Most of us grew up in a culture ruled by western medicine. In this paradigm, people get diagnosed with a condition and then are given the pill for that condition. If a person has allergies, they might take Benedryl.™ If someone is in pain, they might take Tylenol.™ If someone has a cold, they take Nyquil.™ When people start studying about herbs, their questions often reflect this western medicine paradigm.
In the HerbMentor forums I often hear people ask, “I have a _______, what herb helps with that?” But the art of herbalism goes far beyond the this-herb-for-that-disease strategy.
Herbalism is a sophisticated study of matching herbs to people. Instead of asking ourselves, “What herb is good for coughs?” we investigate the type of cough and the person who has the cough in order to find the best herbs for this particular kind of cough.
Not All Coughs are Created Equal
If you’ve ever been sick, you’ve probably noticed that not all coughs are the same. Some are deep lung coughs that bring up a lot of mucous. Some coughs are relentless, dry hacking coughs. Some coughs are weak, some are strong. Some coughs are worse in the morning and some are worse at night. As herbalists we are detectives and our mission goes beyond naming general herbs that are good for coughs.
When thinking about coughs another important consideration is that we rarely want to outright suppress a cough. Instead, we understand that coughs are happening for a purpose. Our goal is to recognize what is causing the cough and then help to support or correct this.
Oftentimes coughs are the body’s attempt to expel mucous from the lungs. If there is a copious amount of mucous in the lungs, we may want to help thin the mucous so that we can expectorate it (get rid of it) more easily.
Sometimes coughs are caused by dryness and irritation. In this instance we may want to moisten the lungs and soothe inflammation. Using herbs in this way makes us more effective at helping people.
As you can see, the art of matching herbs to a cough is quite complex!
When the Coughing Has to Stop
Persistent coughs are often one of the most difficult aspects of dealing with a cold or flu. These coughs can keep a person up at night and, if they continue for any length of time, they can be quite painful. And while we rarely want to outright suppress a cough, if a cough if keeping someone from sleeping, then suppressing a cough is beneficial (sleep and rest is one of the most important medicines when sick!).
Drinking a lot of herbal tea before bed is not always the best way to ensure someone gets restful sleep. Instead, we may look to tinctures, pastilles or cough drops since these contain less liquid.
A Home Remedy for Coughs
This recipe is a hard candy cough drop. The recipe you see below took me five attempts to get it just right! Many similar recipes call for corn syrup as part of the ingredients. At first I tried simply omitting the corn syrup but the result was a grainy substance that didn’t really hold together.
Finally I had the idea to use blackstrap molasses in place of the corn syrup. Once I used this rich dark sweetener, the recipe turned out just right. Blackstrap molasses is a mineral-rich and bitter-sweet substance that comes from cane sugar. It contains iron, calcium, manganese and magnesium.
Let’s take a closer look at the herbs in this recipe. Keep in mind that there are many different herbs that you could use in this recipe – feel free to experiment and please share your results in the comments below.
Sage (Salvia officinalis)
Sage is antiseptic and astringent, helping to soothe swollen tissues (like a sore throat).
Hyssop (Hyssopus officinalis)
Hyssop has a strong affinity for the lungs. It is warming and can help expel mucous. Herbalists use it not only for colds and the flu but also for some types of asthma.
“Wise Grandmothers have long used hyssop as a nourishing medicinal tea for those dealing with any type of pulmonary distress, lungs or sinus congestion.”
-Gail Faith Edwards
Thyme (Thymus vulgaris)
We often think of thyme as a simple culinary spice, but this delicate plant packs quite the punch. It also has a strong affinity for the lungs and is used to loosen phlegm and open up the bronchioles.
Herbal Cough Drops
These cough drops are great for those dry coughs that tickle your throat at night and prevent you from sleeping.
What you’ll need…
- 1 tablespoon dried sage leaves
- 1 tablespoon dried hyssop leaves
- 1 tablespoon dried thyme leaves
- 2 cups organic sugar
- 3/4 cups organic blackstrap molasses
- Something to pour the hard candy mixture into. I use a 9×13 glass casserole dish. A cookie sheet or a hard candy mould will also work.
- I recommend using a hard candy thermometer, but this is optional.
To begin, prepare your hard candy moulds for the mixture OR lightly grease a cookie sheet or casserole dish. I use melted coconut oil in my glass casserole dish. I assume olive oil would also work.
If you don’t have a candy thermometer, then you’ll need a small cup of cold water nearby.
Next we’ll make a strong brew of tea by combining the sage, hyssop and thyme with 1 cup of water. Let this steep for 15 minutes (covered) and then strain off the herbs. We’ll use 1/2 cup of this strong tea.
Next combine all the ingredients in a medium to large saucepan…
This includes a 1/2 cup strong herbal tea…
and the blackstrap molasses.
If you are using a candy thermometer, attach it to the side of the pan.
Turn the burner to medium high heat and stir this mixture constantly until it reaches 300º F.
If you aren’t using a candy thermometer, you can periodically test the mixture by dropping a small amount in a cup of cold water (but keep stirring constantly so the mixture doesn’t burn!). When the mixture solidifies when dropped into the cold water, it’s done. It takes me about 15 minutes for the candy to get to 300º F.
Once it is ready, pour into the hard candy molds (or greased cookie sheet).
If you are using a cookie sheet or casserole dish, you’ll need to start cutting the cough drop squares immediately. If you wait too long, the mixture will solidify. Keep in mind how big a cough drop generally is. The first time I made this recipe, I cut the squares way too big, which made them uncomfortable to use.
To cut out the lozenges, I use the end of a spatula to make lines across the dish in both directions. I keep going over and over the lines until the mixture completely hardens. You could also try using a knife or a pizza cutter. This takes me about 15 minutes.
You’ll notice that the pan you cooked these in is now coated with a super hard candy coating. To clean my pan, I simply fill it half-full of water and then bring it to a boil. The mixture will dissolve in the water, making it an easy clean-up job.
Once the mixture hardens, you can store your cough drop pieces in an airtight container and keep them in a cool place. I have some batches that are 8 months old and are still good. If you live in a warm or humid environment, you can also cover the pieces with an herbal powder (rose petal powder is nice) to keep them from sticking to each other.
The Sugar Issue
You might have noticed that this recipe calls for a lot of sugar. If you’ve been following these remedies and recipes for a while, this might surprise you since you’ll know I am not a big fan of sugar.
However, as far as I know there is no other way to make a hard candy except with sugar. In this case, the sugar adds to the recipe by helping to coat the throat and quell the coughing. If someone is diabetic or has severe blood sugar imbalances, this recipe would not be a good recipe for them.
I know someone is going to ask me if they can use honey instead of the sugar. I’m not sure if honey will form a hard candy like sugar will. I tried using honey as the main ingredient once and it never solidified. Has anyone tried this successfully? If so, please comment below.
There are lots of ways to quell those irritating nighttime coughs. Drinking marshmallow tea throughout the day can help prevent the cough and antispasmodic herbs like California poppy and valerian can be taken as tinctures to stop the coughing.
As we enter into the winter months, I have two pieces of advice for our readers. First, it’s far easier to prevent illness by using nutrient-dense foods, herbs and healthy lifestyle habits than it is to treat illness using herbs. And second, stock up your herbal medicine chest BEFORE illness hits so that you can easily reach for herbal remedies when you need them.