Keep Lungs Healthy: What to Eat to Help Prevent Respiratory Problems

The dog days of summer bring thick and stagnant weather, leaving many of us gasping for air. But for the more than 30 million Americans living with a chronic lung disease, breathing can be a chore every day of the year.

While not smoking and minimizing exposure to pollutants affords the most protection, healthful eating may also contribute to strong lungs. Here, EN looks at the role nutrition plays in common respiratory disorders.

EN‘s Tips for Better Breathing

  • Maintain a healthy weight. It maximizes resistance to infection and enables better management of COPD symptoms.
  • Aim for at least five a day of fruits and vegetables. Choose often those rich in vitamin C (citrus, strawberries, kiwi) or quercetin (apples, oranges, berries, onions).
  • Make your grains whole-grain. Choose whole wheat and other whole grains for a natural source of vitamin E and phytochemicals.
  • Opt for foods with omega-3 fatty acids, like seafood (especially salmon, mackerel, albacore tuna, sardines), walnuts and flaxseed.
  • Take a daily multi. Most multivitamins contain 30 International Units of vitamin E, along with other antioxidants.
  • Include moderate amounts of caffeine, if you like. Stick to a maximum of two to three five-ounce cups of coffee a day.

Why Asthma and COPD Make Breathing a Chore. Asthma occurs when airways become irritated, inflamed and ultimately narrowed, often from environmental triggers. With emphysema and chronic bronchitis?collectively called Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)’the passage of air becomes permanently obstructed. These conditions become more common with age, as lungs lose their elasticity and become less resilient. Common symptoms include wheezing, coughing, excessive mucus production, shortness of breath and chest tightness.

Can Antioxidants Help? Oxidation, which generates dangerous free radicals, might be partly responsible for the obstruction and stiffening of the lungs? airways. Because fruits and vegetables are brimming with antioxidant compounds, attention has focused on their potential preventive powers. Several studies reveal a link between fruit and vegetable intake and healthy lungs.

“Eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables seems to help reduce the risk of developing many chronic diseases and may contribute to improved lung function,” says Patricia A. Cassano, M.P.H., Ph.D., an epidemiologist at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, who has analyzed government nutrition and health surveys for diet’s link to lung function.

Vitamin C, a well-known antioxidant, has been singled out as a potential protector, because it’s the main antioxidant found on the surface of the lungs? airways. It seems logical that getting plenty of vitamin C might help maintain a high level of vitamin C on airway surfaces, allowing them to fend off oxidation. This connection, however, has not been proved.

Other research suggests vitamin E deserves credit. Eating whole-grain bread was linked to lung health in 3,000 men. The researchers suggest this might be due to the vitamin E in whole grains. Research has also pointed to the antioxidant flavonoid called quercetin, present in the skin of apples and in other fruits and vegetables, as well as tea and red wine. For example, people who eat five or more apples a week have better lung function than those who eat none.

Fish in Your Future? Omega-3 fatty acids, abundant in oily fish, play a proactive role in protecting lungs. They can reduce inflammation, which is at the root of many respiratory ailments. Omega 3’s limit the body’s production of leukotrienes, substances that trigger the swelling and narrowing of airways. New data from Harvard’s ongoing Nurses? Health Study show that a high intake of fish may reduce the risk of developing COPD.

“Increasing fish intake is a reasonable lifestyle change to make,” advises researcher Eyal Shahar, M.D., M.P.H., of the University of Minnesota.

Milk and Mucus Myth. Dairy foods are often blamed for aggravating respiratory symptoms by stimulating mucus production. But there is little scientific evidence to support this. In a small but well-controlled study of 20 people with asthma?who believed dairy worsened their symptoms?Australian researchers found no constriction of airways. EN‘s advice? Don’t eliminate milk products thinking it will help you breathe easier.

Respiratory Resources

American Lung Association

Allergy and Asthma Network
(800) 878-4403

War on Weight. Maintaining a healthy body weight can help thwart asthma. Harvard researchers have found that women with the highest body mass index (BMI), a measure of weight in relation to height, were almost three times more likely to develop asthma compared to their thinner counterparts.

“Obesity is a clear risk factor and [the rising incidence of obesity] may partly explain the current asthma epidemic,” suggests one of the study investigators, Carlos Camargo, M.D., of Harvard Medical School.

For the first time, research findings suggest that gaining weight may trigger asthma rather than merely being a side effect of the inactivity that often accompanies asthma. Weight gain may hinder lung function by constricting the chest wall or by causing hormone changes. Another way weight might cause trouble is that people who are overweight tend to spend more time indoors, where they are exposed to more allergens than those who are active outdoors.

Stay Active. Respiratory illnesses are better controlled in people who are in good physical condition. Exercise strengthens muscles, including those that help you breathe. However, many people with asthma find that exercise triggers symptoms, especially in cold dry air. Check with your doctor first for exercise guidelines and to learn how this particular trigger can be controlled.

Caffeine’s Surprising Benefit. Caffeine relaxes muscles and opens airways. A few years back, a large Italian study linked caffeine intake to improved respiratory symptoms. Researchers found that people who drank two to three cups of coffee daily had 25% less asthma than those who drank none. Although caffeine may offer some benefit, keep intake moderate for overall health.

Herbal Aid to Breathing. The most effective herbal treatment for respiratory disorders, agree herbalists, is ephedra (ma huang). Yes, the very herb that EN and others have consistently warned against (see page 3). Ephedra is an ingredient in some over-the-counter products claiming to promote healthy breathing.

“Ephedra is an extremely effective bronchodilator, but it shouldn’t be used chronically or without medical supervision,” cautions herbal expert Varro Tyler, Ph.D., Sc.D.

EN‘s Advice. To keep your lungs strong and healthy, don’t smoke, stay indoors on poor air quality days and check out “EN‘s Tips for Better Breathing,” above.


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