Last week, I attended the American Herbalists Guild annual symposium, held at the beautiful Oregon Gardens in Silverton, OR. The theme of this year’s symposium was Herbalism in Action, with a strong focus on community clinics, health care for under-served populations, and the role that herbalists can play in health care crisis situations. I had intended to write about that.
As I returned from Silverton, driving down I-5 through Ashland, OR and back to San Francisco, the news broke about several fires burning in Napa and Sonoma counties. While wildfires are not uncommon in the Pacific Northwest in the summer and fall, these fires are presently raging through densely populated urban areas. The death toll and property damage is high.
Surrounding counties are feeling the impact of refugees. As we drove back to the Bay area, we pulled in at the last rest stop on I-80 before crossing the Carquinez bridge. The parking lot was completely full, and the exit ramp was lined with cars - but the rest area facilities were not crowded. We realized that these were people who had been told to evacuate, and may not have had anywhere else to go for the night.
Surrounding counties are also feeling the impact of the wildfire smoke in the air, reducing visibility, casting an eerie red glow, causing dramatic red sunsets and moonrises. Ash is visibly drifting through the air, and settling a layer of dust on cars. Some people are wearing air filter masks - and more people should be. The air quality is at dangerous levels.
In this environment, it was an easy decision to save my thoughts on the symposium for another time, and use this space to share some easy recommendations for coping with smoke inhalation. Following are a few basic reminders, tips and recipes that can help to reduce the overall burden of air pollution. I hope you find them useful.
Food & Nutrition Recommendations: Water, Pears & Persimmons
A. The first reminder is to drink plenty of water. Smoke is heating and drying, so it is imperative to rehydrate. If you are not already in the habit of carrying a re-usable water bottle with you, now is a good time to start. (Remember the theme of my practice: Plant Seeds of Health: every day, we have an opportunity to begin.)
How much is enough? A general guideline is 64 ounces of water daily, although this varies according to demographics and individual needs. (For a very in-depth discussion, here’s an NIH study on Water, Hydration & Health.)
8 oz = 1 cup
2 cups = 1 pint = 16 oz
2 pints = 1 quart = 32 oz (4 cups)
2 quarts = ½ gallon = 64 oz (8 cups)
Drink a cup of water upon rising in the morning. Know the capacity of your re-usable water bottle. I use a stainless steel 24-oz Kleen Kanteen, and fill it in the morning, then re-fill it again later in the day. Drink a cup of water in the evening. (Maybe not right before bed, as most folks don’t appreciate a full bladder waking them up in the middle of the night.)
Remember that coffee and green & black teas are diuretic, not hydrating. Consider that for every cup of coffee or caffeinated tea, you’ll want to drink an extra cup of water, in addition to the base-line 64 oz. The same is true for alcoholic beverages: they are dehydrating.
B. Nutrition recommendations
Pears are in season right now, and happen to have an affinity for moistening the lungs. This is exactly what we need! It’s an easy way to Let Food Be Thy Medicine. In Healing with Whole Foods, Paul Pitchford describes pears as having “a cooling thermal nature; specifically affects the lungs, eliminating heat and excess mucus; stops coughing associated with hot lungs; moistens the lungs, throat, and dryness in general; quenches thirst resulting from heat conditions.”
Eat a pear by itself, and/or add to cooked cereal. Here’s a simple recipe for a nourishing breakfast cereal:
1 cup Oats, rolled or steel-cut
1 Pear, cored & chopped
1 tsp Honey
Combine oats and pear in a pot. Add about 1 ½ cups filtered water. Cook on medium until contents begin to simmer, then reduce heat to low, stirring every few minutes. Cook approximately 10 minutes for rolled outs, or 20 minutes for pre-soaked steel-cut oats. Remove from heat, add honey, and enjoy!
Rolled oats cook faster. Steel-cut oats retain more dense nutrition. I’ve gotten into the habit of preparing a pot of cereal the night before, letting the dry ingredients soak overnight. Then it takes about 15-20 minutes to cook in the morning. There are plenty of ways to adapt the instructions to fit a busy lifestyle.
½ cup Raisins, Goji berries, or both
1/4 cup Walnuts, Almonds, or both
1 Tbsp Flax seeds, Sesame seeds, or Chia seeds - or all three!
1 tsp Cinnamon powder
By the way, oats are also a nourishing food to support the nervous system. The milky gooey consistency that develops with cooked oats can literally help to provide a protective coating over the myelin sheath of nerves. So in these stressful times, oatmeal can be a comfort food with specific health benefits.
You can also add Marshmallow root powder to your oatmeal, for further demulcent power! Sprinkle a couple tablespoons of Marshmallow root powder in with the oats & seeds, to soak overnight. Read more about Marshmallow below, in the Herbal tea section.
Persimmons are another seasonal fruit that help to moisten the lungs. Let them fully ripen, and eat as a stand-alone snack, or try cooking them, as in this recipe.
Also from Healing with Whole Foods: “Very cooling thermal nature; cools heat, especially lung heat; builds body fluids, moistens the lungs and resolves phlegm; treats common hot and/or dry conditions such as often occur in thirst, canker sores, and chronic bronchitis.”
Lifestyle Recommendations: Sinus Rinsing
Sinus rinsing is a very direct and simple way to clean out the nasal passages. First of all, public health officials are recommending to stay indoors, and keep windows closed, to reduce exposure to the smoky air conditions. When you need to go out, wear a mask. When you return home, get out your neti pot and rinse your sinuses.
For those who may be new to using a neti pot, it can be an awkward procedure at first. It takes a little practice. But try it out! It really is very simple, once you get the hang of it, and I don’t know of anything more directly effective at washing soot & ash out of your nose.
I’ll share a few tips that help me. First of all, use sterile water or boil water - I use my tea kettle on the stove. Do Not skip this step! Water inserted into the nasal cavity MUST be sterile. The tissues in the sinus cavity are permeable, and it is possible for water-borne pathogens to pass through to the brain.
Once the water has boiled, pour some into your neti pot (about a half a cup). Add about a half a teaspoon of salt, to create a saline solution. Let the solution cool to body temperature. Test the temperature by pouring out a little onto the pad of your thumb (less sensitive), then onto the inside of your wrist (more sensitive). When the salt-water temperature is comfortably warm on the inside of your wrist, it is ready.
I do my sinus rinse over the bathroom sink. To allow the salt water to flow through the sinuses, it helps to tilt your head to one side, so your nose is horizontal (or pretty close to horizontal). Take a nice breath in, then pour the salt-water from the neti pot into your top nostril. Gently exhale. If you tilt your head to the right side, until your nose is horizontal, then your left nostril will be on top. Do this two or three times, then switch sides: tilt your head to the other side, and repeat.
Things to look out for:
If your sinuses are congested, the water won’t flow all the way through. It will pour in, then right back out the same side. That’s fine. If you repeat the process, often times by the third round, the salt water will begin to dissolve the congestion.
If you don’t quite tilt your head the right way, salt water can flow down the back of your throat, and may be uncomfortable. That’s ok. Try again.
If you use too much salt, it may be uncomfortable. You don’t need very much.
Once you’ve boiled the water, made your saline solution and allowed it to cool to body temperature, the rinsing process takes about ten to fifteen minutes. This is a technique that can be used as needed, or daily. The more you practice, the easier it gets. And it’s a very affordable home remedy!
Herbal Recommendations: Smoky Valley Tea
Over the last three years, I’ve been commuting back and forth between San Francisco, CA and Ashland, OR, doing herbal medicine work in both locations. Each of the last three summers, Ashland has experienced intense smoke from surrounding fires. This year, the Chetco Bar complex filled the Rogue River Valley with smoke that lasted for weeks and months. (Incidentally, the Oregon Department of Forestry Wildfire Blog reminds us that October 8-14 is National Fire Prevention Week.)
The herbal tea that I recommend for these conditions is, again, quite simple. I was teaching an herbal medicine class in Ashland in late August, and the residents were dealing with very bad air quality. Now, Bay area residents are similarly dealing with air quality that is being compared to Beijing. (That unfortunate city has the reputation as the measure of comparison for poor air quality!)
I shared this in my newsletter last month, and I’m sharing it again here.
Marshmallow root - 2 parts
Mullein leaf - 2 parts
Licorice root - 1 part
pre-soak Marshmallow roots in cool water (cold infusion)
put the tea kettle on to boil
add Mullein & Licorice to Marshmallow
add hot water (hot infusion)
let steep ~ 15 mins
Marshmallow root is demulcent & mucilaginous. When soaked in cool water, the plant fibers get soft & gooey. That consistency provides a gentle protective coating over the tissues of the entire Gastro-Intestinal tract. That means that Marshmallow root is effective at soothing inflammation in the throat, esophagus, stomach, small & large intestines: from the mouth, all the way down & out the other end.
Mullein leaves are fuzzy, and the little hairs on the leaves are said to stimulate the cilia of the lungs. When they are working optimally, they prevent mucus from settling in the lungs. Mullein leaves help to keep the bronchioles working, to bring excess mucus up & out.
Licorice is an assistant herb in this formula. It has a slippery, soapy quality (due to the presence of saponins in the root) that can help soothe a raw, irritated throat. It supports the other two ingredients, and also is naturally sweet, bringing a pleasant taste to the bland & neutral flavors of the marshmallow & mullein.
All together, these three herbs help to soothe irritated membranes, and keep the lungs breathing clear. It’s a simple combination, and generally safe for the majority of people. (Very large quantities of licorice have been associated with an increase in blood pressure in some people - if you already have a tendency towards high blood pressure, you may want to reduce or omit the amount of Licorice in this blend.)
This tea recipe can be used as a base formula, and enjoyed on its own, or modified for individual needs. If you want to learn more about potential modifications, you may wish to schedule a consultation, for individual assessment.
I’ve shared here a few recommendations & reminders:
basic reminder to drink plenty of good-quality filtered water;
nutritional recommendations to enjoy pears, persimmons and oats;
lifestyle recommendations to rinse the sinuses; and
herbal recommendations to drink tea that supports the lungs.
These may seem like little things, in the face of the extreme devastation we are seeing with these wildfires. Some people have more immediate concerns. But if you can add these recommendations into your daily or weekly routine, it will help to increase resilience. It will reduce vulnerability, now and in the long-term.
Remember that smoke is carcinogenic, so anything we can to to reduce our exposure is a positive health benefit. While it can seem overwhelming to cope with a major disaster, remembering some of these basic actions can help us to feel a little more in control, and a little more hopeful. If we can remain strong, we are better able to help our families, friends and neighbors who need our aid.
On final thought: According to Traditional Chinese Medicine and Five Element Theory, the Fall season is associated with the Metal element and the Lungs organ system. There is a tendency towards dryness at this time of year, and the Lungs can be vulnerable. Regardless of current wildfires, this is a good time to work with moistening herbs and foods, to protect our Lungs as we prepare for Winter. More on this theory in another post.
Thank you for reading.