Lung health matters.
Take a big, deep breath. It’s something that, until people experience severe respiratory problems, they tend to take for granted.
“COVID-19 has brought respiratory health to the forefront of peoples’ attention, but the lungs and respiratory system have always been vital to both duration and quality of life,” explains Dr. Arielle Levitan, a board-certified internal medicine physician based in Highland Park, Illinois.
The respiratory system is responsible for feeding every cell in the body the oxygen it needs to operate at its best, with experts asserting that respiratory health is about far more than “the absence of lung disease” and exists on an expansive continuum, much like heart health.
While the lungs hit full maturity around age 20 to 25, left untrained, their function naturally begins to decline gradually at about age 35, according to the American Lung Association. Forced vital capacity, the maximum amount of air you can forcibly exhale from your lungs after fully inhaling, can decrease by about 0.2 liters per decade, even for healthy people who have never smoked. Meanwhile, declining lung function is associated with a marked increase in the risk of cardiovascular disease, most notably heart failure, per 2018 research published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.
Here are six expert-recommended strategies that can help you strengthen your respiratory health.
Avoid smoking in all forms.
Smoking cigarettes and tobacco products has long been known to lead to lung cancer. But mounting cases of vaping-related lung injuries and deaths are demonstrating that e-cigarettes, often used by people who believe they are healthier than traditional cigarettes, are dangerous as well, explains Dr. Kathryn Melamed, a pulmonary and critical care physician with the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center in Santa Monica, California.
Vaping can compromise lung function and necessitate intubation even in previously healthy individuals, notes one 2020 review from SUNY Upstate Medical University.
While some people try vaping as a way to “wean off” of traditional cigarettes, they should instead opt for smoke-free cessation strategies, according to researchers.
Further, people who do not smoke or vape should also limit their exposure to second-hand smoke, as it can significantly damage the lungs as well, Melamed says. If you live with anyone who does smoke or vape, ask them to do so outdoors.
Reduce exposure to indoor and outdoor toxins and irritants.
While no two toxins have the exact same impact on lung function and long-term disease risk, these particles, when inhaled, trigger cellular inflammation and damage that are opposite to lung health, Melamed explains. Common sources include environmental pollution, chemicals used and dust produced in industrial settings, radon and harsh household cleaners.
For example, in one 2018 study in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, researchers linked occupational and domestic cleaning with accelerated reductions in lung function over a span of 20 years. They equated the damage to that of smoking 10 to 20 cigarettes every day.
Melamed recommends wearing a face mask when cleaning with strong substances like disinfectants, and even dusting and vacuuming, both of which can kick dust particles and allergens into the air.
Also, good ventilation, including a HEPA filter, which can either be added to your HVAC unit or purchased as a standalone unit, further reduces potential exposure to toxins. These remove indoor allergens, such as dust mites from the air, as well as limit the entrance of outdoor pollution into the home. Melamed recommends keeping an eye on the U.S. Air Quality Index, a system of grading air quality by locality. Limit outdoor activities during high-pollution times, which can occur due to ozone, pollution or even wildfires.
“Physical exercise is a tremendous tool for improving pulmonary function,” says Dr. Louis B. Malinow, an internal medicine physician based in Baltimore.
He explains that strengthening the diaphragm and core muscles that assist in breathing increases the amount of oxygen the lungs can inhale and the amount of carbon dioxide they can exhale each minute, while also mitigating the effects of any contracted respiratory infections. “So many with COVID-19 have required intubation when their respiratory muscles fatigue,” Malinow says. “Strengthening these may help to improve the odds of avoiding this.”
Performing aerobic activities such as walking, running, cycling and swimming, are among the most effective for improving function and endurance in the muscles that control breathing. However, resistance-based exercises that work the core and back can also improve lung capacity by improving posture — literally opening up space in the chest cavity for the lungs to more fully expand. The muscles of the core and back are also highly involved in deep breathing, he says.
You can also try integrating deep, diaphragmatic breathing exercises into your days, either during workouts or throughout the day. Take a deep inhale through your nose, focusing on expanding your stomach as fully as possible, pause, then exhale all of the air out of your lungs through pursed lips, feeling your abdominals maximally contract.
Eat a healthy diet.
Your nutrition has a greater impact on your lung health than you likely suspect. In fact, solid intake of antioxidant-rich fruits such as bananas, apples and tomatoes — about four servings per day — is associated with a slower age-related decline in lung function, according to 2017 research published in the European Respiratory Journal. This may be due to the antioxidants’ anti-inflammatory effects, and meeting recommended intake of vitamins and minerals support respiratory health, Levitan says. They also come with the added side effect of crowding highly refined and processed foods, which can increase inflammation levels, out of the diet.
Furthermore, it’s important to consider that maintaining a healthy weight limits excess stress on the lungs, Melamed says. She explains that, with increased body mass, the lungs must work harder to keep the body oxygenated, while excess visceral fat within the abdominal cavity can compress the lungs.
Get your vaccinations.
Regular vaccination against respiratory infections is about more than avoiding a week in bed with the flu, according to Levitan. “Repeated respiratory infections can injure the lungs and damage airways,” she says, explaining that cumulative damage from repeat infections is of special concern in anyone who knows they already have compromised lung function.
Get your annual influenza vaccine, which is especially important to lung health in both yourself and others this year given the current novel coronavirus pandemic. Levitan also recommends ensuring you are up to date on the DTaP vaccine; the “p” stands for pertussis, also known as “whooping cough.” Most people need a booster every 10 years after their first vaccine, around age 11 or 12, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Pregnant women also need the vaccine to protect newborns.
Address allergies and asthma.
It’s common to dismiss a cough or stuffy nose as nothing more than routine annoyances. “Symptoms come and go, and people forget about them,” Levitan says. Various studies show that adherence to allergy and asthma medications in both children and adults is incredibly poor and consistently linked to adverse outcomes such as hospitalization. Similar to respiratory infections, chronic inflammation from untreated allergies and asthma can contribute to cumulative decline in lung function, she says.
If you have any symptoms of allergies or asthma, such as shortness of breath, sneezing or itching and watery eyes, or suspect you may have any underlying respiratory disorders, get a referral to an allergist and immunologist to get tested, she says. Then, once you and your provider find a management strategy that works for you, stick with it. Discuss any changes to your medication with your physician before making them.
Ways to improve lung health
Six expert-recommended strategies that can help you strengthen your respiratory health include:
— Avoid smoking in all forms.
— Reduce exposure to indoor and outdoor toxins and irritants.
— Exercise regularly.
— Eat a healthy diet.
— Get your vaccinations.
— Address allergies and asthma.
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