not recommended for those with high blood pressure, kidney disease, and pregnant or breastfeeding women. Consider marshmallow root instead.
Marshmallow leaf (Althaea officinalis)
Marshmallow contains natural mucilage and thus acts as a demulcent, or lubricant, to the respiratory system. It helps to relieve dryness and congestion.
Mullein (Verbascum spp.)
Mullein is a demulcent and expectorant, helping to both lubricate the respiratory system and expel excess mucus. It is anti-inflammatory and offers soothing and toning to the system.
Osha root (Lingusticum porteri)
Osha is a powerful antibacterial, antiviral, and anti-inflammatory with a particular affinity for the respiratory system. It relieves deep congestion and acts as an expectorant while preventing infection. Additionally, it is soothing to the throat. Note: Osha is not recommended for extended use for those with liver or kidney problems. Osha should never be taken by pregnant or breastfeeding women.
Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica)
Stinging nettle helps to counteract smoke irritation and boost immunity for several reasons. Its natural antihistamine properties help to soothe the body’s allergic response to smoke. Its astringent properties help to tone the irritated and inflamed mucous membranes. It is high in Vitamins A and C as well as many minerals, thereby strengthening the immune system. Nettle is safe and highly effective. Taking nettle for extended periods of time can significantly improve overall health.
Sage (Salvia officinalis)
Sage is much more than a culinary herb. It has many medicinal properties, some of which have powerful effects on the respiratory system. As an astringent, sage helps to tone irritated mucous membranes. It acts as a decongestant and its cooling properties reduce fever and may help with headaches. Sage is also beneficial in reducing nervous tension and acts as a blood purifier.
Lobelia (Lobelia inflata)
Lobelia, also known as Indian tobacco, acts simultaneously as a respiratory stimulant and full systemic relaxant. This is a very effective herb but due to its potency and powerful effects on the nervous system, lobelia should never be used in high concentration. It is best in very small amounts as part of an herbal formula. For example: to a formula that is 2/3 cup mullein leaves and ⅓ cup elecampane root, one might add a teaspoon of lobelia. Taking too much lobelia can cause severe digestive discomfort at the very least. Note: Lobelia should not be taken by people with high blood pressure, heart liver or kidney disease, seizure disorder, and pregnant or breastfeeding women.
The aforementioned herbs have a strong affinity for the respiratory system. There are many more herbs which have additional actions that may be beneficial in dealing with some of the discomforts of wildfire smoke. A few more are listed below:
For general immune support:
Oregon Grape root
Reishi (this is actually a mushroom but deserves mention here due to its many immune benefits)
For stress and anxiety:
For eye irritation make an eyewash with any combination of:
Steps you can take in addition to herbal support:
- Drink plenty of water.
- Eat highly nutritive foods, especially those high in antioxidants. This will help the immune system function at maximum capacity.
- Eat plenty of garlic. It helps the body to fight off infection as well as assists in the absorption of minerals.
- Take Vitamin C and Vitamin D supplements. This will help boost the immune system. Vitamin C is an antioxidant and helps to repair tissues in the body. Vitamin D is a general immune system strengthener and has a particular effect strengthening the cells which line the respiratory system.
- Inhaling steam infused with herbs or essential oils can provide relief from respiratory symptoms. A few examples of herbs/oils which are great for steaming include lavender, mint, oregano, rosemary, thyme, and sage.
- Rinsing the sinuses with saline solution will literally flush irritants out of the nasal passage. Make sure to use distilled or previously boiled and cooled water.
- Chlorophyll drops in water or chlorophyll tablets provide a significant antioxidant boost.
If this article has helped you, please share with anyone you know who may benefit from this information. While these herbs and remedies are beneficial for those waiting out a fire season, they are also beneficial for firefighters both during season and during post-season recovery.