Springtime is on its way, and with it, the sneezy, sinus-y allergies. As frustrating as it may be to walk around with tissues stuffed in your sleeve, mucus serves an important purpose in our bodies.
Why We Have Mucus
In the simplest terms, mucus helps our bodies stay lubricated and to remove toxins—so if you’re feeling a bit snotty or coughing up goop, know that it’s your body hard at work to get rid of something that could be wreaking havoc with your health.
Although we only notice the sticky stuff when we’re feeling under the weather, mucus is an integral part of our bodies all of the time. We have what are called mucous membranes all over the permeable soft tissues inside of us. The inside of our eyelids, noses and mouths, all the way down our tracheas, inside of our lungs, stomachs, intestines, ureters, urethras, and inside our bladders.
These membranes basically coat the internal workings of our digestive, urinary, and reproductive systems. It makes sense right? These are the places of our bodies that come into contact with foreign objects so we created a built-in protection system.
When our bodies sense particulate matter and pathogens, the membranes secrete mucus to trap them to prevent deeper entry into our tissues. As an added layer of protection, those membranes have a surface of permeable but very closely bound cells called epithelial cells.
Almost every surface of our body is covered with these epithelial cells, coming together to make a sheet called the epithelium.
The epithelium serves to help us define what is and isn’t “us.” They house the receptors of our bodies so that we can feel a lover’s touch, smell a flower, or taste our favorite meal.
The epithelium of our internal selves serve a similar purpose. They keep out pathogens while absorbing and transporting nutrients into the body. They shunt enzymes into the digestive system to break down nutrients, funnel hormones into our bloodstream, and work with the mucous membranes to secrete our old friend mucus to lubricate and protect.
Pretty amazing right? You can imagine that having a healthy epithelium is pertinent to a whole slew of bodily functions, and one of the best ways to keep your epithelium healthy is to take care of your mucous membranes.
Keeping Your Membranes Healthy
Our mucous membranes are pretty strong, they are a form of our body’s protection system after all, but they can certainly be worn out. Things like heavy bouts of toxins, consistent unhealthy dietary choices, and lack of exercise over time—especially taken together—can cause the membranes to suffer. Since the main function of these membranes is to secrete mucus, a suffering mucosal lining means there’s no mucus to absorb potential pathogens or lubricate the cells, causing dryness and irritation.
When our mucous membranes are compromised, our epithelial cells can be damaged, which means that they may not be able to live to their full potential of keeping out pathogens.
So you’re in a position where two of your most potent protections from pathogens are compromised (it only takes the damage of a few epithelial cells to let in a pathogen) and you get sick. Your body goes into overdrive to expel the nasty bugs and there you are in a cycle of mucus and irritation that feels like a dry, sticky cough and a running nose.
Taking care of your mucous membranes when you’re sick is what we call an acute response—dry up the mucus and cool the irritation—but when you come out the other side of your illness it is important to think consciously about your mucous membrane maintenance to prevent sickness moving forward.
An Ayurvedic Answer
In the Ayurvedic tradition excess mucus is understood as an imbalance of Kapha, the colder, slower moving dosha.
We’re always looking to maintain our own unique doshic balance so it’s crucial to identify our natural constitution before setting forth on a wellness plan for long term health.
Tips for Balancing Kapha and Reducing Mucus
For a Kapha imbalance, or if your dosha leans towards Kapha dominance, you want to focus on eating foods that don’t aggravate it further. These are your oily or heavy foods like butter, cream, nuts, or cheese. You also want to avoid satiating that sweet tooth with cakes and pies—try honey for your sweetener instead.
Focus on eating bitter and astringent foods, paying special attention on your dark green veggies like dandelion greens and kale. Focus more on warming foods and spices like cayenne, ginger, cardamon, and pepper (yum, chai anyone?) and try not to drink or eat food that is cold if you can help it, as coldness feeds Kapha and slows down the body.
Because the Kapha body types (and kapha-related illnesses) are typically the slower, colder, sweeter type—well now I’m thinking about molasses—you want to keep warm and active to keep everything moving along. Try to stay warm regardless of the weather and work towards high-intensity workouts like martial arts, or dancing like there’s no tomorrow.
When you’re working with mucus, it doesn’t always feel great to get your body moving because you can end up flinging snot rockets or coughing up something you only typically see in nightmares, but that’s actually good—take precautions not to infect other people, of course—because when you’re expelling mucus, you’re getting rid of whatever pathogen caused the ick that brought you to this article to begin with.
Sitopaldi is an excellent remedy for excess mucus in the body. It is a very traditional remedy found in Ayurveda that is a compound of several different herbs, including cane sugar, banslochan (Bambusa arundinacea), pippali fruit (Piper longum), cardamom seed (Elettaria cardamomum), and cinnamon (Cinnamomum cassia) and has been shown to offer significant protection against degranulation of the mast cells in our organs.
7 Herbs for Healing Excess Mucus
Heal your Gut
All disease starts in the gut—it’s the main place where our internal body absorbs the external world so it’s important to keep the mucous membranes in the digestive system healthy and maintained. Here are three of the best herbs for short and long term digestive system health.
Chamomile. Chamomile is one of the best herbs to take for healing your intestinal epithelium. Not only is it calming to the enteric nervous system, it is moistening to the gut and has powerful but gentle anti-inflammatory properties. This is especially helpful brewed cold overnight suspended overnight.
Licorice. This demulcent herb soothes the mucosal membranes and works to balance blood sugar over time. It helps to mobilize leukocytes in the direction of inflammation and irritation. It has a very sweet taste and the powdered root can easily be incorporated into your oatmeal breakfast, made into a tea, or the root stick can be chewed.
Marshmallow root. Marshmallow root’s potent demulcent and anti-inflammatory properties are incredible for healing the mucosal lining of the entire digestive tract. Brew this cold along with your suspended chamomile overnight. Additionally, marshmallow root doesn’t have a strong flavor so it’s easy to add the powder to your daily life. Slip it into your pancake mix or add it to your favorite spice blend.
Pulmonary Epithelial Herbs to Drain Toxins
One of the best ways to remove toxins (via mucus) in the body is through the pulmonary system, or lungs.
Remember that mucus is cool, so when you're working with that stuck, unproductive cough, heat up the body to stimulate removal of the mucus and the pathogen. That means stimulating the blood flow around the lungs with warming herbs along with healing the membranes.
Ginger. Ginger reduces inflammation and pain by helping to stimulate circulation which helps the body remove stuck phlegm. It’s a warming herb that works to increase digestive secretions along with having a diaphoretic action that promotes sweating (another great way to release toxins). Add ginger to your homemade salad dressings, your teas (especially with honey and lemon), and your stirfrys. Delicious.
Cayenne pepper. This spicy herb is a very stimulating and warming herb that helps to move blood and relieve pain by decreasing platelet aggregation, that means it thins the blood. It helps to open nasal passages and can be used in a gargle at a sore throat. It can be used topically as a chest pack to move stuck phlegm or ingested regularly to promote blood movement.
Note: cayenne is not for aggravated Pitta constitutions (inflammation) but is especially effective in kapha constitutions that need a bit of stimulation.
Elderberry flower. This is a gentle friend with powerful diaphoretic and diuretic actions in the body that help release toxins, relieve congestion, and clear heat of infection. Use it in tandem with other herbs in a tea to help stimulate the body, as a gargle to relieve a sore throat, or as a compress if you’re suffering from a headache.
Black pepper. Black pepper is an easy one to incorporate into every savory meal that you have. It’s spicy and stimulates the blood to improve circulation. Its added antibacterial properties help to prevent the proliferation of the pathogen throughout the body.
How do you heal your mucous membranes? Tell us in the comments below.
Mars, B. (2007). The desktop guide to herbal medicine: The ultimate multidisciplinary reference to the amazing realm of healing plants, in a quick-study, one-stop guide. Laguna Beach, CA: Basic Health Pub.