The Importance of Lung Health
Let’s try something: Take a deep breath and hold it for as long as you can (within reason, please be safe). How do you feel? I feel uncomfortable, fatigued, and relieved to take my next breath. This is because we have just deprived our cells of oxygen, so they can’t make energy to function. It’s only when we can’t get enough air, like during an asthma attack, that it becomes very clear just how essential our lungs are for our whole health.
Each breath brings fresh air through the airways and into tiny sacs in our lungs called alveoli (1). Here, oxygen-rich air encounters oxygen-depleted blood sitting on the other side of a very thin membrane. The body takes advantage of something called diffusion, whereby oxygen moves from an area of high concentration in the lung to low concentration in red blood cells (1). Now our freshly oxygenated blood can transport oxygen to every corner of the body so that our cells can make fuel to survive.
In order for diffusion to work, our alveoli must be flexible and free from barriers like particles, infection, and pollutants. As you may have guessed, we are constantly inhaling pollutants, allergens, toxins, and viruses, so our lungs need a natural defense system to prevent infection, detoxify pollutants, and eliminate waste.
Our lungs are lined with mucous to trap foreign particles, and we have tiny finger-like projections called cilia that move mucous upward to be expectorated from the body (2). Think of it like an escalator that is continually working to keep our lungs clean.
Our lungs are also home to a powerful antioxidant called glutathione, which detoxifies the lungs and repairs damage to lung tissue (3). This antioxidant is so important that we experience decreased lung function if we don’t have enough of it. In fact, impaired glutathione activity is a central feature of inflammatory lung diseases, including asthma and pulmonary fibrosis (3).
It can be challenging for our lungs to keep up with demand for detoxification. Consider what your lungs are being asked to detoxify on a daily basis. We may inhale car pollution, cleaning products, fragrances, or have workplace exposures. In people who suffer from chronic lung conditions like asthma and COPD, improving lung function is central to improving quality of life.
The tricky thing is that, unless we are suffering from a lung condition, we don’t usually do lab testing to assess lung health. As such, it’s important to consider what our own lung health may be like as a result of our environment, and to speak with a healthcare provider if we’re noticing chronic cough, fatigue, or shortness of breath.
There are a number of well-researched natural treatments that can support lung detoxification and improve lung capacity.
N-acetylcysteine (NAC) is a precursor nutrient to glutathione, and at adequate oral doses it increases glutathione concentration in the lungs (4). It is also a mucolytic, meaning it helps to thin mucous to make it easier to expectorate (4). NAC has been shown to significantly reduce the frequency and severity of exacerbations and improve lung capacity in patients with COPD (5, 6).
Fenugreek seed (Trigonella foenum-graecum) is an herb that has been shown to significantly improve lung functions, called FEV1 and FEV1/FVC, by 10% in asthmatics versus placebo (7). This improvement is due to its mucilaginous action, which facilitates lung secretions, and antioxidant effects. Fenugreek also significantly reduces an immune marker called IL4 (7). This indicates that fenugreek can help to rebalance the immune system to address one of the causes of asthma.
Ginger (Zingiber officinale) acts as a bronchodilator, meaning it opens our airways (8). It also significantly reduces inflammatory cells and congestion in the lungs (8). In a similar fashion to fenugreek, research shows it significantly reduces IL4, IL5 and IgE levels (8), indicating that it also improves the underlying immune mechanism in asthma.
Let’s take a slow, deep breath and appreciate how important our lungs are to our whole body. Lung health isn’t only something to consider in people with chronic lung conditions like asthma and COPD; it’s a vital part of everyone’s health. Our lungs are the foundation for the survival of every cell in our bodies, so a little extra lung support can go a long way toward improving our overall health.
This article was written by:
Dr. Hilary Chambers, ND
Dr. Hilary Chambers is a licensed and registered Naturopathic Doctor practicing in Toronto, where she has a clinical focus on treating digestion and autoimmune disease.
Prior to pursuing her Naturopathic career, Dr. Chambers graduated with an Honours Bachelor of Science with a Specialization in Physiology from Western University, where she received the prestigious Gold Medallion award.
Dr. Chambers earned her Doctor of Naturopathic Medicine degree at the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine in Toronto. She has additional certifications in Prescribing Therapeutics, as a Naturopathic Doula, and in Intravenous Nutrient Therapy.
Dr. Chambers is the Chief Spokesperson and Education Ambassador of Healthology. She is excited to be working with Healthology to improve the health and well-being of people across Canada.
Powers KA, Dhamoon AS. Physiology, Pulmonary Ventilation and Perfusion. [Updated 2020 Sep 29]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island FL: StatPearls Publishing; 2020 Jan.
Bustamante-Marin XM, Ostrowski LE. Cilia and Mucociliary Clearance. Cold Spring Harb Perspect Biol. 2017;9(4):a028241.
Rahman I, MacNee W. Oxidative stress and regulation of glutathione in lung inflammation. Eur Respir J. 2000 Sep;16(3):534-54.
Sanguinetti, C.M. N-acetylcysteine in COPD: why, how, and when?. Multidiscip Respir Med. 2018;11:8.
Pela R, Calcagni AM, Subiaco S, Isidori P, Tubaldi A, Sanguinetti CM. N-acetylcysteine reduces the exacerbation rate in patients with moderate to severe COPD. Respir. 1999;66:495-500.
Stey C, Steurer, Bachmann S, Medici TC, Tramer MR. The effect of oral N-acetylcysteine in chronic bronchitis: a quantitative systematic review. Eur Resp J. 2000;16:253-62.
Emtiazy M, Oveidzadeh L, Habibi M. et al. Investigating the effectiveness of the Trigonella foenum-graecum L. (fenugreek) seeds in mild asthma: a randomized controlled trial. Allergy Asthma Clin Immunol. 2018;14:19.
Khan AM, Shahzad M, Raza Asim MB, Imran M, Shabbir A. Zingiber officinale ameliorates allergic asthma via suppression of Th2-mediated immune response. Pharm Biol. 2015 Mar;53(3):359-67.