Protect and heal your lungs from smoke damage – some herbs you may have growing near you.
This Summer has been a catastrophic time with bushfires rampaging through large portions of New South Wales, Victoria and also affecting Queensland and South Australia. The loss of human and animal lives, and loss of property is devastating. In addition to this, the air quality has been deemed ‘hazardous’ on many days, and likely will not be improving within the next few weeks.
Even if not directly affected by the fires, the vast majority of people living in New South Wales have been living admist smoke haze, and many other states will be the same. For those that live closer to the fire affected areas and those who are fighting the fires (thank you thank you thank you), they will be affected by the smoke even moreso.
The Impact of Smoke on Health
The impact of smoke on respiratory health can be severe for some. For those who already have breathing difficulties such as those with asthma or cardiovascular problems, and for children and the elderly this can be especially problematic.
A NSW Ambulance superintendent, Brent Armitage, said paramedics were attending up to 100 respiratory-related call-outs per day and the state’s health department warned residents to stay indoors as much as possible amid “unprecedented” smoke pollution.1. Sydney’s air 11 times worse than ‘hazardous’ levels as Australia’s bushfires rage
Particles that are smaller than the eye can see are some of the most hazardous components of smoke. The rating of this – PM (particle matters) has been rated as hazardous in many instances in New South Wales, and in Canberra at the time of writing this article it was 926. To give you some context, a good rating is below 10.
You can find details on air quality near you here: https://aqicn.org/map/australia/
Fine particle matters – known and measured globally as PM2.5 – are invisible to the human eye. They are coated in chemicals such as lead and are most worrying because they penetrate deep into the lungs.
Australia’s clear air standard is a PM2.5 level of eight micrograms per cubic metre. By comparison, smoking a single cigarette produces 20 micrograms per cubic metre.
Recent readings in Sydney have been as high as 734 micrograms – the equivalent of about 37 cigarettes.2. “Air quality: How bad is Sydney’s smoke for health?,” BBC News, 5 December 2019
The particles are often compounds which contain chemicals detrimental to our health such as heavy metals. While not as toxic as industrial pollution, any by product of something being burnt is harmful to health.
By European Space Agency – https://www.flickr.com/photos/europeanspaceagency/49060083887/, CC BY-SA 2.5, Link
Get the Right Mask
For most of us, sitting inside out of the smoke seems like the best solution we have. But when the fires are going for as long as they are it becomes unrealistic to hide inside all the time. And for those that are fighting the fires, this is also not an option.
Wearing a mask may help, but make sure it is the right type. Some masks that people are wearing to filter the smoke may not be sufficient to reduce in the inhalation of the fine particles. Medical masks do not filter the fine particle matter.
P2 masks or PR respirators are an option to help filter the smoke and fine particular matter which can be found in most hardware shops.
How Herbs Can Help
If your backyard is still growing, step outside on one of the cooler moments and look for some herbal helpers which may be utilised for supporting lung health.
I still remember a phrase that “what you are looking for, is also looking for you” and this is so often relevant for herbal medicines. In this instance, you may find that in your garden a herb is growing, waiting for you to discover it.
The herbs I have included in this list are those I feel are resilient to the heat and rampant so there is a good chance are growing near you.
Many other herbs exist that can also be supportive for lung health such as Mullein, Licorice, Mashmallow, Licorice and Elecampane. Get in touch with a herbalist if you would like a herbal formula or tea created for you.
The impact of the bushfires and smoke are far greater than just the impact on one’s lungs. If you need additional support for stress and trauma please seek help.
Did you know that this plant has many medicinal benefits? It’s often grown for it’s pretty flowers and distinctive leaves which are sometimes included in meals. All parts of this plant are edible so can be used as a decorative garnish for meals, a peppery addition to the flavour profile, or the fruits can be pickled as an alternative to capers.
It is additionally quite medicinal, having an affinity for the respiratory and urinary system. It contains pungent compounds which can assist the lungs in eliminating unwanted substances. It has pulmonary antiseptic properties and helps to reduce inflammation.
Herbs which have the action of ‘expectorants’ are indicated for smoke exposure, as they assist the lungs in the act of elimination. This may be initially seen through an increase in coughing and expulsion of mucous. Nasturtium contains expectorant properties, and also assists in the elimination of mucous in the sinuses and nasal passages3.
Use the leaves or flowers in salads or as a garnish on dishes which would benefit from a peppery taste. If you would like to try an infusion, take 15-20g chopped leaves and/or flowers and infuse in hot water for 10 minutes. Drink 3 times daily.
One of my favourite herbs is Marshmallow, Althea officinalis – not the squishy confectionary but a plant with soothing mucilaginous properties that helps and calms the respiratory, urinary and digestive tract. In the same family as this herb is Mallow, an easilly found group of plants which contain similiar properties (also referred to as Cheese Weed, Common Mallow Malva sylvestris, Small-flowered Mallow Malva parviflora, Dwarf Mallow Malva neglecta or Cheese Plant).
Mallow is not as much of a mucilaginous powerhouse as Marshmallow, but it can be found in many people’s backyards and still packs a medicinal hit.
Mucilage in a herb is soothing to your tissues, especially the mucous membranes, which predominately dwell in your respiratory tract and digestion. If you chew on a herb rich in mucilage you may find it turns almost jelly-like in your mouth. This compound is responsible for many of it’s soothing and anti-inflammatory properties.
Mallow helps to soften and expel mucous and substances in the lungs, however it is also beneficial emotionally as it can soften pain and help you to express and release emotions around trauma.4
The leaves of mallow can be added to dishes as a thickener, or you can make a tea or glycetract from it.
Once you know this herb you will find it everywhere. I commonly find it growing along footpaths but you are best to source it from somewhere that has not been exposed to chemical pollution.
Narrow leaf plantain or Ribwort, Plantago lanceolata is one of my go-to herbs for chronic or inflammed respiratory conditions.
Like Mallow, this herb also contains mucilages but is classed as a ‘tropho-restorative’, which means it has healing and restoring properties to the tissues which it targets – in the case of Ribwort that is the respiratory tract. It is a mild expectortant but is predominately a soothing repairing herb.
The younger leaves can be used in salads, smoothies or cooked.
How to use the herbs
In the instance of these herbs if you can find them, they can be included in your cooking or made into teas or infusions.
If you cannot locate these herbs but would like to make use of them contact your local herbalist or naturopath to source these.
If you are located near me and have been affected by the bush fires please get in touch so I can help you our with a tincture.
- M. McGowan, “Sydney’s air 11 times worse than ‘hazardous’ levels as Australia’s bushfires rage,” The Guardian, 10 December 2019. [Online]. Available: https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2019/dec/10/sydneys-air-11-times-worse-than-hazardous-levels-as-australias-bushfires-rage.
- F. mao, “Air quality: How bad is Sydney’s smoke for health?,” BBC News, 5 December 2019. [Online]. Available: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-australia-50497492.
- C. Rougedapi, “Nasturtium Tropaeolum majus EN***,” academia.edu, 2019. [Online]. Available: https://www.academia.edu/40244817/Nasturtium_Tropaeolum_majus_EN_.
- H. Merika, “Mallow,” in Wildcraft, Eumundi, 2019, pp. 166-171.