Herbal Treatment of Asthma
with special attention to sage oil, reishi mushroom, and breathing control

by Eric Rosenbloom

After perusing a 1931 herbal (click here) and learning that common, or dalmatian, sage (Salvia officinalis) is effective against lung congestion, I have been taking drops of sage oil in a glass of water twice a day for my asthma. I have found it to be quite as effective as the expensive inhaled corticosteroid that I had used for years to relieve congestion.

Please note that sage oil should be used in very small amounts, if at all. It should be used with caution, even externally, if other medications and strong herbs are being used. It should probably be avoided by children and before or during pregnancy and nursing. This is the case, of course, for most medicines, including long‑term use of many established asthma treatments. For example, inhaled corticosteroids are immunosuppressive, suppress adrenal function (causing skin to bruise easily), decrease bone density, induce hypertension, increase the risk of cataracts, and in children can inhibit growth. These effects are dose related, so more effective corticosteroids are worse. Modern combination inhalers, such as Advair, warn that it is dangerous to stop once you start using them. It is my experience that sage oil is a safer and healthier alternative. I have experienced no problems ingesting 6–8 drops of sage oil twice daily. Strength (both your body’s and the oil’s) may vary, however. Too high a dose may be indicated by stomach upset or sticky poo. (Six drops of oil (~200 µL, or 0.2 mL) may be equivalent to ~5 tablespoons, or 10 grams, of ground herb.)

Besides inflammation, asthma involves constriction of the bronchial airways, which can be induced by exercise or allergy. Herbs to try for alleviating that spasm include the root of elecampane (Inula helenium) (click here), lobelia (Lobelia inflata) (click here), thyme (Thymus vulgaris), and the seed of field larkspur (Delphinium consolida). One might also try teas made with such antispasmodic herbs as white horehound leaves, chamomile flowers (Anthemis nobilis), anise seeds, coltsfoot leaves (click here), blue hyssop flowers (Hyssopus officinalis), mullein flowers (Verbascum thapsus), and red clover flowers (Trifolium pratense) along with the demulcents liquorice root and marsh mallow root. Any of these may be added to green or black tea during the day.

I have found that a capsule of 50 mg lobelia provides relief from a moderately debilitating exercise-induced asthma attack, allowing me to continue physical work; if continuing to work further aggravates the asthma, another capsule has provided complete relief. Outside in extremely cold weather, however, inhaled albuterol (a.k.a. sambuterol) sometimes remains necessary. (Unlike for corticosteroid, any side-effects from albuterol are immediately evident and transient.) Note that lobelia should not be used in excess, because it can cause vomiting (which is one of its traditional uses). I consider 200 mg a day to be a very safe upper limit. It is often recommended for asthma at 200 mg three times a day to 500 mg two times a day. Take larger doses with ginger, peppermint, or hyssop to counter possible nausea effects. Such doses should definitely not be taken while pregnant or possibly pregnant.

I have found the following also to be effective (separately) in providing immediate relief from chest tightness or a mild asthma attack: drinking 3 to 8 drops of anise/aniseed oil in a glass of water (very tasty), repeated as needed (the aroma can also be inhaled); chewing a pinch or two of anise seeds; red clover tea; chewing a couple of fresh red clover blossoms; rubbing a few drops of lavender oil on the chest; chewing 3 or 4 pinches of thyme. Lobelia extract has failed to provide relief, as has a couple drops of thyme oil (any more burns the mouth too much). Inhaling the aroma of oregano oil (which also burns when taken orally) or thyme oil relieves congestion.

After reading about the Buteyko method (also see Papworth method) of shallow breathing, I have found a version of it to sometimes eliminate the need for “rescue” medication, either albuterol or herbs. The theory is that the bronchial airways are constricted because of too much oxygen, and that increasing the balance of CO₂ will relax them. First of all, you must resist the panic induced by shortness of breath and force yourself to breathe slowly and calmly through the nose and increasingly pausing after exhaling before inhaling again. I have developed a technique of recycling breaths to take in more CO₂: A small inhaled breath is followed by pushing it out but not exhaling it out of the body, which pushes it into the deep lungs. That is followed by further small inhalations and “false” exhalations, again and again until the lungs become completely expanded. All of these breaths are through the nose. If pushing the breath is a problem, just holding it is OK.

Stress and anxiety can itself trigger asthma, and asthma can trigger stress and anxiety. Reactive oxygen species produced by stress contribute to asthma symptoms. Therefore, reduction of stress and taking antioxidants if necessary are helpful. Regular exercises to maintain flexibility and aerobic fitness are also helpful, both physically and psychically.

Vitamin C (500–1,000 mg, with rose hips or bioflavonoids) before bed helps reduce the need to use the inhaled albuterol (or breathing control) during the night, but a synthetic antihistamine (e.g., 4 mg chlorpheniramine maleate), along with a decongestant (e.g., 60 mg pseudoephedrine), also is often necessary. (Histamine is released in response to allergy and acts to open peripheral blood vessels and constrict airways.) Three or four drops of aniseed oil with water along with a capsule of 500 mg nettle leaves (Urtica dioica) (click here) has sometimes eliminated the need for albuterol as well as antihistamine medication. Nettle can lower blood pressure, so use it with caution if that is a concern. Otherwise, I consider 2,500–3,000 mg a day to be quite safe. If you start feeling light-headed or vertiginous, however, use less. Now available in generic form, and therefore much more affordable than formerly, the leukotriene (part of the inflammation response cascade) inhibitor montelukast sodium (originally marketed as Singulair) has been very helpful in reducing my use of albuterol both day and night. I have found that the homeopathic “Outdoor Allergy” tablets by BioAllers work quite well against allergy. Back to asthma before bed, decaffeinated green tea with chamomile is effective but then I have to get up all night to pee. Traditional Medicinals “Breathe Easy” tea is helpful, but likewise not completely. The combination of anise and nettle also relieves tightness when getting up the next morning. Instead of aniseed oil, a capsule of 50 mg lobelia also is effective. Drops of eucalyptus oil in my mustache (or a dab of Vicks Vapo‑Rub or Mentholatum) are very helpful. Sucking on a slippery elm lozenge at bedtime and on rising helps loosen phlegm.

A good supplement is “Breathe” by Host Defense, a combination of 3 mushrooms: two capsules contain 340 mg each of chaga (Inonotus obliquus), cordyceps (Cordyceps militaris), and reishi (Ganoderma lucidum) mycelium. Two capsules twice a day can be very effective for maintaining good breathing. Om also makes a combination called “Breathe", with cordyceps, reishi, chaga, and turkey tail mushrooms. Reishi mushroom is the main part of a medically tested formula (see notes page) proven to be as effective as maintenance on steroids (prednisone): 1.2 g of Ling‑Zhi (Ganoderma lucidum, reishi mushroom), Ku‑Shen (Sophora flavescens or S. angustifolia root, yellow mountain laurel), and Gan‑Cao (Glycyrrhiza uralensis or G. glabra root, licorice) extracts in a 20:9:3 ratio — taken 3 times a day. Reishi mushroom and licorice root are readily available separately in capsules. I have found reishi mushroom alone to be remarkably effective, especially with the addition of chaga at night. (Note: mushroom products should include the fruiting body as well as, or even instead of, the mycelium. Their potency is determined mainly by the percentage of β‑glucans, which are a subset of the percentage of polysaccharides. Spores (which must be cracked) may contribute more triterpenes. Raw reishi cannot be digested, so it must be extracted, not ground.)

(Other mushrooms that have been investigated for treating asthma include Inonotus obliquus (chaga), Trametes versicolor (turkey tail), Ganoderma tsugae (hemlock reishi), Lignosus rhinocerotis (tiger milk mushroom), Cordyceps militaris, Agaricus subrufescens (or blazei, brasiliensis, or rufotegulis; almond mushroom), Grifola gargal, Mycoleptonoides aitchisonii, Boletus edulis (porcini), and Geastrum saccatum (rounded earthstar).)

Also, I have switched from coffee (which is often recommended for asthma) to tea, at least in the afternoon, because of the higher levels of the smooth-muscle relaxant (thus, bronchodilator) theophylline. I drink a “bowl” or two of green tea (black would do just as well, but it contains lower levels of antioxidants) in the morning and another in the afternoon, which has dramatically reduced the periodic need for inhaled albuterol through the day and into the night. According to U.K. government analysis, theophylline levels are not lower in decaffeinated tea. (Decaffeinate tea yourself by pouring out the water after 45 seconds and replacing it with fresh water; up to 80% of the caffeine will be gone.) At this quantity, organic tea should be used, because tea is normally a very highly pesticided crop. Organic tea is affordable in bulk at health food stores and food co‑ops. I use 3–4 parts green tea and 1 part black (Irish or English Breakfast blends well) to get a very satisfying brew.

“Chai”-spiced tea is even more effective in keeping asthma at bay during the day. Celestial Seasonings’ “Original India Spice” seems better than others I’ve tried, possibly because it is the only one that contains anise seed. Black pepper is also probably a key ingredient for the beneficial effect in asthma. It would be simple enough to concoct your own mixture to add to regular tea: Besides anise and black pepper, chai also usually includes cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, and ginger and may also contain chicory, fennel, and nutmeg as well as other spices. “Breathe Deep” tea from Yogi Teas is a very good herbal tea for maintaining asthma relief. Adding green tea to a medicinal tea works well.

My current regimen: 

(besides other supporting measures as described above):
sage oil in tepid water: 6–8 drops twice a day
chaga mushroom extract: once a day (at night), e.g., Natures Elements 10:1 extract 1,000 mg (30% polysaccharides)

reishi mushroom extract: twice a day (three times a day when necessary (e.g., in seasons of stress)), possible doses:

capsules:
—(Nature’s Answer) 240 mg fruiting body extract (10% polysaccharides) + 1,600 mg whole plant
—(Nature’s Way) 752 mg fruiting body (10% polysaccharides)
—(Mushroom Wisdom) 800 mg fruiting body + 80 mg vitamin C
—(Swanson) 800 mg fruiting body (15% polysaccharides) + 200 mg spores
—(NFH) 500 mg (40% polysaccharides; 30% β‑glucans)
—(NFH) 200 mg reishi (40% polysaccharides/30% β‑glucans), 200 mg maitake (40%/40%), 200 mg shiitake (40%/25%), + 200 mg Trametes versicolor (yun zhi, i.e., turkey tail; 55%/50%)

powder:
—(Primal Herb) 746 mg fruiting body (30% polysacchrides; 20–25% β‑glucans) + 746 mg spores + 8 mg black pepper (Piper nigrum; 10% piperine; increases bioavailability of the reishi)

liquid:
—(Swanson) 1 g fruiting body



Articles from A Modern Herbal (1931):  ButterburColtsfootElecampaneHoneysucklesLobeliaCommon NettleCommon SageHerb Beers.

Click here for notes on herbal treatment of asthma from other sources.


Document created April 10, 2012; latest update October 25, 2021