Get Ready for Winter with Natural Lung-Strengthening Regimen
Everyone dreads getting sick in the wintertime, but some people find themselves unusually vulnerable to respiratory infections… most particularly those who have asthma or a history of bronchitis. Yes, we all know about flu shots and washing hands and avoiding crowds, but did you realize there’s lots more you can do to fortify yourself — and your respiratory system in particular — even before the sick season kicks in? Andrew L. Rubman, ND, Daily Health News contributing medical editor, had advice on getting fit to fight the flu.
First and foremost, he said, remember that the better shape you and your respiratory system are in, the more you’ll be able to tolerate exposure to germs without falling ill. Anything that weakens your immune system — such as eating poorly, not getting enough sleep, or stress — increases your vulnerability to whatever is going around. And previous illness makes it worse. Not only does illness deplete energy, but with severe respiratory infections (and other diseases too), there may be scarring and some tissue damage in your lungs that leaves you weaker and more vulnerable. Dr. Rubman also noted that more often than we realize, an illness may not be fully resolved, even after you feel better. “There may be underlying colonization with mold organisms in the respiratory tract as well,” he said. When researchers at the Mayo Clinic cultured patients with chronic rhinosinusitis, over 90% showed positive culture for fungus, including mold. Mold infestation in respiratory tissues weakens the structure and capability of the lungs, allowing easier colonization of potentially infectious bacteria.
STRENGTHEN YOUR IMMUNE SYSTEM
Emphasizing the importance of working with your own doctor for specific dosing, Dr. Rubman says the following supplements can be helpful in supporting lung health and immune health…
This botanical remedy has a history of use for conditions such as asthma, pneumonia and bronchitis. Today, he may prescribe Indian tobacco (also called lobelia, it’s not really tobacco at all — the leaves have a tobacco-like taste) as a preventive to strengthen lungs and a treatment for respiratory ailments. Note: Lobelia is potentially toxic in large doses and should be taken only under the guidance of a health care provider with experience in botanical medicines.
Selenium: Nature’s Inflammation Fighter
This essential trace mineral has potent antioxidant properties to protect the body from inflammation and damage caused by free radicals. It fortifies the immune system to do battle with microorganisms. Research even suggests that a high intake of selenium is associated with a reduced risk of death from colorectal, prostate and lung cancers. While the usual dose is 200 mcg a day, Dr. Rubman frequently goes further, prescribing a daily dosage as high as 400 to 500 mcg, taken in three doses, as a preventive during flu season.
Vitamin C: The Antioxidant Vitamin
This antioxidant-packed nutrient remains a major player in immune system maintenance. Research demonstrates that vitamin C can significantly boost antimicrobial activity, including the activity of natural killer cells that hunt down and vanquish germs. Supplementation with up to one gram (1,000 mg) daily can be helpful and is usually well-tolerated, notes Dr. Rubman. Note: New studies suggest that vitamin C may not be safe for patients undergoing chemotherapy.
Fish Oil: A Rich Source of Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Tuna and salmon (preferably wild) are rich sources of omega-3 fatty acids. Eat these three times a week. Look for fish oil supplements with the highest levels of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), which ideally should make up more than 50% of the total dosage. (Caution: If you take a blood-thinning medication such as warfarin, speak with your doctor before taking fish oil supplements.)
Mullein: A Velvety Smooth Throat Soother
When patients complain of a scratchy throat or congestion and sense a respiratory problem coming on, Dr. Rubman often prescribes mullein. This herb contains mucilage, a substance that soothes irritated respiratory passages, along with saponins that help loosen mucus. Laboratory studies have shown that mullein can kill many viruses on contact. To make a cup of mullein tea, add one to two teaspoons of dried leaves and flowers to boiling water and steep for 10 minutes. Strain before drinking.
Respiratory disorders of all kinds, including flu and pneumonia, are more apt to develop when foreign particles are aspirated or inhaled into the lungs, including from chimneys, wood stoves and fireplaces. This causes inflammation, which leads the delicate mucus membranes lining the respiratory system to become swollen, irritated and more susceptible to infection.
It’s important to make an effort to protect your lungs from this environmental assault, especially during the winter months when flu season is in full force. Consider, with your physician’s oversight, taking antioxidant supplements for protection: In one study, children with asthma who took vitamins C and E were less likely to experience breathing problems from air pollution than children who did not.
MAKE YOUR LUNGS STRONG
Exercising the lungs may help fend off disease as well. Many tend toward “shallow breathing,” failing to fully inflate the lungs with air or clear them completely, says Dr. Rubman. This limits the exchange of gases. Dr. Rubman suggests using the intentional breathing of Pranayama yoga to strengthen your lungs. Here’s how…
- Sit up straight, with your spine, neck and head in a straight line. Do so cross-legged on a floor mat, small pillow or rug, or — if you find that uncomfortable — just use a chair.
- Close your eyes and relax. Meditate, or visualize yourself in a peaceful environment — for example, lying on the beach, listening to the sound of the waves.
- Take a full, deep, intentional breath, filling lungs from the bottom up. To make sure you are doing this correctly, place your hand on your stomach and feel this area (which is above and behind the diaphragm, a vital muscle for respiration) expand before air fills the upper chest.
- Inhale for a count of three… exhale for a count of six. As time goes on, with practice you will be able to gradually increase these counts (ideally, at the same one-to-two ratio).
- Do this for 10 minutes once or twice a day.
Note: I asked Dr. Rubman about the various breathing and blowing devices that promise to increase respiratory capacity. In his view, unless you have ongoing respiratory issues, these are a waste of money. Deep breathing achieves the same results, and for free.
Dr. Rubman said it is important to remain well-hydrated, drinking plenty of water and other fluids all year, but especially during flu season since fluids moisturize the mucus membranes and help keep nasal discharge thin. Dehydration can lead to dizziness, disorientation and even vulnerability to shock. Decaffeinated herbal teas, broth, diluted fruit juice and sparkling water are all good choices.
RECOVERY AFTER ILLNESS
Recovery should focus not only on resting so you will feel better, but also on improving your underlying function to better resist the next challenges. A professional nutritional consultant or physician formally trained in nutrition can be helpful in making certain you are completely over the illness and ensuring you get strong for the future.
RESPECT THE ENEMY
You can’t reduce your risk of illness to zero, even with all these precautions. Recognize that flu and pneumonia can be serious and their complications potentially life-threatening, especially in older people. If you suspect something is wrong — for example, if you have chronic chest pain, a persistent cough, shortness of breath or green or yellow sputum — see your physician promptly for proper diagnosis and treatment.