While, generally speaking, I prefer to let a cough do its job to clear extra secretions in the airway, there are times when I want to treat the cough. If a person is unable to sleep, for example, or if their cough is so spasmodic and severe that the cough isn’t actually clearing anything, an herbal cough syrup can help to soothe, encourage rest and healing, loosen secretions, and reduce non-productive coughs in favor of productive ones.
There are three main actions of cough medicines, both herbal and over the counter. There are expectorants, which thin secretions and encourage fewer forceful coughs, and there are cough suppressants, which suppress the urge to cough, and there are “soothing” herbs or medicines, which work either by mucilage or anesthetic properties to reduce pain in the throat. With practice and a good reference, the herbalist can make either an all-purpose cough syrup or a very specific one.
A note about wild cherry bark: Wild cherry bark is one of the most effective herbal expectorants, and has a long history of safe use in the herbal medicine of many of the indigenous populations of North America. However, it also contains two toxic chemicals, prunasin and cyanide, which must be removed before consumption. Luckily, it is rather easy to remove these two water soluble compounds. Simply soak your wild cherry bark in enough cold or room temperature water to cover for at least 2 hours, then discard this soaking water. The remaining wild cherry bark is now ready to safely use.
In the years I have been making cough syrup as an annual event with several herbalist friends, I’m not sure we’ve ever made it with the same herbs twice. Our ingredients vary based on what’s available and, for lack of a better explanation, what “feels right” to us at the time. But the general procedure is as follows:
Select herbs (presoaked Wild Cherry Bark if used), and place in a large pot. For each one ounce (by weight) of herbs, add 1 pint of cold water. Cold water is preferable to warm water, as some constituents, particularly mucilage, are better extracted at lower temperatures than high. Other are extracted best at high. By beginning with cold and warming the herbs as the water warms, we can extract a wider range of constituents.
Use the handle end of a wooden spoon to measure the height of your mixture. Place a rubber band at this level on the spoon handle.
Turn the heat to medium and bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to a simmer. Gently simmer your mixture until the volume is reduced by one-half (use the rubber band on your spoon handle as a guide.) Strain the herbs and discard conscientiously (your compost pile loves these!) Measure the liquid and return it to the pot over low/medium heat. Add the same amount of honey and stir until the honey is fully combined. This will take longer than you think, sometimes nearly an hour for very large batches. You will feel the pull of the honey on your spoon until suddenly it is emulsified into the liquid and the pull disappears.
Remove from the heat. Add a few spoonfuls of powdered Slippery Elm, if desired. We have found the best way to incorporate the powdered Slippery Elm is with a stick blender.
Once your mixture stops steaming, you can add brandy (blackberry brandy is widely used for that proper cough syrup flavor) and lemon and lime juice to taste. The brandy acts as a preservative if it makes up at least 30% of the volume of the cough syrup, and lemon and lime juices both flavor the syrup and add their own cough suppressant actions. Store in sterile bottles and administer as needed by the spoonful.
One of these days, I’m going to try adding the juice of a fresh pineapple for the bromelain content. Bromelain is another excellent cough suppressant.
The following chart is not an exhaustive list of cough syrup herbs, by any means. But they’re good herbs that I have found useful in our cough syrups.
Oh, one more thing…if you use brandy or another alcohol as a preservative, and if you pour your syrup into sterile bottles, you may still see a goopy “fog” in the bottom of your bottle the next day. This is very unlikely to be mold! It’s the mucilage from your slippery elm or marshmallow, or other carbohydrates extracted from your herbs. It’s good stuff! Because we didn’t use any artificial emulsifiers, it will settle out. Just give the bottle a shake to reincorporate your wonderful goo before you take a spoonful.