Written by Shay Grant
“For breath is life, so if you breathe well you will live long on earth.” – Sanskrit Proverb
The breath is revered across cultures as a grounding force which ultimately connects us with life, and that marks the beginning and end of life. We can go for days without water, weeks without food but only minutes without air.
In Chinese medicine it is where circulating qi is generated, in Ayurveda it is where prana is received. Both of these terms essentially describe our life force. In TCM the lungs are the source of our vitality, and they extract qi from the atmosphere (“heavens”). You can read more about the TCM perspective on respiratory health here, and more about the Ayurvedic perspective on respiratory health here.
“Heaven’s Qi flows freely to the Lungs”
“The Lungs are the root of Qi” (10 p69)
Every single system in our body relies on oxygen, the breath and therefore our lungs. Effective breathing can have remarkable effects for mental wellbeing, and there are even studies being conducted for using breathwork to deal with PTSD. It can also help us sleep better, improve immunity and digestion. It is key for regulating our nervous systems, which are vital for mental health and clarity. A healthy respiratory system is key for processing oxygen in our body, as well as removing carbon dioxide and our lungs are the main organ responsible for this.
“When the breath is unsteady, all is unsteady; when the breath is still; all is still. Control the breath carefully. Inhalation gives strength and a controlled body; retention gives steadiness of mind and longevity; exhalation purifies body and spirit.” – Goraksasathakam
Optimising our breath and respiratory system is critically important for restoring the body and minds harmony. Ayurveda offers practices such as pranayama, and TCM offers Qigong as a way to work with the breath. Breathwork is increasingly popular across Western cultures now too.
How the lungs work
The lungs are known as the main organs of the act of breathing. They control the entry of air, without which the body would quickly die. Thus, their function is of great importance to overall health and quality of life.
The two lungs sit in the upper third of the thorax. The left lung has two lobes and is slightly larger than the right, which has three lobes. When breathing, the movement between the lungs and the chest wall is facilitated by the pleura. The lungs contain bronchi (airways) which branch into smaller airways, alveoli, blood vessels, lymph vessels, connective tissue, and nerves. The bronchi not only transport the air, but they also warm and humidify it, while removing particulates. The alveoli are the site of gaseous exchange with the blood.
The natural defences of the lungs include both the innate and the adaptive immune systems. In the upper airway, airborne particles are captured by either the nasal hairs or the mucosa. These particles are either expelled through sneezing, blowing one’s nose, or the mucus is swallowed into the digestive tract. The particles captured in the lower airways by the mucus there are expelled by the mucociliary escalator, where the small hairs of the respiratory tract beat together to bring mucus up the tract to be coughed or swallowed. The airways also contain a number of anti-microbial chemicals and immune cells to help deal with pathogens.
The lungs have their own closed circulation with the heart, and thus any issue with their health will immediately impact upon the circulatory system. The lungs are also an organ of elimination, as they excrete gaseous acidic waste on the exhalation. Other organs that share eliminatory function are the bowels, kidneys, and skin. If there is a lack of functionality in the lungs, these other systems will experience strain.
Some problems with respiratory health include asthma, COPD, cystic fibrosis, tuberculosis, bronchitis, pneumonia, emphysema and lung cancer. Also pollution effects the lungs, so some extra nourishment can be very helpful for people living in cities.
It is clear that good nutrition is essential for overall health, and the lungs are no exception. The development of the lungs starts in the third week after conception, and continues until the age of 22. While in development, the foetus must receive sufficient nutrition and oxygen in order to properly develop the lungs. Otherwise, structural changes occur in the airways that present limited recovery potential (1). In children, the Mediterranean diet with little processed food has been associated with a reduced risk of developing asthma, while the Western diet has been linked to an increased risk (2).
There are a variety of nutrients that support the function of the lungs. Foods such as fruit and vegetables that are high in vitamin C and beta-carotene have been shown to support lung function, as well as fish which is high in omega-3 fatty acids. Additionally, vitamin C, beta-carotene and vitamin E have been shown to reduce phlegm production in the respiratory tract, the over-production of which is involved in a number of respiratory pathologies (3). Flavonoids, which are found in fruits, vegetables, dark chocolate, wine, nuts, seeds, and most herbs, have been shown to reduce symptoms of asthma. Magnesium may improve the condition of the smooth muscle in the bronchioles, promoting relaxation instead of over-constriction. Vitamin D may also be useful, as a deficiency may lead to a reduced ability to fight off infection (3).
There are environmental factors that contribute to the health of the lungs that must be considered. Air contamination is a concern, especially to those who may have weakened immune systems, children or the elderly. This contamination may come in several forms, such as fungi/mould, dust, smoke, chemical fumes or toxic particles. Exposure to these contaminants may depend on one’s occupation, lifestyle and/or living situation. These may be linked to the increased urbanisation of the world, and climate change. For instance, ozone is one example of environmental detriments to lung health. Ground level ozone is created when engine gasses and sunlight interact. This is a phenomenon in urbanised areas and is linked to hospital admissions (4). The impact of the increasing prevalence of dust storms in the wake of climate change is also being linked to declining respiratory heath (5).
Examples of disease caused by occupational exposure to toxic particulates are silicosis and asbestosis. Silicosis is caused by silicon-containing compounds that people who work in quarrying, mining, stone masonry, glass working, and pottery are commonly exposed to. Silicosis can lead to the development of tuberculosis which leads to further complications. Asbestosis is caused by inhaling the fibres of asbestos, and is found in asbestos miners as well as construction workers who were involved in building works with the material. Asbestos gradually destroys lung tissue (6).
Exercise is supportive of lung health. Exercise is broadly defined, as it can be sport or gardening or cleaning. The general recommendation is to take 30 minutes of exercise.
Exercise strengthens the muscles. If their function is made more efficient, the require less oxygen and produce less carbon dioxide, which reduces the load on the circulatory and respiratory system transporting and excreting these two gasses. Exercise also strengthens the heart, which is in close relationship to the lungs and so benefits pulmonary circulation (9).
Smoking has extremely detrimental effects to lung health. Apart from depositing dangerous tar residues it increases mucus production in the airways, and inhibits the tiny hairs, or cilia, that are key to the function of the mucociliary escalator (7).
This all makes the lungs much more prone to developing breathing difficulties, chronic disease and infection. Smoking is also the cause of most lung cancers and cases of COPD (which encompasses both chronic bronchitis and emphysema) (8).
There are a variety of herbs that can support the lungs, depending on the presenting issue. As most herbs have multiple actions, the following classifications are made for the sake of simplicity, and this is certainly not an exhaustive list. Always consult a medical professional and herbalist if you are experiencing challenges with your lung health.
Tonics – these support the overall function of the lungs.
- Elecampane (Inula helenium) – it has a spasmolytic on the bronchioles and has a long tradition of use in asthma, bronchitis, whooping cough, tuberculosis and pleurisy.
- Horsetail (Equisetum arvense)
Expectorants – these herbs aid the body in excreting excess mucus that may be building up in the respiratory tract. They are divided into warming, relaxing and stimulating.
Warming expectorants – these are used when the lungs are congested and suffering from cold and damp:
- Ginger (Zingiber officinalis) – the classic remedy
- Cinnamon (Cinnamonum spp) – most often combined with ginger
- Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare)
- Aniseed (Pimpinella anisum)
Relaxing or antispasmodic expectorants – useful where the lungs are tight, wheezing and any cough is dry:
- Thyme (Thymus vulgaris) – particularly effective at relieving spasmodic coughing though may also help where there are excess levels of mucus
- Coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara) (generally avoided due to pyrrolizidine content)
- Ma huang (Ephedra sinica) – not available in the USA and restricted in the UK to practitioners
- Hyssop (Hyssopus officinalis)
Stimulating expectorants – typically emetics used in low doses for helping to move stubborn congestion in the base of the lungs:
- Lobelia (Lobelia inflata) – in the UK restricted to practitioners, with additional relaxing properties to provide a rounded effect on the lungs
- Squills (Scilla spp) – a strong emetic mostly used in a syrup
- White horehound (Marrubium vulgare)
- Licorice (Glycyrrhiza spp) – combining a gentle stimulating with demulcent action for a range of lung and cough conditions – a true lung amphoteric!
Demulcents – these herbs help to soothe the respiratory tract in conditions that feel dry and scratchy.
- Marshmallow (Althea officinalis) – for irritated and dry conditions of the airways with unproductive and tickly coughs. Marshmallow can help provide long-term relief in lung infections by allowing time for the inflamed and infected mucosa to heal.
- Mullein (Verbascum thapsus) – Mullein is a wonderfully soothing remedy for the lungs, used to good effect in irritating, hacking coughs with bronchial congestion (flowers have additional stimulating properties)
- Iceland moss (Cetraria islandica)
Antitussives – remedies that can suppress a cough – usually because they contain cyanide-producing constituents.
- Wild Cherry (Prunus serotina)
Anticatarral – these herbs help reduce the amount of mucus being produced from the airways.
- Horseradish (Amoracia rusticana)
- Elderflower (Sambucus nigra)
- Ribwort plantain (Plantago lanceolata)
Immunomodulatory and anti-allergic – these herbs moderate immune function to an appropriate level, if the respiratory tract is being affected by pathogens or hypersensitivity.
- Elderberry (Sambucus nigra) – have a specific action in preventing an enzymes produced by the flu virus from attaching to the cilia in the mucosal membranes of the lungs so can be helpful for viral respiratory infections
- Echinacea (Echinacea angustifolia or purpurea) – a useful preventative if you are prone to upper respiratory problems like frequent colds, sore throats, sinuses, middle ear pain, or viral infections like flu
- Baical Skullcap (Scutellaria baicalensis) – commonly used for asthmatic conditions (especially when associated with secondary bronchitis), hypersensitivity conditions like hayfever and allergic rhinitis. It has a reputation in China of being effective also in acute viral infections of the airways.
- Nettle (Urtica dioica) – particularly for allergies that target the respiratory system.
- Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum) – Together with Cordyceps sinensis, G. lucidum has the most extensive range of indications and combines well with it in treatment of lung and liver conditions, as well as to provide all-round adaptogenic support.
- Black seed (Nigella Sativa) – has been shown to be useful for asthma, allergic rhinitis and other respiratory conditions as it has anti-inflammatory and bronchodilatory effects
Other commonly used herbs:
- Andrographis (for reducing symptoms in viral respiratory infections including the common cold, flu and sore throat)
- Bibhitaki has astringing and strengthening action on the mucus membranes throughout the body, especially in the lungs
- Horseradish is also effective against conditions that are characterised by the presence of an obstruction, commonly within the respiratory system. The pungency of horseradish will help to eliminate obstructions and expel them from the body by coughing up
- Trikatu (Zingiber officinale, Piper longum and Piper nigrum) – It is a heating combination that dries mucous secretions and excess phlegm whilst also rejuvenating the lungs.
- Tusli (Ocimum tenuiflorum) – When used as a hot tea, tulsi clears kapha and mucus from the lungs and upper respiratory tract. It is of value in respiratory infections and fever where it reduces temperature by encouraging sweating whilst its penetrating nature clears dampness and toxins.
Most of these herbs can be made into a tea or decoction, except for those restricted to practitioners. They can be used acutely, however the immunomodulatory herbs are often used prophylactically as well. Aromatic herbs may also be used as part of a steam inhalation to bring their antimicrobial benefits into the airways directly, while adding moisture. There are many types of breath practices that can help with building control over the breath as well as calming the system, which allows for more efficient breathing. There are physiotherapists who specialise in breathing. There are also other practices such as Butyeko, Wim Hoff, pranayama, and Inspirational breathing. Two of our favorite breathwork practitioners are Georgie Lawlor and James from Breathe With James.
- Arigliani M, Spinelli AM, Liguoro I, Cogo P. Nutrition and Lung Growth. Nutrients. 2018;10(7):919. Published 2018 Jul 18. doi:10.3390/nu10070919
- Berthon BS, Wood LG. Nutrition and respiratory health–feature review. Nutrients. 2015;7(3):1618-1643. Published 2015 Mar 5. doi:10.3390/nu70316184.
- Kelly Y, Sacker A, Marmot M. Nutrition and respiratory health in adults: findings from the Health Survey for Scotland. European Respiratory Journal. 2003;21(4):664-671. doi:10.1183/09031936.03.000557026.
- Hoffmann D. Medical Herbalism. Rochester: Inner Traditions; 2003.
- Schweitzer MD, Calzadilla AS, Salamo O, et al. Lung health in era of climate change and dust storms. Environ Res. 2018;163:36-42. doi:10.1016/j.envres.2018.02.001
- Wilson K, Waugh A. Ross And Wilson Anatomy And Physiology In Health And Illness. New York: Churchill Livingstone; 2010
- Walker B, Colledge N, Penman I, Ralston S. Davidson’s Principles And Practice Of Medicine. London: Elsevier Saunders; 2014.
- Health Effects of Cigarette Smoking. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/tobacco/data_statistics/fact_sheets/health_effects/effects_cig_smoking/index.htm. Published 2021. Accessed December 30, 2021.
- Your lungs and exercise. Breathe (Sheff). 2016;12(1):97-100. doi:10.1183/20734735.ELF121