Your body runs on oxygen — but these days, getting enough of it can be a challenge for many of us. Respiratory diseases are on the rise, and deaths from these conditions have increased significantly in recent years.1
Threats to the lungs surround us like a sweeping fog bank. Smoke from wildfires, industrial pollution, air-borne viruses like Covid that attack the lungs, and other dangerous exposures continue to increase around the world.
Fortunately, there are steps you can take to make your lungs healthier and enhance respiratory function, all of which offer powerful benefits for immune health and total-body wellness.
Lungs Are the Body’s Lifeblood
Every time you take a breath, you fill your lungs with oxygen — and how much oxygen depends on your lung capacity. The lungs purify the blood with this oxygen and send it back into your circulation, where it travels through the bloodstream to deliver vital nourishment to cells, tissues and organs. At the same time, your lungs collect carbon dioxide (CO2) waste from your blood and release it when you exhale.2 Because the lungs help cleanse your body of CO2 and other waste products, they’re among your primary detox organs as well.
Lung Disease on the Rise
Since smoking rates have fallen, you’d think the rates of chronic lung diseases would drop too. But they’re increasing — affecting more than 50 million Americans today, and billions more around the world.
Common lung conditions include:
- Pneumonia infections
- Acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS)
- COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease)
These respiratory diseases are some of the most common reasons people become hospitalized, with a life-or-death need for oxygen therapy or other breathing treatments.
What Poor Lung Health Costs You
Pneumonia and chronic inflammatory conditions such as asthma, COPD, and bronchitis impair your lung capacity. When that happens:
- Your blood can’t get enough oxygen to nourish cells, tissues, and organs
- Your cells and organs can’t remove as much CO2
- CO2 buildup can damage organs
For some organs, this isn’t as dire until it becomes chronic. But even a small reduction of oxygen can be a big problem for your brain. For proper function, your brain needs a strong and steady supply of life’s most vital nutrient — taking up about 25% of all the oxygen we breathe in.
Signs You May Have a Long Problem
Breathing is essential for life, so don’t ignore any of these symptoms that may signal more serious lung problems:
- Shortness of breath
- Labored or difficulty breathing
- Trouble breathing
- Air hunger (feeling like you can't get enough air)
- Persistent cough
- Coughing up mucus and/or blood
- Inability to exercise or do physical activities without getting winded
- Achy feeling when you inhale or exhale
- Chest pain
Top 3 Lung Health Threats
Threats to your respiratory health can be classified into three categories:
- Environmental toxin exposure
- Immune system dysfunction
While it may not be possible to avoid the first two of these completely, you can minimize their threat levels.
For the third threat, immune dysfunction, there are ways to ensure your immune system operates with balanced responses that neither under-react (leaving you vulnerable) or overreact (damaging your tissues and organs).
1. Environmental exposure: This comes from the air you’re breathing (indoors or outdoors), which can contain any number of chemicals or particulates that enter and damage your lungs.3
Outdoor exposures are measured by the Air Quality Index (AQI), which quantifies the safety of the air you’re breathing in a specific area. Any number above 50 means your lungs face extra threats, such as:
- Ozone pollution4
- Particulate matter,5 including heavy metals like cadmium and lead6,7
- Wildfire smoke8
Indoor exposure comes from many different sources, such as:
- Chemical cleaners
- Paint fumes
- New furniture and flooring
2. Infections can also harm your lung health in several ways.
Common respiratory infections like a cold or flu can move into your lungs, causing inflammation and increased mucus production. This can worsen and turn into bronchitis, which can take weeks to go away. Or it can develop into pneumonia, a life-threatening infection
Pneumonia can strike on its own or develop as a secondary infection from a different virus such as Covid. It causes the air sacs in your lungs to fill with fluid, making it hard to breathe. An estimated 40k–50k people in the U.S. die from pneumonia every year.
3. Immune system dysfunction: This condition can develop as a result of toxin exposure, chronic infections, autoimmune conditions, or a combination of these. One of the body’s main inflammatory proteins could be to blame. This protein, which you (and even your doctor) may never have heard of is called Galectin-3. Your body produces it during times of trauma, stress, infections, and other “fight-or-flight" situations. This is normal and necessary for our survival. However, today’s stress-driven society (among other factors) prevents Galectin-3 from “turning off,” as it would normally once a threat is resolved. This leads to a cascade of inflammation that can cause immune dysregulation and autoimmune issues. This may eventually lead to even more serious lung problems,9 including:
- Lung scarring (pulmonary fibrosis),11,12
- Cytokine storm13,14
5 Proven Ways to Protect Your Lungs
These strategies can help you support your lungs — and your life — for greater long-term health and wellness.
1. Practice breathing deeply
Most of us don’t breathe deeply enough. Research shows that practicing deep, mindful breathing for even 2-5 minutes per day can deliver lung-saving results, including:15
- Improving the amount of oxygen that moves through your lungs with each breath (aka ‘tidal volume’)
- Boosting your lung capacity, the total amount of air your lungs can take in at one time
- Improving the volume of air your lungs can move
Also, always breathe through your nostrils — nose hairs help filter out particulate matter.
Regular cardio exercise may be one of the best ways to keep your lungs in optimal shape. Since the lungs must work harder during exercise, you can naturally expand their function with regular activity. Try to breathe 40–60 times per minute while exercising (normal breathing rate at rest is around 15 times per minute).16
3. Limit exposure to bad air whenever possible
Depending on where you live and work, it can be a challenge to avoid “bad” air entirely, but there are things you can do to reduce threats. Actions you can take include:
- Limit outdoor activities when the AQI exceeds 50
- Wear a mask when you may be around people with respiratory infections
- Filter the air in your home or office and HEPA air filters and house plants
- Avoid chemical cleaning products and synthetic air fresheners
4. Balance your immune system
In many cases, immune dysregulation can strike seemingly out of nowhere. You can help minimize your risk of destructive out-of-control immune responses in two ways:
5. Supplement with evidence-based botanicals
The following natural herbs and nutrients have been shown to support optimal respiratory health and better breathing, including:
- Botanically Enhanced Medicinal Mushrooms: I have used medicinal mushrooms for years (in a unique botanically-enhanced formula) to help support immune system balance, respiratory function and defense, and more. A few standouts for lung health:
- Cordyceps sinensis has been shown to reduce airway inflammation and hypersensitivity.19,20
- Shiitake mushrooms are rich sources of compounds that may protect against cytokine storms.21
- Reishi mushrooms have been shown to help control asthma and bronchitis.22
- Modified Citrus Pectin (MCP): Clinically researched modified citrus pectin blocks galectin-3,23 which in turn helps prevent immune system overreactions, out-of-control inflammation, and fibrosis, which includes lung scarring. MCP may also help reduce the risk of a cytokine storm via its galectin-3–blocking actions.24
- Honokiol: A powerful extract from magnolia tree bark, Honokiol appears to have a particular affinity to the lungs — research shows that it tends to concentrate in lung tissue more than any other organ or part of the body. Honokiol provides anti-microbial, anti-inflammatory, and antioxidant support. And it has also been shown to help reduce airway inflammation, deter the flu virus from progressing into pneumonia, and help ward off lung fibrosis.26-28
- Tibetan Herbal Formula: An extensively researched Tibetan Herbal Formula containing a specific blend of botanical ingredients helps balance the immune system, reduce inflammation, and fight respiratory infections.29 Research shows that this formula helps combat the production of inflammatory cytokines30 and fend off recurring lower respiratory tract infections.31 More than 30 published clinical studies point to the diverse benefits of this time-honored traditional healing remedy.
- Glutathione: This sulfur-containing compound plays a key role in lung health. It contains three amino acids: N-acetyl cysteine (NAC), glycine, and glutamate. NAC has been shown to thin mucus and help make coughing more productive.
- Manuka honey: Manuka is a proprietary type of honey that comes from New Zealand. Like regular honey, Manuka is rich in vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. But this special honey boasts additional bacteria-fighting properties not found in other honeys. It is especially helpful for nagging coughs.
Protecting your lung function is one of the most important things you can do to ensure long-term health. With these simple strategies, you can help boost the oxygenation of your body’s cells, organs, and tissues.
6. Figure out possible hidden triggers
If you have asthma or allergies, your lungs are most likely overly sensitive and may have difficulty clearing pollutants. There may be some dietary culprits: for example, food additives (e.g., artificial dyes such as yellow tartrazine, preservatives, and sulfites) are known lung irritants. (Wine, beer, bottled salad dressing, prepared dips, and other foods are high in sulfates.) Do some experimenting with your diet to see if that makes a difference in your lung function. Also, low levels of B vitamins and the amino acid tryptophan can contribute to weak lung function.
- Li X, Cao X, Guo M, Xie M, Liu X. Trends and risk factors of mortality and disability adjusted life years for chronic respiratory diseases from 1990 to 2017: systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2017. BMJ. 2020 Feb 19;368:m234. doi: 10.1136/bmj.m234. Erratum in: BMJ. 2020 Aug 6;370:m3150. PMID: 32075787; PMCID: PMC7190065.
- Cedar SH (2018) Every breath you take: the process of breathing explained. Nursing Times [online]; 114: 1, 47-50.
- Kurt OK, Zhang J, Pinkerton KE. Pulmonary health effects of air pollution. Curr Opin Pulm Med. 2016;22(2):138-143. doi:10.1097/MCP.0000000000000248
- Sharma AK, Balyan P. Air pollution and COVID-19: Is the connect worth its weight? Indian J Public Health. 2020 Jun;64(Supplement):S132-S134. doi: 10.4103/ijph.IJPH_466_20. PMID:32496243.
- Comunian S, Dongo D, Milani C, Palestini P. Air Pollution and Covid-19: The Role of Particulate Matter in the Spread and Increase of Covid-19's Morbidity and Mortality. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2020 Jun 22;17(12):4487. doi: 10.3390/ijerph17124487. PMID: 32580440; PMCID: PMC7345938.
- Liu X, Ouyang W, Shu Y, Tian Y, Feng Y, Zhang T, Chen W. Incorporating bioaccessibility into health risk assessment of heavy metals in particulate matter originated from different sources of atmospheric pollution. Environ Pollut. 2019 Nov;254(Pt B):113113. doi:10.1016/j.envpol.2019.113113. Epub 2019 Aug 26. PMID: 31484101.
- Yang G, Sun T, Han YY, Rosser F, Forno E, Chen W, Celedón JC. Serum Cadmium and Lead, Current Wheeze, and Lung Function in a Nationwide Study of Adults in the United States. J Allergy Clin Immunol Pract. 2019 Nov-Dec;7(8):2653-2660.e3.
- Henderson SB. The COVID-19 Pandemic and Wildfire Smoke: Potentially Concomitant Disasters. Am J Public Health. 2020;110(8):1140-1142. doi:10.2105/AJPH.2020.305744
- Feng W, Wu X, Li S, et al. Association of Serum Galectin-3 with the Acute Exacerbation of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease. Med Sci Monit. 2017;23:4612-4618.
- Zuberi RI, Hsu DK, Kalayci O, et al. Critical role for galectin-3 in airway inflammation and bronchial hyperresponsiveness in a murine model of asthma. Am J Pathol. 2004;165(6):2045-2053. doi:10.1016/S0002-9440(10)63255-5
- Nishi Y, Sano H, Kawashima T, Okada T, Kuroda T, Kikkawa K, Kawashima S, Tanabe M, Goto T, Matsuzawa Y, Matsumura R, Tomioka H, Liu FT, Shirai K. Role of galectin-3 in human pulmonary fibrosis. Allergol Int. 2007 Mar;56(1):57-65. doi:10.2332/allergolint.O-06-449. Epub 2007 Jan 29. PMID: 17259811.
- Ho JE, Gao W, Levy D, Santhanakrishnan R, Araki T, Rosas IO, Hatabu H, Latourelle JC, Nishino M, Dupuis J, Washko GR, O'Connor GT, Hunninghake GM. Galectin-3 Is Associated with Restrictive Lung Disease and Interstitial Lung Abnormalities. Am J Respir Crit Care Med. 2016 Jul 1;194(1):77-83.
- Ragab D, Salah Eldin H, Taeimah M, Khattab R, Salem R. The COVID-19 Cytokine Storm; What We Know So Far. Front Immunol. 2020;11:1446. Published 2020 Jun 16. doi:10.3389/fimmu.2020.0144
- Garcia-Revilla J, Deierborg T, Venero JL, Boza-Serrano A. Hyperinflammation and Fibrosis in Severe COVID-19 Patients: Galectin-3, a Target Molecule to Consider. Front Immunol. 2020;11:2069. Published 2020 Aug 18. doi:10.3389/fimmu.2020.02069
- Sivakumar G, Prabhu K, Baliga R, Pai MK, Manjunatha S. Acute effects of deep breathing for a short duration (2-10 minutes) on pulmonary functions in healthy young volunteers. Indian J Physiol Pharmacol. 2011 Apr-Jun;55(2):154-9. PMID: 22319896.
- Your lungs and exercise. Breathe (Sheff). 2016;12(1):97-100. doi:10.1183/20734735.ELF12
- Ho JE, Gao W, Levy D, et al. Galectin-3 Is Associated with Restrictive Lung Disease and Interstitial Lung Abnormalities. Am J Respir Crit Care Med. 2016;194(1):77-83. doi:10.1164/rccm.201509-1753OC
- Vighi G, Marcucci F, Sensi L, Di Cara G, Frati F. Allergy and the gastrointestinal system. Clin Exp Immunol. 2008;153 Suppl 1(Suppl 1):3-6. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2249.2008.03713.x
- Zheng Y, Li L, Cai T. Cordyceps polysaccharide ameliorates airway inflammation in an ovalbumin-induced mouse model of asthma via TGF-β1/Smad signaling pathway. Respir Physiol Neurobiol. 2020 May;276:103412.
- Sun X, Dong Z, Li N, et al. Nucleosides isolated from Ophiocordyceps sinensis inhibit cigarette smoke extract-induced inflammation via the SIRT1-nuclear factor-κB/p65 pathway in RAW264.7 macrophages and in COPD mice. Int J Chron Obstruct Pulmon Dis. 2018;13:2821-2832.
- Murphy EJ, Masterson C, Rezoagli E, O'Toole D, Major I, Stack GD, Lynch M, Laffey JG, Rowan NJ. β-Glucan extracts from the same edible shiitake mushroom Lentinus edodes produce differential in-vitro immunomodulatory and pulmonary cytoprotective effects – Implications for coronavirus disease (COVID-19) immunotherapies. Sci Total Environ. 2020 Aug 25;732:139330.
- Batra P, Sharma AK, Khajuria R. Probing Lingzhi or Reishi medicinal mushroom Ganoderma lucidum (higher Basidiomycetes): a bitter mushroom with amazing health benefits. Int J Med Mushrooms. 2013;15(2):127-43. doi: 10.1615/intjmedmushr.v15.i2.20. PMID: 23557365.
- Eliaz I, Raz A. Pleiotropic Effects of Modified Citrus Pectin. Nutrients. 2019;11(11):2619. Published 2019 Nov 1. doi:10.3390/nu11112619
- Garcia-Revilla J, Deierborg T, Venero JL, Boza-Serrano A. Hyperinflammation and Fibrosis in Severe COVID-19 Patients: Galectin-3, a Target Molecule to Consider. Front Immunol. 2020;11:2069.
- Weng TI, Wu HY, Kuo CW, Liu SH. Honokiol rescues sepsis-associated acute lung injury and lethality via the inhibition of oxidative stress and inflammation. Intensive Care Med. 2011 Mar;37(3):533-41.
- Hong T, Min H, Hui Z, Yuejian L, Lixing Y, Liang XZ. Oral administration of honokiol attenuates airway inflammation in asthmatic mouse model. Pak J Pharm Sci. 2018 Jul;31(4):1279-1284.
- Wu XN, Yu CH, Cai W, Hua J, Li SQ, Wang W. Protective effect of a polyphenolic rich extract from Magnolia officinalis bark on influenza virus-induced pneumonia in mice. J Ethnopharmacol. 2011 Mar 8;134(1):191-4.
- Pulivendala G, Bale S, Godugu C. Honokiol: A polyphenol neolignan ameliorates pulmonary fibrosis by inhibiting TGF-β/Smad signaling, matrix proteins and IL-6/CD44/STAT3 axis both in vitro and in vivo. Toxicol Appl Pharmacol. 2020 Mar 15;391:114913.
- Vennos C, Melzer J, Saller R. Clinical studies on the efficacy and safety of Padma 28, a complex herbal formulation from Tibetan medicine: an overview. Forsch Komplementmed. 2013;20 Suppl 2:25-30.
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- Jankowski A, Jankowska R, Brzosko WJ. Treatment of children prone to infection with PADMA 28. Schweiz Zschr für GanzheitsMedizin. 1992;4(7/8 Suppl 1):22-3.