Herbal and Alternative Remedies for COPD

There is limited evidence that herbal remedies offer significant relief

Close-up image of the flowering Echinacea Purpurea flowers
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Ginger, echinacea, and curcumin are just a few of the herbs that you may hear about when looking into natural remedies for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or other respiratory conditions. Many such remedies have support in traditional medicine, as well as anecdotally, but there is limited scientific evidence to support their use.

It's important to remember that there is no cure for COPD. And while its progression can be slowed, lifestyle changes, prescription medications, lung therapy, and surgery are the proven treatments for doing so.

If you are considering natural treatments for COPD such as herbs, know that they may, but are not guaranteed, to help. When used, they should be complementary, not alternative. That is, they should never be used in place of the medical treatments recommended by your doctor.

So that your healthcare provider can be fully aware of how your condition is being managed and be on the lookout for possible side effects and medication interactions, always talk to them before trying any of the following herbs purported to be helpful for COPD (or any other such treatment).

Echinacea

Echinacea has traditionally been used to help prevent upper respiratory infections related to the flu and the common cold.

With that in mind, one study examined whether Echinacea purpurea (along with vitamin D, selenium, and zinc) could relieve COPD exacerbations triggered by upper respiratory infections. Results were positive, revealing that those who took echinacea (plus the micronutrients) had shorter and less severe COPD flares.

The good news is that echinacea is generally well-tolerated. When side effects do occur, they are usually related to common gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms, such as nausea or stomach pain. Echinacea may also cause allergic reactions, including rash, increased asthma symptoms, and anaphylaxis.

Asian Ginseng

Traditional Chinese medicine believes that ginseng has its own unique healing powers, specifically related to its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects. That said, in one study of people with moderate to severe COPD, there was no difference in measured outcomes (like COPD symptoms, use of relief medications, or change in FEV1 after using an inhaler). However, the study was very small and of short duration. 

The most common side effects of Asian ginseng are:

  • Headaches
  • Sleep problems
  • Digestive issues

It's worthy to note that there has been some evidence that Asian ginseng may affect blood sugar and blood pressure. Asian ginseng may also interact with certain medications, like blood thinners.​

Licorice Root

Licorice root also comes in pill form or as a liquid extract, and it can be found with glycyrrhizin (the main, sweet-tasting compound in licorice) removed. Some research suggests that glycyrrhizin may improve the benefit of beta-2 agonist bronchodilators (for example, albuterol) in people with COPD.

In terms of side effects, large amounts of licorice root containing glycyrrhizin may cause high blood pressure, sodium and water retention, and low potassium levels, which may lead to heart and muscle problems.

Lastly, pregnant women should not use licorice root or consume products containing licorice.

Astragalus Root

A staple of Chinese medicine, astragalus root has been used to boost the immune system, prevent colds, and treat respiratory infections. In addition to its asserted antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties, astragalus is believed to improve lung function and decrease fatigue. 

While astragalus is generally considered safe for most adults, it may cause diarrhea or other digestive problems. In addition, astragalus may affect a person's blood pressure or blood sugar levels, and it may interact with medications that suppress the immune system.

Moreover, it's important to avoid using certain astragalus species such as "locoweed" that are grown in the United States, as these can be toxic. Additionally, other astragalus species may contain toxic levels of selenium.

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.

Few mild side effects have been reported including abdominal discomfort, heartburn, diarrhea, and gas. Furthermore, there is a concern that ginger may interact with blood thinners. Some experts also recommend that people with gallstone disease avoid or limit ginger use because it can increase bile flow. 

Red Sage

Red sage, or Salvia miltiorrhiza, has been found to protect the lining of blood vessels when oxygen is low or temporarily halted.

One study performed on 30 patients with COPD and pulmonary hypertension discovered that taking Atorvastatin and active compounds (polyphenols) from red sage combined improved exercise tolerance and reduced pulmonary artery pressure.

Thyme

Often used as a culinary herb, Thymus vulgaris is an effective decongestant and antioxidant and is often used in treating respiratory conditions.

One study found that the use of thyme extract increased the cilia beating frequency (CBF) in an in vitro model of a human COPD airway. Cilia are microscopic filaments that line the respiratory tract and help clear mucus from the airway, and they are often damaged in cases of COPD.

Curcumin

The primary active ingredient in turmeric (Curcuma longa), curcumin is a highly potent anti-inflammatory compound that may reduce airway inflammation.

Researchers found that COPD patients who took curcumin as part of their diet had greatly reduced instances of a specific type of colonizing bacteria, non-typeable Hemophilus influenzae (NTHi), which they believe causes the inflamed airways commonly seen in the disease.

A Word From Verywell

Although the safety and effectiveness of herbal medicines have not yet been established within the medical community, many herbal remedies for COPD are increasing in popularity. Keep your doctor in the loop about any herbal or complementary medicines you are considering, especially as they may interact with other medications you may already be taking.

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