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Herbs For Respiratory Health: Mullien, Marshmallow Root, Ginger, and more

This is a wonderful article by Redroot Mountain, a school of botanical medicine, that outlines exactly how I like to use herbs this time of year, when coughs, pneumonia, sore throats, and flu viruses are seeming to win over the majority of the population. This is the link for the full article:

Herbs for Acute Respiratory Illness

(Note: These recommendations are for acute illness. If you have a chronic lung condition, please seek the advice of a trained practitioner or physician.)

Before the leaves turn and fall, the first little tickle begins in the throat, and a cough erupts. The season for respiratory illness is here. While the country struggles to understand what conventional cough remedies are effective and safe, I make the point that plant medicines are not only safe and effective, but easy to use as well.

The nature of a cough is to protect the lungs. It is a defense mechanism of the body to expectorate mucus and keep the lungs clear. The problem is how disruptive and irritating it can become. Sleep and relaxation that is needed to allow the body to recover from illness is constantly interrupted. And pain is caused or made worse. A cough with too much irritation can also cause inflammation and extreme amounts of mucus, thus interfering with breathing. In cases of croup, pneumonia, or bronchitis, to name a few, this is not only scary, but life threatening.

That being said, it is important to monitor and manage coughs. In this article I will map out instructions on how to use plant medicines to manage coughs, and diminish the level of irritation they produce so that your body can rest and recover.

Approach of Natural Treatment for Acute Respiratory Illness

When treating a cough, a good overall formula must cover multiple bases. Suppressing the cough is not enough. It should include plants that are demulcent (sooth mucus membranes) and decrease inflammation, stimulate innate immunity, act as an anti-spasmodic to control the frequency and severity of the cough, and support the body in expectorating and balancing the amount of mucus produced.

The plants chosen must also be appropriate for the condition. For example, is the cough wet and productive, or dry and irritating? Is there pain, or inflammation accompanied by trouble breathing? Is it a lower respiratory infection or an upper respiratory infection? Is the infection viral or bacterial?

If you can answer these basic questions, you have the ability to choose plants that are specific to your needs. This way you will be met with greater therapeutic success.

Materia medica: The Plant List

Many plants can be used for respiratory illnesses, colds and flus. The following Materia medica includes herbs that I will focus on in this article. Remember that these plants have multiple uses beyond what is stated here. My description will be on the applicable topic.

Echinacea (Echinacea pupurea or angustifolia): a lymphatic herb that stimulates the body’s innate ability to fight off acute illness by increasing white blood cell count, and killer T-cells; also strengthens healthy cell integrity and increases macrophage count (immune cells located in the liver and lymphatic system) that help the body deal with waste produced by the body’s fight against the illness.

Ginger (Zingerber offician): stimulates blood flow, warming and stimulating expectorant, anti-viral action.

Hyssop (Hyssopus officinalis): anti-viral especially effective against herpes and flu, carminative, diaphoretic, colds, flu, delayed menses, intestinal viruses.

Licorice root (Glycerhiza glabbra): expectorant, antiviral, demulcent (soothes mucus membranes) and anti-inflammatory.

Lobelia (Lobelia inflate): native to the United States and used by the Native Americans; antispasmodic to the lungs, taken in very small amounts (5-15 drops of tincture); I use 2-4 drop doses with my 3 and 6 year old; appropriate in cases of bronchitis, asthma, pertussis, croup…I use this a lot.

Marshmallow root (Althea officinalis): my favorite demulcent for very dry coughs-it works very quickly; anti-inflammatory; great for croup, where a dry and irritated larynx and throat is the underlying cause of the inflammation.

Mullein leaf (Verbascum thapsis): demulcent, expectorant, and anti-inflammatory; considered a lung tonic, as it restores the integrity of the mucus membranes in the respiratory tract; not the fastest worker, and is best used with other demulcents in the case of a dry cough, but supports long term health of mucus membranes.

Plantain (Plantago major): demulcent, speeds healing of mucus membranes, anti-inflammatory.

Skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora): when a spastic cough does not respond to an anti-spasmodic that addresses the muscle spasm, such as wild cherry bark, skullcap calms the nerve responsible for that muscle spasm, thus stopping the cough-a very important plant to have around! Use it in combination with other anti-spasmodics.

Thyme (Thymus vulgaris): anti-bacterial, damp coughs, colds, flu, digestive complications associated with viral or bacterial infections, mild expectorant.

Wild cherry bark (Prunus, spp.): Bronchial antispasmodic (works to decrease frequency of the cough); effective with chest colds, bronchitis, pneumonia, pertussis, and croup; also effective for spasms of the diaphragm, which is one of the muscles of the respiratory tract.

Yerba santa (Eriodictyon californicum): powerful antiseptic and antispasmodic; used for cold wet lung conditions; specifically for bronchitis or pneumonia.

Making the Medicines

Formulating for coughs takes practice, and as you see, there are many considerations and options. If you are too overwhelmed to do it yourself, you can use a sample formula given here. There are products at natural food stores available as well. Two products I like are by Gaia Herbs, and are formulated by Mary Bove for kids. There is a formula for wet coughs, and one for dry coughs. They both work very well, and I have taken them myself in a pinch.

But keep in mind that by making your own medicines, you save a lot of money, and have the ability to choose plants that are specific to you, which delivers the best results. I recommend having bulk herbs, honey and glass jars on hand. This way you are ready when the time comes.

Making the medicines is fairly easy. For the formulas that follow, put the measurements of plants recommended into the water. Bring the plants and the water to a boil, turn the heat down, and let sit to steep for 15 minutes. Strain, add honey and store in glass mason jars. The amount of honey used depends on your taste. I add about ¼ – ½ cup of honey per quart of water. Roots take longer, and where applicable, I will give instructions.

To store, you may keep the jar out of the fridge in a cool dry place for about a week without fermentation. The jar can also be kept in the fridge, but the preference is to use the formula at room temperature. If there is any left over after the illness has passed, freeze it for the next time. Remember to label and date everything.

Three things I always have in the freezer to be used separately are ginger syrup, garlic syrup, and marshmallow root tea, which is very thick. To make the garlic syrup, peel, and cut up 4 pods of garlic. Let the garlic sit in the open air for 15 minuets before adding to a quart of cold water. This process of oxidation preserves the chemical constituents of garlic that are anti-viral and anti-bacterial. Bring the garlic to a boil, and then turn the flame low. Let steep for 30 minutes. Strain, and add ½ cup of honey. Use about a tablespoon 3-6 times daily. The ginger and marshmallow root can be made the same way, eliminating the 15-minute oxidation process.

There is a specific reason the marshmallow root should not be put into other herbal formulas. There is some concern that it interferes with the absorption of the other plants, because it is such a powerful demulcent. It is worth the extra step. I give marshmallow root tea in does of 1-2 tablespoons about 5 minutes after the main formula is taken.

General dosage guidelines for the formulas bellow are 2-3 tablespoons, 4-6 times daily. Do this as long as symptoms persist, plus a few days.

Sample Formulas

Formulas for wet and dry coughs are quite general, and can be modified for specific illnesses.

A starter Wet Cough Formula is 1 oz. each of the following dried plants: yerba santa, wild cherry bark, thyme, ginger, and mullein leaf, and ¼ oz. of lobelia. Add this to 2 quarts of water and follow instructions above. For a Dry Cough Formula, take 1 oz. each of licorice root, ginger, wild cherry bark, and plantain. Since roots take longer, add the licorice and ginger to a quart and a half of water, bring to a boil, and then turn low. Let steep for 15 minuets. Add the other plants, and let steep over low heat 20 minutes. Use this for severe dry coughs in combination with marshmallow root tea.

Croup is a virus that affects mostly children, and causes an inflammation of the larynx. It can be fatal, for if the larynx swells shut, air cannot pass into the lungs. Working with croup means lessening irritation, inflammation, using anti-virals, and keeping the child calm. The virus that causes croup only lasts 48 hours, and is often accompanied by a cold. Unfortunately, in our family we have a lot of experience working with croup. The beauty of that is we also have great strategies and success using natural remedies in dealing with it. I recommend avoiding herbs that dry, or are heating and stimulating for 48 hours. Use garlic syrup. A good formula is 1 oz. each of dried licorice root, wild cherry bark, and mullein leaf, with ¼ oz. lobelia. Follow instructions from above using a quart of water. Marshmallow root tea is a gift here, and should be used liberally. After 48 hours, add ginger to the mix.

Bronchitis is an infection that causes inflammation of the mucosal lining of the bronchial tubes. It begins as a viral infection of the upper respiratory tract, and moves deeper into the lungs. The cough is harsh and painful at first, and eventually becomes less painful with easier expectoration. Cold and flu symptoms may cause discomfort as well. A formula for Tight and Dry Cough: grindelia, licorice, thyme, mullein leaf, lobelia, ginger. Add 1 oz. each of grindelia, licorice, thyme, mullein leaf, 2 oz. of ginger, and ½ oz. of lobelia and 1 ½ quarts of water. Use method that allows extra cook time for roots. Marshmallow root tea is also helpful in this stage. Formula for Wet and Over productive: elecampane, pleurisy root, licorice root, lobelia, wild cherry bark. Use 1 oz. of each plant, and ¼ oz. of lobelia, to 1 ½ quarts of water.

In cases of bronchitis there is also a need for a bronchodilator. I have had great success at home and with clients using coffee. It is not only effective in adults, but also with children who have RSV, a bronchial infection. Children ages 1-3, can take 1 teaspoon to 2 tablespoons as needed. It works well to increase air passage to the lungs. I have seen these kids recuperate quicker, and be better able to eat and drink as well. For kids over 3, 1-2 tablespoons as needed, and for adults, be your own judge, but don’t over do it. You want to rest, not be over stimulated by caffeine.

For colds and flu, a nice general Warming Formula for Respiratory Infection is ginger, echinacea, elderberry, sage (if wet with throat irritation), thyme, and mullein leaf. I add extra ginger in this one.


  • I cough up lots of mucus and I cough lots ,my throat get dry and feel like something in it, I must drink water to clear it ,I take a cough candy called Ricola .

    James Larocque
  • I’ve read that marshmallow root should not be used within a half-hour or so of others (use first). I have had COPD (stable, usually) 22+ yrs and am recovering from an Acute Exacerbation (AECOPD) “as we speak.”

  • Dear Cameron, I enjoyed your article. I am struggling right now with several health issues. One is chronic insomnia. When I take a small amount of marshmallow root it clears up my lungs and I can sleep a little bit I also have SIBO and it seems to feed the bad bacteria. So my SIBO problem is worse… is there a product close to marshmallow root that will not worsen SIBO….
    thank you Jeanette Guel

    Jeanette Guel
  • Lovely recipes. Do you have any formulations for congestive lungs. I suffer with COPD and I have a number if herbs but I am not sure how to combine them. It’s a combination of leaves e.g. Muelin and roots e.g. marshmallow, and barks e.g. slippery elm. Thanks


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