The fire season is being viewed in a new light. Smoke exposure is becoming the norm in California and other parts of the country. Not only do wildfires affect the environment and people’s homes and livelihood, they also create a challenge for public health.

Fire smoke in the air contains particulates from burning trees and other material. The fallout from the flames (such as ash) can get stuck in people’s nose and eyes leading to irritation, headaches, sore throat, and more. There are also fine particles present in the smoke that cannot be seen by the naked eye. The invisible debris is generally what causes the greatest health issues. These particles can enter the lungs and could potentially end up in the bloodstream. The elderly, children, pregnant women, and those who have underlying lung or heart conditions are at the greatest risk.

Oftentimes, challenging situations can bring reminders to turn to nature. One may arm themselves with plant medicine to strengthen and build resilience during the fire season. Outlined below are six herb and mushroom remedies to support your lungs and body from smoke exposure and related issues.

Mullein- (Verbascum thapsus)

Mullein- (Verbascum thapsus)

Mullein has long been used in Asia and North America as a treatment for lung ailments. One of the most common components of herbal cough formulas, the plant is both moistening and drying. Mullein brings moisture parched lungs to lubricates their mucosa. The plant  releases stagnancy, opens air passages, and reduces chest tightness. Mullein’s anti-inflammatory properties act as an expectorant for bronchitis, asthma, tuberculosis, and other chest complaints.

Mullein is commonly imbibed as a tea or used as a healing smoke. In India, inhaling the plant’s leaves was believed to drive away ghosts from children. Many people report the benefits of mullein as a smooth base for smoking blends (maybe adding a bit of cannabis in the mix). But others may frown on breathing in more smoke when faced with wildfire haze. If that is the case, take mullein as an infusion, tincture, or as part of cough syrup.

Old Man’s Beard (Usnea barbata)

Usnea is a lichen, which arises from a symbiotic relationship with fungi, yeast, and algae. It grows in whitish-green clumps hanging off of trees. The doctrine of signatures demonstrates its resemblance to the bronchial passageway. It fits the lichen’s reputation for clearing up almost any type of respiratory tract infection. Research has demonstrated that Usnea is highly effective against tuberculosis and bronchitis. Even more serious infections like pneumonia may respond positively to an Usnea preparation.

Usnea may benefit persistent or chronic lung infections and stand-in for traditional antibiotics. Unlike typical antibiotic treatments, Unsea does not obliterate friendly bacteria within the gut. The plant’s active component, usnic acid, has an affinity for the cell walls of bad bacteria and breaks them down while keeping the good ones intact. Usnea targets gram-positive bacteria (often resistant to pharmaceutical medications) and disrupts the microorganism's metabolism. Usnic acid is hydrophobic (like cannabinoids are), so it is most effective as a tincture or as an oil extraction.

Cannabis (photo courtesy of Leslie Carrow)

Cannabis components (THC and α-Pinene)

α-Pinene is the most common terpene appearing in nature. It appears in a strong concentration in Sage species, Mountain Tea (Sideritis spp.), Eucalyptus, and Pine. While it’s generally present in low concentrations in cannabis, it has been found in a higher frequency in the chemovar (strain) “Blue Dream”. The terpene has been investigated for its potential antibiotic activities against MRSA. Alpha pinene is also anti-inflammatory (which is beneficial for irritated air passageways). It functions as a bronchodilator, which relaxes the airways and encourages them to open.

α-Pinene has also been found to boost mood, which may be helpful when managing stressful situations during the fire season. The Japanese practice of “forest bathing” (walking in the woods to experience its healing benefits) is largely founded on the inhalation from the surrounding pine trees (and therefore, pinene).

THC. We’ve all heard about it. It’s a widely studied cannabinoid with extensive healing properties. Relating the lungs, THC has been investigated as a beneficial treatment for asthma. In a 2015 study, THC was the only cannabinoid to demonstrate effects on “airway hyper-responsiveness” and show anti-inflammatory and antitussive (cough) activity on air passageways. A handful of human studies using a THC based aerosol inhalation spray have shown that THC boosted airflow to the lungs.

Further research on THC and α-Pinene is needed to demonstrate the potential use as a treatment for lung-related issues. Until an α-pinene and THC-rich cannabis inhalator hit the market, those looking to cleanse the lungs during the fire season may benefit from a steam inhalation of pine or eucalyptus essential oil.

Ganoderma lucidum (photo by Leslie Carrow)

Reishi: (Ganoderma lucidum)

Reshi is an all-around amazing mushroom that has been a healing staple in Asian medicine for thousands of years. Used to maintain wellbeing and alleviate a variety of ailments, the mushroom has far too many medicinal attributes to outline here. In relation to fire season care, Reishi has adaptogenic qualities that can help build the body’s resistance to stressors, whether they are physical, environmental, or emotional. Maintaining a healthy response to stress is increasingly important to handle the physical nature of fires (smoke) or when dealing with housing evacuations or mandatory power outages causing businesses to close.

Another key benefit of Reishi is its ability to regulate the immune system by stimulating it if it’s weak or bringing it back into balance when it’s overreactive.  This quality makes it beneficial for various autoimmune ailments or allergies. Reishi also has an affinity for the lungs and may be helpful for cough, hay fever, asthma, COPD, emphysema, and more. It can also be used on an ongoing basis for repeated respiratory infections. However, for an acute occurrence, it may be best to use mullein or elecampane during the initial phase. Reishi has also been extensively investigated both in laboratory experiments and in humans as a potential treatment option for lung cancer. Take Reishi as a powder, capsule, tincture, or in any other form of administration.

Cordyceps militaris

Cordyceps spp. (C. sinensis and C. militaris)

Sometimes healing comes in the unlikeliest of places. Cordyceps is a parasitic fungi that grows on the larvae of insects. Cordyceps infect their host by replacing its tissue with slender stems that begin to shoot out from the growing insect’s brain. Their victim becomes mummified and the healing fungus is harvested and used as medicine.

Cordyceps has been used for centuries as a tonic to treat respiratory diseases in Chinese and Tibetan medicine. Scientific research has studied it for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and lung fibrosis. Like Reishi, it has also been investigated as a potential treatment for lung cancer.

In a 2016 study, 120 asthma patients were given Cordyceps sinensis for three months. The findings indicated that Cordyceps were helpful for lung function, decreasing cytokines (responsible for inflammation), and overall improvement of moderate to severe asthma symptoms. The parasitic healing fungus is also touted for its ability to boost endurance. Cordyceps can be used in the same forms as Reishi.

Inula helenium

Elecampane (Inula helenium)

Its believed that the Helen of Troy wore an Elecampane flower in her hair when she was abducted from her homeland. While the yellow, dandelion-looking flower is striking, the root of the plant is primarily used for medicine.

Numerous studies have examined the use of elecampane, especially its terpenes Alantolactone and Isoalantolactone, as a treatment for lung cancer and a protector of the bronchial system. Elecampane is a useful expectorant for chronic lung issues and infection. The plant can loosen phlegm from the respiratory system and expel it from the body. The cilia and mucus in the lungs collect foreign particles so they can move them upward and out. The act of coughing is how toxins and undesired debris are eliminated from the lungs.

Elecampane may be especially useful when a cough is persistent or stubborn. Sometimes the plant may encourage more coughing, so the situation may seem to get worse temporarily before it gets better. Elecampane may also benefit shortness of breath, hay fever, sinusitis, whooping cough, and laryngitis.

As an added benefit, Elecampane is made up of around 40% inulin, a type of soluble fiber found in chicory and many other plants. Inulin is prebiotic, meaning that it nourishes the good bacteria within the digestive tract. The presence of these beneficial bacterias improve digestion and the assimilation of nutrients, in turn boosting overall health. Elecampane root may be made into a decoction or used as a tincture.

Batten the hatches

Coping with wildfires is stressful on a variety of fronts. The lungs are being impacted in a physical way, due to the exposure to contaminants in the air. Katie Strobe, ND of San Francisco Natural Medicine has provided some ways to limit your smoke exposure and tell if you are having secondary effects. On an emotional/spiritual level, the lungs are associated with the ability to process grief and trauma. They have the power to hold on and let go of things (think inhalation and exhalation). So when taking care of the secondary effects of fire exposure, also remember to practice self-care to lower stress levels and maintain wellbeing. One may consider adding adaptogenic herbs to their repertoire, like Tulsi (Ocimum spp.), Ashwagandha, and Rhodiola to help keep them on an even keel.

Fire season can be rough, but plants give the power to face what is to come.