We’ve long talked about heart health, considering the prevalence of heart disease in the U.S. However, until recently, we’d rarely ever heard much about the importance of respiratory health. The novel coronavirus, which causes the respiratory disease COVID-19, has shifted the conversation as people look to ensure their lungs are in top shape.
“Keeping your lungs functioning at a high level is very important, but even more important when dealing with a respiratory illness,” explains Osita Onugha, M.D., director of the Surgical Innovation Lab at John Wayne Cancer Institute at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica. “Chronic conditions like COPD, asthma, and emphysema can make it difficult for your lungs to function at their best, and respiratory infections can make it more difficult to recover if you have a chronic respiratory condition.”
In addition to living a healthy lifestyle, we can support strong lungs by increasing our intake of certain nutrients and supplements. Here are the ones dietitians recommend the most.
Think probiotics only affect your gut? According to one The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition study, probiotic supplements that include specific bacteria strains (lactobacillus gasseri, bifido longum, and bifido bifidum) may benefit those who often experience seasonal respiratory issues.
Another study published in Indian Academy of Pediatrics, meanwhile, found that the strain lactobacillus rhamnosus supported respiratory health in children.
2. N-Acetyl Cysteine (NAC)
“The supplement form of the amino acid cysteine, this nutrient plays a role in our production of glutathione, a very important antioxidant,” says The Vitamin Shoppe nutritionist Rebekah Blakely, R.D.N.
What’s the lung link? Research—like this Multidisciplinary Respiratory Medicine study—suggests NAC supplementation has lung function benefits.
Warning: It’s made with sulfur, so it’s not the best-smelling supplement—but it is helpful for respiratory health.
3. Vitamin D
Low levels of the sunshine vitamin have long been linked with respiratory issues, according to dietitian and researcher Suzanne Dixon, M.P.H., M.S., R.D.N. In addition to playing a role in maintaining healthy lung function, vitamin D also has immune-boosting benefits.
4. Vitamin E
Although vitamin E is often associated with skin health, it’s also been shown to help minimize lung and breathing issues. Research published in The European Respiratory Journal confirms that vitamin E helps maintain healthy lung function.
Since some people may not eat vitamin E foods, like nuts, supplementing may be a good idea, says Roger E. Adams, Ph.D., doctor of nutrition and owner of eatrightfitness.
Do peppermint breath mints or tea help you feel like you can breathe easier? It’s no coincidence. “Peppermint contains menthol, which offers a cooling, soothing property,” explains The Vitamin Shoppe nutritionist Brittany Michels, R.D.N. “This is great for those with a cough, as that sensation certainly has an immediate soothing benefit.”
Dixon suggests taking it preventatively to support normal healthy immune and respiratory function.
This antioxidant and flavonoid is found in foods such as onions, apples, and grapes—and has been shown to help maintain lung health, according to one study published in PLoS One. Quercetin’s immune-boosting properties can also provide respiratory relief, adds Michels.
One thing to note: “Because it has a low bioavailability on its own, you’ll often see quercetin partnered with vitamin C to aid in absorption.”
The herb echinacea has long been used in alternative and traditional medicine, says dietitian Frances Largeman-Roth, R.D.N., author of Eating in Color.
Per research published in Phytomedicine, this herb may helpful for those dealing with seasonal respiratory issues. (It stimulates the immune system by ramping up white blood cell count.)
Although echinacea is a popular respiratory health supplement, keep in mind that it’s related to ragweed, which is a common allergen, says Michels. For this reason, she only recommends echinacea for those who have confirmed they do not have a ragweed allergy.
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