Asthma is a condition that troubles many people in this country, but it can often be effectively eased by the use of natural plant medicines. Kiva and I have sought to address the problem both in Plant Healer Magazine, and in a class taught at our annual classes and celebration The Traditions In Western Herbalism Conference by the increasingly popular herbalist teacher Sean Donahue. A detailed essay and notes from that class and many others are available on Amazon in the newly released book Traditions in Western Herbalism, but we also want to share the helpful wisdom with all of you here. Sean tells us:
“From a purely physiological standpoint, asthma is a misfiring of the immune response within the respiratory tract. When the body perceives a threat, the inflammatory aspect of the immune system gears up to heal any potential injuries. In someone with asthma, that aspect of the immune system in the respiratory tract is on a hair trigger alert, and any perceived threat — an infection, an allergen, or emotional stress can kick it into high gear, releasing inflammatory cytokines and histamines at levels far above normal. This in turn causes the mucous membranes to swell up and the smooth muscles of the airway to spasm. Over time this exaggerated immune response can cause damage to bronchial tissue, which in turn exacerbates the response because the body now also has a real set of injuries to respond to.
Hawthorn: If we look at breath as the thread that connects us to the world, it makes sense that in moments of intense stress, for some people the airways can close, keeping the outside world from entering. In many people with asthma, this pattern gets established early on in response to a specific trauma and then becomes the default mode — because the body views any response to stress as successful if a person survives it. And if the body has learned that closing the airways will allow it to survive, then until it learns another equally successful strategy with regards to breathing in stressful situations the pattern will continue.
Traditional Chinese Medicine provides a framework for understanding this as well — the concept of disturbed Shen. David Winston defines Shen as "[ . . ] or your individual spirit. It is a person's mind/consciousness and emotional balance. Disturbances of shen produce anxiety,insomnia, bad dreams, moodiness, listlesness, and poor memory."
I think of disturbed shen as that leap out of the body that happens in a moment of shock. Disturbed shen is most noticeable as an acute condition, but can also become a chronic condition contributing to asthma. If the person with asthma also has ADHD, chronic anxiety, frequent panic attacks, a mood disorder or chronic insomnia, overall health can be helped tremendously by calming the shen.
Shen resides in the heart, and from an energetic perspective, the heart's proximity of the lungs allows disturbed shen to translate into disturbed breathing in those whose lungs are already deficient.
Hawthorn is a tonic for the heart that also has traditional use in TCM for calming disturbed Shen. It is also a plant rich in flavonoids that help to cool inflammation – so especially useful for Pitta asthmatics in combination with Peach or Cherry, but relevant for all constitutions.
Naturopath Deborah Frances pioneered the use of Hawthorn for acute asthma attacks — she recommends 3-4 doses of 30 drops at 1-2 minute intervals. In acute attacks, I've only tried this in combination with an antispasmodic herb, but definitely have had good results.
Schizandra: Shizandra is a plant in the Magnolia family that produces a fruit that exhibits all five of the flavors recognized in the Chinese tradition — sweet, sour, bitter, pungent and salty.
The sour taste is most apparent, suggesting the plant's astringent qualities. In Chinese medicine, it was traditionally used to "astringe the Jing" and help seal a "leaky Jing gate" — addressing problems marked by profuse loss of fluids from diarrhea to excessive urination to turberculosis to excessive sweating to vaginal discharges to premature ejaculation. All of this is associated with the kidneys.
It also serves the same function energetically — when you are leaking life force through the holes left where you jumped out of your skin, Schizandra helps gather the energy back within you and stop the leak. When you are unconsciously giving more of yourself away than you can afford to, Schizandra helps you hold onto some of your life force for yourself.
In Chinese medicine, the kidneys also play a role in breathing, "grasping" the lung to pull in the breath. When the kidneys are two weak "the kidney fails to grasp the lung" and inhalation tends to be incomplete – its impossible to get a deep breath. Schizandra is a traditional remedy for this condition. And for calming disturbed Shen. Schizandra also helps to restore and regulate the adrenals – especially when they have been depleted by the use of steroid medications. I give a strong decoction or 30-60 drops of the tincture daily.
Elecampane: Elecampane is a warm, pungent expectorant that is wonderful for damp congestion in the respiratory tract. Especially well suited when there is also a bacterial infection – and many asthmatics are prone to bronchitis and pneumonia.
At an emotional level, the lungs tend to hold on to grief, which, being a watery thing, tends to flow downward, settle in deep, and become stagnant and cold. Elecampane aids in letting go of old — releasing and cleansing buried grief just as it brings up old, infected mucus. 5-10 drops daily for chronic situations. 30-60 drops in acute situations. Kapha can use continuously. Pitta or Vata may find irritation after a few days' use.
Eastern Skunk Cabbage: is an excellent anti-spasmodic and expectorant that is ideal for Kapha asthmatics whose attacks are typically marked by both spasms and excess mucus secretion (it stops the spasms while at the same time encouraging a non-spasmodic cough to bring up excess mucus. It is also deeply calming due in part to the presence of Serotonin.
William Cook called it a nervine “of the most innocent and effective soothing character.” Too drying for many Pittas and Vatas. I've had a 15 drop doses top an attack. Avoid in pregnancy. Use caution in combination with SSRI's or MAO inhibitors (theoretical possibility of excess serotonin build up in the first case, likelihood in large doses of psychedelic effect in the latter.)
Black Cohosh: Black Cohosh is an excellent anti-spasmodic well suited where asthma is accompanied by periods of deep depression or brought on by panic associated with feelings of doom.
The person who will benefit from Black Cohosh will tend toward melancholy and will be easily and deeply impacted by the emotions of others and often by larger events in the world. When depression sets in it will tend to be deep and seemingly intractable. I give 3-10 drops of the tincture for depression, but up to 30 drops for acute spasmodic asthma attacks.
Lobelia: Lobelia acts almost instantaneously to stop the spasms and open up the airway. It also calms the anxiety associated with an asthma attack. I use an acetract — made by macerating the fresh plant in a combination of alcohol and vinegar. Dosage varies widely from person to person, many will get the desired effect from 5 drops, I use 10-15. More than 30 and vague feelings of nausea generally set in. But actual emetic doses are far higher than nauseating doses — more on the order of 90-120 drops in my case. David Winston suggests that you can find the ideal dose by (not in a moment of crisis of course) taking repeated drop doses and counting them out until you feel the first hint of nausea. The ideal dose is one drop less than a nauseating dose. But in emergency situations I'll just give someone a half dropper or so. Lobelia will also help to encourage healthy expectoration of excess fluids.
Lobelia has a calming and protective energy which is also tremendously helpful in restoring the sense of safety necessary to allow a person to breathe more deeply after an acute asthma attack.
New England Aster: Jim McDonald introduced me to New England Aster, a resinous dark purple aster that flowers in autumn in New England.
A tincture made from the flowering tops can immediately help relieve muscle constriction around the airways. I tend to use about 15 drops in acute situations — most effective when there is tightness around the airway that signals an attack is imminent but spasms have not yet begun. Other sticky, aromatic asters seem to have similar effects. I tend to combine New England Aster in equal parts with False Solomon's Seal which I see as a specific for relaxing the connective tissues associate with these muscles (largely by restoring their pliability).
Best wishes with your healing efforts, from the Plant Healer family! – Jesse Wolf & Kiva Rose
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