We often breathe without much thought, until a tickle in our throats or a deep, heavy cough reminds us of our lungs' delicate and vital role in our daily life. Our respiratory system is an intricate web of organs and tissues that work tirelessly to supply our bodies with life-sustaining oxygen.
In today's world, where air quality can be compromised by air pollution or wildfire smoke, and the cold and flu season has become more challenging with illnesses such as COVID and RSV, it's more important than ever to consider the well-being of our lungs. That's where aromatic plants come into play – offering a burst of delightful fragrance and a wide range of natural remedies that can support and strengthen our respiratory health.
In this blog article, we’ll discover how the aromatic botanical kingdom can be a powerful ally in maintaining and enhancing your lung health. We’ll explore the science behind their healing properties, share the top aromatic plants for supporting respiratory health, and learn how incorporating them into your daily routine can make a significant difference in your overall well-being.
We will also reveal critical tips and tricks to ensure you are buying authentic aromatic medicine that will help, and not hurt, your lungs. So, take a deep breath, and let's explore the fragrant and therapeutic journey of aromatic plants and why they hold the key to lung support.
How Aromatic Herbs Support the Lungs
Aromatic plants emit volatile compounds, also known as essential oils, out into the air we breathe. Due to the volatility of these compounds, they can easily reach both the upper and lower parts of your respiratory tract by inhalation. As you inhale these volatile oils, they go directly into your respiratory system, where they are absorbed into your tissues, make their way into the bloodstream, and their medicinal constituents can get to work.
Some aromatic herbs have bronchodilator qualities, meaning they help open up the lungs and make breathing easier, and mucolytic and expectorant effects that encourage the breakdown and clearing of mucus to help open the airways. Many aromatic plants have antimicrobial, antiviral, antiseptic, and anti‐inflammatory properties, offering an effective approach to addressing different respiratory tract diseases and infections (RTIs), which has been backed up by scientific research .
During times of respiratory illness (like colds, flu, COVID-19, and more), utilizing aromatic plants can not only help relieve symptoms and reduce the risk of others around you getting sick, but they can also fight off pathogens for a faster recovery. In ancient times, people would burn aromatic herbs like Rosemary and Bay Laurel to cleanse and purify the air around those who were ill. Many cultures burned Frankincense during the Black plague to help stop the spread of infection.
Releasing volatile plant oils with anti-bacterial, anti-viral, and antimicrobial properties into the surrounding air works in two ways: they help cleanse and purify the air of pathogens that may cause illness, potentially reducing the risk of infection; and when inhaled, they can soothe symptoms and fight illness, reducing the severity and duration of illness.
During times when air quality is compromised by air pollution, wildfire smoke, or other means, some aromatic plants offer anti-inflammatory properties and can help ease symptoms like congestion, coughs, and excess mucus; clear out the sinuses; and make it easier to breathe. Many aromatic plants are known to be natural remedies for allergies as well.
How to Use Aromatic Plants for Lung Health
There are many ways to utilize aromatic plants to support your respiratory system. Herbal steaming is an easy, time-tested traditional remedy that naturally releases the volatile oils of herbs by boiling the plant material in hot water. For step-by-step instructions on how to create your own herbal steam at home, read our article: A Rescue Remedy During Flu Season: Herbal Steaming.
Herbal bathing is another relaxing, healing way to indulge in aromatic medicine. You can bring the plant material into the bath with you, allowing the plants to float in the water alongside you, to surround and envelope you as you soak. Or you can make a concentrated herbal tea and add that to your soaking water.
Just remember that if you choose to add essential oils to your bath water, it’s important to mix them with a carrier oil or liquid Castile soap and shake well before adding the mixture to your soaking water. This will help reduce the risk of sensitization, an allergic skin reaction that can cause irritation, redness, rash, or even blistering when the skin comes in contact with an undiluted essential oil. In general, it’s recommended to use a 2-3% dilution ratio for herbal baths.
You can also cultivate a healing oasis in your home by incorporating aromatic plants into your life using essential oil diffusers or incense. A common misconception many people have is that incense is bad for your lungs because it emits smoke. But truthfully, it all comes down to quality and ingredients.
There is a lot of incense for sale that contains artificial ingredients and fragrance oils that are indeed very unhealthy for your lungs. In fact, over 80% of the incense on the market today is made using chemicals. Burning these types of incense releases unhealthy smoke and disperses the chemicals into the air so that they can easily travel into our lungs. These chemicals are not only bad for the environment and air quality, but are also toxic to our respiratory health.
That is why it is extremely important to look for pure and natural incense and botanicals, made from all-natural, aromatic plants. Burning the dried plant material of aromatic herbs releases their powerful volatile oils that are supportive of your lungs and overall respiratory health. If you are concerned about the smoke that is emitted from incense, read our article about 3 Virtually Smokeless Ways to Burn Incense.
12 Aromatic Herbs for Respiratory Health
You may find that some aromatic plants work better for you than others because every plant works slightly differently in our unique body types due to variations in body constitution and plant energetics. Use this list as a guide to explore and discover which plants work best for you. The following herbs are traditionally used to support the overall health of the respiratory system.
Clary Sage has antibacterial, antifungal, anti-infectious, antispasmodic, and anti-inflammatory qualities. Like many other species of Sage, Clary Sage is supportive of the respiratory system, opening the chest and promoting deep breathing. It can be a very helpful aroma during times of illness or anxiety when it feels hard to breathe. It can also help clear out congestion from cold or flu symptoms, as well as asthma and other respiratory illnesses, due to its expectorant properties.
Mostly known as a common kitchen spice, Clove is also used in aromatic medicine as an incense and essential oil and makes a lovely ingredient in herbal tea blends. It has antiseptic, antibacterial, anti-fungal, and anti-viral properties. When burned as incense or consumed internally as a tea or tincture, Clove has been known to help protect against bacterial colonization of the lungs, which can cause pneumonia and other internal infections.
This renowned, historical resin has been used since ancient times to support both the respiratory and immune systems. Frankincense has analgesic, antibacterial, anti-infectious, anti-inflammatory, antiseptic, and expectorant properties. Many cultures would burn Frankincense around the dead or in infirmaries during times of plague to control the spread of disease. It has been traditionally used as both incense and tea to address various respiratory conditions such as bronchitis, asthma, sinusitis, and laryngitis, helping to fight off infection and support recovery.
Eucalyptus is antibacterial, anti-fungal, anti-infectious, anti-inflammatory, and an expectorant and a decongestant. The invigorating and refreshing aroma is believed to help clear sinuses and promote healthy breathing function. One research study suggests that Eucalyptus provides relief for cold and flu symptoms and other similar respiratory issues due to the anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidative properties of the high levels of the volatile compound eucalyptol found in the leaves .
Ginger is a warming, stimulating, and invigorating aromatic herb. The aroma can help open up the lungs, clear congestion, and stimulate the circulatory system. My favorite way to utilize the aromatic medicine of Ginger is by making an herbal steam with the fresh root.
Myrrh has a long, rich history with countless uses, including fighting off respiratory infections due to its anti-fungal, anti-infectious, anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, antiseptic, antiviral, and expectorant qualities. In Medieval times, it was burned around the sick to fight plagues and other airborne illnesses. Burned as incense, it has a strong effect on the respiratory system as an expectorant and is indicated for laryngitis, bronchitis, colds, coughs, asthma, and sore throat in Ayurvedic medicine. It also makes a wonderful ingredient in herbal chest rubs for respiratory relief.
This herb is opening for the airways, refreshing, and cleansing, with antibacterial and expectorant qualities. Peppermint contains high amounts of menthol, a volatile oil that offers antispasmodic actions, helping to soothe coughs and irritation. It also acts as a decongestant, soothing swollen membranes in the nose and clearing stuck mucus in the respiratory tract. For a more gentle but similar action, try Spearmint instead, which has lower levels of menthol (Peppermint contains about 40% menthol, while Spearmint only has about 0.5%).
Evergreens: Cedar, Juniper, Pine, and Fir
Conifer needles are naturally anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial and have expectorant properties. Evergreens have been traditionally used throughout the Northern Hemisphere in herbal steaming and fumigation to keep the immune system strong during winter months. Today, many cough drops and syrups are made using Pine extract for their ability to open the lungs, improve breathing, kill bacterial infections, and clear congestion.
Since ancient times, Oregano has been traditionally used to support the respiratory and immune systems. Its aromatics have antibacterial, anti-fungal, antiseptic, and anti-inflammatory properties. Oregano contains high levels of the volatile compound carvacrol, which helps cleanse the lungs and reduce inflammation and congestion in the respiratory tract, improving airflow. According to one scientific study, carvacrol has been shown to improve respiratory symptoms and lung function in patients with asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) .
Rosemary is antiviral, anti-inflammatory, and antimicrobial, with antiseptic and decongestant qualities. The aroma of Rosemary is considered a mucolytic expectorant, which means that it helps loosen and break up mucus that feels stuck in the airways. It can help clear the lungs, reduce congestion, and promote deeper breathing and is thought to be helpful for respiratory ailments such as sinusitis, bronchitis, and asthma.
For centuries, this herb has been traditionally used for congestion and coughs due to its antiseptic, antibacterial, antiviral, and expectorant qualities. Not only can the aroma help break up congestion, but it is also soothing, helping quell persistent coughs and calm the respiratory muscles.
Star Anise has been traditionally used to address many types of respiratory problems, including bronchitis, coughs, and asthma. As incense, its sharp, fresh, pungent qualities can help clear passageways in the sinuses, lungs, and brain, increasing energy and blood flow. In Ayurveda, Star Anise is traditionally used to expel phlegm and mucus from the respiratory tract due to its strong expectorant properties.
a breath of fresh air
In the pursuit of nurturing our respiratory health, the vibrant world of aromatic plants stands as an indispensable ally. The intricate dance of these botanicals with our respiratory system, emitting volatile compounds that aid in cleansing, soothing, and fortifying our lungs, is a testament to the potent healing properties nature has to offer.
There are countless profound ways aromatic plants support lung health, from their bronchodilator effects that ease and deepen breathing to their antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties that combat respiratory illnesses. These plants offer a natural, holistic approach to respiratory care. Their historical significance in mitigating plagues and modern-day research affirming their efficacy during ailments like colds, flu, and more, underscore their relevance in our lives.
Aromatic medicine can not only aid in soothing symptoms but also strengthen our overall health, helping us navigate the challenges posed by air quality, seasonal illnesses, and other respiratory adversities. Embracing the essence of aromatic plants is not merely about breathing easier but about embracing a holistic approach to well-being – one deeply rooted in nature's therapeutic embrace.
Article Written By Melissa Szaro
1. Horváth, G., & Ács, K. (2015). Essential oils in the treatment of respiratory tract diseases highlighting their role in bacterial infections and their anti-inflammatory action: a review. Flavour Fragr J. Sep;30(5):331-341. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7163989/
2. Shao, J., Yin, Z., Wang, Y., Yang, Y., Tang, Q., Zhang, M., ... Lu, J. (2020). Effects of different doses of Eucalyptus oil from Eucalyptus globulus labill on respiratory tract immunity and immune function in healthy rats. Front. Pharmacol. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.3389/fphar.2020.01287
3. Ghorani, V., Alavinezhad, A., Rajabi, O., & Boskabady, M.H. (2021). Carvacrol improves pulmonary function tests, oxidant/antioxidant parameters and cytokine levels in asthmatic patients: A randomized, double-blind, clinical trial. Phytomedicine. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1016/j.phymed.2021.153539
© 2023 The Northwest School of Aromatic Medicine. All rights reserved.
*The statements above have not been evaluated by the FDA, and are for educational purposes only. This article is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. This article should not be taken as medical advice. Please consult your physician before you use this information for health purposes.