Podcast 168: Herbalism & Climate Change: Fires

This is #3 in our series on herbalism & climate change! Fires are most devastating where they occur, but the smoke and particulates they release into the air affects vast areas of space. So it’s good for all of us to be aware of the problem and have practical solutions to protect ourselves.

In addition to practical DIY methods for improving air quality in the home, herbs can be very helpful. Some of the herbal actions & specific herbs discussed in this episode include:

  • gentle herbs for steaming – chamomile, lavender, mint
  • demulcent herbs to protect mucous membranes and maintain hydration – marshmallow, mullein, linden, violet, fennel, licorice, pleurisy root, purslane, okra
  • expectorants to get mucous out of the lungs – mullein, horehound, hyssop, elecampane
  • respiratory relaxants for tense lungs & constricted airways – fennel, mullein, lobelia
  • nervine herbs to cope with the stress of fires – lobelia, blue vervain, linden, hawthorn, goldenrod
  • adaptogens for long-term stress resilience – codonopsis, jiaogulan, goji, reishi

Whether you’re in a fire path or affected by the drifting smoke & particulates already, or worried this is on the horizon, these herbs can help. But they’ll only be helpful if you have them on hand, prepared & ready to go – and know how to work with them! – when you need them. So planning, preparing, and learning ahead of time is critical.

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Episode Transcript

Katja (00:00:14):
Hi, I’m Katja.

Ryn (00:00:16):
And I’m Ryn.

Katja (00:00:17):
And we’re here at Commonwealth Holistic Herbalism in Boston, Massachusetts.

Ryn (00:00:20):
And on the internet everywhere, thanks to the power of the podcast. Yeah. Okay. We’re going to continue our series on herbalism and climate change. And this week we’re going to be talking about fires and smoke.

Katja (00:00:32):
Yeah. There’s a lot of that going on.

Ryn (00:00:34):
Yeah. This year, last year, next year. It’s been what’s up.

Katja (00:00:39):
Yeah, I think forever now.

Ryn (00:00:42):
So, before we jump right in, let us just give you a reclaimer where we remind you that we’re not doctors. We’re herbalists and holistic health educators.

Katja (00:00:49):
The ideas discussed in this podcast do not constitute medical advice. No state or federal authority licenses herbalists in the United States. So, these discussions are for educational purposes only.

Ryn (00:01:01):
We want to remind you that good health doesn’t mean the same thing for everyone. Good health doesn’t exist as an objective standard. It’s influenced by your individual needs, experiences, and goals. So, we’re not trying to present a dogmatic right way that you should adhere to.

Katja (00:01:15):
Everybody’s body is different. So, the things that we’re talking about may or may not apply directly to you. But we hope that they’ll give you some good information to think about, and some ideas to research further.

Ryn (00:01:25):
Finding your way to better health is both your right and your own personal responsibility. This doesn’t mean you’re alone on the journey. But it does mean that the final decision when considering any course of action, whether that’s discussed on the internet or prescribed by a physician, is always yours to make. All right.

Katja (00:01:41):
All right. You know, I feel like in the media coverage, when I look at my journal last year, the fires were getting a lot of media coverage. And this year it seems like there’s more fires and less coverage. As if we’ve just sort of all said well, yeah. I guess the west is on fire again.

Ryn (00:02:01):
The new normal has become normal.

Katja (00:02:02):
Yeah, very quickly. But this is a really onerous thing to have get through. You know, it’s dark. It’s smoky. It’s hot. And also, even if you don’t live in a fire region, you are probably being affected by it. I know this year we didn’t have… we had this some last year. But way more this year, we here on the east coast are having very high particulate and very high smoke quantities, like air quantities. So, even though we’re not experiencing the fires, we still need to be thinking about protecting our bodies and supporting our bodies as we deal with the smoke.

Ryn (00:02:53):
Yeah. You can see it as a haze in the air. You can see it in the absolutely beautiful sunsets that have been happening lately.

Katja (00:03:00):
Yeah. Sunrises too. They’re stunningly gorgeous, but it’s this weird beauty born of this destruction. It’s strange and poetic in a weird way and yeah.

Ryn (00:03:16):
Yeah. So wildfires, right? There’s the fire itself, and then there’s all that particulate, that smoke getting into the air and becoming more of the long-term problem. If we look at this issue from the kind of herbalist perspective and thinking about energetics, we see heat. We see dryness both in the fire itself, but also in the way that particulate is going to impact our bodies and especially our respiratory systems. When we breathe in higher levels of particulate you know, of whatever particle size, that’s going to cause an irritation. It’s going to dry up some of our fluids or kind of like form a thick, stuck kind of a mucus in the respiratory tract and in the lungs that is a dry phase kind of a presentation. And generate inflammation there as well. So, you know, what’s happening in your lungs is pretty much the same as what’s happening in the air around us.

Katja (00:04:08):
You know, and also when we think about that mucous membrane in the respiratory tract, that is a critical part of immune function actually. Having that mucous membrane healthy and strong and in that kind of Goldilocks position, right? Like we want just enough snot, and we want it to be just the right consistency. Not too thin and drippy, not too thick and pasty. And that protects us from viruses and bacteria and stuff. So, we also need to be thinking about the impact on immune health of the wildfires, just simply because it’s compromising our first line of defense: those barriers that make it very difficult for pathogens to get into our bodies at all.

Ryn (00:04:53):
Yeah. Fortunately herbs can help out with all of those efforts.

Katja (00:04:56):

Mitigating Exposure to Smoke Particulate

Ryn (00:04:56):
But actually, let’s get started first with some practical tips. And these are some things that you can do to mitigate the exposure to the particulate, especially in the home.

Katja (00:05:08):
Right. And if you’re in the west coast, and you’ve been through a couple of years of these fires already, then maybe you know these things. But if you are in a not fire area, and you’re dealing with the smoke from the fires that’s being carried in the weather streams, or if you’re in a new fire area, like a place that hasn’t burned recently, but as the fire areas are expanding now you are impacted, then these will be new suggestions for you. New things to include into your sort of daily life.

Ryn (00:05:43):
Yeah. I guess the first one would be to say if you have any air filtration devices already, including air conditioners, that’s a great time to clean and vacuum those filters. Make sure that they’re working at optimal efficiency.

Katja (00:05:56):
Yeah. And if you’re in a fire zone, you may need to do that even daily, especially if there’s an active fire. They fill up with particulate really fast. So, keep an eye on them. They’re not protecting you if they’re so full of gunk that, you know, things aren’t working right. Plus if they’re really full of gunk, and this is the filter on your air conditioning for example, then that is causing your air conditioner to really struggle, like to work much harder, and to use more energy. So, keeping those filters clean also means that you will require less electricity to run whatever: the air conditioner, the fan, the filtration unit.

Ryn (00:06:37):
Yeah. But, you know, similar to when we were discussing heat waves, we were talking about having a cool room in the house, and like devoting your environmental controls to a smaller space rather than trying to keep the entire house cool. To say all right, this is going to be the cool air room. We’re going to go in there when we need a break or spend the hot parts of the day in that space. Something similar can be done here. You can set up a, maybe not clean air, but cleaner air room to be where you spend the majority of your time, you and your family and pets and everybody. And so that may be a room that has an air conditioner in it, especially if it’s a hot day too, or just an air filter that works well. And that you can kind of sequester off from the rest of the house.

Katja (00:07:27):
Yeah. That actually is a really good point. Because we see the pictures of the wildfire areas, and they’re dark and red and orange and smoky. And then you have to remember, it’s also 95 degrees, right? It’s not just the one, it’s both of them together. So, if you have an air conditioning unit that is like a window unit, then it’s going to be really important also to seal that up very, very well. You know, normally maybe we just sort of put the air conditioner in the window, and kind of like pull the little things to the side, the little accordion things. Yeah. But then like there’s a crack and whatever. We’re like oh, probably no bugs will get in too much. And then we just sort of leave it. But when we’re dealing with smoke then we really do want to get the whole area all around the window really plugged up. And honestly in this room, in this like cleaner air room, tape the windows. It’s kind of annoying or whatever. But especially if your house is older, and the windows maybe are less efficient. In the space where the windows open – like if you have a double hung window at a two pane you know, one goes up and the other stays up – then that space has a crack where air will come through. There’s all kinds of different areas around the window where air will come through. So, while are sort of air tightening your air conditioner unit, go ahead and do that to the other windows in the room as well.

Ryn (00:09:03):
Yeah. You know, if you have a standalone, like a HEPA filtration device for the air, that’s great. If you have that, if you can run that, do it. This is the time. That’s great. If you don’t have one, you can actually DIY something kind of similar with a box fan and some filters that are kind of designed for a furnace or for an HVAC system. These kind of square you know, filters that are about the same size as a kind of standard box fan. So, you know, I won’t go through describing it, but you can check it out on YouTube. Just like DIY box fan filter. And there’s a couple of different ways to do it. Either like flat against the surface of the thing, or kind of making like a triangular arrangement with some cardboard and a lot of tape to seal it in. So, they can work out. They can be helpful, and again, quite inexpensive to get the pieces. If you do that, you just want to make sure that you again have the ability to change those filters somewhat regularly. To check them, vacuum them, otherwise to maintain good function there. Okay. At the same time a humidifier might make this room more comfortable. You know, if you’re running an AC or just an air filter itself, kind of being sequestered in there the air can get dried out. It’s going to be tending that direction anyway when there’s a lot of smoke in the air. So having a little humidifier there could be making it more comfy.

Katja (00:10:38):
Yeah. And again, you know, this super dry environment is drying out all your mucous membranes. So, providing a little bit of ambient moisture is more pleasant.

Ryn (00:10:52):
Yeah. If it gets really bad or if there are things you need to do in the non cleaner air rooms of the house, then it might be time to wear a respirator or to wear an N95 mask even indoors. Not fun, but especially if there are people who’ve had compromised lung issues in the past or currently or ongoing, then this is a good idea. Get that extra layer of filtration between you and the world.

Katja (00:11:18):
Yeah. I mean it sort of feels weird to wear a mask like that inside the home, especially after we’ve all been doing COVID. And like in the house was maybe your safe place where you didn’t have to wear a mask. But homes are not air tight. And the crud that’s in the air from these fires they still get in. So, it might make you more comfortable to, to have one on. And maybe you don’t notice it with every single breath, but they add up. So, it can really be helpful. You know, another practical solution here, and this kind of goes against the kind of predominant culture in the United States, but try to make plans to leave early when there are evacuation warnings. Even before there’s an evacuation order, try to leave when there’s just a warning. Because the fires are getting stronger, and they’re getting more voracious. And if we can get out of the way of the firefighters, that’s going to make it a lot easier for them to do their jobs. So, to the extent that you’re able, make a plan before the fires start to protect your home as best as possible. And then go stay with family elsewhere, or friends, or whatever you can do that is affordable and accessible to you. But the sooner that we can get out of the way… You know, a lot of times these fires move really fast. And part of dealing with extreme climate and just natural disaster in general is being prepared ahead of time. And so, you know, sometimes it’s unpleasant to think about evacuation. And again, you know, we sort of like give hero stories to people who are like I stuck it out. I stayed through it. I, you know, whatever. And so it can be uncomfortable to do that kind of planning ahead of time, because we don’t want to admit that maybe that is going to be necessary. That can be scary. But it pays off. It pays off to do that planning ahead of time. And then to just get out of the way so that the people who are trying to keep the land safe and our homes safe can do that work without having to worry about us in the way as well.

Ryn (00:13:44):
Yeah. All right

Planning for Pets & Kids

Katja (00:13:45):
Also, you know, in our, in our outline here, we’re going to sort of talk about pets next. And in that planning it’s important to remember that emergency evacuation shelters usually don’t take pets. So, if you’re a person with pets it’s even more important to think ahead about getting out early and having a place to go. Because if you’re at the last minute and you have to go to an emergency shelter, then you might not be allowed to take your pets with you.

Ryn (00:14:20):
Yeah. All right. But let’s say that you’re not in the path of an actual fire itself, but just dealing with the smoke. You’ve got pets in the house. You’re trying to take care of them. So, a couple of things that we can do. If we can reduce their activity level, that will help just basically to slow down their breathing rates and the amount that they’re circulating there.

Katja (00:14:39):
Yeah. Because pets are not very willing to wear masks.

Ryn (00:14:43):
No. Yeah, no way. You know, we can actually get a little help with that from herbs like chamomile. Our dog is a fairly active critter and likes to run around a lot. And if there are times when we just need to be more still and quiet, then we can give her some chamomile in her food, and that helps to calm her down. For cats you might you might give them some catnip. They’ll run around a little bit at first, but then they tend to settle down and purr and spend a lot more time just in that relaxed state than they might otherwise, especially perhaps a kitten. So, you know, trying to encourage them to be calm, to be still, to be restful during that time is going to be helpful.

Katja (00:15:26):
If you also have children, then this could be a two for one. Because you can help your kids know that it will be easier for your pets to breathe and stay calm if someone is scritching them. And that’s a great job for a kid.

Ryn (00:15:46):
Definitely trying to keep them in that cleaner air room if possible. Or if there’s another area in the house where they can be, and they can rest, and there’s less exposure to the smoky air itself. Then that’s going to be a big benefit for them.

Katja (00:16:01):
And then other ideas with children here, beyond just scritching the pets to keep everybody still. You can get a kiddo to wear a mask. But the thing is that normal masks and respirators – normal, whatever, like the ones you would buy for yourself – are not necessarily going to fit a kid. And when we’re talking about smoke, you know, it’s kind of the same as COVID. You need a tight fit of your mask in order for it really to be effective. So we need to get kids’ sized masks, or make kid-sized size masks, whichever you’re working with. But you know, chamomile helps with kids too. If we can keep everyone calm and sort of quiet, then everyone is breathing a little slower, a little more relaxed. And that’s going to help in this situation. So lots of chamomile, lots of catnip, lots of basically whatever tea they like. You can put some tulsi in there too, just to keep everybody in a better mood. And in our current culture when we need kids to sit still then often we turn to the iPad or the phone or whatever, because there’s kind of an endless amount of stuff in there to keep them entertained and to keep them occupied. But a lot of families would prefer to limit media consumption. And I think that’s a very healthy idea. So, why not consider audio books that the whole family will enjoy, and then concurrently some art projects. You know, you can even incorporate art into whatever they’re doing at school. You know, if they’re doing something in history, let’s write a comic strip about it. If they are doing something in biology, let’s draw it. Let’s find examples and practice drawing it. Whatever is going on we can turn that into art. And sometimes art can hold a kid’s attention better than other things like homework, especially if they have a nice story to listen to while they’re doing it.

Moistening with Herbal Steams & Demulcents

Ryn (00:18:21):
Yeah. All right. And then we’ve got some herbal supports that can help out here. So the first one is herbs that we can do a steam with. But these are going to be somewhat gentler than the kind of herbs that we choose to do a steam when we’re trying to fight off a respiratory infection. You know, for that we often talk about thyme or monarda or oregano or plants like this that have very strong, sharp, kind of hot aromatic profiles. But for this purpose where we’ve been breathing in some particulate, some smoke. The lungs are irritated. They’re dry. There’s a hot state in there. We don’t really want those very sharp, hot aromatic plants. We want some things that are a little more gentle. Like chamomile makes a great steam. Lavender makes a good steam here also. And then mint, you know, peppermint or spearmint. If you have mountain mint around, you know, things like this can make a really nice steam. The menthol is going to be soothing and relaxing to the lung tissue. And really that’s an aspect you get with the lavender and the chamomile as well is that relaxation of tense tissues. And between that effect of the herb, and the moisture of the steam itself, this can be very soothing to irritated dried out lungs. And it can also help with kind of motivating or helping to eliminate that kind of particulate that has accumulated and formed a thicker, heavier kind of a mucus layer in the respiratory tract as well. To thin that out and make it easier for you to expectorate.

Katja (00:19:59):
Right. Even just the warm steam itself can… Like if you run out of herbs or if you’re just sort of tired of having herbs in the mix, even just that warm steam. Breathing it deep down into the respiratory tract, but also letting it get up into the sinuses, can really help to loosen that stuck pasty crud – that is sort of your snot and the smoke all mixed together – and help that get out of the body. And you can do that as often as you need to. Even with something like chamomile, it’s gentle. You can do a chamomile steam all day long. You could put catnip into this category as well. And then you’re getting that same relaxing action from the chamomile, from the catnip, as you are also clearing out your sinuses and respiratory tract.

Ryn (00:20:52):
Yeah. So moistening is going to be a theme here. So, next we can talk about demulcent herbs. These are plants that help to restore hydration status very generally, very systemically in the body. But they also have a particular effect on the mucous membranes, where they help to encourage fluid movement to them and through them. And because of that, they help to protect and to restore the healthy function or the integrity of those mucous membranes. So, these are really critical when we’re dealing with smoke inhalation. Kind of the most classic one is going to be marshmallow. We can work with the root. We can work with the leaves as well. But marshmallow is a very archetypal demulcent plant, you know. And with this plant, and with these others we’ll talk about as well, when you want to get a sense of what they’re really doing, a good way is to make a cold water infusion. Room temperature or cool water. Put the herb into there, and let that steep and infuse for several hours. And you’ll observe that the water becomes a little thicker, a little more viscous. And when you drink it or even feel it, it has a kind of a smooth, slippery kind of a texture to it. And so when you drink that it’s immediately soothing to the throat and to your stomach as well. But that same kind of sensation that you can feel in your mouth is also going to be happening in the lungs. It’s sort of a reflex effect. The body responds to these herbs by saying oh, great. I’ve got more fluid now. I can direct some to the mucous membranes in the lungs as well. And I know that I’ve got what I need to get that. So, there’s a little direct stimulation of that kind of reaction.

Katja (00:22:46):
You know, marshmallow is an herb that honestly, I mean, just drink it all day in these kinds of situations. But I got to say, it’s not enthusiastically delicious. It’s not like offensively untasty. But it’s not a tea that you’re going to, or an infusion that you’re going to, feel like wow. I can’t wait to drink my marshmallow. You might physiologically feel that way, but taste-wise you may not be wildly excited about it. And so definitely put in whatever you need to make it tasty. Whether that’s some honey, or even better some herb infused honey. You know, just basil in particular or any of the berries, or catnip, or honestly, anything you like that you have fresh. Some nice lemon balm could be good. Honey has a moistening action all on its own. And the marshmallow root, it does have a sweetness. We don’t necessarily recognize it as sweetness, because it is not sweet the way that other things are sweet that we have in our culture, in our sort of taste palate. But it has a sweetness. And when you add honey, then it really pushes it in that direction. But cinnamon is one of my favorite additions to marshmallow to make it taste more exciting. And okay, cinnamon is pretty warming. But if you make a cold infusion with the cinnamon and the marshmallow together, the cinnamon also gets that demulcent sliminess. And so you have the warming flavor, but you really have that moistening action as well. And now the flavor is totally cinnamony and much more exciting to drink.

Ryn (00:24:39):
Yeah. I like marshmallow root together with fennel, a little bit of licorice as well. Both of those herbs have a demulcent quality to them. And they definitely have that sweet aspect of flavor. And that contributes to their moistening profile as well. So those two are particularly good. Both fennel and licorice are also very helpful for reducing inflammatory states in the respiratory system, although honestly, any of these demulcents is going to help out in that regard. So, it is nice to have maybe a combination of a few of these. All right. Other demulcents to consider here include linden and violet. Those make a nice, fairly light tea. Pretty appealing. Linden has some nice calming… actually both of them, linden and violet, have some nice calming effects on the nervous system and on the heart as well. So, if there’s fear, if there’s agitation, anxiety kind of thing going on.

Katja (00:25:39):
I mean also sadness and grief and sort of maybe desolate kind of feelings, then linden and violet are really lovely there too. You can be sort of targeting your moistening action to the other needs of your body as well.

Ryn (00:25:59):
Yeah, there are a couple of herbs that are really particularly good at this lung focused activity of moistening. You know, marshmallow, linden, violet, they’re pretty systemic in their regard. They do impact the lung, but it’s not their only focus. But mullein and pleurisy root, they’re very respiratory focused plants. They have a lot of affinity there. Mullein is an interesting one because for the body at large, it’s more about stirring up fluids and moving them around. But the lungs are the real major beneficiary for mullein in terms of getting a moistening aspect and improving fluid movement and helping out with expectoration through that effect. Mullein also helps to relax the lungs and the respiratory system a bit as well. So, it can aid breathing where that’s been feeling restricted. Yeah. Pleurisy root is a bit different.

Katja (00:27:00):
You know, pleurisy root is really lovely if you’re a person who already runs damp. So, you may not be super thrilled about having tons of moistening herbs all of the time. You might, because a fire situation is very, very dry. But you might be thinking okay. My respiratory tract really needs this moistening action, but the rest of my body is really getting kind of soggy at this point. And pleurisy root really comes in in that situation. Pleurisy root helps to like move fluid around in the body. I really appreciate it a lot. I feel in my body when I work with pleurisy, that it kind of helps to bring fluid up from the lower part of my body, up into the pulmonary part of my body, up into the lungs. And so that is very helpful in terms of like, my body has plenty of moisture, but I need to reallocate some of it into the respiratory tract. Pleurisy root is just very, very helpful in that work.

Ryn (00:28:09):
Yeah. Okay. So, you know, in fire country mullein is pretty common. You know, if you don’t know that plant by sight, it’d be a good one to look at some photos and start to be able to identify that, and see if you’ve got it around you. It’s quite likely. It’s a fairly cosmopolitan plant anyway. So, it’s often something that you can find. In the context of other weedy herbs that can help out here, I’d have to mention purslane. You know, purslane is an interesting plant. It’s not a succulent, but…

Katja (00:28:42):
Okay. That word was coming to mind for me too. I was also like it’s kind of like a succulent, even though it’s not.

Ryn (00:28:48):
Yeah. But like the plant tissue is kind of fleshy and certainly moist.

Katja (00:28:53):
It’s almost like a cactus without any kind of thorns, not thorns, but like spiny things, prickly bits.

Ryn (00:29:02):
Yeah. So, yeah, purslane again, it’s a pretty common weedy type of a plant. Often it’s the thing that gardeners are pulling out and throwing away. But it’s a good plant to eat. It’s a good one to take fresh, eat into food and have that way. You could make infusions with it if you like, but we mostly kind of gather it, you know. Rinse it off a bit and then just throw it in the salad or something.

Katja (00:29:25):
Yeah. Just eat it. You can cook it if you want to. You know, that’s fine too. But it isn’t necessary.

Ryn (00:29:31):
Yeah. Yeah. That’s one of those you could just eat fresh. But yeah, it has a lot of moisture in it, and it also helps the body to retain and utilize moisture. It even has a bit of omega-3 fatty acids in there as well.

Katja (00:29:45):
Yeah. ALA.

Ryn (00:29:45):
Yeah. So, that’s another type of substance that helps our bodies to retain and utilize moisture more effectively. So, it’s nice to get in there. And then if you aren’t sure about any of these herbs and don’t have an herb shop, and aren’t sure about going foraging for violets or for mullein or other plants like that. You don’t have any linden trees growing in your neighborhood. Then you can always head over to the grocery store and pick up some okra.

Katja (00:30:12):
Yeah. You know, they usually even have it in the frozen section. So, if you don’t know what to do with fresh okra or they just don’t have it, they will probably have it in the freezer section. And I have to say that okra is not my favorite thing, unless it’s breaded and fried which, you know, growing up in the south we ate a lot. But you can actually put it into lots of… like you could put it in a stir fry and not really notice it, but be getting that moistening action. And I think that’s probably the easiest. It’s certainly easier than frying it at home.

Ryn (00:30:48):
Yeah, if you’ve got enough of it in the mix to serve as a thickener, then you’re getting the effect that we’re looking for.

Katja (00:30:54):
Right, right, right. To sort of make the sauce nice and saucy.

Coughing it Out with Expectorants

Ryn (00:31:00):
Yeah. Yeah. So that’s a variety of demulcent plants. There may be others that grow in your area or that you’ve got some familiarity with already, if you’ve been learning herbs for a while now. But just keep that category in mind when you’re dealing with more smoke in the air. Okay. So, you know, moistening up the lungs is great. But we might also need a little bit of extra help to motivate and to get what’s in there out. So, we had mentioned that mullein is particularly helpful with that. Honestly, most of the demulcents are going to help out with that a bit just by changing the consistency of the mucus that’s in the respiratory system.

Katja (00:31:39):
When you have to cough stuff out, there are a few steps, right? Like stuff, in this case the smoky particulate, gets trapped in the mucus layers in the lungs. And that’s good. That’s what’s supposed to happen. But then we need to be able to cough that mucus, which has trapped all the smoke particulate, up and out of the lungs. And it needs to be sort of thick enough to trap the smoke, but thin enough to peel off the sort of walls of the lungs and come out. And so if it’s too thin, then it’s not going to catch the particulate. And if it’s too thick, which is our likelihood in this particular case because it’s getting dried out, then it’ll catch the particulate. But it will be like glued to the walls of the lungs, and we won’t be able to cough it out easily. So these plants, these expectorants, help to loosen up the crud so that we can cough it out more efficiently, more effectively. And also all the moistening action that we’re doing is helping to keep that mucus in the right consistency. Not too thin, not too thick.

Ryn (00:32:47):
Yeah. So mullein is a real star here, because it kind of does a bit of both. And this is primarily mullein leaf we’d be working with for these purposes. We do work with the roots. We work with the flowers. But they kind of have their own other aspects and applications. But for this kind of work it’s about the mullein leaf. So, that’s a really great one to start with. And then for a little more of a stimulation to the expectorant, or even to the cough reflex, to make productive cough, like purposeful useful cough. I don’t know. Then you can look at horehound or hyssop. I think of these two is quite similar. They have differentiations, you know, to be sure. But if I’m thinking about one, I’m probably like oh yeah. And let’s also get the other. The two of them kind of make a lot of sense for this purpose where there is some phlegm. It’s in the lungs. It’s maybe even like you might feel it kind of in the throat or kind of in the back there, but it’s stuck. We’re having trouble moving it out. Then working with horehound or hyssop as a tincture or as a few sips of tea, it can really help to motivate that. You might feel yourself, you know, coughing some stuff up afterwards. And get that out of you. You know, you don’t want that in there.

Katja (00:34:03):
You might also have access to anise hyssop. Which if you’ve ever worked with horehound or hyssop, both are pretty bitter. And you could mix in ginger or something to make it taste better. But you also could go with anise hyssop, which is a varietal of hyssop that has just a really nice flavor. You might be thinking, but I don’t like anise. To be honest it doesn’t taste exactly like it.

Ryn (00:34:29):
Yeah. There’s a little anise-y stuff. It’s more fennel-y.

Katja (00:34:36):
It’s quite nice though. It’s quite nice.

Ryn (00:34:38):
Yeah. I like that one a lot. Oh, and by the way, you may have had a lot of horehound in your life and never realized it. This is, it turns out, one of the herbs that has got the largest… It’s like one of the leaders in terms of sales in the United States, like herbal and supplement market. But almost nobody is buying horehound supplements that are labeled as such. Horehound makes its way into the market in the form of cough drops. Even Ricola cough drops and other kind of herbally cough drops tend to have horehound in them for this purpose of being an expectorant. So, that’s a fine way to work with this quite bitter herb. You get a bunch of other aromatic and tasty herbs into the mix there. A little sugar, you know, and then suddenly it’s a lot more appealing. So, yeah.

Katja (00:35:31):
You know, and speaking of appealing let’s not leave elecampane out of the mix. Elecampane is really one of my favorites for lung support, and partially because it’s so multitalented. Elecampane is a plant you can work with over the long term. Even if you’re a person with asthma, or maybe you don’t have asthma, but you grew up in a house where the adults were smoking for example. And so maybe you always have kind of had weak lungs, or whatever kind of respiratory thing comes around you always get it. Elecampane is a really helpful plant to work with, even in that situation, just to help strengthen the lungs. But then when we’re dealing in this kind of a situation where we also have to get stuff up and out, it can be very helpful there too.

Ryn (00:36:22):
Yeah, definitely. Okay. you may in the course of dealing with smoke, dealing with particulate in the air, you may find that the lungs or the respiratory system gets tense or spasmodic. So, spasmodic could be like a lot of sneezing, a lot of coughing, a lot of like clenching in the lungs.

Breathing Better with Respiratory Relaxants

Katja (00:36:44):
Kind of that dry kind of tickly thing that is a little stronger than a tickle.

Ryn (00:36:50):
And there can also just be a feeling of tension. Like oh, it’s hard to get a full deep breath. Especially if every time you do try to breathe that deep, then the particulate in the air triggers a cough reflex, you know. So, the lungs can start to get quite tense. And so for that, some respiratory relaxants can be very helpful. Once again, mullein does this work. You can see why it’s one of our favorite herbs for respiratory issues, because we keep finding it to be helpful in multiple ways that overlap and serve a common goal. I’d say that fennel and licorice are also pretty helpful as relaxants to the respiratory system in particular.

Katja (00:37:27):
But lobelia.

Ryn (00:37:28):
And then there’s lobelia.

Katja (00:37:30):
There’s lobelia. Now lobelia is a plant that we work with as tincture, and you only need a tiny bit of it. Just maybe even three drops will be enough. If you take quite a lot it can make you feel nauseous or even make you vomit, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Lobelia is a bronchodilator and is helpful even in cases of an asthma attack or anaphylaxis. And another thing that is very helpful in that case, actually, is vomiting. You know, I do not recommend it. If you have asthma that’s not my primary intervention. You should take your inhaler or take some lobelia instead. But in an emergency situation, vomiting does actually often stop an asthma attack. It’s a very unpleasant way to do it. But I just like to share that because sometimes we think like oh, it can make you nauseous. It must be poisonous. But in fact, actually, the nausea and the emesis, the emetic effect, actually do serve a purpose in this particular case. And that purpose is the continuation of the other things that that plant, that lobelia can actually do. But at a low dose, three drops, five drops, maybe even 10 drops, you will find that it really can relax the airway. And if you’re starting to get that feeling of wow, it’s pretty hard to breathe around here, lobelia can kind of reset that for you. Now, if the air quality is awful, and the feeling of it’s hard to breathe is because there just isn’t enough oxygen in the air, then there still is going to be not enough oxygen in the air. But if we can reduce the tension, then your body isn’t making it worse. You know, like there’s sort of that two-step, that two phase problem. One is it’s hard to breathe actually. And the other is the panic that we feel around the difficulty breathing that can induce a lot of that tension. And lobelia will open that back up again as well, so that we only have to deal with one difficulty instead of two.

Ryn (00:39:46):
Yeah. Sounds nice. Okay. So, obviously a lot of focus on the respiratory system here, but we’re also going to want to pay a little bit of attention to the liver and to the kidneys, organs of elimination and processing what you may get exposed to. Because, you know, it’s not just, I don’t know, just smoke. It’s not like…

Katja (00:40:08):
It’s not just organic smoke. Free range.

Cleaning the Kidneys & Liver

Ryn (00:40:11):
Right. Yeah. Aromatic herbs and woods and stuff like that. No. There’s going to be chemical residues in the air and in the particulate, because, you know, plastic or, I don’t know, insulation or all kinds of random stuff that make up houses or buildings or whatever else that gets burned, that gets up into the air. And then you may get exposed to that, you know, through your lungs as well. So, things that get introduced to the system through the respiratory route, they can circulate. They can get into the bloodstream. And if that happens, then it’s really the job, if the liver and the kidneys to detoxify them, to filter them out, to eliminate them from your system. So, in herbalism to talk about herbs to support liver and kidneys could take, you know, several days or I don’t know, a few months or so.

Katja (00:41:08):
Yeah. You could really base a very long program of study just on those herbs. But you know, there are two kind of archetypes in that category. And when we think about liver support, that would be milk thistle. And when we think about kidney support, that would be nettle. Milk thistle is very simple. You can take it as a capsule. It’s not a cop-out. It’s totally okay. Just grab a capsule. You’re already dealing with all the smoke and the fire and the herbal steams and everything else. Like just this once do it the easy way. Get the capsule. It’s fine. For nettle that is honestly better as tea. And honestly, any kind of kidney support that we’re trying to do is going to be better as tea, because it’s the water that gets to the kidneys. The only drawback with the nettle here is that nettle is on the dry side. And if you’re already in this dry situation, then the nettle can kind of push that out of balance. So we definitely want to put some marshmallow in there, some cinnamon in there, fennel, licorice, something to moisten it up. If you find it to be too drying, it’s not the only kidney supporting herb. You could go with something like golden rod, which also has some drying action, but maybe not quite as drying as the nettle.

Ryn (00:42:35):
Yeah. Even just the marshmallow itself, you know, does have some kidney support aspects to it. And it’s quite helpful there. But for most folks, for most anybody, if you have like equal parts nettle and marshmallow leaf or violet or linden or, you know, fennel or one of these other demulcent plants, that should be fairly neutral in terms of its influence on your constitution or on your tissue states. So, I think that adding in a little bit of nettle to one of those kind of leafy demulcents or something like that could be a good way to have a consistent single beverage you can take a long-term that’s going to be touching on several systems at the same time. And really you do want to be drinking a lot of tea, right? You want to be drinking tea all day long, because getting lots of fluids into the system is itself going to be helpful regardless of what those fluids are. Just to flush things out, help your system keep moving, keep turning over its inner waters. That’s going to be really critical here. So, we’re not trying to get like, you know, two sips of your marshmallow tea and a few squirts of nettle tincture and call it a day, right? You want to be, you know, pushing fluids.

Katja (00:43:49):
Yeah. A couple quarts for everyone all day long. Yeah. All right. Well, the other factor here is that, you know, maybe however long ago it was like oh. A wildfire just came through the area. And that was terrible, and now we recover. And 10 years later maybe there’s another one. But that’s not how it is anymore. People are going through this every single year. Some people are losing their homes. And people even who haven’t lost their homes, there is the fear that that will happen. These are scary situations. They’re scary situations that are made worse, because it looks like a horror movie outside, you know?

Helping with Emotions

Ryn (00:44:32):
Yeah. There’s the uncertainty, you know. And like you said, just the environment itself. Where if it’s a week at a time or a month at a time where it’s super hot, and also the sky is thick, dark orange, and it feels heavy and it just very much looks like a post-apocalyptic movie or something, you know? I don’t mean to laugh. Like this is what people are dealing with in this moment, like as we speak. But it’s rough, and it’s going to be a long marathon kind of a situation, you know? So, you know, there’s that aspect of just the heaviness and the fear and the uncertainty. There’s discomfort, just like I’m sick of wearing a respirator mask all the time, including indoors for long periods of time. There’s worry about other people around you. If you did have to evacuate or leave, like what happened to my cat? You know, what happened to my…

Katja (00:45:29):
My house.

Ryn (00:45:30):
Whatever. All of that stuff. So, the emotional load here is pretty substantial. So, we want to think about herbs that can support us on that emotional level.

Katja (00:45:42):
Yeah. You know, one of the first ones that comes to mind for me is lobelia, because a lot of those emotions are sort of a closed in or a trapped kind of emotion, at least for me. And lobelia really does help to push that back, to create extra space and kind of make things feel less tight and less trapping.

Ryn (00:46:11):
Yeah. We respond to those feelings of enclosure with our own tension, like you’re trying to push back against the laws that are squeezing on you. But that tension itself is going to exacerbate that feeling of being trapped and being stuck in place and not being able to move freely, whether that’s physical or emotional or both, of course. So, those relaxants can be very helpful to loosen and open.

Katja (00:46:33):
I also think a lot about blue vervain. And yesterday we pressed out some blue vervain tincture. And so now I have like almost a quart. You know, some people get like the giant industrial sized jar of Tums from like Costco or whatever the wholesale store is. And I have my giant industrial sized bottle of blue vervain tincture I’m pretty excited about right now. Blue vervain is also a relaxant, but really very particularly a relaxant when you do not have control over the situation, and you would like to. And you know, you don’t have to be a controlling type A kind of person to want to feel control over a situation like this. I think, you know, everybody wants to be able to control that their home will be safe, that their friends and their family will be safe. So, even if you’re not normally a blue vervain kind of person like me, in this sort of a situation you might be one, just simply because there’s so little control. Like there’s just so little control over what happens. So, this blue vervain really just helps that to relax. But I do recommend it as tincture. As tea it’s quite bitter. And as tea it’s kind of hard to get down.

Ryn (00:48:01):
It might cause some nausea by the time you get to the bottom of your cup, yeah.

Katja (00:48:03):
Yeah. The nausea just because it really is that bitter. But as a tincture, it’s a lot easier and you don’t need as much of it. And you could always mix it with other things to make it more palatable.

Ryn (00:48:19):
Yeah. you know, another combo we think of a lot here would be something like linden and hawthorn, or linden together with rose, or linden, hawthorn, and rose altogether. But what we’re looking for here is to cultivate a feeling of safety. And the hawthorn and the rose are really contributing a lot to that. These are thorny plants. They have their own boundaries, but they also make safe spaces. If you’ve ever seen a hawthorn tree grow, it’s kind of like an apple tree in a way, but even like a little lower profile. Like it’ll grow up, but then it will grow mostly out and kind of spread and make a sort of umbrella shape around itself. With a lot of hawthorns you approach it and it’s like there’s a curtain of the branches that’s reaching pretty much all the way to the ground.

Katja (00:49:08):
There was that picture you took from the last herb walk you did.

Ryn (00:49:11):
Yeah. That particular tree has like a little entrance tunnel on one side. There’s a little like open space. And you can like crawl in under there, and sit in next to the trunk, and just have a protective curtain of hawthorn berries and thorns and leaves all around you. And it’s a really comfy spot to hang out. So, by the way, that’s on Peter’s hill over in the Arboretum if you’re a Boston local.

Katja (00:49:38):
Yeah. If you need a comfy spot to hang out. I love that kind of a combination also, because these are also plants that help us deal with grief, that help us deal with loss. And even if you are safe, you know, very uncomfortable and scared, but your home is safe, and you get through the whole thing and you didn’t lose anything of your own, there’s loss in the community. There is loss in the air, you know. It doesn’t have to be your loss for it to impact you. And so I think this is a theme right now, as we’ve been through all this time with COVID and other things. That some people are fine and not fine, you know. They didn’t get sick. They were safe. They had what they needed. They had enough toilet paper. And they still feel grief and sadness and loss. And that is because we do not only feel those things for our own direct loss of our own direct things or people or loved ones. We feel that in response to loss in the community.

Ryn (00:50:57):
Yeah. And there can be something like survivor’s guilt here as well. Which again is something where plants like hawthorn or linden that have a softening and protective influence on the heart can help you to feel like all right. I can experience what I’m feeling. I can connect with that and move through it a little more easily. That’s really valuable here too. One other plant I have to mention here is goldenrod. So, you’ve kind of mentioned goldenrod as a kidney support herb. And it can certainly be helpful on that physiological level. But we think about goldenrod here, where this is an ongoing long-term issue or a situation to be dealing with.

Katja (00:51:39):
Yeah. You use the word earlier, marathon that you were talking about.

Ryn (00:51:43):
Sometimes, you know, marathon is kind of a race. This is more of like a march. It’s a…hmm.

Katja (00:51:51):
A trodge?

Ryn (00:51:52):
Yeah. You’re trudging, right?

Katja (00:51:54):
Yeah. And sort of like you have to keep doing it. You don’t necessarily know when it’s going to end, but there isn’t any other option. Like you still have to wake up in the morning. You still have to get breakfast for everyone and whatever else. Goldenrod is one of my favorite herbs in those kinds of situations. Just really supportive for that long-term, day in day out. Yep. It’s still burning out there. Yep. It’s still smoky. Yep. I still hate this kind of a situation.

Building Resilience

Ryn (00:52:31):
Yeah. That’s a good one. All right. So, this would all be considered nervine herbs or things to help out with emotional and nervous system states kind of on the short to medium term. When we think about longer-term work in terms of resilience building and resourcing, that’s when we turn to our adaptogens. And in that, there are a lot of adaptogens, especially with some of the looser definitions of that term. But there are a few we’d want to highlight here. First off the adaptogens that have some moistening quality to them. So these would be herbs that may also help with that, you know, full body hydration. And some of these may even impact the mucosa as well. But not every adaptogens has a moistening quality to it. So let’s highlight codonopsis, jiaogulan, and goji here. They all have their own unique profile and things that they can support most directly, but each of these is going to help out with that feeling of fatigue and that feeling of having burned through all your resources and kind of scraping the bottom of the barrel. To kind of build you back up and help you feel like, all right. I can get through this next day. I can get through this next hour.

Katja (00:53:50):
Yeah. Even if you are not exerting yourself, this might be a pretty sedentary time because maybe you’re just sort of staying home and not going out much, because it’s so smoky and gross outside. And so you might not feel like there’s much depleting you in that kind of regard like there normally would be in your life. But the stress of just living through this kind of situation is tremendously depleting. And so having these herbs who can put that back for you can really help you to keep going.

Ryn (00:54:30):
Yeah. Cool. All right. And then a couple others to highlight slightly differently. These are ones that are adaptogenic in nature, but can also really support the respiratory system itself. I’d have to really highlight reishi here in particular. And if you’re a long-term follower of the pod, you’ve probably heard us talk about reishi this way before, where it can improve oxygen uptake and respiratory function. And we found a lot of benefits working with reishi when traveling from sea level up to mountain elevation, to acclimate to the difference in pressure, and the body’s adjustment that needs to be made in order to uptake oxygen effectively in that altered environment. Based on that experience and that kind of understanding, we’ve also worked with reishi a lot over the years for folks with asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder, a whole variety of issues where the person is having trouble breathing well, or feeling like they’re able to really get what they need from the air that they breathe. So, reishi is really routinely helpful for those kinds of problems. And so for that reason I think it would make a lot of sense. It does make a lot of sense to work with reishi when there’s this elevated particulate, smoke in the air.

Katja (00:55:52):
Right. Reishi is a plant that helps you oxygenate better. And it’s not like I’m going to discriminate on the reason that you’re having trouble oxygenating, right? Whether you are at elevation, whether there is a lot of crud in the air, whether there is something in the lungs that is obstructive. Whatever the cause is, reishi is still going to help that sort of oxygen binding going on, and making it a little more efficient for your lungs to draw that out of the air that you have available.

Ryn (00:56:33):
Yeah. Kind of in a similar vein, we have found a good success with nettle in this way, helping out with oxygenation, helping out with that kind of uptake. And I think in that regard that a lot of the benefit we’re getting from nettle there is from the chlorophyll. I mean, nettle is an extremely dense source of chlorophyll. You can see it in the color of the leaves. You can taste it when you get familiar with that. And so, you know, we have also had some benefits working with chlorophyll supplements, capsules.

Katja (00:57:05):
Yeah, those liquid capsules. And again, you’re doing a lot to take care of yourself. So, in this case those liquid capsules do work quite well. And so, you know, don’t always just take a capsule because it’s easier, of course. But where you have one that does work – and there are some times that capsules really do work – I always feel like okay. Well, go with it in that situation, because that way you have more energy to spend on the other parts that you can’t take as a capsule. So, drink quarts of nettle tea if that works for you. And if not, or if you need to focus on other herbs, then just grab a chlorophyll liquid cap and take that every day.

Ryn (00:57:52):
Yeah. All right. So there’s a whole variety of ideas for you to try out and to work with. So…

Katja (00:58:02):
You don’t have to do every single one of them. Just do the ones that are best for your body. Do the ones that are easiest for you to do. Every single one of these that you bring into your routine is going to help in a cumulative kind of way. So, if one of them is easier than the rest, start with that one. You don’t have to think like oh. Well I have assigned one of them is best. And so if I don’t do that one, it’s not going to work. Nope. They’re all going to help. And so just take whichever ones are easiest. Add them all together, and get them into you.

Ryn (00:58:38):
Yeah. And so if these issues aren’t active in the area where you are right now, but that they could be later or that they were last year, or you know that this is on the horizon, plan ahead. Get your hands on some of these herbs, or get out there and identify some spots you could wild harvest some mullein leaf or some of these other plants we’ve mentioned. The planning ahead is what really does the lion’s share of the work when it comes to emergency response, when it comes to disaster management. So, try not to let this time you spent with us today just roll through you. Say all right. What can I take from this? What can I start working on right now? Or what can I build into a plan? Even if it’s to start out writing out a list of the herbs that seemed most relevant for what you’ve experienced or what you expect you may be dealing with. That planning ahead is important in all aspects of disaster and emergency response, not just with fires or floods or with heat or other things, but the whole range of situations. Whether those are climate oriented, whether they’re induced by human in a more direct way…

Katja (00:59:50):
Whether they are climate induced by humans. Yeah, everything.

Ryn (00:59:54):
But there’s a lot of different kinds of emergency situations that may arise. And it’s good to have some plans, some preparations, some kits and go bags ready in advance, so that you both know what to do, and you have what you need to do.

Katja (01:00:08):
Yeah. It’s cool to be prepared. Like it’s for everyone. Everybody can be prepared. And if you don’t know how to get prepared, we can help you with that. Check out the Emergent Responder program. That is a bundle of two courses. One focuses on all of the planning, all of the preparation, all of the stuff you need to think about that maybe hasn’t occurred to you that you would need to think about. All of the stuff that you should gather. All of that kind of planning. And then the other course in the bundle focuses on first aid in a little bit different kind of way. Because first aid implies like in the hour or hours after an injury. But when we’re talking about disaster response, our definition of first aid is much longer. It could be weeks of longer aid. You know, you’re not just going to sort of patch somebody up and send them to the hospital, because the hospital might not be there. Or it might be there and completely overwhelmed. So, we need to have some skills that are a little bit longer term, that we can keep people stable until we can get them to care. Maybe we have to transport them far away. Or that we’re able to deal with more than just the usual kind of cuts and scrapes that we sort of know how to deal with because of our everyday lives. So, this course really helps you to prepare the planning that you need and the skills that you need to deal with whatever it is that’s coming for yourself, for your loved ones, for your community. And I really do recommend it. I wish that we could teach it in school to all high schoolers. I would love that.

Ryn (01:02:00):
Yeah. So we’ve got a direct link to that in the show notes here. You can also find all of our courses at online.commonwealthherbs.com. And since you’ve listened to the end of this podcast, remember that you can get $50 off any of our courses or programs using the coupon code PODCAST.

Katja (01:02:18):

Ryn (01:02:19):
At checkout.

Katja (01:02:20):
That’s right. All right. Well, I hope that this has been helpful information, and I hope that you never have to use it. But if you are in a fire situation, then we hope that you are as safe as you can be. And we hope good things for you.

Ryn (01:02:40):
Yeah. So, we’ll be back again next time with some more Holistic Herbalism podcast. Until then take care of yourselves. Take care of each other. Drink some tea.

Katja (01:02:50):
Drink some tea.

Ryn (01:02:51):
And breathe easy.

Katja (01:02:51):
Bye bye.


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