Respiratory disease affects one in five people and is the third largest cause of death in England. (1)
Hospital admissions for lung disease have risen over the past seven years at three times the rate of all admissions generally. (1)
Most hospital respiratory admissions are emergencies which double during the winter months. (1)
Understanding the respiratory system
We are not only the food we digest, we are also the air that we breathe. We can survive for days without food or water but can only survive a few minutes without air. (2)
The process of respiration is often referred to as breathing, but it can also mean cellular respiration, the main reason why breathing is important. Cells require oxygen to extract energy from glucose through respiration, which produces carbon dioxide and water as a waste product. Oxygen is vital for every part of normal cellular function, and oxygen deficiency can have severe pathological consequences. (3)
The circulatory system is deeply connected with the respiratory system because it distributes the dissolved oxygen to the tissues of the body and the waste carbon dioxide to the lungs. (3)
Breathing isn’t just required for healthy respiration. In Ayurveda the vital life energy that empowers our existence is known as prana, the breath of life. (2) Prana is the subtle energy of the air dosha, vata that nourishes the whole body giving it vitality and energy. Without this energy we would die. Prana can also be obtained from food and water but it is more pervasive in the air we breathe. (11)
Breathe also connects us to the environment outside our body. Through breath we can detect changes in the atmosphere and tell if the air is fresh. (b) The body may lose function of organs or organs may operate at a reduced capacity yet still the body can survive. The body cannot survive without prana. (15)
Ayurveda understands that prana explains the connection between energy, mind and body. This is the missing link in modern western medicine since prana cannot be observed physically. (15)
The connection between breath and the mind is demonstrated in how breathing can change depending on emotions. When stressed our breathing becomes shallow and we can experience shortness of breath, with relief often comes a deep sigh and when relaxed our breathing is easy. (15) Unobstructed breathing is necessary for the nervous system to relax, to create a clear mind and to feel energised. The use of breath is central to many spiritual practices such as yoga, meditation and traditional movements like T’ai chi and Qi Gong. (2)
How does the respiratory system work?
According to Ayurveda there are three primary life forces called doshas derived from the five elements. These are responsible for all functions in the body and mind. (7)
|Vata||air and ether|
|Pitta||fire and water|
|Kapha||water and earth|
Strotas are the innumerable channels of circulation which carry substances such as nutrients, liquids, gasses, wastes and energies throughout the body. (7) Prana vaha srotas is the channel that is closest to modern medicine’s respiratory system. The difference is that prana vaha srotas also includes the heart and the digestive tract. (4)
Prana vaha srotas carries prana throughout the respiratory system, prana is absorbed by the lungs and distributed through the blood. When prana energy is flowing freely, we experience a state of positivity, health, and well-being. When prana is low or blocked it leads to lowering of the body’s vitality, metabolic disorders, degeneration of tissue and even death. (7)
As the respiratory system is constantly moving it is governed by vata, the dosha responsible for movement. Vata’s sub-dosha, udana vata, governs the chest region. (7)
Kapha helps the lungs, throat, sinuses and nasal passage remain lubricated and to produce mucus. This mucus helps to trap and protect the airways from foreign particles and pathogens. (7)
Understanding the root
The nose and mouth expose the respiratory system to the atmosphere making it vulnerable to airborne irritation and infection. Respiratory issues are on the rise especially in urban environments due to increased air pollution, dust, smoke, environmental toxins and the diminishing population of trees. (6)
Along with these factors, incorrect eating habits, low immune function, cold/damp environments and high-stress levels also contribute to toxin accumulation and dosha imbalance. This leads to inflammation, mucus congestion and damaged lung tissues. (2)
Vata’s qualities include dry and cold so any influences that increase these qualities, e.g. the cold winter months, can increase vata. This can manifest as dry cough, dry nose, asthma, hoarseness, broken voice, discomfort when breathing, respiratory allergies or wheezing. (4)
The cold winter weather and eating heavy, hard to digest foods like dairy will increase kapha’s qualities of heavy and oily causing excess mucus within the respiratory system. This can cause mucus congestion, phlegm, wet cough, lung nodules, hay fever, pneumonia or swollen glands. (4)
When mucus accumulates, it lowers the agni (digestive fire). A balanced digestive fire is key for preventative health. If the digestive fire is low then food can remain undigested or partly digested creating toxins known as ama. If prana vaha srotas is obstructed with ama, the prana cannot be distributed to the body resulting in a weakening of vitality and the immune system. (7)
Pitta can increase due to environmental toxin exposure and stress. Aggravated Pitta causes respiratory infections, inflammation of the lungs and airways, yellow/green phlegm or blood in the phlegm. (4)
Usually all three doshas play a role in most respiratory disorders. (5)
Overall health needs to be taken in to consideration when treating or preventing respiratory disorders. The lungs are one of the body’s detox pathways so can become overwhelmed if the body is overloaded with toxins. It is important to reduce toxin exposure, balance the digestive fire (agni), remove ama, reduce stress and balance the doshas. (7)
Signs and symptoms
The most common symptoms that present in respiratory disorders are: (6)
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pain and tightness
- Chronic cough
- Coughing up mucus
Pippali (Piper longum) VK- P+
Primarily for kapha conditions such as colds, congestion, coughs, asthma, bronchitis. It is also a powerful lung rejuvenator. Increases vasodilation and circulation in particular to the lungs. Increases agni and clears ama. (8)
Tulsi (Ocimum sanctum) VK – P+
Increases resilience to physical and emotional stress. Has an affinity for the prana vaha strotas. Helps to clear coughs, cold, fevers, chest infections, sore throats and flu. Soothes the respiratory tract and thins mucus for easy expulsion. Often combined with ginger and black pepper for asthma. (8)
Andrographis paniculata PK – V +
Good anti-inflammatory as it clears excess pitta. Good for reducing kapha thick catarrh, green phlegm, sinusitis and asthma. Excellent for gut health and enhancing immunity. (8)
Marshmallow (Althea officinalis) & Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra) VPK=
Both are mild expectorants, anti-inflammatory and immune enhancers. They soothe and cool inflammation so are ideal for irritated mucus membranes in dry coughs, sore throats, laryngitis, bronchitis and croup. (8)
Elecampane (Inula helenium) VK-P+
One of the best rejuvenators for the lungs & bronchi. It has an affinity for avalambaka (seat of kapha in the chest). Clears ama and increases agni. Clears any excess kapha that is causing catarrh, bronchitis, coughs and asthma. (8)
Garlic (Allium sativum) VK-P+
As garlic helps to regulate prana and udana vata, it is excellent in preventing and treating breathing problems. (8)
Vasaka (Adhatoda vasica) PK- V+
Helps to clear excess pitta and kapha so reduces inflammation and congestion. It offers powerful support to the bronchial system by promoting healthy bronchodilation for comfortable breathing. (8)
Ginger (Zingiber officinale) VK- P+
Ginger’s affinity for prana vaha strotas make it excellent for the dry vata and congestive kapha respiratory problems. Increases agni, clears ama, is anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidant and is rejuvenating. (8)
Eucalyptus globulus VK- P+
Specific affinity for prana vaha strotas, good for cleansing congestion from chest, eases coughs, chest infections and asthma. It is a strong anti-microbial, enhances energy and immunity. Excellent to use in herbal steam. (8)
A blend of pipalli, ginger and black pepper that supports the digestive fire whilst removing ama. Excellent for kapha respiratory conditions such as wet cough and in removing phlegm deposits from the respiratory tract. Provides relief from a sore throat, cough/congestion and eases breathing. (5)
Good relief of upper respiratory congestion and bronchial conditions. Sitopaladis’s expectorant and lubricating action helps clear kapha congestion and soothe the lungs and throat. It clears and opens the airways helping conditions such as asthma, wheezing, and hay fever. (5) Sitopaladi Indian thorny bamboo, long pepper, cardamom, cinnamon and cane sugar. (9)
If prone to mucus and congestion avoid kapha increasing foods e.g. dairy, wheat, sugar and processed foods. (2)
Include lots of fresh berries and cooked vegetables for antioxidants and vitamins A, C & E (2)
Eat freshly cooked, warm and easy to digest foods (7)
Deficiencies in zinc, magnesium and vitamin D are common with respiratory complaints so supplementation may be required (2)
These are powerful breathing exercises that help to strengthen lungs, increase oxygenation & blood circulation, calm the mind and help remove toxins.
Pranayama helps to nurture and build up prana. It calms and deepens the link between prana and breath helping to enhance the connection with our consciousness and inner spirit (Atman). (14)
Practice alternative nostril breathing, bee breath or bellow breath. (7)
Chanting or Singing
Both offer positive benefits to the respiratory and digestive systems as they exercise the diaphragm, lungs and abdominal muscles. Also helps to calm the mind and reduce stress. (10)
Use warm water with a ½ teaspoon of rock salt and ½ teaspoon of turmeric to gargle and swish around the mouth. This helps to keep the oral cavity clean and to pacify kapha. (4)
Using warm salt water in a Neti pot helps to clear the nasal passage of mucus, dirt, pollen, dust and other irritants. It also soothes and moistens the mucus membranes. This helps to prevent respiratory infections. Also good for asthma and sinusitis. (7)
This is the administration of herbal oils through the nose to lubricate and soothe the mucus membranes. This also provides a protective barrier against airborne irritants and toxins. (7)
There are many poses and asanas that help with the flow of prana and support the respiratory system. Sun solution, moon salutation and practicing lion pose are all beneficial. (4)
Using indoor air filters, lots of house plants and chemical free cleaning products will help to improve the quality of the air indoors. (6)
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