My Path Into Lifelong Study of Herbalism: Healing my Chronic Asthma with Diet and Herbs

New England Aster

In my post last week on herbalism, I discussed the intersections of herbalism to druidic spiritual practice and sustainable thinking. In this week’s post, I’ll share my own story about my path into herbalism.  This series of posts on herbalism will continue in the upcoming weeks with resources on how to begin to study herbalism and mindsets/ways of seeing the world from an herbalist’s perspective.  But for now…my story on why I am now a lifelong student of herbalism!

I was a chronic asthmatic for nearly my entire life, since my original diagnosis at the age of six or seven. I struggled with it throughout my childhood and adolescence; it was always the thing that kept me from doing so much and limited me in many ways. I took four different asthma medications, including two kinds of inhalers, a nebulizer, and then various long-term daily medications….for 25 years. They cost me about $75 a month with decent insurance when I had it, and the insurance company was shelling out about $500/month for them above what I paid (and while I was in college, at points with no insurance, I couldn’t afford all of the medications and then had very bad attacks). When I took the medications each day, they made me ill–first my body sped up and my heart would race and I would get terrible shakes and jitters. These shakes were visible to others, the shakes in the hands and so forth. I was asked at various times if I was “on drugs” because people my age aren’t supposed to shake like that (and I was, prescription drugs). Then an hour or so later the jitters would die down, and I would crash and be exhausted; of course, I still had to work and function in my life after all this. I couldn’t paint for several hours after the medications kicked in; even typing was hard the first hour after taking them. We tried different kinds of medication but all ended up with the same bad side effects. And what was worse was that I still had asthma attacks, fairly bad ones at least once a week.  I was, what my doctors called me, a lifelong chronic patient because I had been hospitalized multiple times for it, been taken in an ambulance, lost consciousness, and almost died during one of the attacks.  I was super sensitive toward everything–cigarette smoke, chemicals, air fresheners, high humidity, chlorine pools, etc.  All, especially combined with exercise, would set me off for an attack.

New England Aster
New England Aster

Then, I saw an herbalist and a nutritionist a year and a half ago.  This visit was not about asthma, but about serious gastrointestinal issues, another area that my doctor did her best to prescribe away, never speaking to me once about food. Between the herbalist and the nutritionist’s suggestions, I changed my diet to address the gastrointestinal issues and ending up eliminating gluten.  In addition to my already healthy localvore diet, I started taking probiotics, magnesium, d3, and bitters; this combination made me feel awesome. Turns out that eliminating gluten had an added benefit that both the herbalist and nutritionist pointed out might happen: the gluten was giving me allergic reactions all along my bronchial passageway.  Eliminating gluten substantially lessened all of my asthmatic problems. To help strengthen my lungs, my herbalist suggested that I regularly take New England Aster (a native wildflower growing in the Great Lakes Region and Northeast) in tincture form to support my lung health.  This worked beautifully, and my lungs are stronger and healthier than they have been for most of my life. (See Jim’s awesome write up on New England Aster on his website).

In a period of only a few months, I found myself eliminating the asthma medications one by one and testing how I felt…I breathed much better, and, perhaps the most shocking, I stopped having asthma attacks almost entirely. Now I get only a few attacks a year, usually because of chemical exposure, and I haven’t even needed the fast-acting inhaler. It was so empowering last fall to go to the field behind my house, find the beautiful purple New England Aster plants, and gather up and tincture enough of them for a full year of medicine.  I felt liberated, both from the symptoms of my asthma and from the detrimental effects of all of those awful medications that made my life more difficult to live.  Last winter, I spoke to my doctor during my yearly checkup, and I asked her about the gluten/asthma connection, and she said that the research did exist but it was “inconclusive.” She didn’t really want to hear what I had to say and instead insisted I keep taking the asthma medications.  Of course, I feel better and have less problems, so I gently declined her suggestion.  She responded that not doing so was seriously endangering my health.  I told her I was taking New England Aster, and she asked “Is that in pill form?” I responded, “No, its in gathered in my backyard form.” I’m sad to say that she refused to listen to me….and rewrote the prescriptions (although I did not fill them).  It’s now been almost a year and a half and my lungs are healthier than ever–I can do physical activity without a problem and that is a very exciting thing!

All of this transpired because of two things: 1) a wise nutritionist and herbalist who saw the body as a whole system and sought underlying causes rather than treating surface symptoms and 2) the incredible healing power of foods and herbs. This experience prompted me to begin to study the herbs in a very serious way, because I realized how critically important it was for me to know more, to take care of myself, and to learn more about the plant allies that have been with humanity such a very long time.   Thank you to Debbie and Jim for their wisdom and knowledge of the body as a system, of foods, and plants :).

One more thing I’ll mention–since I started sharing this story, I’ve heard of so many other stories that are similar to mine. Stories of how herbs cured long-term illnesses, herbs have empowered people, how they have helped people gain more quality of life, and brought them back to the land.  Here’s one my friend Sarah posted on her blog last week.  Herbs have their magic and their lessons to teach, all we need to do is listen.

Dana O'Driscoll

Dana O’Driscoll has been an animist druid for almost 20 years, and currently serves as Grand Archdruid in the Ancient Order of Druids in America. She is a druid-grade member of the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids and is the OBOD’s 2018 Mount Haemus Scholar. She is the author of Sacred Actions: Living the Wheel of the Year through Earth-Centered Spiritual Practice (REDFeather, 2021), the Sacred Actions Journal (REDFeather, 2022), and Land Healing: Physical, Metaphysical, and Ritual Approaches for Healing the Earth (REDFeather, 2024). She is also the author/illustrator of the Tarot of Trees, Plant Spirit Oracle, and Treelore Oracle. Dana is an herbalist, certified permaculture designer, and permaculture teacher who teaches about reconnection, regeneration, and land healing through herbalism, wild food foraging, and sustainable living. Dana lives at a 5-acre homestead in rural western Pennsylvania with her partner and a host of feathered and furred friends. She writes at the Druids Garden blog and is on Instagram as @druidsgardenart. She also regularly writes for Plant Healer Quarterly and Spirituality and Health magazine.

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  1. I am totally impressed that you’ve accomplished so much with your life when you have had this debilitating condition. I also have asthma, though a very mild case, and I suspect it has different origins than yours, but one can’t help but be intrigued by your success with alternative treatments. I’m not sure I could even find a practitioner locally who would be any more trustworthy than a conventional doctor–and I agree, conventional doctors mostly just want to prescribe pills and not spend time considering diet changes, much less herbs.

    1. Well, it hasn’t been so debilitating in the last year and a half :). And before that, I just had to be careful, do a little bit of physical activity at a time, see how I felt, etc.

      Karen, I know of several herbalists you could see on that side of the state. It might be a few hours to drive, but there are good ones near Philly for sure :).

  2. I’m pleased to hear that you’ve gotten a difficult condition under control – under your own terms! It saddens me, but doesn’t surprise me to hear that your doctor gave you the “blank stare” when you tried to talk about your own methods of healing. I am by no means anti-doctor. Obviously after all those years of education, they surely know a lot about the body and how to heal it. But its perplexing to say the least that nutrition is not a standard subject at each and every doctor visit. And, that herbal remedies are given the cold shoulder so consistently. I have a bladder condition called Interstitial Cystitis, which can be quite painful, even debilitating for some folks. My urologist insisted that I try the only prescription medication on the market. I declined because not only did I not have the $200 a month to shell out, I was really put off by the side effects. I was also determined to find a better way to get my condition under control. I spent countless hours researching alternatives. In the end, I drastically changed my diet, and slowly tried a half dozen herbal remedies that were recommended by other folks with this condition, slowly scrolling in a new one each month to really observe the effects. It took about 6 months to feel truly “better” and 1.5 years to become symptom free. At my follow up visit with my urologist, he was dumbfounded when I explained what I had done. I was sitting there, happily telling him that I had gotten my symptoms under control, but he just didn’t want to except my method! In any case – enjoy those powerful, wonderful New England Asters.

    1. Barbara, thank you so much for sharing your story! So many of us experience that. The thing is, the doctors are part of their own way of thinking, their own lens through which they see the world. They have difficulty seeing beyond it, and cannot fathom that healing can take place outside of modern medicine. But we know better…we know we can take our health into our hands! What an empowering thing! 🙂

  3. Barbara, what did you finally take to heal the interstital cystitis? My daughter has been suffering with it for years now and cannot afford medication for it. She will try anything herbal and/or dietwise to help with the symptoms.

  4. Thanks for sharing your story, I´m sure this will give insight to other people in the same situation. I would like to ask you if you can find out the name of another plant that has the same effect in the body for asma, I live in Lationamerica and we don´t have it..

    I´ve been suffering from asthma too, but thanks God I have been treating myself with Masage int the Tradional Chinese Medicine, and of course try to solve some emotional issues, wich play a roll in this type of problems. I have it pretty much under control. I don´t use Corticoides or even Inhalators, although some times I feel a bit weeker that usual and sometimes I have small problems with breathing, specially in a cold weather.

    For diet suggestion I cut almost the drinking milk, I just tr to drink once or twice per month does it, and I felt so much better, you can eat cheese or yogurt, that isn´t a problem. The thing is that milk produce too much phlems in the body, that is the reason why is better to cut it.

    That´s all what I have to share, and thanks again.

    See you around.

    María del Pilar

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