Now is a great time to prepare for the cold and flu season by stocking up your herbal apothecary and strengthening your medicinal plant knowledge. That way, you’ll be ready to soothe and support yourself (or someone you love) with herbs at the first indication of illness.
One of the most frustrating cold symptoms is a stuffy nose. Instead of using an over-the-counter nose spray with some hard-to-pronounce ingredients to attempt to combat the congestion, why not try a time tested tradition? Herbal steaming is not only a popular beauty regimen – it’s an age-old therapy commonly used for it’s wide-ranging medicinal benefits, including respiratory system support and easing cold and flu symptoms.
There are many ways to herbal steam, but in this article, you’ll learn about some of the most common methods that you can easily do at home, plus a handful of popular plants to use in herbal steams and their bountiful health benefits. You’ll also get a lovely herbal steam recipe to try yourself at home!
The History of Steaming
Medicinal steam baths have a rich, ancient history across many cultures. Steam bathing was a big part of daily life for the ancient Greeks and Romans . Herbal steaming therapy is practiced in Traditional Chinese Medicine for a wide variety of health issues. Sweat lodges known as temazcales are utilized throughout Mexico, Central and South America, in which water is poured over hot, volcanic rock to create steam for cleansing and relaxation. In Russia, the Banya (a type of sauna that uses steam) is yet another traditional way people have benefited from steam and the occasional added aromatic plants, like evergreen needles.
All of these practices often incorporate herbs, oils, and other natural elements to elevate the steam’s cleansing and healing abilities . These days, steam rooms are quite common in local spas as a way to naturally promote health and wellness. Inhaling warm steam is widely believed to be healing to the respiratory system, opening the lungs and helping ease feelings of irritation and inflammation in the nasal passages.
Herbal Steaming Basics
Herbal steaming involves placing aromatic plants, fresh or dried, in a large pot of water, then bringing it to a boil. This acts as a type of distillation, releasing the plant’s volatile compounds and essential oils into the surrounding atmosphere.
Steam is naturally opening, warming, and moistening, and can gently penetrate the mucosa of the body. The steam from heated water unlocks and mixes with a plant’s volatile oils, which helps the aromatics enter the body in a gentle but localized way . While herbal steaming, you are breathing in a plant’s aromatic oils along with warm, soothing steam, both of which have positive effects on your respiratory system.
Benefits of Herbal Steaming
Herbal steaming offers a wide-range of health benefits, which differ depending on the application and types of medicinal plants used. Oftentimes this practice is directed towards a specific part of the body, like the face, but the steam can also simply be intentionally dissipated into the surrounding atmosphere for a less localized effect.
Herbal Facial Steam
This is the most common type of herbal steaming. It’s performed by creating a sort of tent over the head with a bath towel to direct the steam upwards towards the face. There is an art to this type of application and it’s important to educate yourself on how to perform it safely (find the recipe below for specific safety instructions).
This method is often used for respiratory system support, helping to ease congestion, allergies, sinus infections, and other cold and flu symptoms. It can help clear mucus and open up the nasal passages, throat, and lungs . Just like with incense or essential oils, herbal steam therapy can also potentially help with stress and anxiety, nervous system issues, insomnia, and various other respiratory issues, and can help fortify the immune system, depending on which herbs are selected.
Furthermore, herbal facial steams are also commonly used to support skin health, since it naturally helps open and cleanse pores, and can also promote perspiration, allowing dirt and bacteria to be released, which can help reduce acne and skin blemishes. It’s also highly hydrating and helps increase circulation, giving the skin a lighter and brighter look.
Atmospheric Herbal Steam
Instead of directing the herbal steam to a specific body part, you can simply allow the herbs to simmer on the stovetop and the steam to fill the atmosphere in a specific room or your entire home. You could also try this method in the bathroom, by putting aromatic plants into the bathtub or hanging some in your shower. When you bathe or shower, the steam from the hot water will interact with the plants to release their aromas and medicines.
These methods can have similar respiratory and immune system benefits compared to facial steaming, but will be more subtle since the steam is dispersed and not as localized. Many aromatic herbs are antimicrobial, antiviral, and antiseptic, and when distilled in this way, can kill bacteria and other pathogens in the surrounding atmosphere, effectively cleansing, purifying, and increasing the air quality.
One scientific study showed that in 1 hour the aerial bacterial population in a confined space exposed to smoke from burning wood and a mixture of aromatic and medicinal herbs decreased by 94%. The smoke’s ability to disinfect the air was maintained for up to 24 hours . As smoke and steam are both comparable vessels that carry aromatic medicines, atmospheric herbal steaming can also be an effective practice to help cleanse and purify the air in your home.
10 Popular Plants to Use in Herbal Steams
Naturally antiviral and antiseptic, and acts as a great decongestant. Its warming properties help to increase circulation.
Citrus peels (Lemon, Lime, Orange, and Grapefruit)
Highly antiseptic and antibacterial, these fruity aromatics can help break up mucus and ease congestion.
A natural expectorant, meaning it can help clear congestion and soothe coughs. It’s also highly antiseptic and warming, like Cinnamon.
Conifer needles (Fir, Pine, Spruce and Cypress)
All of these are naturally antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory and expectorant.
Notorious for providing respiratory and immune system support, Eucalyptus is antibacterial, anti-fungal, anti-infectious, anti-inflammatory, an expectorant, and a decongestant. Backed by scientific research, its anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidative properties can help provide relief for cold and flu symptoms and other similar respiratory issues like bronchitis, asthma, and sinusitis, and other issues that relate to congested airways.
Highly antiseptic and antibacterial plant which can also help relieve stress, anxiety, and insomnia associated with being sick.
Mint (Peppermint and Spearmint)
Mints are naturally antibacterial and expectorants. Peppermint is much stronger, so use Spearmint when looking for a more gentle approach.
Since the time of the ancient Greeks, this plant has been traditionally used for its ability to support the respiratory and immune systems. Its aromatics contain a high concentration of both carvacrol and thymol, two chemical compounds that contribute to its antibacterial, anti-fungal, antiseptic, and anti-inflammatory properties .
Highly antiseptic decongestant that’s great at opening the airways. It also has antiviral, anti-inflammatory, and antimicrobial properties.
Highly antiseptic, antibacterial and antiviral, this plant is an expectorant and has been used for centuries for chest congestion and coughs.
Decongesting Herbal Facial Steam Recipe
As previously mentioned, there are many benefits of herbal steaming, however, this specific recipe is for soothing congestion. This simple, DIY method is something you can easily try at home.
1 large pot with lid
Stovetop or hot plate
1 medium size bath towel
½ cup Conifer needles
¼ cup Peppermint or Spearmint
¼ cup Rosemary
Handful of Citrus peels
- Collect your conifer needles. Many people have conifers growing nearby and wild-harvesting them can be a fun way to spend some time out in nature. Fir, Pine, Spruce, Cypress, Juniper and Cedar are all great choices for this recipe. Make sure you properly identify before harvesting. (You could also get conifer needles at your local herb shop or online.)
- Bring 8 cups of water to a boil.
- Remove from heat and add all ingredients. Gently stir then cover the pot. Allow to steep for 10 minutes.
- Remove the lid. Create a “tent” by draping the towel over your head and allowing its ends to encircle the edges of the pot. The towel will help hold the steam in and direct it towards your face.
- With your eyes closed (strong aromatics and heat can cause your eyes to burn!) and face 8-12 inches away from the hot water, breathe in the aromatic medicine for up to 10 minutes. Be mindful to not get too close to the steam!
Notes: Herbal steaming is not recommended for children 12 and under .
Recipe recommendations are for fresh plant material, however, you can also use the same measurements for dried herbs. Use fresh or dried plant material, whatever you have access to. If using dried herbs, it may make the recipe slightly stronger, so use a pinch less then the recipe calls for if you have sensitive skin.
Optional: Feel free to add other aromatic plants that you feel inspired by. If it's an atmospheric herbal steam you’re looking for, bring the water to boil and add the ingredients. Keeping the pot on the burner, you can either turn off the heat, or turn it to very low, allowing it to simmer on the hot stovetop for several hours.
Alternatively, essential oils can also be used in place of or in addition to whole plants. Only 1-2 drops of essential oil added to hot water is needed as the steam causes them to volatilize quickly, which can be too intense on the sinuses and eyes if you exceed that dosage.
Herbal steaming is a time-honored tradition that not only connects us to our ancient history, but to plant medicine as well. For centuries, steam and herbs have been used for therapeutics and natural healing, and when combining the two together, they act in synergy – boosting each other’s potential benefits. Herbal steaming offers a simple and natural way to boost your immune system, support your respiratory health, and ease any cold and flu symptoms you may experience this winter.
By no means is this article to be considered medical advice. If you become ill it's important to follow advice from your doctor. The viruses circulating the globe at this time are very serious and we are not recommending that you rely on this type of treatment solely. Herbal steaming should be considered a supplemental application to other therapies in serious cases of disease or illness.
Article Written By Melissa Szaro
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© 2021 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.