Herbal and Alternative Remedies for COPD

There is limited evidence that herbal remedies offer significant relief.

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

Herbs have long been used and appreciated by man for medicinal purposes. Depictions of medicinal herbs have been found in ancient Chinese and Egyptian writings long before their use was documented in modern medical history.

Medicinal plants continue to provide new and important leads in the fight against many diseases, including HIV/AIDS, Alzheimer's, malaria, and chronic pain. Several studies have even suggested that herbal remedies can help improve lung function in patients who have COPD.

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

Herbs That May Help Symptoms of COPD

The following list includes several common herbal remedies believed to ease respiratory conditions and COPD. Remember, however, the effects of these 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.

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) believes that ginseng has its own unique healing powers. In one double-blind study, Panex ginseng was found to be far superior in improving lung function than the placebo, 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. Licorice root without glycyrrhizin 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 extract. 

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 as well as ease sore throats.

Examining the Evidence

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

Used traditionally to prevent colds, flu, and other infections.

Believed to stimulate the immune system to help fight infection.

Less commonly used 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 Complementary 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.

It can also cause allergic reactions including rash, increased asthma symptoms, and anaphylaxis.

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

If you have asthma or atopy, you are more likely to have an allergic reaction.

 

Asian Ginseng

Used traditionally to support overall health and the immune system.

May improve your health if you are recovering from an illness.

Has been used to increase stamina and improve 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 able to prove ginseng is effective. Most studies have been small or flawed to some degree and some claims have been based on the herb's effect on animals. 

Some studies have shown that ginseng 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 its potential to treat chronic lung infections, 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 it 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 caused by hepatitis C, but there isn't enough 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 as well as levels of steroid medications such as prednisone.

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

Astragalus Root

This type of root has been 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 suggest 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 fund studies examining the health benefits of astragalus root, particularly on the immune system.

It is 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.

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 stomachaches, nausea, and diarrhea. It has also been used for rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis.

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

Some studies suggest that ginger is helpful in preventing pregnancy-induced nausea and vomiting, but are mixed as far as ginger being an effective treatment for 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. The

y are also examining its potential anti-inflammatory benefits and if it is useful in reducing chemotherapy-related nausea.

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

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

 

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. 

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 Complementary and Alternative Medicine. Index page updated 2009, July 29. 

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.

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