The Truth About Herbal and Alternative Remedies for COPD

Do Alternative and Traditional Herbal Remedies for COPD Work?

Selection of herbs, including Rosemary, Dill, Lemon Balm, Mint, Lavender, Sage, Marjoram, Lungwort, Feverfew. Credit: Credit: Peter Anderson / Getty Images

Our ancestors looked to herbal remedies to provide effective treatment for many health conditions, either in-and-of themselves or as adjunct therapy to mainstream medicine. Yet, it's only in recent years that mainstream medicine has begun to fully examine and realize this possibility.

Although the effectiveness of herbal medicine has not yet been established beyond a reasonable doubt, herbal remedies for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) are increasing in popularity.

In this article, we'll look at some herbal therapies for COPD and some natural alternative therapies for COPD.

Brief History of Herbal Medicine

Herbs have been used and appreciated by man for medicinal purposes since the dawn of time. Depictions of medicinal herb use have been found in Chinese and Egyptian papyrus writings long before their use was ever recorded in the chronicles of medical history.

According to the Medical Journal of Australia, "herbs and spices have a traditional history of use, with strong roles in cultural heritage, and in the appreciation of food and its links to health." Additionally, there are claims that herbs have many medicinal properties that can alleviate symptoms and prevent disease.

The benefit of medicinal plants continues to provide new and important leads in the fight against many diseases, including HIV/AIDS, Alzheimer's, malaria and pain. Recently, several studies have even suggested that herbal remedies can help improve lung function in patients who have COPD.

Studies done among COPD and asthma patients who used alternative medicine suggest that two of the main reasons they use herbal remedies is because of their perceived harmlessness and symptomatic relief.

The following lists include several common herbal remedies believed to be beneficial for people with respiratory conditions and COPD.

Remember, however, the effects attributed to the different herbs are not, as of yet, scientifically proven. Always talk to your healthcare provider before taking any type of herbal or alternative treatment, as serious side effects may occur.

Comparison of Herbal Remedies for COPD

HerbConditions It's Used ForWhat the Research SaysPossible Side Effects
Echinacea

Used traditionally to prevent colds, flu and other infections.

Believed to stimulate immune system to help fight infection.

Less commonly used topically for wounds and other skin problems.

Study results are mixed, but most indicate it does not appear to prevent colds or other infections.

Some studies suggest that echinacea may be beneficial for treating upper respiratory infections (URIs).

The National Center for Complimentary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) continues to support the study of echinacea for the treatment of URIs and its potential benefit to the immune system.

Side effects of echinacea are uncommon.

When side effects do occur, they are usually related to common, gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms.

Can cause allergic reactions including rash, increased asthma symptoms and anaphylaxis.

People are more likely to have an allergic reaction if they are sensitive to plants in the daisy family.

People with asthma or atopy are more likely to have an allergic reaction to echinacea.

 

Asian Ginseng

Used traditionally to support overall health and the immune system.

May improve the health of people recovering from illness.

Has been used to gain increased stamina and a sense of well-being, improving both physical and mental performance.

Is believed to effectively treat erectile dysfunctionhepatitis C and menopausal symptoms.

May help control blood pressure and lower blood sugar.

May have the potential to treat people with chronic lung infections.

To date, research results have not been conclusive enough to prove efficacy. Further research is needed to support these claims. Most studies have been small or flawed to some degree. Some claims of health benefit have been based on the herb's effects on animals.

Some studies have shown that the herb helps lower blood glucose. Others support the herb's possible benefit to the immune system.

The NCCAM continues to support studies that will help better understand the health benefits of Asian ginseng.

Areas of further interest include its interaction with other drugs and it's potential to treat those with chronic lung infection, Alzheimer's and impaired glucose tolerance.

There have been reports that Asian ginseng causes high blood pressure, breast tenderness and menstrual irregularities.

These reports are currently unfounded and could have been caused by another medication or herbal product.

Licorice Root

Although licorice root is thought to be an effective expectorant, traditionally is has been used for sore throats, bronchitis, stomach ulcers and infections.

There is limited data to support the beneficial effects of licorice on lung health or stomach ulcers.

Several studies have indicated that the glycyrrhizin in licorice root may reduce complications from hepatitis C, but there is a lack of evidence to support this claim.

Large amounts of licorice root containing glycyrrhizin may cause high blood pressure, sodium and water retention and low potassium levels. This can lead to heart problems. DLG is believed to have fewer side effects.

The safe use of licorice root for more than four to six weeks has not been thoroughly investigated.

When taken in large doses, licorice root can affect the hormone levels in the body. This includes cortisol levels (the body's own, natural hormone) or levels of steroid medication such as prednisone.

Pregnant women should not use licorice root or consume products containing licorice because of the risk of preterm labor.

Astragalus Root

Used historically along with other herbs to support and enhance the immune system. Very popular in China in treating hepatitis C and as an adjunct treatment for cancer.

Thought to be beneficial in treating the common cold, upper respiratory infections and heart disease.

There is limited, supporting evidence for using astragalus root for any health condition. However, there is some evidence (from small or preliminary studies) that suggests it may improve heart function and benefit the immune system.

There is some evidence to support that the root, used in combination with the herb, glossy privit, may be beneficial as an adjunct treatment for cancer, but these studies were not well-defined.

The NCCAM is helping to fund studies which are examining the health benefits of astragalus root, particularly on the immune system.

Generally considered safe for most adults, however, it is possible that this information is limited because the herb is generally used in combination with other herbal products.

May interact with other medications that suppress the immune system, such as the drug cyclophosphamide.

People should avoid using certain astragalus species such as "locoweed" that are grown in the United States.

Ginger

Ginger has been used in Chinese medicine to treat GI problems, including stomach ache, nausea and diarrhea. It has also been used for rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis and diarrhea.

Many over-the-counter digestive, anti-nausea and cold and flu supplements contain ginger extract as an ingredient.

Some studies suggest that ginger is helpful in preventing pregnancy-induced nausea and vomiting but are mixed as far as ginger being effective for relieving nausea caused by motion sickness, chemotherapy or surgery.

It remains unclear whether ginger actually benefits rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis or joint and muscle pain.

The NCCAM continues to investigate whether ginger interacts with other drugs, such as those used to suppress the immune system. It is also examining if it is safe and effective to use for other health purposes, its potential anti-inflammatory benefits and if it is useful in reducing nausea in patients on chemotherapy.

When taken in small doses, few side effects have been reported.

The side effects that were reported were generally associated with the powdered form and included bloating, heartburn, and nausea.

More on These Herbal Remedies and COPD

Echinacea
Used for centuries to boost the immune system, echinacea is thought to help prevent upper respiratory infections related to the flu and common cold, reduce swollen lymph glands, and help soothe sore throats. One study found that using Esberitox® N, a liquid extract made from echinacea, and two other herbs, helped to improve FEV1.

Asian Ginseng
Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) teaches us that ginseng has its own, unique healing powers. In one, double-blind study, Panex ginseng was found to be far superior to that of placebo in improving lung function, including FEV1. Several other studies compared the Shen Mai injection, in which the main ingredient was Panex ginseng, to no treatment at all. Significant improvements were found in all outcomes, including FEV1 and vital capacity.

Licorice Root
Peeled licorice root is available in dry or powdered forms. Licorice root also comes in pill form or as a liquid extract. It can also be found with glycyrrhizin (the main, sweet tasting compound in licorice) removed. This type of product is known as deglycyrrhizinated licorice or DLG.

Astragalus Root
A staple of Chinese medicine, astragalus root has been used for centuries to boost the immune system and treat many common ailments. The root of this plant is typically used in soups, teas, capsules or liquid extracts.

Ginger
This spicy herb is also thought to be extremely beneficial to lung health as many believe it contains powerful antioxidants and natural antibiotics to help our bodies fight off infection. Ginger may also help eliminate congestion and ease a sore throat.

Antioxidants and COPD

Antioxidants are naturally occurring or synthetic substances that help protect cells from the damaging effects of free radicals, highly reactive compounds created during normal cell metabolism. Although the beneficial relationship between antioxidants and COPD remains unclear, there is some clinical evidence to support that antioxidants may have important health benefits. More on antioxidants and COPD »

Pet Therapy and COPD

Pet therapy, or animal-assisted therapy, involves the use of furry animals or other creatures to help people cope with the emotional effects of a disease or illness. While the use of pet therapy for COPD has not yet been established, there are some conclusions that we can draw from other types of research that has focused on the chronically and mentally ill, the elderly and persons who are disabled. More on pet therapy and COPD »

The Bottom Line

There exists on the horizon the possibility that herbs may someday play a more substantial role in the treatment of COPD. Until then, much more information must be gathered and extreme caution used when taking any form of medication, traditional or alternative.

Sources:

Argüder E, Bavbek S, Sen E, et.al. Is there any difference in the use of complementary and alternative therapies in patients asthma and COPD? A cross-sectional survey. J Asthma. 2009 Apr;46(3):252-8

Balunasa, M. and Kinghornb, D. Drug discovery from medicinal plants. doi:10.1016/j.lfs.2005.09.012.

Lai PK, Roy J. Antimicrobial and chemopreventative properties of herbs and spices. Cur Med Chem. 2004 Jun:11(11):1451-60.

National Center for Complimentary and Alternative Medicine. Index page updated 2009, July 29. http://nccam.nih.gov

R. Guo, M. H. Pittler and E. Ernst. Herbal medicines for the treatment of COPD: a systematic review. Eur Respir J 2006; 28:330-338.

Tapsell LC, Hemphill I, Cobiac L, Patch CS, et.al. The Health benefits of herbs and spices: the past, the present, the future. Med J Aust. 2006 Aug 21;185(4 Suppl):S4-24.

Wong, Cathy, About.com Guide to Alternative Medicine. Ginseng. Updated 2007, September 20.

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