Treating Asthma With Herbal Medicine

What 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. Many patients look to herbal medicine asthma treatments to decrease their dependence on their traditional inhalers or just to get a little more relief. However, you need to make sure you understand the risks, benefits, and implications of such a strategy.

While not widely used or understood by medical practitioners (or even taught in U.S. Medical schools), as many as one-third to one-half of patients admit to using herbal products to treat their asthma.

Herbs purported to improve asthma include:

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. Frustrated 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.


Ginkgolides are purported to have anti-inflammatory properties, reduce hyperresponsiveness, and decrease bronchospasm. One study of patients large doses of Gingko showed a 10-15% improvement in FEV1.

In addition to benefiting your breathing, Ginkgo may slow memory decline in patients with dementia and improve glaucoma. It has not helped the treatment of elevated blood pressure or recovery from stroke as some have claimed.

If you have a blood disorder or a history of blood clots, you should not take Ginkgo without discussing first with your doctor. Additionally, be aware of side effects such as skin reactions, diarrhea and nausea, dizziness, headaches, and muscle weakness. Ginkgo can also interact with some blood pressure, diabetes, and seizure medications-- so be sure to talk with your doctor.

Ligusticum wallichii (L wallichii)

This herb decreased a number of markers of inflammation such as histamine and thromboxane as well as relaxing tracheal smooth muscle. It also increased FEV1 by 13%. Patients taking the herb for a month noted improved asthma symptoms. Dizziness and vomiting are reported side effects.

Wenyang Tonglulo mixture

In one study roasted mahuang was compared to an inhaled steroid and oral salbutamol in a group of adult asthmatics. Improvements in FEV1 were greater in the group using the roasted mahuang. it is important to understand the comparative treatment would not be considered standard of care in the U.S.


Crocus sativus L, commonly known as saffron, is a food additive, preservative, and medicinal herb used in Islamic Traditional Medicine and as an alternative treatment for a number of different conditions including depression, pre-menstrual syndrome, and to promote eye health. Studies have found that it has a number of possible ways to impact the pathophysiology of asthma including antioxidant, inflammatory, and immunomodulatory effects. In terms of asthma, it has been shown to relax smooth muscle, have bronchodilatory effects, and block muscarinic receptors. The relaxing effect on smooth muscle was found to be similar to that of theophylline.

Reported side effects include low blood pressure, headache, nausea, head fullness, dizziness, disinhibition, elevated mood, and appetite suppression. Reports also indicate that combining this herb with alcohol may potentiate some of these side effects. Doses of less than 1.5 grams per day were not associated with side effects but more than 5 grams per day were found to be toxic and doses in excess of 20 grams per day potentially lethal.

It is important to understand that current standard of care for the treatment of asthma would not include saffron and no human studies have shown a benefit or looked at potential harmful effects. Before beginning any sort of supplement for your asthma, make sure that you discuss with your doctor.

Consider These 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 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 a 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 shown 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.
  • Saffron: low blood pressure, headache, nausea, head fullness, dizziness, disinhibition, elevated mood, and appetite suppression.
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