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 slowly 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 it is often not too complicated. First, we need to understand the cough and then, when possible, dodge it.
Winter is nature’s cold and dry season, which often manifests in the body as dry skin, sinuses, and throat.
Thankfully, nature has a plan to protect delicate respiratory mucus membranes during harsh winter months. The plan is a harvest of warming, high-fat, and high-protein foods, with 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 summer. These fall-winter microbes help ignite digestion, boost internal heat, and strengthen the immunity we desperately need each winter.1
Unfortunately, not many of us eat foods that provide the winter insulation, moisture, and seasonal microbes, so, inevitably, we miss out on the digestive boost and immune protection that nature intended for us. The result: our airways dry out!
The more we breathe dry winter air, the drier the immune-activating small cilia (sweeping projections) in the airways become. Dryness irritates the mucous membranes, which signals them to make more mucus and, in short order, the nose begins to run. Cue sniffles.
Thin, reactive mucus of the sinuses often drips quietly down the back of the sinuses, mouth, and throat, and funnels into the bronchioles. Dripping mucus can tickle the back of the throat and bronchioles and trigger an attempt to expel it out.
Often, coughs are dry because the mucus is too thin to muster up a productive cough. 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 grease the sinuses will drip into the back of throat, lubricating and soothing. This can help to prevent thin, reactive mucus from irritating and congesting the bronchioles.
NOTE: When cough becomes productive (green or yellow), mucus has accumulated enough to become a breeding ground for bacteria and viruses. It’s best to see your medical doctor whenever a cough becomes productive, chronic, or persistent.
A Spring Cough
Here is my favorite saying to shine light on this concept:
The extent to which the sinuses dried out in the winter is the extent to which they will produce reactive mucus in the spring.
Spring is the time when we’re more prone to manufacture 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. This 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 natural respiratory immune response that the body can be forced to initiate a local emergency immune response—this is called a histamine response or allergy. Typically, once pollen levels drops, sinuses stop producing reactive mucus, post-nasal drip stops, and the cough takes care of itself.
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Sometimes, however, 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 strategies to help soothe the sinuses, respiratory mucus 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 described below are classic for soothing and protecting respiratory airways, as well as helping to thin and disperse any imbalanced reactive mucus.
These ingredients are the perfect combination to make up an all-natural, herbal cough syrup, which is why we created an Ayurvedic formula called Cough Kicker.
Wild Cherry Bark
According to A Modern Herbal by Maud Grieve, Wild Cherry Bark (Prunus serotina) is an astringent tonic that helps dry up mucus membranes. It also relaxes airways, so bronchioles are less likely to be triggered into a cough. It has been used to support health of bronchioles and lung tissue.2
Osha root (Ligusticum porteri) is a perennial 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 airways, as well as support natural sterols that help the body muster 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 respiratory airways.3 In one study, thyme was compared to a placebo and given to 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 lubricant for respiratory airways. Licorice lubricates and soothes sinuses and airways, which quells the production of reactive mucus. In one study, licorice helped protect 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 mucous membranes and offer lasting support for sinuses, throat, and bronchioles. Many Ayurvedic formulas for respiratory health are built around the effectiveness of slippery elm bark.7,8
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Peppermint (Mentha piperita) is naturally rich in airway-opening menthols. These menthols also help to thin 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 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.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 opening of 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
As we transition into spring, would you like to support a cough- and sneeze-free experience? Go to nature’s medicine cabinet to try out some of these herbs, or find them all together in LifeSpa’s Cough Kicker.
Have you tried it yourself? Let us know how it’s going in the comments below.