How healthy are your lungs?
It’s probably not something you tend to think about too much.
But according to recent research, lung diseases are increasing. Between 1990 and 2017, the total number of chronic respiratory diseases (CRDs) went up by 39.5 percent. And though it may be hard to believe, in 2017, CRDs were the leading cause of morbidity (death) worldwide.
Scientists think we’re seeing more lung disease because of an accelerated aging population and increased exposure to risk factors. Unfortunately, compared with other major diseases—like cardiovascular disease, cancer, and diabetes—lung diseases are seriously neglected.
What can you do to protect your lungs? A lot.
What is Lung Disease?
A lung disease attacks the lungs and prevents them from functioning properly. Those with lung diseases may have trouble breathing, exercising, and living their normal lives because their lungs can’t draw in the level of oxygen that they should.
Some examples of lung diseases include:
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
- Interstitial lung disease
- Pulmonary sarcoidosis
- Pulmonary hypertension
- Chronic bronchitis
- Lung cancer
We can divide lung diseases into three categories:
- Airway diseases: These affect the airways that carry oxygen and other gases into and out of the lungs. They usually narrow or block the airways, making breathing more difficult. Examples include COPD and asthma.
- Lung tissue diseases: These affect the structure of the lung tissue, causing inflammation and scarring. The tissue becomes stiff and less able to expand fully, making breathing a struggle. Examples include pulmonary fibrosis and sarcoidosis.
- Lung circulation diseases: These affect the blood vessels in the lungs. They cause inflammation, clotting, and scarring, again, making it hard to breathe or causing shortness of breath. Pulmonary hypertension is a good example.
What Causes Lung Disease?
The most important risk factors for lung disease include:
- Exposure to indoor and outdoor pollutants
- Occupational exposure to toxins
- Infections (from bacteria or viruses)
- Unhealthy diet
- Physical inactivity
We know that smoking is the leading risk factor for lung disease. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that cigarette smoking is responsible for more than 480,000 deaths per year, including more than 41,000 deaths resulting from secondhand smoke exposure.
Meanwhile, the effects of pollution may be greater than you think. In a 2016 review, scientists found significant evidence that air pollution “is an important factor that enhances pulmonary [lung] disease…” Asthma, COPD, lung cancer, and respiratory infections are all exacerbated by exposure to a variety of environmental air pollutants.
The COVID-19 pandemic increased awareness of lung disease because it was so vicious in how it attacked the lungs. Many respiratory viruses cause symptoms in the respiratory tract (the vocal cords to the lungs), including the influenza virus, the rhinovirus/enterovirus, and others. But the COVID-19 virus was particularly dangerous in some cases and could cause lasting lung damage.
7 Ways to Prevent Lung Disease and Keep Your Lungs Healthy
Fortunately, you can take steps to protect the health of your lungs and reduce your risk of serious lung disease.
1. Don’t Smoke
You already know this one. Smoking harms your lungs and is a major cause of lung cancer and COPD, which includes chronic bronchitis and emphysema. Over time, smoking destroys lung tissue and can lead to lung cancer.
If you tried once or twice and failed, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try again. Most smokers make multiple attempts to quit before they succeed. The World Health Organization (WHO) states that if you do quit, within 10 years, your risk of lung cancer falls to about half that of a smoker.
2. Avoid Exposure to Dangerous, Lung-Damaging Pollutants
The air we breathe is more polluted today than it was years ago, according to studies.
In 2019, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) published data by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University. It showed that between 2016 and 2018, pollution increased 5.5 percent on average across the U.S.
Another study published in 2020 showed that the majority of the world's populations “continue to be exposed to increasing levels of air pollution.” The WHO estimates that 4.2 million deaths annually can be attributed to outdoor air pollution.
Indoor air pollution can be even worse. According to the EPA, indoor levels of pollutants maybe two to five times—and occasionally more than 100 times—higher than outdoor levels.
To protect yourself, follow these tips:
- Watch the news for updates on pollutant levels, and avoid going outside on days they are high.
- If you exercise outside, stay away from heavily trafficked roads. Shower and remove your clothes when you return home.
- Use an air purifier to help cut down on pollutants.
- Keep some houseplants alive in your home—they are known to help reduce indoor air pollutants.
- Avoid synthetic air fresheners. Use essential oils or an open window instead.
- Dust and vacuum at least once a week.
3. Prevent Infections that Affect the Lungs
A cold or other respiratory infection can sometimes become serious, particularly if you have other underlying health issues. To avoid catching these infections, practice good habits when it comes to regularly wash your hands, getting vaccinated, and avoiding crowds during the cold and flu season.
It also helps to keep your immune system strong. Exercise daily, eat a healthy diet, get 7-8 hours of sleep per night, reduce stress, and consider the supplements listed in our article, “7 Natural Ways to Boost Your Immune System and Stay Well.”
4. Exercise to the Point of Breathing Hard
Just like your muscles thrive when you work them, the same is true of your lungs. As your physical fitness improves, your body becomes more efficient at taking in oxygen and getting it where it needs to go.
If you exercise regularly, you’ll probably notice that you’re less likely to become short of breath the longer you stick with it. It’s not only your muscles that get into shape—your heart and lungs do, too.
Good exercises for your lungs include aerobic exercises that get you panting. Examples include:
- Brisk walking
- Jogging or running
- Vigorous housecleaning
- Jumping rope
5. Breathe Deeply and Relax
Usually, we take shallow, small breaths. These use only a small portion of the lungs, leaving the rest to just sit there.
When you take a deep breath, you fill up the lungs, expanding them from bottom to top. This “wakes up” the lung tissue and not only expands your breathing capacity but usually helps you feel more awake and focused, too.
In one small study, scientists had volunteers practice deep-breathing exercises for 2, 5, and 10 minutes. The results showed that the exercises helped increase vital capacity—a measurement of how much air the volunteers could exhale.
The American Lung Association (ALA) also recommends breathing exercises, noting that they can make your lungs more efficient.
To practice yourself, follow these steps:
- Start by breathing in through your nose for 5 seconds.
- Put your hand on your belly and notice your stomach rise as you inhale completely.
- Exhale slowly and gradually out through the mouth for at least 10 seconds.
- Push all the air out completely.
- Repeat 4-5 times.
6. Maintain a Healthy Weight
It may be hard to imagine that your weight would affect your lungs, but studies show a definite connection between overweight and obesity and lung disease.
In 2016, researchers reported that obesity causes compression of the diaphragm and lungs as well as the chest cavity, and can lead to restrictive lung damage. Further, it reduces lung strength and makes it harder to breathe.
A later study found similar results, with obesity linked to changes in the lungs and chest wall, causing asthma and asthma-like symptoms. Excess fat also stimulates inflammation, which can increase the risk of lung disease.
The good news is that losing weight can help. In one study, obese patients who completed a 6-month weight loss program experienced higher scores in respiratory health status. In a later study, researchers found that in obese people, the more weight lost, the more lung function improved. Weight gain had the opposite effect.
7. Drink More Water
There is a thin lining of mucus inside your lungs that helps them work well. When you get enough water over a day, this lining stays thin, allowing the lungs to do their job.
If you don’t get enough water, on the other hand, and if you become even slightly dehydrated, the mucus can thicken and get sticky. This will slow down your overall breathing process and will also make you more vulnerable to respiratory illnesses.
So, keep a water bottle with you at all times and sip throughout the day.
Signs that you might have lung disease include:
- Trouble breathing
- Shortness of breath
- Nagging persistent cough
- Decreased or inability to exercise
- Coughing up blood or mucus
- Discomfort when breathing
If you experience any of these symptoms, you should consult with your doctor as soon as possible. In the meantime, the helpful tips above will help you keep your lungs healthy through cold and flu season and beyond.
Help keep your lungs healthy by breathing deeply and exercising regularly. Click here to learn a simple yoga routine for beginners.
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