Herbal Remedies

About 11% of adults and 6% of children have tried herbal remedies for asthma.1 This makes it the third most popular complementary treatment for asthma.

Guidelines from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute say that there is not enough information to recommend herbal products for asthma.2 They caution that herbal products are not standardized. This means you cannot be sure of the type and quantity of ingredients in the product. There is a risk that the ingredients in herbal remedies could cause a reaction.

Some herbal products may interact with medications that you are taking. Others can worsen certain health problems. It is a good idea to talk with your health care provider or pharmacist if you are thinking about—or using—an herbal remedy.

What herbal remedies are used for asthma?

Several traditional remedies from Asia have been used for asthma (Table).1,3-8 Some herbs are used alone, while others are found in combination products.5

Herbal remedies have been used for asthma for a very long time. However, only a few have been studied.5 Little is known about how they work and whether they are effective. A few have serious side effects. For example, ma huang (ephedra) is linked to a higher risk of heart problems, including high blood pressure and stroke, as well as psychiatric and gastrointestinal problems.3 The sale of ma huang as a dietary supplement was banned in 2004. Glycyrrhizae (licorice) may cause high blood pressure, fluid retention, and heart problems.9 It also interacts with some conventional medications. Ginkgo is linked to a higher risk of bleeding. It can be dangerous for people who take blood thinner medications.10

Table. Herbs that have been used to treat asthma

Remedy
Claims and Description
Chinese herbal medicine
Ginkgo biloban
Supposed to have anti-inflammatory effects, which reduces airway sensitivity.1
Ligusticum wallichii
Supposed to relax airway smooth muscle.1
Ma huang (Ephedra)
Stimulates nervous system and heart; may open airways.3
Glycyrrhizae (licorice root)
Supposed to soothe cough and reduce inflammation.4 Used in several herbal combinations.5
Sophora flavescens
Prevents airway smooth muscle from tightening up.6
Ayurvedic (traditional Indian) medicine
Picrorhiza kurroa
Used to treat asthma and bronchitis.1
Solanum xanthocarpum and Solanum trilobatum
Supposed to open the airways. May reduce airway swelling and mucous.1
Boswellia serrata
Supposed to have anti-inflammatory effects;7 may block leukotriene production.1
Tylophora indica
Used to provide relief from asthma symptoms.1
Other
Butterbur
Reduces allergies.8
Dried ivy leaf extract
Supposed to help clear mucous and prevent airway narrowing.1

Huntley A, Ernst E. Thorax. 2000;55:925-929; NCCIH. Ephedra. Accessed 3/3/15 at: https://nccih.nih.gov/health/ephedra; WHO Monographs on Selected Medicinal Plants. Volume 1. Accessed 3/3/15 at: http://apps.who.int/medicinedocs/en/d/Js2200e/ . Li XM, Brown L. J Allergy Clin Immunol. 2009;123:297-306; Yang N, et al. Phytochemistry. 2013;95:259-267; Schapowal A; Petasites Study Group. BMJ. 2002;324:144-146; NCCIH. Ayurvedic Medicine: An Introduction. Accessed 3/3/15 at: https://nccih.nih.gov/health/ayurveda/introduction.htm

What do studies say about using herbal remedies for asthma?

There are serious problems with the design of most studies of herbal remedies for asthma.1 This makes it difficult to know how well they work. It also means there is little information about how safe the remedies are. Studies show that ginkgo, dried ivy leaf extract, and a few combination preparations improved lung function more that the fake or control treatment.1 Tylophora indica and a 10-herb combination called TJ-96 improved asthma symptoms.1 No improvements were seen with Ligusticum wallichii, Picrorhiza kurroa, Solanum xanthocarpum, or Solanum trilobatum.

A randomized trial compared burbutter with cetirizine (Zyrtec) in 125 people with hay fever.8 The study lasted two weeks. Burbutter worked as well as cetirizine for reducing allergy symptoms. However, burbutter has not been studied well enough to know if it treats asthma.11

An anti-asthma herbal combination called ASHMI is being studied for asthma. This combination contains glycyrrhizae (licorice root), Sophora flavescens, and ganoderma (Reishi mushroom). One study compared ASHMI with prednisone and fake treatment (placebo).12 The study included 91 people with moderate to severe asthma. People treated with ASHMI and prednisone had better lung function than people who got placebo. Lung function improved more with prednisone than ASHMI. Both prednisone and ASHMI improved symptoms, medication use, and allergy labs. More studies are underway to understand how this combination works.

Are herbal remedies approved by the US Food and Drug Administration?

No. In the United States, most herbal remedies are classified as dietary supplements.5 The Food and Drug Administration does not approve dietary supplements before they are sold.13 This means that the manufacturer is responsible for making sure that the product is safe.13 It is also responsible for making sure that the claims they make about the product are not false or misleading. The Food and Drug Administration monitors for unsafe products or misleading claims about products that are on the market.

Written by: Sarah O'Brien | Last Reviewed: May 2016.
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