Using herbs to help you breathe better

Improving lung function

We live in the beautiful Okanagan valley of southern British Columbia.

The environment resembles northern California’s Napa Valley. The climate is a complex tapestry of semi-arid desert mixed in with fertile soil for orchards and vineyards and temperate forests of pine, spruce and fir trees. Okanagan Lake splits the valley and attracts tourists for sunshine, wine and fruit. I am truly blessed to able to work and play in such a beautiful geographical region.

However, the drastic change in weather patterns is a sobering reality of the world we now live in. Climate change affects both air quality and purity everywhere. Wildfires have ravaged the Okanagan valley for two decades. The recent fires in West Kelowna in 2023 and the Okanagan Mountain Park fire of 2003 were examples of a firestorm that devoured homes and habitat on a scale never seen before.

Few would argue the quality of air we breathe is getting worse. Air pollution is a worldwide problem that affects millions of people. Air contaminants from human activity include industrial, auto traffic, coal burning, home heating, shipping, construction, agricultural work, war and fire emissions. Also, natural contributions to air pollution can be from earthquakes, volcanic activity, forest and wildfires and extreme temperature fluctuations.

The most harmful forms of particulate matter are less than 10 micrometers in diameter. These particles are inhaled and can affect the bronchi and bronchioles and the action of the mucociliary tract, that usually helps to expel them. Particles less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter pose a particular problem because they can be inhaled and lodged deep in lung tissue. Ultra-fine particles are less than 0.1 micrometer in diameter and can actually be absorbed into systemic circulation and lodged in tissues throughout the body.

Air pollution can contribute to airway and lung problems, including asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or COPD, emphysema, respiratory infections, chronic bronchitis and sinusitis and lung cancer. Air pollution also contributes to systemic diseases, including heart attacks and stroke and can also be bothersome to the developing fetus in pregnant women, as well as to young children and the frail elderly. Sometimes the effect of environmental exposure is latent on the body and will manifest as disease years or even decades later.

As a naturopathic physician, I am always looking for natural ways to improve lung and respiratory function. I have used a lung formula that incorporates lobelia, peppermint, fenugreek and wild cherry bark. Most patients like the effects, and it seems to work well. At the very least, it is a good, natural expectorant that helps to remove mucous and phlegm from the lungs.

Lobelia is a pretty plant that grows up to one meter in height and is native to eastern parts of North America. The small distinctive blue and purple petals and ease of growth make this a gardener’s favourite. It is a good expectorant and can help improve lung function and treat asthma and bronchitis.

Fenugreek is a herb and culinary spice that has been used as a carminative and digestive aid. It has mild expectorant qualities and may help to improve lung function.

Peppermint is a common aromatic herb that is widely used as a herb in cooking and teas and a wide variety of over-the-counter cosmetics and analgesic counter-irritant medicines. Mint and menthol can improve lung function. It should also be mentioned that large doses of menthol can cause airway irritation and induce asthma in some individuals.

Wild cherry bark has been popular in folk medicine as an expectorant, antitussive, antispasmodic and anti-inflammatory. It was a popular ingredient in cough syrups and bronchial formulas. Wild cherry bark has demonstrated a sedative effective effect on the cough reflex.

The combination of herbs in is a good expectorant that helps to expel mucous and phlegm from the broncho-pulmonary tract and sinuses. It can help to relax the bronchi smooth muscles and improve air flow.

In some patients I have measured an approximate 25 to 30% increase in office-based spirometry, as measured by FEV, or forced expiratory volume. It can be a good adjunct to the use of bronchodilator medicine. I have used it with patients on beta-agonist inhalers as well as inhaled corticosteroids and I have modified the formula by adding licorice and guafenesin to the formula.

No one can deny that the quality of the air we breathe is important for human health. As the climate changes and air pollution increases, the quality of the air we breathe decreases. As climate change and air pollution worsens, lung disease increases.

The quest to find some natural based supplements to improve lung function has been an interesting forethought. A mixture of the herbs lobelia, fenugreek, peppermint and wild cherry bark is an attempt to help clear the airways and improve lung function.

The information provided in this article does not, and is not intended to, constitute medical advice. All information and content are for general information purposes only.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.

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About the Author

Doug Lobay is a practicing naturopathic physician in Kelowna, British Columbia.

He graduated with a bachelor of science degree from the University of British Columbia in 1987 and then attended Bastyr College of Natural Health Sciences in Seattle, Washington, where graduated with a doctorate in naturopathic medicine degree in 1991. While attending Bastyr College, he began to research the scientific basis of naturopathic medicine. 

He was surprised to find many of the current major medical journals abounded with scientific information on the use of diet, vitamins, nutritional supplements and herbal medicines.

Doug is a member of the College of Naturopathic Physicians of British Columbia and has practiced as naturopathic family physician for more than 30 years.  He maintains a busy practice in Kelowna where he sees a wide age range of patients with various ailments.

He focuses on dietary modification, allergy testing, nutritional assessments, supplement recommendation for optimal health, various physical therapy modalities, various intravenous therapies including chelation therapy.

An avid writer, he has written seven books on various aspects of naturopathic medicine that are available on Amazon and was also a long-time medical contributor to the Townsend Letter journal for doctors and patients, where many of his articles are available to view on-line. He has also given numerous lectures, talks and has taught various courses on natural medicine.

Doug enjoys research, writing and teaching others about the virtues of natural health and good nutrition. When not working, he enjoys cycling, hiking, hockey, skiing, swimming, tennis and playing guitar.

If you have any further questions or comments, you can contact Dr. Lobay at 250-860-7622 or [email protected].

The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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