Breathing—it’s easy to take for granted until there is a difficulty. On average, a person takes about 20,000 breaths a day, but who’s counting? That’s the beauty of the lungs. They are methodical in their rhythmic pursuit of oxygen and release of carbon dioxide. Their primary task is to bring in fresh air to oxygenate the cells of the body while at the same time removing harmful gases. The lungs also help protect us from toxins by filtering, coughing, sneezing, or even swallowing substances so they can be properly eliminated from the body.

woman blowing her nose into a tissue

Our lungs help to protect us from toxins when we sneeze substances that need to be eliminated from the body.

When most people think of their lungs, they think of two air-filled bags that ensure we can function properly until our literal last breath. But the lungs are so much more. Lung tissue is bathed in blood and mucus. That’s correct, mucus is actually a good thing in the lungs when there is not too much of it. In addition to respiration and gas exchange, the lungs play a role in activating defense mechanisms, heme fluency, lipid metabolism, and biological interactions with plasma. (1)

Physically the lungs are divided into lobes that are surrounded by a membrane known as the pleura. The bronchial tubes within the lungs are lined with cilia that move the mucus out of the lungs. The mucus is important because it gathers up dust, germs, or any other undesirable material. At the end of the bronchial tubes, there are small sacs called alveoli where oxygen and carbon dioxide are exchanged.

As you can see, a lot is going on in the lungs with several moving parts. That also means there’s more that can go wrong when it comes to optimal respiration.

Respiratory conditions

Respiratory illnesses can significantly impact the quality of life and can lead to disability and even death. According to the Forum of International Respiratory Societies, the five most common and dangerous respiratory conditions worldwide are: (8)

  1. Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)
  2. Respiratory tract infections
  3. Tuberculosis (TB)
  4. Lung cancer
  5. Asthma

Respiratory conditions can be placed into two categories: those caused by an infection, and lung damage caused by other issues. Respiratory tract infections and TB are examples of infectious lung diseases. In this article, we will focus on reducing the risk of non-infectious lung conditions.

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)

COPD includes emphysema and chronic bronchitis and is a non-infectious disease characterized by lung damage that makes it hard for a person to breathe. Worldwide, it’s estimated that 65 million people have moderate to severe COPD resulting in three million deaths each year, making it the third leading cause of death. (8)

Other non-infectious lung diseases include: (2)

  • Pulmonary fibrosis
  • Pulmonary hypertension
  • Sarcoidosis
  • Pleurisy
  • Cystic fibrosis
  • Sleep-disordered breathing (apnea or hypopnea)

Fortunately, through a combination of diet, lifestyle, and dietary supplements, we can protect and enhance lung health.

Respiratory support

Reducing the risk of non-infectious lung conditions can be accomplished by first looking at diet and lifestyle. Of course, it is well-known that the single most dangerous lifestyle factor to lung health is smoking. Not smoking, or stopping if you do, is paramount when it comes to reducing the risk of non-infectious lung diseases. The leading cause of COPD and lung cancer is smoking. (11)

In addition to smoking cessation, another lifestyle factor is improving indoor air quality, as well as reducing exposure to outdoor air pollution and environmental toxins.

Diet for respiratory health

When it comes to lung health, a lot can be accomplished with diet. The healthiest lung health diet should focus on anti-oxidant nutrients and reducing inflammation. Studies show that people with COPD often eat an inflammatory diet that does not include enough fruits and vegetables. (7) Higher intake of fruits and vegetables, in general, can help reduce the risk of a wide variety of respiratory diseases. (3)

With an emphasis on fruits and vegetables, as well as healthy fats, it’s not surprising that the Mediterranean diet has been shown to enhance lung health even among smokers. (5) When the Mediterranean diet is combined with exercise, it has more benefits and has been shown to improve overall lung function in healthy adults. (4)

Supplements for respiratory health

In addition to the Mediterranean diet, certain vitamins have been shown to help protect and enhance lung health. According to a 2010 systematic review, vitamins C, D, E, and A were all shown to help improve symptoms of COPD. (10) A 2018 review showed that vitamin A deficiency is a contributing factor for many lung diseases including COPD, lung fibrosis, lung cancer, and asthma. (9)

Other nutrients such as fatty acids, anthocyanins, curcumin, and catechins can help lung health and reduce the risk of lung diseases such as COPD and cancer. (12)

green tea in a glass cup with great tea extracts around the cup

Green tea is an excellent source of catechins which help reduce the risk of respiratory diseases.

Many herbs for respiratory support work to protect and enhance lung function because of their anti-inflammatory effects. In addition to curcumin found in turmeric and catechins found in green tea, other herbs that have been shown to reduce the risk and symptoms of COPD and asthma include luteolin, quercetin, apigenin, and astragalus. (6)

The bottom line

When someone is upset, the first inclination is to say, “Take a deep breath.” But for some people, that can be very difficult. Lung diseases can dramatically and negatively impact the quality of life. They can also be life-threatening. That’s why taking proactive steps to prevent these respiratory illnesses is worth the effort. We can enhance our lung health through a combination of diet, lifestyle, vitamins, and herbs.

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  1. Alvarado, A., & Arce, I. (2016). Metabolic Functions of the Lung, Disorders and Associated Pathologies. Journal of clinical medicine research, 8(10), 689–700. doi:10.14740/jocmr2668w
  2. American Lung Association (2018, March 15). Lung Diseases.
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