Jeff Pyatt, now 42, was diagnosed with asthma at age 5. It came and went as he got older. “I was constantly medicated,” he remembers. “I took all the prescription drugs, including experimental ones, and got all the shots. I was hospitalized twice, at age eight and eleven.”
His asthma continued into college, when Jeff used inhalers and had frequent colds that “went to his chest” and created infections that made his asthma worse. Jeff enjoyed sports of all kinds, but found his activity curtailed due to his condition. He had to use an inhaler before exercise and took prednisone, a steroidal prescription drug, on and off, as well as theophylline-based prescription asthma drugs daily.
At 23, Jeff moved to the Northwest. His asthma took a sharp turn for the worse and he was put on prednisone again. This time, however, he did not respond. Instead, he says, “I got sicker and sicker.”
Jeff was hospitalized and tests showed he had noninfectious hepatitis—liver damage- from his asthma medications. “I made a decision then,” says Jeff, “that started a fundamental change in my life. I refused any more medication, and eventually my body healed itself. My bilirubin is normal now, my liver is fine.”
Once the crisis had passed, Jeff resolved to get more proactive about natural medicine for his asthma. He went to an acupuncturist and then took natural healing classes. From what he learned, he was able to put together a program of botanicals to build up and heal his lung tissue, as well as support and strengthen his immune system.
“I haven’t had a real asthma attack in over ten years,” says Jeff. “No wheezing, no watery eyes, nothing. I use coltsfoot tea regularly, and it really helps. I use herbs to keep me level and balanced, to keep from getting sicker and sicker as so many people today seem to be doing. I believe Western medicine has its place, when extremely powerful medicine is needed quickly. But now I think, let’s get beyond needing it.”
Herbs to Consider When Dealing with Asthma
Short-term asthma remedies abound in the herb world so that relief can be obtained naturally without the use of drugs. The herb khella (Ammi visgana) is typically available in the U.S. only in tincture form. The seed of this member of the Umbelliferae has spasmolytic action on the small bronchi. This ancient Egyptian herb can be used long-term with no toxicity and the effect on the bronchi lasts about 6 hours, so it is particularly effective to prevent attacks. Khellin, the active principle, is rapidly absorbed through the mouth, so tincture is effective.
Probably the preeminent herb for asthma is cubeb berry, which conveniently does double duty as a lung and adrenal tonic. This warming, drying peppercorn is an excellent long-term lung tissue builder, and also an adrenal builder. It does a good job of keeping the airways open over time. Take 10 capsules or 1/2 oz as tea per day.
Relaxing nervines can be useful for asthmatics. For at least some sufferers of this condition, there appears to be a stress or emotional element. Calming herbs such as valerian may help in stressful situations when the asthmatic may be more vulnerable to an attack.
Though supported by scant scientific literature for asthma, turmeric is widely used in Ayurvedic asthma regimes, with the same use being clinically supported by several American herbalists. Turmeric is good for so many other things that it certainly will not hurt to include it. It’s anti-inflammatory (this in some way is most likely related to the mechanism for asthma), antioxidant, immune-supportive and broadly anti-microbial. Turmeric can reduce coughs, especially when mixed with coriander and cumin.
Ginkgo biloba, the most widely-prescribed phytopharmaceutical in the world, with well over 200 published studies, can reduce inflammatory response in asthma. Forskolin, the active ingredient of Coleus forskholii, an Ayurvedic herb, is not a nervous system stimulant so it is free of side effects associated with theophylline-based treatments. It works by activating an enzyme that sets off a series of biochemical reactions that result in smooth muscle relaxation.
Chinese baical skullcap root has anti-inflammatory properties- according to Drs. Murray and Pizzorno in An Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine, the flavonoids in this herb can inhibit the formation of inflammatory compounds more than 1,000 times the strength of histamines, in a way that is similar to an asthma drug, with much less potential for toxicity. They are also antioxidant/free radical scavengers.
Schisandra (Schisandra chinensis) is an East Asian woody vine in the Magnolia family. Winding around the trunks of trees, and covering the branches, the vine produces small red berries that grow in clusters. In the fall, the berries are harvested and dried to make the medicinal herb.
The Chinese name for this herb is wu-wei-tze, or “five flavor berry”, indicating that the fruit contains all five flavors of Chinese herbal pharmacy. Herbs with this taste profile are rare, and this detail predicts schisandra’s use in a wide variety of conditions. Schisandra is mostly sour, though, and most definitely astringent.