Back in 2014, I conducted a series of experiments inhaling essential oils through my nebulizer. I began these experiments at a time when I was due to use oral antibiotics again (a regular occurrence for me as a result of my chronic cystic fibrosis lung infections) but a snow storm prevented me from getting to the pharmacy. As they say, necessity if the mother of invention (or in this case, discovery)!
Why Use Essential Oils?
In 2014, I was in the midst of my clinical herbal training and had been learning about various medicinal plant constituents. In particular, the constituents called essential oils often have potent antimicrobial (antibacterial, antifungal, & antiviral) power. So I decided it was time to try an experiment with them to see if they could help me control my lung infections. I was very happy with the results and I'd love to share my findings with you!
Bloating, gas, stomachs aches, indigestion, constipation, diarrhea, reflux... there is a special kind of miserable when we experience these symptoms! In cystic fibrosis and other digestive diseases, these symptoms may be a common nuisance. Fortunately, herbal medicine has several thousand years of clinical experience assisting people with these issues! Using specific medicinal herbs is one of the most effective ways to improve human digestion, which all of our ancestors have been doing for eons. Interestingly, digestion is one of the things that I feel conventional medicine has the hardest time understanding and helping with, especially with regards to chronic digestive issues. In this article I briefly mention a few herbs and techniques to use to address bloating and indigestion. There are so many herbs that help with digestive issues of all sorts that I couldn't possibly discuss them all in one article, but I'll touch on a few that I use most frequently for myself and my clients.
Inflammation is a huge factor in the disease processes of cystic fibrosis. Some studies have shown that faulty CFTR mutations may directly result in inadequate quenching of radical oxygen species (ROS) or excessive release of other inflammatory compounds like cytokines [1,2]. In addition, our burden of chronic infection and gastrointestinal complications contribute secondary sources of inflammation. Chronic inflammation can lead to both localized and systemic issues. Localized inflammation in the lungs can lead to deficient and/or over-reactive immune responses, bronchitis, scarification and airway remodeling, allergies/asthma/hyper-reactive airway diseases, hemoptysis, pleurisy (inflammation of the pleura), and worsened infection. Localized inflammation in the gut can lead to reflux/GERD, esophagitis, gastritis, pancreatitis, gallbladder issues, liver issues, food sensitivities, malabsorption, autoimmune issues of the intestines, gut infections, general indigestion, and excessive mucus production in both the guts and the lungs (by vagal reflex). Systemic inflammation can cause insulin resistance, body pain, arthritis, achey joints and muscles, fever, fatigue, increased risk for autoimmunity, and increased risk for cardiovascular disease.
In this article, originally published in AromaCulture Magazine in July, I discuss herbal and dietary support for CF children and adults. I discuss digestion, respiratory disease, liver support, and modulation of CFTR sodium chloride channels by natural means.
Cystic fibrosis is an autosomal recessive genetic disease that leads to the malfunctioning of several organ systems but most especially impacts the lungs, sinuses, and digestion. It is the most common autosomal recessive genetic disorder (meaning that each parent must be a carrier of the genetic mutation) in people of Western European decent. There are approximately 30,000 people living with cystic fibrosis (CF) in the United States, and more than 70,000 people worldwide.
A friend of mine with CF who lives in South Africa has a history of severe gastroparesis (delayed gastric emptying) and low stomach acid, which (alongside her Crohn's, CFRD, and removal of her terminal ileum, ascending colon, and gallbladder years ago) has caused her significant digestive distress and inability to digest anything other than her extremely regimented liquid diet. For years Paula's gastroparesis has been so bad that if she doesn't eat precisely the right thing in precise quantities at precisely the right time of day, her stomach will not empty, which puts pressure on her diaphragm and lungs and can cause significant respiratory distress and vomiting. She is a great researcher and has tried many, many things to help this situation, but nothing had yet made a significant dent on these distressing symptoms (including multiple motility drugs). I've tried to strategize with Paula to figure out what was causing or had caused the issue, and secondly what do we do about it now. After a lot of trial and error, it seems we've found two things that have made a big difference in her life: lecithin and artichoke leaf (Cynara scolymus).
As a kid with CF, I was lucky in that I had heartburn rarely enough that regular use of antacids or PPIs (proton pump inhibitors) was not offered to me by my parents or doctors, so I never developed a dependence on them. But it seems such things are often suggested to CF patients as part of a standard CF routine. Due to a number of factors common in the CF lifestyle (poor diet, frequent antibiotic usage, stress, coughing, etc.) acid reflux, heartburn, and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) are commonplace in the CF population. Yet mainstream medicine understands the problem entirely wrong, and so their standard treatment protocol ends up exacerbating the issue and causing more problems than you started with. I want to briefly discuss why antacids and PPIs are inappropriate for CF (and humans in general) and some alternatives to these pharmaceutical treatments for reflux.
Since about 2013, a portion of the CF community has been experimenting with "the Combo", or the combination of curcumin plus genistein supplements to help modulate CFTR function. This intervention is proving to be very helpful for many people who try it, yet we're still in the beginning stages of our experimentation. The impacts of the Combo are somewhat mutation-specific, and the rate of digestive absorption of these herbs varies person to person, thus the dose must be deduced via personal experimentation.
The Combo is a simple and safe intervention with few side effects and is relatively cheap (compared to pharmaceutical CFTR modulators like Kalydeco, which cost $300,000 a year!). Both of these supplements are made up of plant constituents (genistein from soy and curcumin from turmeric root), and as you know, I'm an herbalist and a believer in the healing power of plants.
On occasion one must do strange things in the name of science. Sometimes it's necessary to challenge a few taboos to find useful information. There's hardly a body part with more taboos attached to it than the bung-hole. Oh yes, my friend. I'm going there. Let us discuss that place that our culture chooses not to think about. The "deep space" of our body. The rectum.
It's a pretty useful spot. Located in between the bowel and the anus, it is of course wonderfully useful for expelling feces. And because it is a highly vascularized area of tissue, it is also very useful for absorbing things into the bloodstream. Rectal suppositories of medicine have been used for centuries, and more recently it's come to my attention that essential oils can be administered systemically via this technique.
For an introduction to inhaling essential oils in general, click here.
In mid-May I began inhaling Benchmark Thyme essential oil in my nebulizer. For two and a half weeks I inhaled 3 drops of the oil mixed with 3mL of normal saline and nebulized it twice a day. By the end of this 2.5 week trial period I noticed a significant improvement in my lung and overall health. Of the oils I have used so far, Benchmark Thyme (BT) is probably my single favorite. In the two weeks before starting BT I was inhaling a combo of eucalyptus and tea tree oils. Although these oils kept me from declining back to pre-essential oil levels, when I began using thyme I could notice a difference. My main lung bug is MRSA, and since BT is specifically formulated to target MRSA infections, I believe this is why it has been so effective for me.
Mica McDonald (they/he) is a clinical herbalist, nutritionist, ecologist, and writer living in Abenaki territory (Vermont).