There are a few obvious ways to support lung health, such as not smoking, getting regular exercise, and practicing good hygiene to minimise your risk of upper respiratory tract infection. What about natural health products that support your lung health, though? As usual, nature provides! So, if you’re looking to stay on top of good respiratory health, here are a few ideas.*
Simple steps to support lung health
Among other things, healthy lung function relies on the right amount and right thickness of mucus. Too much mucus or too little, too thick, or too thin, and it can be hard to keep airways clear, responsive, and able to combat potential pathogens, allergens, and irritation.
Keeping the air around you from becoming too dry can help avoid mucus overproduction. Too much mucus can clog your airways and lead to conditions that favour infectious microorganisms that cause, for example, pneumonia.
Spending a lot of time indoors, especially with the air conditioning or heating on and windows closed, can create a perfect storm for respiratory tract irritation. Getting some fresh air is always a good idea, at a distance from others, of course. If you’re really stuck at home though, combat dry air by putting a bowl of warm water by a radiator or other source of heat. Add a few drops of eucalyptus oil to help open up nasal passages and dissolve hardened mucus in the respiratory tract.
Or, if the air is too damp, use a combination of heat and ventilation and/or a dehumidifier to help reduce humidity. This will also help prevent the growth of mold, which is itself a serious health risk.
Diet and herbal medicines for lung support
A number of foods and traditional herbal medicines have been used over the centuries to support lung health. These mainly rely on supporting normal mucus production or acting as expectorants, which help the body to remove excess mucus.
Natural expectorants you probably already have in your pantry or refrigerator include:
- Onions and garlic
- Liquorice root (and tea made from the root)
- Savory (a herb)
- Bay leaves
- Dry mustard powder.
If you’re finding it a little harder than usual to clear your airways, perhaps because of seasonal allergies or a cold, try to use more of the foods above in your daily cooking.
N-acetyl-cysteine (NAC) is another natural support for respiratory health. This mucolytic helps relieve congestion by thinning mucus and loosening phlegm. NAC also helps to increase the production of glutathione, an important antioxidant that helps protect the airways.[i][ii]
NAC is often used alongside bromelain, an enzyme derived from pineapple and papaya. Bromelain can help suppress excessive coughing and reduce the thickness of mucus, making it easier to clear. In trials using a spirometer to measure respiratory health, bromelain has been seen to support increased lung capacity and function, in addition to being useful in cases of sinusitis.[iii][iv]
Other natural expectorants include wild cherry bark, mullein, and horehound, so look out for teas and herbal formulas featuring these herbs.
Mullein in particular has been approved by the German Commission E as an expectorant useful for the treatment of respiratory catarrh. This unassuming herb, often considered a roadside weed, contains mucins that help to reduce inflammation in the upper respiratory tract, as well as saponins that help to break up phlegm, making it easier to clear.[v]
The German Commission E has also approved horehound for the treatment of bronchial catarrh, backed by more than 400 years of traditional use as a cough remedy. And, if you ever wondered why many cough drops taste of cherry, it’s because wild cherry bark is a traditional remedy for respiratory irritation. Unfortunately, most modern cough lozenges only use cherry flavouring, while it’s the actual bark of the cherry that is the most effective preparation.[vi]
Soothing mucus membranes
An important part of supporting healthy lungs is to soothe irritated mucus membranes. Ivy leaf is one herb with a long history as a traditional remedy in asthma and other respiratory issues. This herbal extract can help reduce bronchial spasms and support optimal mucus secretion, with several double-blind studies finding that ivy leaf extract improved lung function and reduced asthma attacks, usually after about 10 days of regular use.[vii][viii]
Marshmallow (the herb, not the sweet!) is also well known for soothing irritated mucus membranes. The herb may help protect inflamed membranes and offer demulcent activity to provide relief from dry coughs, asthma, and congestion.
Finally, one of the simplest, most convenient ways to thin mucus and keep airways happy and healthy is to drink water. That’s right, staying hydrated throughout the day and night is one of the best ways to support lung health and avoid waking up with a dry, sore throat and irritating cough.
* If you’re having any difficulty breathing, or have persistent or severe symptoms, seek immediate medical attention.
[i] Grandjean EM, et al. (2000). Efficacy of oral long-term N-acetylcysteine in chronic bronchopulmonary disease: a meta-analysis of published double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trials. Clin Ther, 22 (2), 209-21.
[ii] Stey C, et al. (2000). The effect of oral N-acetylcysteine in chronic bronchitis: a quantitative systematic review. Eur Respir J, 16 (2), 253-62.
[iii] Ryan R. (1967). A double-blind clinical evaluation of bromelains in the treatment of acute sinusitis. Headache, 7, 13-7.
[iv] Rimoldi R, et al. (1978). The use of bromelain in pneumological therapy. Drugs Exp Clin Res, 4, 55-66.
[v] Theiss B., & Theiss P. The Family Herbal: a Guide to the Natural Health Care for Yourself and Your Children from Europe’s Leading Herbalists. 1993; Healing Arts Press.
[vi] Mowrey, D.B. The Scientific Validation of Herbal Medicine. 1986; Cormorant.
[vii] Gulyas A, et al. (1997). Systematic therapy of chronic obstructive respiratory disease in children. Atem Lungen, 23, 291-4.
[viii] Mansfeld HJ, et al. (1998). Therapy of bronchial asthma with dried ivy leaf. Münch Med Wschr, 140, 26-30.