Asthma Herbal Medicine: Treating Asthma With Herbs

Asthma Herbal Medicine: What You Need To Know About Asthma Herbal Medicine

Herbal Supplements
Treating asthma with herbs. LHJB Photography / Getty Images

In treating asthma, herbal medicine is commonly used. Herbal medicine is the use of plants or plant extracts to promote health and while not widely used by medical practitioners, between one-third and one-half of patients admit to using herbal products to treat their asthma.

Herbs purported to improve asthma include:

  • Khella or Bishop's Weed (Ammi Visnaga)
  • Ma-Huang (Ephedra Sinica)
  • Pleurisy Root (Asclepias Tuberosa)
  • Dried ivy (Hedera helix L.
  • Xiaoqinglong decoction, a Chinese herbal medicine
  • Ginkgo biloba
  • Feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium)
  • Kava

Alternative Asthma Treatments Are Popular

Nearly 6 in 10 patients with asthma report using some sort of complementary or alternative asthma (CAM) treatment. While the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine does not endorse any specific complementary or alternative asthma treatments, nearly three quarters of a million patients will use some sort CAM treatment for their asthma.

Many patients turn to CAM because they are frustrated with their chronic illness and simply do not want another medication for their asthma symptoms. Fristrated patients say they often feel that more medication is all that modern medicine seems to offer them. All they want is for their symptoms to be prevented.

Consider Theses Key Points Before Turning To Herbs For Your Asthma

Make sure that you review these key points before embarking on a herbal treatment for your asthma:

  • CAM practices such as herbs do not replace regular medical treatment. Herbs should not be used instead of your controller or rescue medication.
  • Before embarking on a herbal treatment talk with your regular asthma doctor. Complementary treatments may help, but will certainly not replace the treatment you receive from from your asthma doctor.
  • Discuss any herbal treatment with your doctor before starting it. Like you controller and rescue medication, herbal treatments have side effects and may have interactions with your other medications that you will want to be aware of.
  • You should not use herbal treatments instead of seeing regular doctor or trying to avoid an emergency visit.

The Bottom Line

While there is some evidence of objective improvements in measures of peak flow and airway parameters like resistance with the use of herbs for asthma, the evidence does not currently support using herbal medicine as a primary or adjunctive asthma therapy. Because of the number of patients using herbal products, more randomized controlled trials evaluating how well herbal treatments improve asthma are needed.

The Evidence

Hoffman’s review of dried ivy (Hedera helix L.) in the treatment of asthma found improvements in how much air could move through the lungs using whole body plethysmography in 3 different randomized controlled trials, the gold standard for determining the effectiveness of a drug.

However, a definitive recommendation regarding the use of dried ivy as a treatment for asthma could not be made due to the small number of studies. Zhang used Xiaoqinglong decoction, a Chinese herbal medicine, as a complementary, adjunctive therapy with fluticasone in a randomized, controlled trial and found improvements in both lung function and airway resistance among patients treated with the combined treatment regimen. While other trials have showed some improvement in asthma function with Tylophora indica and Saiboku-to, there is still insufficient evidence to recommend these treatments.

What About Side effects?

Surprisingly, there is a tremendous lack of information about the safety of herbal products. Because herbal treatments are deemed ‘nutritional supplements’ and not medicines by the FDA, they are not regulated to the same extent as medications. Companies producing herbal supplements do not have to prove that they are effective, as medications must. Similarly, in order to remove a herbal supplement from the U.S. market, it must be first proved unsafe as opposed to medications which must prove safety before gaining approval. Because herbs are marketed as supplements, companies cannot make specific health claims related to herbal products.

A number of herbal products are known to have side effects:

  • Ginkgo biloba: bleeding
  • Ma-Huang (Ephedra Sinica): Hypertension, insomnia, arrhythmia, headache, seizure, stroke, heart attack
  • Kava: Sedation, Parkinsons-like effects


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