Time to harvest a power herb to fight coughs: Home Medicine Cycle 14

My husband grew up with two chain smokers in the house, and then he lived in a Eastern European metropolis heated by coal in a particularly smoggy hollow for another ten years. He drives a lot on clogged freeways for his job as a surveyor. Of course, he has a chronic cough.

Common Thyme flowers - Creative Commons image by Magnus Manske

Common Thyme flowers - Creative Commons image by Magnus Manske

He's been to a string of specialists. He's had his share of infections and sometimes it takes antibiotics to clear up the infections, but for the first six or seven years we lived together he always had a chronic cough from October to April. He'd get tested and often as not he was told that there was no infection detected.

"You're airways are just oversensitive," the specialists said. They gave him synthetic pharmaceuticals and none of them helped appreciably. 

Yes, this is another one of those stories. It is worth noting how many times herbal medicinals work in precisely those areas where modern pharmaceutical medicine is weakest - immunological issues, chronic disease and systemic health problems. It is not so much a question of which type of medicine is "better," but a question of informed choice and using both pharmaceutical and herbal medicine to compliment each other. 

In this case, I didn't immediately try my own home herbs. I was a beginning herbalist at that time (about ten years ago) and I didn't have enough confidence in my own local herbs. I assumed that cures to big problems had to come from rare and powerful sources. So, after we had been through the wringer of mainstream medicine, we went to a professional herbalist. He suggested one extremely expensive herbal product and then another. The second one was the magic bullet.

It was an Ayurvedic mix of exotic herbs in capsule form from a foreign company. It had a hefty price tag, but it worked. If he took it for several weeks, the cough subsided. When he stopped taking it, the cough returned. It wasn't coincidence. For two winters my husband kept his chronic cough at bay with this mixture... and then the company stopped exporting to our country. 

I spent a small fortune finding and ordering the product abroad one year, but by then I had become a bit more skilled in herbs and I started to wonder if I might be able to come up with a formula of local herbs that would work. I had noticed that my husband's cough responded a bit to thyme tea, so I started giving him doses of thyme tincture every day. I added various other herbs to this (including plantain, ground ivy, marshmallow and mullein). After a few months, I hit on something that worked in his particular case - a combination of thyme and mullein tinctures. 

Wild Thyme flowers - image by Summi of German Wikipedia with GNU Free Documentation License

Wild Thyme flowers - image by Summi of German Wikipedia with GNU Free Documentation License

The lesson in this experiment is much bigger than the fact that thyme and mullein are generally good for chronic coughs. Every individual is different and the underlying causes are varied. So, it may not always work the same. The greater lesson is that you can often find a local source of herbs that are much fresher, safer and less expensive than the herbs sold in shops. A good professional herbalist can also help with this. I don't trust "professional herbalists" who will only sell you expensive formulas rather than consult with you and help you figure out which herbs you can grow yourself.

You do need time and patience to test out various combinations like this. And in most cases, you need to remember to take herbal medicinals consistently, according to the schedule for that particular herb. My husband's chronic cough has come back at times - always when he neglected to take the tinctures. And once started it takes as long as a month to go away again after he resumes taking the herbs. 

Still, this was also the case that has proved the extraordinary power of thyme to us. GreenMed Info reports 25 studies indicating the therapeutic value of thyme in treating bronchitis. We use thyme for other things as well - in tinctures, salves and teas.

Thyme is one of the herbs most widely used in pharmaceuticals in Europe, so here at least there is a blurred line between synthetic and herbal medicine. I am still convinced that fresh, homegrown thyme is far superior for medicinal use.

In the Czech language the common name for wild thyme translates as "mother's soul." Some people find the smell of thyme unpleasant or even just too intense, but my family loves it, especially the purple wild thyme. Thyme is one of my favorite teas and we rarely have enough to be able to just drink it for the enjoyment of it. I have to save it for my husband, so I only drink thyme tea when I'm truly sick and then I really enjoy it. Thyme tea is good for coughs, sniffles and sore throats as well as aches and pains.

Thyme makes a good tincture (see the recipe here), which is useful for:

  • Chronic coughs and bronchitis
  • A pain killer for menstrual cramps (Here's a study on this one. It appears to mention consuming highly diluted essential oil internally. But that is never a good idea outside of a doctor's supervision. Essential oils, particularly those of intense herbs like thyme, can be very dangerous and even fatal when taken internally. I suggest using tincture instead.)
Bundle of thyme - public domain image

Bundle of thyme - public domain image

Thyme infused oil (recipe here) is one of the best oils to use in making a salve for cuts and scrapes because it is mildly disinfectant. There are studies showing the antibiotic action of thyme and its constituents in laboratory tests, which may account for how helpful thyme is in salve. 

It is useful to note that when gathering thyme the most potent part of the upper plant is the flower. We always gather our thyme when it is flowering. Sometimes we get two cuttings. My favorite type of thyme is the creeping wild variety with purple flowers. Some herbalists believe the common white-flowered variety is stronger and I haven't had enough experience to compare directly. The common thyme tends to have a somewhat less inviting smell for tea, but may be actually somewhat more effective in disinfectant salve.

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Note: This does not constitute medical advice for a specific person with a specific problem. We are all individuals and I'm not a doctor who can prescribe treatments for you personally.