Nothing is more important than the ability to breathe. Ask anyone you know who suffers from asthma, emphysema, or any other type of lung disease. Most of us don’t think about our lungs at all – until something goes wrong.
Then, it’s all we can do not to think about them. There are a number of factors that can affect the health of our lungs, and smoking is undoubtedly the biggest. What you may not know, however, is that the quality of your diet can greatly impact the quality of your lungs. There are now even more reasons to eat your fruits and vegetables! But what is it about fruits and vegetables that helps maintain healthy lungs? Well, research has discovered a relationship between several nutrients found in these foods and lung health. Many of the health benefits of these nutrients are derived from their antioxidant effect on free radicals, the compounds that lead to aging and disease. Several lung diseases have in fact been associated with oxidative stress. As a result, dietary factors and nutrients with a potential protective role in the oxidative process (as well as the inflammatory response) can help prevent the development of these diseases. Some of these nutrients are discussed below.
Vitamin C isn’t just good for fighting colds. Studies suggest that antioxidant vitamins, particularly vitamin C, have a protective effect against lung diseases. In fact, people with a high dietary intake of vitamin C have healthier lungs. Research has shown that vitamin C protects the lungs and may lower the risk of developing chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Studies have noted that with sustained levels of dietary vitamin C, lung health deteriorates at a slower rate over time, preventing the development of COPD. Evidence also suggests that, independent of cigarette smoking, there is an inverse relationship between bronchitis and dietary intake of vitamin C; higher levels of vitamin C are linked to lower rates of bronchitis. It is therefore important to ensure adequate consumption of vitamin C. Food sources of this nutrient include citrus fruit (oranges, lemons, limes, grapefruit), broccoli, bell peppers, kale, cauliflower, strawberries, lemons, mustard and turnip greens, chard, cabbage, spinach, kiwifruit, snow peas, cantaloupe, tomatoes, zucchini, raspberries, asparagus, celery, pineapples, lettuce, watermelon and fennel.
Vitamin A has also been associated with lung function. Researchers in both Britain and the United States have discovered an inverse relationship between vitamin A and emphysema; low levels of vitamin A are associated with an increased rate of emphysema. Research on mice has shown that consuming vitamin A can prevent the occurrence of emphysema and might also be able to reverse the damage caused by the disease. Scientists have also discovered that children whose mothers took vitamin A supplements before, during, and for six months after pregnancy had better lung function at 9 and 11 years of age than those whose mothers did not take vitamin A. Beta-carotene, a precursor to vitamin A, may also help maintain healthy lungs. It has been associated with a slower decline in lung function. Ingestion of beta-carotene from foods, along with a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, has been found to have a protective role against lung disease. These results suggest that the carrots your mother said would help you see better might also help you breathe better. Beta-carotene can be found in a variety of other foods including sweet potatoes, kale, spinach, turnip greens, winter squash, collard greens, cilantro, fresh thyme, cantaloupe, romaine lettuce and broccoli. As for vitamin A, calf liver, milk, and eggs are very good sources.
Along with vitamins C and A, vitamin E has also been associated with lung function. People who take vitamin E supplements regularly for years may actually lower their risk of COPD, regardless of smoking status. Furthermore, diets high in vitamin E have been linked to decreased phlegm production. There has been some debate, however, over the safety of taking high doses of vitamin E in supplement form, as some studies have found a slight increased risk of lung cancer in smokers taking this vitamin. While the exact reasons for these findings remain unknown, it may be prudent to consume vitamin E through a multivitamin or from food sources. Vitamin E is relatively easy to obtain from food. It is found in oils such as sunflower and foods such as almonds, peanut butter, and spinach.
Vitamin D, commonly referred to as the sunshine vitamin, may also influence pulmonary function. Researchers have found that higher levels of vitamin D are associated with increased lung function. Researchers have suggested that high levels of vitamin D from diet, supplements, as well as sunlight can enhance the survival rates of patients recovering from lung-cancer surgery. Other research has demonstrated that vitamin D may help decrease inflammation, a central process in the development of COPD. Vitamin D can be found in salmon, as well as sardines, shrimp, and fortified milk.
Magnesium, an essential mineral, has also been linked to lung function, as well as airway responsiveness, and wheezing. Researchers have noted an association between higher magnesium intake, higher lung function, and a decreased risk of asthma. Evidence suggests that a magnesium deficiency can lead to lung ailments. For instance, blood tests taken from people experiencing an asthma attack often show a magnesium deficiency. It is not well understood, however, how this deficiency may lead to breathing difficulties. Regardless, magnesium may be beneficial in preventing the pulmonary complications that can arise from deficiency. Magnesium can be found in such foods as Swiss chard, spinach, mustard greens, summer squash, broccoli, blackstrap molasses, halibut, turnip greens, and pumpkin seeds.
Essential fatty acids (EFAs) also appear to play an important role in healthy lungs. EFAs have been found to help regulate inflammatory prostaglandins. Prostaglandins are hormone-like substances that are involved in a number of bodily functions, such as the contraction and relaxation of smooth muscles, the dilation and constriction of blood vessels, the control of blood pressure, and the modulation of inflammation. EFAs may suppress swelling and spastic hyperactivity of the airways, leading to an increased ability to breathe. Ensure adequate consumption of these fatty acids in your diet to help maintain healthy lungs. EFA-containing foods include fish (e.g., salmon, herring, mackerel), walnuts and almonds, flax seeds, lean meats and eggs.
While the best thing you can do for your lungs is to stay away from cigarettes and other environmental toxins, eating a diet high in the nutrients described above through fresh fruits and vegetables might be the best method to prevent lung disease and ensure a life full of deep breaths.