Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) refers to a group of diseases with one common feature: airway obstruction. Two major diseases, chronic bronchitis and emphysema, are prominent members of this group. COPD ordinarily features constricted airways clogged with excess mucous (bronchitis) or damaged and deteriorating air sacs (alveoli), which limit the amount of oxygen the lungs are able to deliver to the bloodstream.
In the late 1990s, it was estimated that COPD was the sixth leading cause of death worldwide, and the prevalence of COPD is believed to be on the rise. Unfortunately, there is presently no cure for COPD, and some of the drugs used to treat COPD have significant side effects. For this reason, alternative and complementary treatments have grown in popularity in recent years.
Several herbs have been used for centuries to alleviate the symptoms of COPD, including the aromatic culinary herb, thyme (Thymus vulgaris), ivy (Hedera helix), and other herbs, long used in Asian traditional medicine, including ginseng (Panax ginseng), curcumin (Curcuma longa) and Salvia miltiorrhiza.
Thyme (Thymus vulgaris)
Ample evidence suggests that this time-honored culinary and medicinal herb—prized for its aromatic oils—is a generous source of potent antioxidant compounds. Whether this translates to real relief from the inflammation and airway constriction of COPD remains less clear. Limited evidence, however, suggests, that thyme oil may offer relief. German researchers recently showed that the unique mixture of essential oils in thyme improves the clearance of mucus from the airways in animals. It may also help airways relax, improving airflow into the lungs.
Ivy (Hedera helix)
Extracted from common English ivy, this herbal remedy appears to offer significant relief from the airway restriction and impaired lung function associated with COPD. Scientists are guarded about the results of limited clinical trials, however. While promising, it’s believed that rigorous research is somewhat lacking. Ivy can cause skin irritation in some susceptible people and ivy extract is not recommended for people with an allergy to the plant.
Ginseng (Panax ginseng)
At least one well-controlled clinical study concluded that treatment with this traditional Asian herb was superior to a placebo for the relief of symptoms of COPD. Subjects taking ginseng experienced significant improvements in breathing and the ability to perform exercise, compared to similar subjects who received an inactive treatment.
Another study examined the effects of a combination therapy, which included ginseng and other Asian traditional healing herbs, versus no treatment at all. In this Chinese study, subjects taking the ginseng-based herbal blend experienced significant improvements in all measures of lung function, compared to subjects who received no treatment.
Another recent study examined all existing evidence regarding ginseng for COPD. The authors concluded that compared to no treatment, or treatment with standard medications alone, ginseng offered some additional improvement in quality of life and lung function among patients with stable COPD. A large, ongoing well-controlled clinical trial should provide more definitive information soon regarding the potential benefits of ginseng for the treatment of COPD.
Curcumin (Curcuma longa)
Turmeric, a spice commonly used in curries, is the source of powerful medicinal compounds collectively called “curcumin.” If there is a single traditional medicinal herb that may work as a panacea (a mythical treatment that heals everything) curcumin is probably it. Researchers are actively investigating curcumin’s ability to prevent, reverse, or improve a wide range of ailments and conditions. So far, scientists have found that curcumin may have significant antiviral, anti-inflammatory, anticancer, and antioxidant effects. What’s more, it may offer relief from arthritis and protection against Alzheimer’s disease.
Long used in Asian traditional medicine, curcumin has also been shown to reduce airway inflammation. As a powerful antioxidant, curcumin may help fight the oxidative stress believed to underlie COPD, while blocking inflammation at the molecular level. While many scientists are intrigued by curcumin’s potential ability to prevent or fight cancer, it may also be of significant benefit in the treatment of COPD. Curcumin is believed to be safe and well tolerated, even at relatively high doses.
Red Sage (Salvia miltiorrhiza)
Red Sage is yet another herb from traditional Chinese medicine reputed to improve the symptoms of COPD. Evidence is relatively scant, however. A recent study in China concluded that an extract of this herb (also known as Chinese Sage) alleviated some of the inflammation in the airways of people with severe COPD, compared to patients who received standard treatment alone.
Another study provided evidence that Salvia miltiorrhiza is an effective antioxidant, protecting the lining of the blood vessels from injury when circulation is temporarily cut off and then resumed, as in the case of stroke. This suggests that the herb may offer some benefit in COPD patients by reducing the effects of chronic inflammation through its antioxidant effects.