Lung Maintenance 101: Natural Strategies to Breathe EasierOct 31, 2023 09:30AM ● By Sheila Julson
Most people inhale about 22,000 times per day without realizing it, but for the more than 34 million Americans living with lung diseases like asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, taking a breath is often difficult. The American Lung Association reports that one in three Americans live in places with unhealthy levels of air pollution. Everyone needs fresh, life-sustaining oxygen, and natural therapies are available to help us breathe a little easier.
According to Madiha Saeed, a holistic, functional and integrative doctor in Naperville, Illinois, controlling chronic inflammation is an important strategy in pulmonary rehabilitation. “A healthy inflammation response, or acute inflammation, means the body’s defenses are working properly. But if the switch to our immune system stays in the ‘on’ position, it can be too much of a good thing,” explains the founder of HolisticMom, MD.
Daily exposure to inflammatory triggers, such as chronic stress, allergens, synthetic food additives and low-grade infection, can drive disease. Saeed notes that exercise helps combat inflammation by relieving stress, regulating digestion, improving insulin sensitivity, detoxifying the body and increasing the feel-good hormone serotonin.
Dawn Encian is a Virginia-based functional nutritionist and organizer of the Breathe Easy, Breathe Well summit, which focuses on non-pharmaceutical ways to manage respiratory conditions. She asserts that exercise makes the heart and lungs work harder, thereby supplying more oxygen to muscles. “Regular exercise also increases blood volume, resulting in the body being able to extract oxygen more efficiently,” she advises.
For those with healthy lungs, Encian recommends high-intensity interval training, brisk walking, jogging, running or jumping rope, as well as strength-enhancing modalities like weightlifting, Pilates or yoga. For people with respiratory issues, she suggests lower-intensity exercise like walking, tai chi and cycling on a stationary bike or flat land, as well as light exercises with bands or small weights. Breathing exercises that focus on the diaphragm and expel stale air also support lung efficiency.
Saeed suggests that stretching can improve range of motion, boost circulation and keep muscles flexible. Some people tend to hold their breath while stretching, so it is helpful to become more conscious about our breathing during these movements.
Saeed cautions, “Don’t overdo it. Exercise as long as you feel good and energized afterward. If you feel exhausted or worse after exercise, or if your symptoms worsen, you’re doing too much.” Both Encian and Saeed note that people with respiratory conditions or chronic illness should consult a physician before starting any exercise program.
Many home items, from furniture to rugs and bedding, contain chemicals that off-gas volatile organic compounds. Saeed cautions that inhaling these chemicals can be as dangerous as consuming them. Indoor air purifiers, which range in size and cost, can help filter toxins and optimize detoxification.
Swapping out chemically laden household cleaners can also effectively improve indoor air quality. Encian makes her own cleaners with essential oils, dried lemon and orange rinds, rubbing alcohol, witch hazel and water.
Houseplants offer an affordable way to improve indoor air quality. Encian recommends aloe, snake plants, peace lilies, ferns, rubber plants, chrysanthemums, spider plants, areca palm and dracaena. Saeed also likes weeping fig, Chinese evergreen, bamboo, Gerbera daisies and English ivy.
Getting outdoors is often recommended to maintain overall health and well-being, but Saeed recommends checking the local air quality index before heading out. Many apps show air quality, and some state how long it is safe to be outside if someone has a respiratory condition. If going outside on a poor air quality day cannot be avoided, masks may be helpful in reducing exposure to pollutants. Encian also recommends personal air purifiers worn around the neck.
Proper diet and nutrition can help strengthen the lungs. Saeed and Encian believe that dairy may lead to the production of excess mucus. Foods with carotenoids and vitamin A, like sweet potatoes, carrots, berries and leafy greens, promote mucus-membrane health. Magnesium, garlic, mustard seeds, onions, lentils, omega-3s found in cold-water fish, nuts, flaxseeds and foods high in vitamins B5 and B6 are beneficial for lungs and overall immune health, as are vitamins C and D. Staying properly hydrated will also help airways function appropriately.
Rest and Relaxation
Optimizing sleep can help support the immune system. Encian also recommends steam baths or showers with essential oils, such as eucalyptus, peppermint, frankincense and rosemary, to open the airways and expel mucus. Chiropractic, acupuncture, acupressure and energy work can also facilitate lung health and overall wellness.
Sheila Julson is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Natural Awakenings.