Imagine trying to breathe through a small narrow straw with a clothespin on your nose. Now add in exhaustion, chest pain, and foggy thinking. This is what it feels like if you have Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disorder (COPD). COPD is an umbrella term used for a group of progressive lung diseases that reduce airflow and make it hard to breathe. Emphysema and chronic bronchitis are the two most common forms of COPD–and they often occur together. Although there is no cure for COPD, there are many things you can do to help manage the condition. (1)

Did you know?
COPD affects more than 16 million Americans, making it a leading cause of death in the U.S. (2)

What is COPD?

In people with COPD, the airways in the lungs become inflamed and the lung tissue responsible for exchanging oxygen is destroyed. This can make it hard to breathe. The airways also make more mucus than they need to function. This can reduce airflow even more. As the disease gets worse, shortness of breath makes it hard to stay active. (3) Since COPD develops over time, it typically doesn’t occur until after a person turns 40. (4)

The biggest risk factor for COPD is cigarette smoking, which is responsible for at least 75% of all COPD cases. (5) Studies suggest that other risk factors might include exposure to air pollution and second-hand smoke, and these factors may be why COPD can also develop in nonsmokers. (6)(7)

woman coughing in her living room

Smoker’s cough is often a tell-tale sign of moderate to severe COPD.

COPD symptoms

You may not experience any symptoms during the early stages of COPD. Once you do, symptoms can be mild and easy to ignore until you have severe lung damage. These include:

  • Frequent cough
  • Needing to clear your throat habitually
  • Occasional shortness of breath, especially during exercise

As the disease progresses, the following symptoms can become more persistent. This may cause you to make changes to your everyday activities.

  • Can’t take a deep breath
  • Chest tightness
  • Chronic cough often called a “smoker’s cough”
  • Excess mucus production
  • Lack of energy
  • More susceptible to colds or other respiratory infections
  • Shortness of breath, even after mild exertion like climbing stairs
  • Wheezing

COPD treatment

Treatment can help manage symptoms and improve the quality of your life. Medications called bronchodilators can relax airway muscles. (28) Glucocorticosteroids can reduce lung inflammation. (8) In more severe cases, oxygen may be required to help you breathe. Surgery to remove the damaged area of the lungs is another option in some people with very severe COPD. (9)

Healthy habits to ease COPD symptoms

Your day-to-day habits can also help you manage your symptoms. Here are four of the best ways to stay healthy and active with COPD.

If you smoke, quit

Continuing to smoke after a diagnosis of COPD speeds up how quickly the disease damages the lungs. (10) On the other hand, a study of a group of former smokers with COPD found that quitting led to improved lung function and survival rates. (11) But quitting, especially for long-term smokers, can be challenging. Research suggests that nicotine is just as addictive as cocaine or heroin. (12) Fortunately, there are many tools, from counseling to medication to nicotine replacement products, that can help you quit.

Did you know?
If you don’t succeed in your first attempt to quit smoking, keep trying. Studies show that repeated efforts can boost your odds of quitting permanently. (13)

Focus on healthy foods

Nutrition is important for anyone diagnosed with COPD. Maintaining a healthy diet not only improves lung function, but it can also help maintain a strong immune system. Start by replacing processed foods with fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and healthy fats. Since oxidative stress caused by cigarette smoke and airborne pollutants plays a key role in COPD, research suggests increasing the amount of antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables you eat. One prospective study involving 120 COPD patients found that those who ate more fruits and vegetables experienced better lung function. (14)

Another study of 13,651 people reported that boosting the amount of fruit and whole grains reduced symptoms while adding a moderate amount of alcohol—one to two drinks per day—to the equation improved forced expiratory volume (the amount of air you can forcibly blow out in the first second after taking a breath). (15) The American Lung Association recommends rounding out your diet with plenty of high-quality protein and healthy fats. (16)

elder woman walking with her dog outdoors

Make walking a part of your daily routine.

Exercise according to your ability

Since physical activity can be exhausting, you may be tempted to avoid exercise if you have COPD. Yet studies show that the less active you are, the faster your health will decline. One small clinical trial published in the journal BMC Pulmonary Medicine compared a group of people with moderate COPD who worked out with a trainer at a local gym to a group of unsupervised COPD patients who maintained their normal activities. After 12 weeks, those participating in the supervised endurance and strength workouts were able to remain active longer. They also experienced an increase in their muscle strength. The unsupervised group, however, didn’t experience any benefits. (17)

Not up for the gym? Other studies show that simply walking regularly can also improve endurance and quality of life. It’s so effective that researchers from National Jewish Health in Denver, Colorado, cited a 50 percent drop in hospitalization for patients who walked at least 60 minutes per day. (18)

Avoid respiratory irritants

Cigarette smoke isn’t the only thing people with COPD need to avoid. It’s also wise to limit your exposure to other airborne pollutants like smog, dust, or household cleaning products. Studies show that people who are routinely exposed to chemically-based disinfectants and other cleaning products at home or work have a higher risk of developing COPD. (19)(20) Opt instead for natural cleaning ingredients like vinegar, baking soda, and essential oils that can help improve your indoor air quality.

2 supplements that improve COPD symptoms

Supplements that reduce inflammation and oxidative stress may also help manage the symptoms of COPD. Here are two that are clinically shown to improve the quality of life in patients.

1. Ginseng

Ginseng may have a reputation for enhancing energy, but clinical trials show that it’s also a powerful anti-inflammatory and antioxidant that can benefit those with COPD, largely due to compounds known as ginsenosides. (21) These studies show that:

  • Ginseng boosted exercise capacity in patients with moderately-severe COPD (22)
  • The herb improved lung function and quality of life (23)
  • The ginsenosides in ginseng help prevent the formation of scar tissue in the airways of smokers with COPD (24)

Since ginseng can interact with some prescription drugs, check with your health practitioner before supplementing with this herb.

Ginseng root and plant cut up into pieces

Ginseng has been clinically shown to reduce the symptoms of COPD and improve quality of life among patients.

2. Omega-3s

Omega-3 fatty acids can help reduce low-level chronic inflammation throughout the body, including the lungs and airways. Research shows that omega-3s can:

  • Reduce chronic cough and wheezing (25)
  • Reduce shortness of breath and the markers indicating inflammation (26)
  • Improve exercise tolerance (27)

Omega-3 fatty acids can be found in fish oil and krill supplements. You can also find vegetarian omega-3s that are sourced from algae or flaxseed oil.

The bottom line

The easiest way to prevent COPD is to avoid smoking. If you are living with COPD, adopting these healthy strategies can help minimize the symptoms of this progressive disease so you can breathe a little easier.

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