We’ve all been there… One of the most irritating things to deal with is a cough that just won’t quit. Nagging coughs tend to make their appearance during the seasonal change from winter to spring.
The weather is slowing transitioning and you’re considering emerging from your winter cocoon of blankets, heat, and solitude, but then, without warning, you can’t stop coughing. The spell can strain muscles and even throw your back out of whack.
According to Ayurveda, the reason we cough is quite logical and the key to unlock a cough is often not too complicated. First, we need to understand it and then, when possible, dodge it.
It All Starts With Winter
Winter is nature’s cold and dry season, which often manifests in the body as dry skin, dry sinuses and a dry or scratchy throat.
Thankfully, nature has a plan to protect our delicate respiratory mucous membranes during the harsh winter months. The plan presents itself in the form of a harvest consisting of warming, high-fat and high-protein foods, and ample amounts of slimy, soluble fiber like chia, flax, and grains.
Not only that, organically-grown foods harvested in late fall/early winter attract a different kind of microbe from the soil than they would in the summer. These fall-winter microbes help ignite digestion, boost internal heat and strengthen the immunity that we desperately need each winter. (1)
Unfortunately, not many of us eat the foods that provide the winter insulation, moisture and seasonal microbes and, inevitably, we miss out on the digestive boost and immune protection that nature intended for us to have. The result: our airways dry out!
The more we breathe the dry winter air, the drier the immune-activating small cilia (sweeping projections) in the airways become. The dryness irritates the mucous membranes which signals them to make more mucus and, in short order, the nose begins to run. Cue the sniffles.
The thin, reactive mucus of the sinuses often drips quietly down the back of the sinuses, mouth and throat, and funnels into the bronchioles. The dripping mucus can tickle the back of the throat and bronchioles and trigger an attempt to expel it out.
Often, the cough is dry because the mucus is too thin to actually muster up a productive cough of any kind. This is a good sign, as all that is typically needed at this stage is lubrication of the nasal sinuses upstream—and this can be accomplished naturally with herbs!
Herbs that lubricate the sinuses will drip into the back of the throat, lubricating and soothing the throat. This can help to prevent thin, reactive mucus from irritating and congesting the bronchioles.
NOTE: When a cough becomes productive (green or yellow), the mucus has accumulated enough to become a breeding ground for bacteria and viruses. It is best to see your medical doctor whenever a cough becomes productive, chronic, or persistent.
A Spring Cough
Here is my favorite quote to shine light on this concept:
“To the extent the sinuses got dried out in the winter is to the extent they will produce reactive mucus in the spring.”
Spring is the time of year when the body is more prone to manufacturing excess mucus. In the same way the earth holds onto more water (mud) in the spring, the body will hold onto more water or mucus. When you add the spring pollen surge, this is a perfect storm of respiratory irritants that can potentially trigger reactive sinus and airway mucus production. The mucus can bog down the respiratory cilia and, before you know it, the immune response is “stuck in traffic.”
Spring mucus production can cause such congestion of the body’s natural respiratory immune response that the body can be forced to initiate a local emergency immune response—this is called a histamine response or an allergy. Typically, once pollen levels drop, the sinuses stop producing reactive mucus, the post-nasal drip stops, and the cough takes care of itself.
Sometimes, however, the sinuses can become hypersensitive to the environment and continue to release mucus, resulting in a persistent cough. In Ayurveda and western herbology, there are useful herbal strategies to help soothe the sinuses, respiratory mucous membranes, and that nagging cough.
NOTE: The following recommendations are not intended to prevent, treat or mitigate serious medical ailments like hay fever, the common cold, flu, or other diseases.
Cough-Soothing Herbal Strategies
The herbs listed and described below are some of the classic herbs used to soothe and protect the respiratory airways as well as help thin and disperse any imbalanced reactive mucus production.
These ingredients are the perfect combination to make up an all-natural, herbal cough syrup, which is why we created an Ayurvedic cough syrup formula called Cough Kicker.* Look for it in our online store.
Wild Cherry Bark
According to A Modern Herbal, by M. Grieve, Wild Cherry Bark (Prunus serotina) is an astringent tonic that helps dry up the mucous membranes. It also relaxes the airways, so the bronchioles are less likely to be triggered into a cough. It has been used to support the health of the bronchioles and lung tissue. (2)
Osha root (Ligusticum porteri) is a perennial herb that was used by Native Americans as a sacred herb to calm coughs, congestion, and a variety of respiratory concerns. Perhaps its most active constituent is the camphor found in the root, which helps open the airways as well as support natural sterols that help the body muster the energy needed to support the respiratory process.
According to the Herbal Materia Medica, thyme (Thymus vulgaris) has been used for thousands of years to support the respiratory airways. (3) In one study, thyme was compared to a placebo and given to study participants with a cough. During a 7-9 day period, coughing fits were reduced by up to a whopping 68%. (4)
Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra) is a classic Ayurvedic herb used worldwide as a natural lubricant for the respiratory airways. Licorice lubricates and soothes the sinuses and airways, which quells the production of reactive mucus. In one study, licorice helped protect the lungs from reactive irritation while also supporting deeper breathing. (5)
According to the Herbal Materia Medica, Grindelia robusta or gumweed was a traditional medicine of California’s Native Chumash Indians. It naturally opens the airways and supports respiratory health. (6)
Slippery Elm Bark
Slippery Elm Bark (Ulmus rubra) may be one of the most effective herbs for the respiratory tract. When the bark is cooked down, it becomes more viscous, allowing it to adhere to the mucous membranes and offer lasting support for the sinuses, throat, and bronchioles. Many Ayurvedic formulas for respiratory health are built around the effectiveness of slippery elm bark. (7,8)
Peppermint (Mentha piperita) is naturally rich in airway-opening menthols. These menthols also help to thin any reactive mucus and, in one study, peppermint was shown to reduce sneezing, nasal rubbing, and nasal leakage in rats. (9)
White Pine Bark
White Pine Bark (Pinus albicaulis) is a natural, supportive herb for the respiratory tract. It contains calming constituents that can help relax the airways and support healthy, deep breathing. (10)
Yerba Santa Leaf
Yerba Santa Leaf (Eriodictyon glutinosum) is an evergreen that supports healthy bronchioles and pulmonary and respiratory function. It has been used traditionally alongside Grindelia robusta. (11)
Ginger (Zingiber officinale) is known in Ayurveda as the “Universal Spice” because it has so many health properties. For coughs, it can thin excess mucus and boost immunity. In one study, fresh ginger was effective at supporting healthy immunity against undesirable microbes in the respiratory tract. (12)
Horehound (Marrubium globosum) is found in almost every herbal formula used to support healthy bronchioles, respiratory and pulmonary function. Naturally rich in menthols, horehound supports the opening of the airways for deeper, more efficient respiration.
Naturally found in many plants like peppermint and horehound, menthol has been studied to help reduce nasal sensitivity, which may result in decreased reactive mucus production and easier breathing. (13)