How to Keep Your Lungs Healthy, According to Pulmonologists
Healthy aging is about more than your heart, brain, or joints—keeping your lungs in tip-top shape is important too. Here's what doctors recommend for easy breathing.
August 07, 2017
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How to keep your lungs healthy
Even though the heart gets a lot of attention, healthy lungs are also crucial for overall health.
“You don’t say ‘My lungs bleed for you,’” says Patricia Finn, M.D., an Earl M. Bane professor and chair of the Department of Medicine at the University of Illinois at Chicago. But “there’s a lot of interaction between the rest of your body and your lungs.”
Luckily, a heart-healthy lifestyle is also great for the lungs. But if your health habits aren’t up to par, or you’re putting your lungs in harm’s way, you could be at greater risk for lung infections and disease.
Here’s what to do, or avoid doing, to keep your lungs in tip-top shape:
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Manage chronic conditions
Lung infections often develop as a complication of another chronic illness, says Michael Niederman M.D., clinical director and associate chief of pulmonary and critical care medicine at New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center in New York City.
People with congestive heart failure, a chronic condition in which the heart enlarges and struggles to pump enough blood, can have fluid accumulate in the lungs, which increases the risk of bacterial pneumonia. Or, if diabetes isn’t well controlled, the disease can interfere with immune function—and that can increase the risk of lung infection.
“Controlling any chronic medical problem can potentially reduce your risk of developing a respiratory infection,” he said.
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You’ve heard it before, but pulmonologists can’t say it enough: Stop smoking. It’s the No. 1 cause of lung cancer deaths and a major risk factor for lung infections and disease, including chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). COPD, which includes emphysema and chronic bronchitis, is the 3rd leading cause of the death in the U.S., according to the American Lung Association.
Smoking tobacco or inhaling secondhand smoke gunks up your lungs’ self-cleaning system. Toxins and cancer-causing particles lodge in your airways and in the tiny air sacs (called alveoli) that supply your blood with oxygen and get rid of carbon dioxide.
“Smoking breaks down some of these lovely little barriers and restraints that we have in the lung to protect it,” Dr. Finn said.
Marijuana smoke is no better. It contains many of the same chemicals and carcinogens as tobacco smoke, says the American Lung Association.
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Avoid germy situations
Covering coughs and sneezes is the polite thing to do, but it’s also good hygiene. A well-placed crook of the elbow can prevent the spread of viruses that cause the flu, the common cold, and more serious respiratory illnesses. Pneumonia often develops as a complication of a respiratory infection, especially the flu.
Other strategies for preventing the spread of germs that cause lung infection include hand-washing and staying home when you’re sick or avoiding close contact with others who have respiratory infections.
Anyone can get pneumonia, but older adults, children, and people with chronic diseases like asthma and COPD are especially vulnerable.
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Get your shots
“Something as simple as a flu shot can prevent the flu, which can help avoid developing influenza pneumonia”—a viral form of pneumonia, according to Dr. Niederman. And there’s a downstream benefit because that can protect you from developing very serious bacterial pneumonias, he said.
The U.S. Centers of Disease Control and Prevention urges all adults to get an annual flu vaccine. You should speak with your physician about getting shots against bacterial forms of pneumonia.
The CDC recommends two vaccines—pneumococcal conjugate vaccine (PCV13 or Prevnar 13) and pneumococcal polysaccharide vaccine (PPSV23 or Pneumovax)—for adults 65 and older and those with weakened immune systems. PPSV23 is also recommended for adults 19 to 64 who smoke or have asthma.
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Fill your plate with produce
A diet rich in fruits and veggies is heart healthy and good for the gut, and may also help to prevent chronic lung disease.
In a large Swedish study of current and former smokers, people who ate lots of fruits and vegetables had a lower risk of developing COPD than those who ate less. Apples; pears; green, leafy vegetables, and peppers seemed to offer the greatest protection. The more servings, the greater the benefit.
Cruciferous vegetables, like arugula, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and kale, may have cancer-fighting benefits, although the evidence is mixed when it comes to lung cancer. Recently, a large Japanese study suggested that cruciferous vegetables may reduce lung-cancer risk in non-smokers. (But if you are a smoker or former smoker, don't try to get that benefit from vitamins; studies have linked beta-carotene supplements to a higher risk of cancer in smokers.)
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Take your lungs for a walk
For overall health, most healthy adults should get 150 minutes of moderate physical activity or 75 minutes of vigorous activity per week. Any exercise that gets your heart rate up counts—be it swimming, cycling, gardening, or brisk walking.
As you work out, your lungs work out, too. They boost the oxygen supply to the body for energy and remove carbon dioxide. The heart, in turn, circulates more oxygen to your muscles. You may feel out of breath after exercising, but you should not feel breathless. Regular exercise makes that process more efficient, so you use less oxygen and become less winded over time.
“Even for people who have underlying lung disease, they’re going to have better physical functioning if they keep themselves well conditioned,” Dr. Niederman said.
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Strike a yoga pose
Dr. Finn says some studies suggest simple yoga with stretching and breathing may actually increase your lung function and exercise capacity.
One study of patients with COPD, for example, showed improvement in lung function after two months of yoga training, versus no improvement in people undergoing usual COPD treatment. The study authors concluded that yoga, especially “pranayamic” breathing exercises, may be a good add-on to conventional therapy.
Separately, a review of randomized controlled trials found yoga may improve asthma patients’ symptoms and quality of life. However, the effects on lung function were unclear.
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Doing deep-breathing exercises can improve your lungs’ efficiency, maintain healthy lungs, and help people with respiratory diseases learn to breathe better.
Try pursed-lip breathing: Breathe in through your nose and then breathe out slowly through pursed lips as if blowing out a candle. Your exhale should be two to three times longer than the inhale.
Or try belly breathing. Lying down, place a hand on your chest, and the other below your rib cage. Pay attention to your belly as you breathe in through your nose. Tighten your stomach muscles and let them sink inward as you breathe out through pursed lips. This trains your diaphragm (a sheet of muscle between the chest and abdomen) to assume some of the work of breathing.
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Avoid noxious fumes and pollutants
Airborne pollutants affect people in different ways, but they are almost always bad for your lungs. Tiny foreign particles (think automobile exhaust and other pollutants) can get lodged in your respiratory system and trigger an inflammatory response, while inhaling toxins can destroy lung tissue.
Of course, you can’t fully control everything you breathe, although wearing a mask can help. “I don’t know if you’ve flown into Beijing, but when there’s smog … people have masks on,” Dr. Finn said.
It's also smart to minimize your exposure as much as possible when working with known irritants and toxins, like oil-based paints, fiberglass, pesticides, or household chemicals. Gas stoves, scented candles, and fireplaces can also be sources of indoor air pollution. (Check out 10 Ways to Keep Your Air Clean at Home.)
“If you’re using bleach every single day, … I guarantee you’re breathing that stuff in,” Dr. Finn noted.
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Spice up your diet
While there’s no hard-and-fast evidence that spices are a “panacea” for respiratory problems, there’s no harm in spicing up your meals—and there may be a potential upside, Dr. Finn said.
Most studies of the benefits of spices are done in petri dishes or animals, and those findings don't always translate into benefits for humans. However, some studies suggest curcumin, the yellow pigment found in tumeric, and capsaicin, the ingredient that gives chili peppers their heat, may inhibit tumor growth in lung cancer. In other studies, curcumin has been shown to have anti-inflammatory properties that may benefit people with asthma.
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Keep it clean
Dust mites, pet dander, and mold: If they’re lurking in your home, they can trigger allergies and asthma or worsen existing respiratory symptoms.
“Carpets are a reservoir of many of these indoor allergens,” Dr. Finn cautioned.
Fortunately, there’s a lot you can do to reduce your exposure to irritants at home. Wash bedding in hot water once a week. Keep pets off the furniture and bed. Eliminate drapes and curtains to reduce the number of surfaces where dust mites can reside. Vacuum and damp-mop frequently. Fix leaks and run exhaust fans. Toss out moldy materials that can’t be cleaned. (Here are 20 Ways to Stop Allergies.)
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Eating a handful of nuts a day, including tree nuts and peanuts, may cut your risk of dying from respiratory disease by half. That’s according to a large analysis of studies on nut consumption. (It also showed significant reductions in heart disease and overall cancer risk.)
Nuts are rich in vitamin E, which reduces cell oxidation and inflammation in the body. Of course, people with peanut and tree nut allergies should opt for anti-inflammatory alternatives, like olive oil and fatty fish.