Herbal Steam

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traditional herbal steam

Humans have been using herbs to address viral infections for thousands of years. While we may not have lab reports showing that any certain herb inhibits a particular virus, we can still use herbs to support someone with particular symptoms.

My friend and fellow herbalist, jim mcdonald, refers to these as indirect antiviral herbs. It’s not that they are inhibiting the virus directly but, instead, they are supporting your immune system and addressing your particular symptoms in a way that promotes the healing process overall.

This seems like a good place for a disclaimer. This article isn’t about miraculously curing any viral infection. If you need medical attention then seek it out.

This article is for those people who have an upper respiratory infection with mild symptoms that can be addressed at home.

Herbal steams are easy, cheap, safe and very effective. (I think that is a win/win/win/win.) I use them whenever I have stuck congestion in my lungs or sinuses.

jim mcdonald hypothesizes that herbal steams may be a good idea if you suspect you have been exposed to someone with a viral infection.

How Does an Herbal Steam Work?

With an herbal steam you are breathing in a plant’s aromatic oils and warm steam, both of which can help you to release stuck mucus in the lungs. As Shrek says, better out than in! (A phrase that is widely helpful in a variety of circumstances.)

You can use a variety of plants in an herbal steam or you can simply use one plant.

I often use mullein leaf in my herbal steams and I combine it with other aromatic plants.

Mullein leaf (Verbascum thapsus) is commonly used to support lung health. You can make it into a strong tea (filter it well) or even inhale the smoke. (I know smoking a plant seems strange when considering lung health, but in this case it gets the herb directly to your lungs.) I prefer herbal steams to breathing in smoke.

Aromatic Plants to Consider for an Herbal Steam

You can use essential oils in place of whole plants. I have less experience with that as I tend to reach for whole plants more than essential oils.

herbal steam herbs

DIY Herbal Steam Directions

Place your chosen herbs in a medium bowl. (I use a handful or two.)

Boil enough water to fill your bowl halfway (or so). Pour the water over the herbs and stir to make an herbal soup.

Carefully place your face over the bowl, then drape a large towel or blanket over your head to capture the steam. I say carefully because you don’t want to burn yourself with the steam.

Once you’re settled, inhale deeply. You can experiment with moving your head closer or farther away to find where it is most comfortable. If it gets too hot, allow a bit of the steam to escape.

Enjoy the experience for as long as desired. I do it for at least 10 minutes. This is a great time for meditation (headspace app has ten minute meditations) or, if you’re anything like me, a chance to listen to 2-3 of your favorite Tori Amos songs.

Keep a box of tissues nearby to blow your nose as necessary. As you feel your lungs release, cough as desired to move mucus out of your lungs.

If the steam piddles out you can add more hot water as time goes by to create more steam.

The effects of the herbal steam can be felt immediately, but they don’t last forever. You can repeat this as desired, every 1-2 hours as symptoms warrant it.

If you are doing this with a child you can make a small fort and carefully bring in the steaming herbal soup to allow the steam to fill the fort while they play.

Other Options to Address Thick Mucus

Taking a long bath or hot shower can release stuck mucus. Auracacia sells Eucalyptus tablets for the shower that I really like. 

Drink plenty of fluids. I especially like demulcent teas (marshmallow, mallow, violet) and just a bit of stimulating expectorants (ginger, elecampane, thyme). Gage how you react and use more demulcents or expectorants as needed.

Chest poultices made of onions or mustard seeds can stimulate mucus secretion. (Lots of tutorials are available online.)

Do You Need Herbs for Your Herbal Steam?

Now is the perfect time to support your local herbalists, apothecaries and herb farmers.

Do You Have an Abundance of Herbs?

Now is the perfect time to reach out with herbal support to loved ones, neighbors and others in your community who are interested in herbal remedies.

Rosalee is an herbalist and author of the bestselling book Alchemy of Herbs: Transform Everyday Ingredients Into Foods & Remedies That Healand co-author of the bestselling book Wild Remedies: How to Forage Healing Foods and Craft Your Own Herbal Medicine. She's a registered herbalist with the American Herbalist Guild and has taught thousands of students through her online courses. Read about how Rosalee went from having a terminal illness to being a bestselling author in her full story here.  

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