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Q: With Covid hitting lungs so heavily, and increasing concerns about air pollution, I’m wondering how to protect the health of my lungs.
A: In addition to Covid and air pollution, there are numerous risk factors for compromised lung integrity, and smoking is number one. Please get help to turn your head around if you still smoke. Drug and alcohol misuse is likewise harmful, due in part to the risk of passing out and aspirating stomach contents.
Being exposed to extremes of heat or cold can also be hard on the lungs, so be prepared against those possibilities. (Scarves can help!) Folks with significant scoliosis can suffer from lung compression to some degree, and need to add daily protective measures into their routines. Being hospitalized also increases your risk of lung problems, so do your best to stay well! And, not surprisingly, immobility weakens the lungs, so make it a point to move and breathe deeply every day. Find something fun that feels good, even if it’s just wiggling around on the floor with your arms and legs in the air.
Eating for Lung Health
A good diet is the foundation of good health. And it’s especially important these days, when “convenience” has seemingly overtaken common sense when it comes to the food we eat. Simply put: Don’t buy junk food. There’s no reason to whatsoever. You may think you like the taste, but after giving it up for a few weeks, you’ll notice that it starts to taste disgusting. Because it is disgusting. So be wily. Don’t succumb to advertising or convenience when it comes to your health.
Also pay attention to the specific foods you eat—even if they’re “healthy.” Dairy products, especially milk, are highly correlated with upper respiratory congestion (sinusitis, sinus infections, sore throat, cough, even ear infections). Milk is for babies, who should ideally drink only breast milk. Cheese is easier to digest, but it will still irritate mucous membranes and is best avoided. Ice cream is a terrible food: cold (body prefers warm food), corn-fed (American dairy products have the highest lactose content on the planet), and super sweet. A half teaspoon of sugar has been shown to depress the immune system for several hours after ingestion. A large scoop of ice cream can contain up to 25 teaspoons of sugar! Go for sorbet or a nondairy confection if desired.
How to Do a Mustard Poultice & Get Rid of Mucus
If your congestion is down in the lungs (cough feels deeper), you can support better lung health with both a mustard poultice and postural drainage. The sulfur in mustard (choose the good stuff with seeds)—when applied over a thin cloth to the upper chest and/or to the entire back rib cage—can quickly loosen phlegm and help resolve bronchitis and even pneumonia (globs of phlegm stuck in the lungs, impairing breathing). Postural drainage is performed by lying with the top half of the body draped off a bed, using the forearms as support. Hold the position for 5-15 minutes and allow yourself to cough. Gravity will help bring the mucus up to the throat, so have a bowl nearby.
For sinus congestion, think steam inhalation. Place some herbs or essential oils (see below) in a medium-to-large bowl and cover with 1–2 cups of nearly boiling water. Place the bowl on a table with a comfortable chair. Sit with a large towel draped over the bowl and your head and shoulders, making a tent that prevents the aromatic steam from escaping. Relax with your eyes closed, breathing deeply for up to 10 minutes. Repeat as needed up to four times during the day.
Here are some of the best essential oils for steam inhalation. Pick two or three and use 4-5 drops of each:
- Frankincense (aka boswellia)
- Thyme (especially for long-standing sinus infections, which are likely fungal, not bacterial)
- Peppermint (especially if you’re feeling feverish)
Strengthen Your Lung Health with These Supplements
There are many lung-supporting supplements that you can use day-to-day, then ramp up as needed. My absolute favorite is glutathione, the body’s major antioxidant (to mop up free radical damage).
- Glutathione: This nutrient is hard to get in a durable form—it must be liposomal (basically blenderized with a lipid and kept cool) to have any reasonable shelf life. I prefer “Readisorb,” although it is more expensive.
- NAC: Much more affordable, though not quite as quick to take effect, is NAC (N-acetyl cysteine). Try 1,200 mg at bedtime to loosen phlegm.
- Green tea: This is also a wonderful lung tonic. Anyone with a chronic lung problem such as one of the COPD diseases (asthma, emphysema, bronchiectasis) should take several cups of strong green tea daily, or 2–3 capsules of green tea powder (matcha).
- Anti-inflammatories: antioxidants that help combat chronic inflammation include fish oils (EPA and DHA), vitamins A and C, zinc, and selenium.
Related: 10 Ways to Save Your Sinuses
DIY Congestion-Busting Herbal Tea
Making your own herbal tea is an easy way to protect the health of your lungs. Pick 2–4 herbs from the following list, either dried or in tincture form. Add 1/2 teaspoon of each herb to almost boiling water and enjoy.
- Wild cherry bark helps decrease cough spasms, is a mild sedative.
- Licorice is antiviral, helps to heal ulcers, and is an important herb for healing the adrenal glands.
- Horehound is a bitter herb in the mint family with antimicrobial action—compounds called diterpenes help to thin mucus in airways to make coughing more productive.
- Lobelia is effective in blocking nicotine receptors and helps people quit smoking. Traditionally used to treat asthma, bronchitis, and whooping cough (pertussis).
- Coltsfoot is in the daisy family; its anti-inflammatory properties help to treat respiratory infections, asthma, sore throat, and flu.
- Grindelia, in the daisy family, is an expectorant (helps to make coughing more productive) and a mild sedative. It’s known to help relieve shortness of breath caused by heart disease.
- Elecampane root, also in the daisy family, is used for lung diseases including asthma, bronchitis, and whooping cough. It helps loosen phlegm.
- Beard moss is a light green, thready lichen often seen hanging from trees in northern forests. Strong antibacterial properties make it useful for topical wound healing, but it also has a long history of use in healing respiratory and sinus infections, pneumonia, strep throat, and bronchitis.
Human activity has been hard on the health of the natural world, which is also hard on the health of our lungs. Thankfully, we’re getting smarter about curbing carbon technology. I read recently that by 2030, 50 percent of cars on the road will be electric.
In the meantime, what can you do to help make things better? Well, you’ve probably heard that trees are the “lungs of the planet,” so one of the best things you can do to improve air quality—and lung health— is to plant a tree or support groups that plant trees. Check out the search engine Ecosia (80 percent of their advertising revenue goes to planting trees all over the world), or visit TreeSisters.org, a major international tree-planting charity.
Find a licensed naturopathic doctor for a virtual (telemedicine) or in-person consultation at naturemed.org/find-an-nd.