With allergy season in full swing and respiratory issues an omnipresent concern, respiratory health is a hot topic. So we decided now is a great time to share some natural tips for taking good preventive care of your respiratory system, as well as simple natural remedies to help ease some of the mild symptoms that are common this time of year.
Preventive Strategies to Promote Respiratory Health
The best prevention for respiratory problems is of course to avoid potential allergens and microbes that contribute to them. However, this isn’t always practical or even possible. That’s why it’s also important to incorporate specific health practices and natural solutions that support the foundations of respiratory and immune health in your life, so you can decrease your chances of experiencing respiratory issues in the first place.
Many allergy sufferers wonder if allergy testing is necessary for prevention. It can be beneficial for identifying specific allergens, if only for arming you with the intel of knowing what to avoid. That’s especially true if you have severe seasonal allergies and feel like it’s never safe to go outside. However, whether or not you know which plants are triggers for you, there are still a lot of preventive measures you can take to keep nasal and chest congestion at bay.
1. Be Strategic About Outside Time.
In many areas of the United States, seasonal allergies begin as early as February and last through the fall. Tree pollination begins earliest in the year, followed by grass pollination later in the spring and summer, and ragweed in the late summer and fall.
Weather and time of day play a key role in allergen levels, according to the College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology. Here are some basic guidelines for knowing how to avoid peak pollen count times while still getting some time outside each day:
- On days with no wind, airborne allergens from trees, grasses, and ragweeds are typically grounded.
- On windy and warm days, pollen counts are more likely to surge.
- In spring and summer, during tree and grass pollen season, allergen levels are highest in the evening.
- In late summer and early fall, during ragweed pollen season, levels are highest in the morning.
If you know which plants trigger your allergies, you can go as far as tracking pollination counts where you live for the most common plants. Check sites like the National Allergy Bureau to follow pollen readings regularly. For example, pollen counts for oaks, sweet gums, and pines along with grasses have been very high lately in North Carolina, where Vital Plan is based.
If you are particularly sensitive, it’s ideal to wear a N-95 filter mask when mowing the lawn or doing other chores outdoors. But given that these are understandably in high demand at the moment and should be reserved for healthcare workers, a simple cloth face mask or handkerchief will provide at least some degree of protection and reduce exposure.
While it can take a bit of extra effort, it’s important to find ways to still get outside when you can. Time outside with nature is one of the best, though subtle, ways to boost the immune system. That’s thanks to the mood lifting and anti-inflammatory benefits of sunshine, fresh air, and simply being in close proximity to certain plants and natural environments.
2. Minimize Allergens in Your House.
With so many people spending more (or all of their) time at home right now, taking the following measures to minimize your exposure to allergens can help keep your respiratory system healthy:
- Change your HVAC air filters regularly.
- Keep windows and doors closed during peak pollen count times.
- Clean your house regularly, making sure to wipe down surfaces that collect dust and pollen.
- After you’ve been outside, promptly remove your shoes at the door, take a shower, and put the clothes you were wearing in the wash so the allergens don’t follow you around your home. If your dog was outdoors with you, wipe down its fur with a damp cloth as soon as you come inside to remove allergens as well.
- If your allergies are severe, consider using a vacuum with a HEPA filter, and using a HEPA air filter in your bedroom.
3. Build Up Your Lung Health.
Make sure to weave cardiovascular activity into your life to oxygenate and nourish your lungs while strengthening the muscles responsible for breathing and expanding your lung capacity. Whatever you can do, do it, and aim to be active at least three times per week or more if possible.
Whether it’s high-intensity interval training, low-intensity steady-state cardio workouts, taking a vigorous walk, or swimming laps, being active will help tone and strengthen your lungs, making them more resilient and resistant to whatever comes their way.
There are also a wide variety of breathing exercises that can enhance cardiovascular fitness and expand and strengthen the lungs. One simple exercise involves simply taking slow, deep breaths in and out:
1. As you breathe in, feel your torso expanding in all directions, allowing expansion in the low belly, back, and sides of the chest, and even feel your collar bones lifting.
2. As you breath out, feel everything contract in the opposite direction, squeezing all the air out of the lungs.
3. Continue breathing this way for 1-2 minutes.
4. Counting the length of the inhales and exhales will help you gauge the depth of your breathing, and it’s a good way to gradually, and gently, expand your lung capacity over time. A four- to six-second count is a great place to start for most people.
Breathing practices like these are a great way to feel calmed and energized from the exchange of vitalizing oxygen and removal of gaseous wastes. You’ll also notice your posture improve as your body makes more space to be filled with air.
Lastly, quitting smoking and minimizing exposure to smoke, smog, hazardous chemicals, and other air pollutants are foundational to good respiratory health as well.
4. Eat Anti-inflammatory Foods.
Low level, chronic inflammation can lead to a variety of health issues, and it puts a constant load on your immune system to process and dispose of inflammatory debris. Reducing your inflammatory load is key to giving your immune system a break and optimizing its ability to handle immune challenges presented in the respiratory tract, whether it’s allergenic or infectious in nature.
For most people, minimizing or avoiding foods that cause inflammation — refined carbohydrates, alcohol, sugar, fried foods, and processed foods — will go a long way in cutting down on their inflammatory load. Replace those foods with more veggies and fruit, nearly all of which have anti-inflammatory properties thanks to their high levels of antioxidants.
Anti-inflammatory foods also support the gut microbiome and intestinal lining, which plays a key role in minimizing food sensitivities — another common source of upper respiratory congestion for many people. Though it may take a couple of weeks for the impacts to fully set in, you should certainly notice a difference in your overall sense of well-being.
You may also have heard of some people supplementing with a flavonoid called quercetin, which has been well studied for benefits including support for inflammation, allergies, and beyond. Did you know quercetin is also found in many foods? Some of the most quercetin-rich foods are apples, red onions, leafy vegetables, broccoli, peppers, grapes, black tea, and green tea.
Last but not least, blueberries are particularly beneficial for supporting respiratory health. Blueberries contain not only quercetin, but also other compounds that help decrease allergic responses by reducing production of histamine (a compound that plays a key role in causing many of the symptoms of allergies) and stabilizing mast cells where histamine is stored.
5. Take Immune Amphoteric Herbs.
Another component of colds, flus, and seasonal allergies is the likelihood of your body having an excessive immune response.
Normally, in the body’s effort to deal with a foreign invader (i.e. allergens, viruses, and/or bacteria), it mounts an attack, sending white blood cells to battle and producing mucus to flush out the intruder. Some of this immune response is necessary and helpful.
But if the immune system isn’t functioning optimally, its response can be too strong and spin out of control quickly, and inflammation and mucus production start to soar. This can lead to inflamed and congested tissues in the sinuses, throat, and lungs.
Taking antihistamine medications can sometimes help deal with the symptoms that ensue. But what about addressing the way the immune system responds in the first place — the root cause? For this, a special group of herbs known as immune amphoterics (think amphibious) can be particularly helpful.
Immune amphoterics, when used consistently, have the special ability to promote normalized, healthy immune function. And when the immune system has its normal self-regulating control, excessive immune responses are less likely to happen — or they’re less severe if they do occur.
Immune amphoterics support the natural intelligence of your amazing body. Some that fit this description include reishi mushroom, maitake mushroom (which are great cooked), ashwagandha, licorice root, astragalus, and cordyceps. Taking a selection of immune amphoterics on a regular basis, especially during the six weeks (or more) leading up to allergy or cold and flu season, can be a great measure to support optimal immune function and keep congestion and other aggravating symptoms in check. Don’t expect an overnight turn around, but with persistent use, these herbs can have cumulative benefits that ripple into many areas of your well-being.
6. Take Antimicrobial Herbs, Too.
Antimicrobial herbs can provide a wide array of antiviral, antibacterial, antifungal properties, and typically without any detriment to the beneficial natural flora found in the human body. For optimal support, use them at lower doses during times when infection is more likely.
Some of our favorite antimicrobial herbs include:
- Prickly ash
- Cat’s claw
- Red sage
- Japanese knotweed
How to Ease Chest Congestion and Other Mild Symptoms
We all get sick or experience allergies at some point, so having some natural options handy that you can combine with other remedies to help relieve your symptoms may help you get through it more painlessly. While colds, flus, and seasonal allergies each have their own unique causes and array of symptoms, they all share three qualities:
1. A high potential for some sort of congestion caused by mucus build up
2. The need to calm an excessive immune response
3. In the case of colds and flus, the need to fight off a viral or bacterial infection
Being congested and unable to breath through your nose is exhausting, both mentally and physically. Eating takes twice the effort as you fight for air between bites, and there is something pacifying to the nervous system about being able to breath through the nose as we usually do when we are healthy. In fact, this calming quality is one of the reasons that most breathing exercises are done through the nostrils, not to mention the numerous ways that nose breathing (as compared to mouth breathing) enhances brain function and promotes tranquility in the body.
Even as you make do by breathing through your mouth alone, having post-nasal drip will aggravate your throat and lungs and cause the airways to compete for adequate airflow. This only improves the chances for bacteria that favor low-oxygen environments to flourish.
The last thing you need is another infection or more stress on your body, so the primary order of business is to loosen up that phlegm and get it out. This is especially true if it’s thickening due to either cold temperatures or dry air, which will only make easy breaths fewer and farther between. Here are some ways to start the clearing process.
1. Make a Steam Tent.
One easy option is to make a steam tent to soothe your airways and soften phlegm. Here’s how it works:
1. Boil about a quart of water.
2. Pour the water into a heatsafe bowl. Make sure the water is hot enough that it’s producing ample steam, but not so hot that it’ll burn your face or airways.
3. [Optional] If you have lavender, eucalyptus, or peppermint essential oil, you can add a drop to the bowl to add a pleasant aroma and help clear your airways more quickly.
4. Cover your head with a large towel, and lean over the bowl of steaming water to make a tent. Adjust the distance of your face from the water based on how hot the water is.
5. Take slow, deep breaths in and out. If your sinuses are clogged, start by breathing in and out just through your mouth. Soon, as the phlegm starts to exit, you’ll find you are able to exhale out of your nose. Eventually as everything clears, you may be able to inhale and exhale through the nose.
6. Do this for 5-15 minutes until the water is no longer steaming or you’ve sufficiently cleared out your airways.
Again, adding one of the essential oils is completely optional. However, an added benefit is that all three (lavender, eucalyptus, peppermint) have antiviral properties that can help fight respiratory infections when they are inhaled in the steam.
If you don’t have essential oils handy, you can use herbs from your spice cabinet — dried thyme, rosemary, and oregano also have antiviral properties. Simply add 1-2 tablespoons of one of those herbs to the just-boiled water, and then breathe in the steam as the herb steeps.
2. Enjoy the Right Foods, Spices, and Teas.
Foods and spices can also play an important role in helping break up mucus. For example, eating pineapple will give you some mild phlegm-fighting power thanks to an enzyme found in pineapple called bromelain, which is known to have mucolytic properties.
Spices and herbs like cayenne, ginger, turmeric, cinnamon, dried orange peel, and licorice root can also help loosen up dried phlegm by promoting blood flow to the body, especially the lungs, and depending on the herb, by either warming or moistening your mucous membranes. Look to add these herbs into your cooking or to teas.
If you don’t have dried orange peel handy, the next time you peel an organic orange, simply wash and save the peel and then let it dry slowly out of direct sunlight in a low humidity environment. If you have a food dehydrator, that will make the job even easier. Once the orange peel is dry, you can break it up into small pieces and add it to your teas such as the ginger tea recipe below. You’ll add warming and expectorating qualities, not too mention a pleasant aroma and taste.
Ginger tea is a Vital Plan favorite when dealing with inflammatory ailments, as it can help support healthy circulation in the respiratory system to loosen and clear phlegm as well. Check out our fresh ginger tea recipe here.
If you don’t have fresh ginger on hand, no worries! You can also use ginger powder to make tea. Here’s how.
Ginger Powder Tea:
1. Add 1 tsp ginger powder to a cup of just-boiled water.
2. Stir, then cover and let steep for 15 minutes (or longer if you like it stronger.)
3. Sip and enjoy.
4. Feel free to either leave the powder at the bottom of the cup when you get there, or you can swallow the ginger powder for maximum benefit.
3. Turn to Your Antimicrobial Herbs Again.
If you are fighting an active infection from a virus or bacteria, step one is always to consult your healthcare provider about the best course of action. Depending on your specific situation, it may be helpful to use the antimicrobial herbs listed above (see “Take Antimicrobial Herbs, Too”) as an adjunctive therapy.
Like all herbs, antimicrobial herbs have multiple therapeutic properties, so you’ll notice that several of them are also immune amphoterics (described above) and immunoregulators (see below).
Most of the antimicrobial herbs on our list are typically available only in tincture or capsule form, however garlic is readily available in most kitchens. Because it’s so accessible, here’s more information about using this kitchen staple, with tips for simple preparation at home.
Crushed or chopped garlic releases a volatile compound called allicin, which is primarily responsible for its antimicrobial properties. Unfortunately, allicin rapidly breaks down, so it must either be consumed quickly or somehow stabilized.
While garlic may be taken as a supplement or as food, no matter how you take it, it’s important to maximize the amount of allicin you get. In supplement form, it’s best to look for a product that’s been stabilized and standardized to about 1% allicin.
While cooked garlic does retain some of its antimicrobial benefits, much of the enzyme called alliinase (responsible for converting alliin into allicin) is destroyed by heat, so it’s much more potent when used raw. To maximize the content of allicin in fresh garlic, it’s best to mince or crush the garlic and then let it sit for 5 – 10 minutes, allowing time for the alliin to convert to allicin. Be sure to consume it soon thereafter before the allicin breaks down.
Unfortunately, many people find garlic has too strong of a taste and can sometimes aggravate the stomach when taken straight. If that’s true for you, and in order to better preserve garlic’s therapeutic qualities, you might consider making a simple garlic syrup to use at home.
1. Mince or crush 3-4 cloves of garlic and add it to a jar.
2. To the jar, add ⅔ cup honey and the juice of one whole lemon.
3. Blend the mixture in a blender or food processor or mix well with a whisk until smooth and store in the fridge.
4. Take 1 tsp straight or in tea, three times daily.
4. Look to Immunoregulatory Herbs.
Immunoregulatory herbs have the unique ability to promote normal immune response without being immunosuppressive. And when your immune response is on an even keel, you don’t overproduce mucus that can overwhelm the respiratory system.
Herbs in this category include:
If you’re experiencing chest or nasal congestion, experimenting with any number of these tips can help you promote good respiratory health. With continued efforts to minimize the allergen or infectious threat that’s causing your symptoms, and to simultaneously support your immune system, you should be on your way to easier breathing.