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 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 corticosteroid is immunosuppressive, suppresses adrenal function (causing skin to bruise easily), decreases bone density, induces hypertension, increases 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 alternative. I have experienced no problems ingesting several drops of sage oil daily, up to 6–8 drops at a time.

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 with ginger, peppermint, or hysssop to counter possible nausea effects. Such doses should definitely not be taken while pregnant or possibly pregnant. It may be more easily found in bulk rather than capsules.

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 relieves congestion. (All of the essential oils can be inhaled instead of or as well as ingested.)

After reading about the Buteyko method (also see Papworth method) of shallow breathing, I have found a version of it to have pretty much eliminated 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 of the deep lungs but not exhaling it out of the body. 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.

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) 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. 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) are very helpful. A Thayers slippery elm throat lozenge at bedtime and on rising helps loosen phlegm.

An excellent supplement is “Breathe!” by MycoMedicinals, a combination of 6 mushrooms: 250 mg cordyceps (Cordyceps sinensis), 250 mg reishi (Ganoderma lucidum), 125 mg artists’ conk (Ganoderma opplamatum), 125 mg maitake (Grifola frondosa), 125 mg oregon polypore (Ganoderma oregonense), and 125 mg zhu ling (Polyporus umbellatus). One capsule twice a day ($30/month) was very effective for maintaining good breathing. Reishi mushroom is the main part of a medically tested formula (see notes page) proven to be as effective as maintenance on steroids (prednisone): 6.3 g Ling-Zhi, Ganoderma lucidum (reishi mushroom); 3 g Ku-Shen, Sophora flavescens or S. angustifolia root (yellow mountain laurel); and 1 g Gan-Cao, Glycyrrhiza uralensis or G. glabra root (licorice) — 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. (Note: mushroom products should include the fruiting body, not, or not just, the mycelium, or whole plant.)

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, except 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:  Morning and night: 6–8 drops of sage oil in tepid water and 752 mg reishi mushroom fruiting body (formerly 2,000 mg: 240 mg fruiting body extract + 1,600 mg whole plant); double the reishi dose at night in winter.

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

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