Every morning lately I wake to a big orange sun. We have rarely seen blue skies here for many weeks and most days I can’t even see the mountains that surround my town. The smoke from forest fires throughout the west has impacted many communities like ours. Over time, cumulative smoke wears on our health and impacts our nervous system.
It is times like these that I am reminded that humans are animals. And just like our wild brethren, we have instincts. When we are threatened by fire or exposed to heavy smoke, our sympathetic nervous system takes over and our fight-flight-freeze response (also called the acute stress response) kicks in. It is hard to stay put. Our instinct tells us to run, get far away. But for many of us that isn’t a realistic option. So, how can we support each other, and ourselves when we need to stay and carry on our lives?
During times of chronic smoke exposure, herbs can offer many layers of support for symptoms ranging from asthma, mental fogginess, anxiety, stress, bronchitis, sinus or ear infections and respiratory distress. This article addresses herbs and essential oils to support the upper and lower respiratory systems, calm the nervous system, and fight infection. We will also go over some specific ways to use these remedies, both internally and externally, including teas, tinctures, essential oil blends, neti pots, steams, and nasal and ear oils.
There are some basic things you can do to stay healthy when exposed to chronic smoke. To reduce mucus and increase immune function, keep an eye on what you eat. Avoid sugar, dairy, wheat, oats, barley and rye. Eat antioxidants such as dark berries and multi colored vegetables. Cook with aromatic herbs and spices and eat plenty of garlic, onions and horseradish. Drink lots of water, and mineral-rich teas (see below for a list). Let me reiterate because it is that important: drink LOTS of water and mineral-rich teas! Be easy on yourself and others. Get enough rest. Breathe through your nose to filter and moisten air. Your respiratory system is built for that! Consciously connect with plants in your environment such as trees, houseplants and garden herbs. They are going through the same thing and can be amazing allies and sources of comfort. Most importantly, continue to remind yourself that you are safe, that you will be ok.
Neti pots are useful for many respiratory issues. During times of heavy smoke, seasonal allergies or contact with particulates, I encourage daily use. They are healing for many conditions including sinus pressure and headaches, sinus infections, congestion, cold and flu, allergies and hay fever, ear infections and some sore throats.
How to Use a Neti Pot:
Steams can be done with either aromatic herbs or essential oils. They help to moisten the respiratory system, break up mucus, facilitate expectoration and speed healing. See below for specific herbs and essential oils to use. To do a steam, simply heat a pot of water to steaming (not boiling), remove it from the stove and set on a heat resistant surface. Put a towel over your head and lean over the bowl. Add your favorite steaming herbs or 2-3 drops of essential oil. Close your eyes and breathe deeply. Breathe through the nose to treat the sinuses or through the mouth to help the lungs. If there is heavy congestion, after a steam, try using a neti pot or nasal oil. See below for details.
Essential oils are especially effective for the respiratory system. They evaporate easily and can be administered topically or inhaled to. Many oils are antimicrobial and will help fight infection. Below, see different categories of essential oils including expectorants, decongestants, antivirals, antimicrobials, and decongestants. Please always choose high quality oils that have a therapeutic effect on the body. Low quality essential oils do not have the same healing benefits.
How to use Essential Oils:
Nasya is an Ayurvedic practice that encourages nasal administration of medicinal herbs, decoctions and oils. Using medicinal oils in the nose helps clear sinus congestion and soothe the upper respiratory system. Nasal oils are good for hoarseness, stiff neck and jaw, headaches, earaches, stress, and anxiety. People also report a positive impact on the sensory organs including the eyes and the sense of smell. Traditionally, nasya is said to improve the quality of voice, strengthen vision and promote mental clarity. Please see the recipe below to make your own nasal oil.
Respiratory Tonics: act as long term supporters and strengtheners of the respiratory system
Expectorants: help move foreign particles up and out of the lungs by helping the body produce mucus more effectively and sometimes thinning mucus that is too thick
Steams: help to moisten the respiratory system, break up mucus, facilitate expectoration and speed healing
Decongestants: reduce congestion and mucus production. This can help reduce the possibility of an opportunistic infection
Demulcents: coat and soothe irritated or inflamed membranes to allow healing to begin
Astringents: help pull together irritated, inflamed tissues (such as mucus membranes), helping to protect them and aid in healing, recovery and proper function
Anti-Virals: fight off a viral infection or help to inhibit viral replication.
Anti-microbials: once we get a virus, opportunistic microbes can often set in. In general I think it wise to start using antimicrobial herbs at the first sign of a cold, flu or infection.
Anti-tussives: Both sneezing and coughing are protective reactions that the body uses to move foreign particulate up and out of the respiratory system. Generally they should be encouraged, not suppressed. Sometimes, however, a cough can be dry and unproductive and serve only to irritate and inflame the respiratory system. This can be particularly distressing at night when you are trying to sleep. Most herbs will not suppress a cough, but soothe and reduce irritation to the lungs.
Mineral Rich Tea Herbs: provide extra nutrition and can help support the eliminatory organs
Adaptogens: help the body, particularly the limbic system, adapt to stress and maintain balance and vitality. Some are also good for immune support and deprsssion. Use caution with pregnancy and immune-suppressants.
Nervine Relaxants: calm and ease the nerves. I like the idea of taking them throughout the day to reduce stress instead of just taking them at night.
Nervine Tonics: help to strengthen and support the nervous system over time
Wildfire Support Tincture:
Take 60 drops 3-5 times a day for long term support of the respiratory system.
Breathe Deeply Tea:
Take ¼ ounce combined herbs by weight and put loosely in a canning jar, teapot or coffee press. Add 1 cup of boiling water and let steep ½-2 hours. Strain well. Drink 1-3 cups a day.
Mullein Flower Ear Oil:
This infused herbal oil blend is wonderful for adults, children and even animals. Warm a dropper of the ear oil under warm water and dry the outside well so that no water drips into the ear. Add 5 drops to each ear and cover with a cotton ball. Apply 2 x daily for earache, sinus infection or excessive earwax. Never use with a perforated eardrum. Can be used before and after ear candling. I find herbal tinctures to work very well for ear infections as well. Use antimicrobial herbs (list above) and follow the same steps as for using an ear oil.
Sinus Infection Inhalation:
Combine all oils together in a glass bottle with a tight fitting lid. I like to use bottles that have reducers so it is easy to drop out a single drop of oil at a time. With a towel over your head, stand over a pot of steaming (not boiling) water. Close your eyes and add 2-3 drops of Sinus Infection Inhalation and breathe deeply through the nose. Add more as needed.
Sinus Infection Neti Pot Drops:
Combine all ingredients and shake well. Label and store in a glass tincture bottle with a dropper. Add 30-60 drops of this blend to a neti pot (typically 1 cup of warm saline water) and irrigate through both nostrils. To make a saline water solution, add ¼ teaspoon sea salt to 1 cup warm water and stir well. This blend can also be used as an eye wash. (see above for neti pot directions)
Eucalyptus Nasal Oil
Combine all ingredients and shake well. Label and store in a glass tincture bottle with a dropper. Lay on your back, with a small pillow or rolled towel under your neck. Tilt your head back. Drop 5-10 drops of nasal oil in each nostril. Take a big sniff in, then rest for a few minutes allowing the oil to penetrate. Gently massage the nostrils, nose and sinuses. Alternately, if standing or sitting you can place a drop of Eucalyptus Nasal Oil on the little finger and carefully insert it into the nostril, rubbing gently.
Herbal Throat Spray:
Mix the Echinacea spp. (Echinacea) tincture and honey together well. Add all other ingredients, stirring until everything is fully incorporated. Put in a glass spray bottle. Spray the back of the throat for infection, irritation or soreness.
Deep Breath Oil
Add this blend to a steam, chest rub or aromatherapy inhailer. To make a simple rub, add 5-15 drops of Deep Breath Oil to 1 ounce of vegetable oil and rub on the chest, back, over the sinuses (careful to avoid the eyes!) or behind the ears. For external use only.
This traditional recipe can help to loosen congestion, encourage expectoration and speed healing of the lungs. Chop the onions and sauté them in oil until they are translucent, but not mushy. Pour in apple cider vinegar, just enough to cover the onions. Reduce the heat and add 1 cup of cornmeal, flax seed meal or flour (these help hold the heat in) and mix well until you have a peanut butter consistency. Put the mixture on cheese cloth or muslin and fold it together. Rub the chest with vegetable oil to protect the skin. Apply the poultice to the chest. Put a plastic bag over the top and a warm towel over that. Relax and breathe deeply for 20 minutes or so. Then lay face down with your legs on a bed, bending at the waist with your head pointed towards the floor. Put a towel under your head. Have someone drum on your back and expectorate as needed.
Given the right tools, the body will work to heal itself. I hope these recipes and this information helps you to support your health and well-being. Breathe!
© Elaine Sheff, Clinical Herbalist 2017
About the Author:
The author of several books on herbal medicine and healing, clinical herbalist Elaine Sheff has been passionate about sharing herbal knowledge for over 25 years. Her latest book is Naked: Botanical Recipes for Vibrant Skin and Healthy Hair. Elaine is the Co-Director of Green Path Herb School, located in Missoula, MT, where she strives to inspire and empower students and clients to remember their connection to the earth, the plants and their own healing process. She has taught both nationally and internationally at conferences and events. Elaine is a professional member of the American Herbalist Guild. As a certified Instructor of the Natural Family Planning and Fertility Awareness Methods, Elaine has helped many couples to avoid or achieve pregnancy naturally. An artist and writer, Elaine has written numerous articles about her family’s journey with epilepsy and a special needs child. She has written for publications including the Journal of Medicinal Plants and their Applications, Mamalode and Aromaculture magazine. Elaine’s workshops have been featured at conferences including the Traditions in Western Herbalism Conference, Montana Herb Gathering, Northwest Herb Symposium, Midwest Women’s Herbal Conference, Spokane Herbal Faire, the Ecoexpo and the Mountain West Herb Gathering. You can often find her bent over an herb in her garden or marveling at small flowers in mountain meadows with her husband and sons. If you’d like to learn more about medicinal plants, you can connect with Elaine, and Green Path Herb School via the Green Path Website or through social media: Facebook, YouTube, Pinterest, Twitter, or Instagram. You can find out more about Elaine and her life work at GreenPathHerbSchool.com.