A simple cold or flu does not always remain simple. It can worsen into bronchitis, and bronchitis in turn can worsen into pneumonia. Illness coupled with difficulty breathing and tightness in the chest calls for a visit to the doctor to find out if your cold has worsened to bronchitis, and whether the infection is viral or bacterial. With a diagnosis in hand you can speed up your recovery with bronchitis self-care. An important part of which is what you eat.

In this excerpt from the book The Green Pharmacy Guide to Healing Foods by James A. Duke, PHD and Bill Gottlieb, CHC the authors explain how food and nutrition can be an integral part of bronchitis self-care.


If you have a cold or the flu and develop a cough that produces phlegm (what doctors call a purulent cough), you may have bronchitis. It causes wheezing, difficulty breathing, chest pain, a sore throat, and fatigue. You may also have a fever, chills, muscle aches, and nasal congestion.

More than 9 million people get bronchitis every year. It can happen at any age, but older folks are hit the hardest. It’s diagnosed most often in individuals age 45 and over, and can be life-threatening for those 65 and older, since it can turn into pneumonia.

In adults, smoking and exposure to toxic gas, dust, or pollution put you at risk for chronic bronchitis, which is defined as having a cough every day for at least three months of the year for two years in a row. Smoking and pollution cause inflammation and thickening of the bronchial tubes

There’s a misconception, though, about the pathogen that causes bronchitis. It’s often blamed on bacteria, but more and more, I think that other pathogens, such as fungi and viruses, are involved in any “-itis,” or inflammation. Until you’re positive of the pathogens, you can’t know which antibiotics, if any, are best.

In fact, research has been unable to demonstrate that they help acute bronchitis at all, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has advised against their use. Doctors, however, continue to prescribe them for about 60 percent of bronchitis patients, according to a study by researchers from the Baylor College of Medicine.

I advise against using an antibiotic unless your doctor says it’s right for the particular pathogen that’s causing your bronchitis. If your condition is viral, an antibiotic won’t help. I also recommend loading your food and herbal shotgun with a broad spectrum of phytochemicals that can nip away at the enemies causing your bronchitis and possibly boost your immune system.

Most of the foods and culinary herbs you’ll read about in this chapter are what I call broad-spectrum antiseptics that contain antibacterial, antifungal, and antiviral compounds, which can help subdue most of the pathogens that could be causing the bronchitis. When it comes to an upper respiratory infection caused by a virus, plant medicines are the best medicine.

Healing Foods for Bronchitis

Elderberries. Wine, juice, or jam made from these berries provides antiviral, immunity-boosting agents for anyone who has a cough or cold, the flu, allergies, or a fever.

Studies have found an elderberry extract called Sambucol effective for stimulating the immune system because of its flavonoids and anthocyanins, which have anti-inflammatory activity. Research even hints that Sambucol may work as well as the prescription drug zanamivir (Relenza).

I’m sure that all genuine elderberry wines contain many of the same ingredients as Sambucol. Although it is the only formulation that’s been effective in clinical trials, elderberry jam, juice, and wine haven’t been studied yet. I trust the food first and the extract second because our bodies have evolved to respond to what we find in nature.

Of course, if you’re taking a cold medicine, you shouldn’t drink wine, but I’d rather go the other way and drop the pharmaceutical in favor of elderberry wine while getting other immunity boosters from my food.


Bronchitis hits when your immune system is already weak from a cold or the flu, so keeping yourself as healthy as possible, even when you’re sick, will help you avoid the problem. That means avoiding or limiting your consumption of certain foods such as those listed below.

High-fat and high-sugar foods. When you’re eating french fries instead of a salad and drinking soda instead of vitamin C–packed orange juice, you’re missing out on the nutrients and phytochemicals you need from immunity-boosting foods. Save lower-nutrient foods for an occasional splurge on a healthier day, and stick with those that offer only the best protection from bronchitis.

Dairy products. Milk and other dairy foods can increase the amount of mucus in the airways, so you may want to avoid them when you have bronchitis.

Garlic and onions. For bronchitis, garlic is my supreme immunity-boosting broad-spectrum antiseptic of choice. The pungent garlic bulb contains antiviral and antibacterial chemicals along with a menu of compounds with anti-bronchitic activity. And the Jews of Yemen used onion to treat respiratory ailments by crushing it, mixing it with sour goat’s milk and crystallized sugar, and drinking it.

We still need well-designed human studies on garlic’s effect on respiratory diseases, but preliminary research suggests that it helps make upper respiratory infections less severe. In one study done on mice, researchers found that garlic extract inhibited an antibiotic-resistant microorganism, called Pseudomonas aeruginosa, that causes chronic lung infections in people with cystic fibrosis. I suspect that many other pathogens that are resistant to monochemical antibiotics will respond favorably to poly-chemical garlic, especially in humans with generally healthy immune systems.

Once you’ve eaten garlic, it actually releases chemicals that travel to the lungs and protect them from inflammation. That’s why you get garlic breath when you eat hummus or anything else with a strong garlic taste. (You can take care of that problem by chewing on a few sprigs of parsley, by the way.) When I have a deep-seated bronchial problem, I begin to expectorate shortly after ingesting raw garlic or even garlic capsules.

In one study, researchers gave 57 elderly patients, who were in the hospital because of bronchitis and bronchial pneumonia, either 200 milligrams of vitamin C or a placebo each day in supplement form. After four weeks, the patients who received vitamin C showed significant improvement in their respiratory function.

Eating a medium guava gives you 165 milligrams of vitamin C. Of course, reaching for citrus fruits such as oranges, grapefruits, and tangerines also boosts the vitamin C in your diet. Even adding 1 ⁄2 cup of chopped red bell pepper or one cup of papaya adds about 90 milligrams to your daily total.

Making fresh fruits and vegetables part of your meals throughout the day should always be your goal, but it wouldn’t hurt to take 500 to 1,000 milligrams of supplemental vitamin C, says Richard N. Firshein, DO, medical director of the Firshein Center for Integrative Medicine in New York City and author of Reversing Asthma.

Thyme. Germany’s Commission E—a government agency that evaluates the safety and efficacy of medicinal herbs—has approved thyme for bronchitis and other upper respiratory conditions. This culinary herb stimulates the immune system, works as an antiseptic, and helps clear mucus from the respiratory tract. My friend Martha Libster, PhD, author of Delmar’s Integrative Herb Guide for Nurses, points out that early patent medicines for respiratory problems like bronchitis, laryngitis, sore throat, and whooping cough contained thyme.

I recommend making a thyme decoction to use as a gargle for bronchitis and sore throat. A tea decoction involves putting the herb in water and boiling or simmering it for 10 or 20 minutes, allowing the medicinal phytochemicals to be released. You can also add cardamom, cinnamon, peppermint, or a licorice stick to the tea, but the thyme itself contains more than a dozen different antiseptic compounds, making it another broad-spectrum antiseptic.

Cough Crucifix Soup

Anyone with bronchitis, a cough, a cold, the flu, or sinusitis should try what I call Cough Crucifix Soup, which contains vegetables that fall under the label crucifers. Crucifers include all members of the cabbage or mustard family, including broccoli, cabbage, collard greens, cresses such as watercress, kale, turnip, and kohlrabi (a cabbage with a turnip shape). The hot compounds in cabbage and mustard greens have antiseptic properties and tend to open the sinuses. Add those vegetables, along with horseradish, wasabi, or garlic, to help with a cough. The hotter, the better.

Bran cereal. Oat bran and bran cereal help heal bronchitis because they contain a good amount of magnesium. If your magnesium levels are low, you’re at higher risk for respiratory diseases such as bronchitis. In a study from the 1990s, researchers asked 2,633 adults in the United Kingdom about their dietary habits to measure how much magnesium they got in their diets. Those with higher magnesium intakes had better lung function and had experienced less wheezing during the previous year. Some naturopaths recommend taking 300 to 600 milligrams of magnesium a day to prevent respiratory problems.

A 1 ⁄2 cup of 100 percent bran cereal has 93 milligrams of magnesium, and the same amount of dry oat bran packs 96 milligrams. Another option is brown rice, with one cup of cooked rice providing 86 milligrams of magnesium. It would be a good idea to eat the whole grains along with other sources of magnesium, such as almonds, hazelnuts, peanuts, spinach, and okra, throughout the day.

Other good sources include purslane, green beans, poppy seeds, cowpeas, licorice (the root, not the black or red candy twists), lettuce, and nettle. Or you could turn to soybeans, nuts, fish, dairy products, and lean meats. Even better, make a vegetable “MagneSoup” with some or all of these ingredients to get a good amount of magnesium.

Camu camu. It may be difficult to find, but this grape-size fruit from the Amazon has even more vitamin C than guava. Eating just a few of these delicious fruits will give you 500 milligrams of vitamin C, and 1 ⁄2 cup contains some 2,000 milligrams. I just returned from the Amazon, where I introduced 40 North American ecotourists, including several nurses, pharmacists, and physicians, to the marvelous camu camu.

Cayenne, chili peppers, ginger, horseradish, and mustard. Irwin Ziment, MD, of the UCLA School of Medicine, routinely recommends hot spices such as red and black pepper, ginger, horseradish, and mustard for asthma, bronchitis, and other chronic respiratory problems.

Using spicy foods was probably part of an old Mayan tradition, and some Mayans even added hot pepper to their hot chocolate. Peppers dilate blood vessels and help relieve chronic congestion, while other hot foods irritate the mucous membranes in the nose and throat and cause them to weep a watery secretion, which helps release mucus when you cough or blow your nose.

Dr. Ziment recommends eating a chili pepper a day with meals. In addition to easing bronchitis, it can be helpful for colds, coughs, and hay fever. Chicken soup with hot pepper added may also be a pleasant decongestant.

As with garlic, hot peppers seem to induce expectoration; sometimes capsaicin, the substance that gives them their heat, is used experimentally to induce cough-like responses in animal models and humans. Capsaicin hasn’t been declared an expectorant, to my surprise, but peppers do contain at least five other expectorant phytochemicals.

Mustard Blaster Salad Dressing

For bronchitis, pneumonia, and other respiratory conditions, I like to make a salad dressing called the Mustard Blaster. Using a mortar or pestle, juice blender, or coffee grinder, grind one ounce of mustard seed (pure, mixed white, black, or garlic mustard), then add enough vinegar to keep it nearly liquid. Add a dash of ground horseradish and/or wasabi, followed by 5 to 10 drops of lemon juice. For texture and taste, add enough cornmeal to thicken the mixture. If you’d like to increase the medicinal qualities of the dressing (but possibly lose the taste), add a dash of thyme and/or some finely chopped fresh garlic. (Be aware that these ingredients can pack a wallop, causing a burning sensation in your mouth; you can turn down the heat by adding more cornmeal.) After you finish your salad, chew on a licorice stick (not anise candy) to add another superfood to your arsenal against bronchitis.

As with garlic, hot peppers seem to induce expectoration; sometimes capsaicin, the substance that gives them their heat, is used experimentally to induce cough-like responses in animal models and humans. Capsaicin hasn’t been declared an expectorant, to my surprise, but peppers do contain at least five other expectorant phytochemicals.

Assorted spices. When I searched my database for foods that would help with bronchitis, I came up with a list that reads like a who’s who of spices, with some herbs and foods thrown in. Anise and chamomile made the list, as well as apricot, caraway, cardamom, cinnamon, coltsfoot, corn mint, couch grass, dandelion, dill, elder, eucalyptus, fennel, galangal, garlic, horseradish, nasturtium, onion, radish, ribwort, and star anise. To fight bronchitis, it’s a good idea to plan your meals around as many of these foods as possible.

Mint. More than a millennium ago, water mint (a close kin to peppermint) was recommended for lung problems that produced phlegm. More recently, German scientists began recommending menthol or mint oil for allergies, pharyngitis, croup, laryngitis, sinusitis, and bronchitis. They found that using camphor, eucalyptus oil, and menthol as a nasal ointment helped improve nasal congestion. They also said that anise, chamomile, or peppermint simmered in a pot and inhaled as steam can help, as can putting a few drops of peppermint oil on a hankie or pillow and breathing it in several times.

You can also get benefits from drinking peppermint tea; eating peppermint candy, jelly, and sauces; and chewing peppermint gum.

Watercress. This vegetable is part of the crucifer or mustard family and was approved by the German Commission E for respiratory infections. Add the leaves to your green salad, pasta salad, or stir-fry; layer them in a sandwich; or use them in soups.

From the Herbal Medicine Chest

Many of the herbs well known for fighting bronchitis contain compounds that act as antiseptics, relieve coughing, open the airways, and help clear phlegm from the respiratory tract.

In fact, pharmaceutical drugs work in the same way that these herbs do to relieve bronchitis. According to Linda B. White, MD, adjunct professor at Metropolitan State University of Denver and senior coauthor of The Herbal Drugstore, drugs that treat bronchitis rely on the same three activities as do the herbs. They suppress cough (antitussive), clear phlegm from the respiratory tract (expectorant), and open the airways in the lungs (bronchodilator). Here are some herbs to consider…

Aniseed (Pimpinella anisum). If you have bronchitis and sinusitis, hot herbs such as anise can help open your sinuses. I enjoy aniseed and leaves in teas, soups (added sparingly), and liqueurs. Each imparts different proportions of many biologically active anti-bronchitic constituents.

Borage seed oil (Borago officinalis). In a study of patients with acute respiratory distress syndrome who were receiving treatment in a critical care unit at the Mayo Clinic, 150 people who were given borage seed oil, fish oil, protein, carbohydrates, and antioxidants via a tube inserted through the nose had a 35 percent increase in survival odds. The researchers think it was the gamma-linolenic acid in the oil that caused the beneficial effects. The oil has the highest concentration of gamma-linolenic acid found naturally (although it’s also found in evening primrose oil and black currant seed oil).

Chamomile (Matricaria recutita). Inside a cup of chamomile tea lies an arsenal of compounds that can help with bronchitis. Chamomile is a good source of apigenin, an herbal COX-2-inhibitor (a pain reliever). Beneficial substances are especially abundant in chamomiles that come from Rome and Hungary, according to French scientists who compared those chamomiles with others in the US Department of Agriculture database. Just a quart of the tea has significant antiinflammatory activity. You may also benefit from inhaling the aroma of the chamomile flowers as you boil the water and when you pour it over the flowers. Be careful not to get too close to avoid being scalded.

Elecampane (Inula helenium). Elecampane is well endowed with antiviral and antibacterial as well as expectorant compounds. Gazmend Skenderi, author of Herbal Vade Mecum, recommends using the root in teas for asthma, bronchitis, colds, and cough. However, certified lactation consultant Sheila Humphrey, RN, author of The Nursing Mother’s Herbal, gives it a low score for safety with nursing mothers, as it’s frequently reported to be allergenic.

Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra). Licorice scored highest in my database search for anti-bronchitic foods. It has a long folk history, and laboratory evidence has confirmed its effectiveness. Theophrastus, the so-called father of botany who lived from 371 to 287 BC, suggested using licorice for asthma, bronchitis, and cough. I rank licorice (along with garlic) as tops for bronchitis and other pulmonary afflictions.

You can buy licorice as a standardized herb and add it as a sweetener to the aromatic teas mentioned in this chapter. But licorice also has its downside. Long-term use can lead to headaches, lethargy, sodium and water retention, loss of potassium, and high blood pressure. You shouldn’t use it regularly for longer than six weeks, and don’t take it if you’re pregnant or nursing or if you have severe liver, kidney, or heart disease or high blood pressure. If you’re taking a diuretic, you should also avoid licorice.

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