For the nearly 25 million people that the American Lung Association (ALA) estimates are suffering with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), the additional 25 million U.S. adults living with asthma, the 3 million more with emphysema, and the 9 million people who are diagnosed every year with bronchitis, it doesn’t take a pandemic to be concerned about lung function.
But throw in a novel coronavirus and it’s understandable why many of these 60 million-plus people—and the millions more who have poor lung function but haven’t been diagnosed with a chronic lung illness—are living in daily fear…
…Fear that God-forbid they become infected COVID-19, their lungs will be attacked by the virus, requiring intensive care hospitalization or ventilation.
And as this NBC News report from last month suggests, being hooked up to a ventilator may be the equivalent of a death sentence. The report says there have been very high death rates in coronavirus patients placed on ventilators. In New York City, NBC reports at least 80 percent of coronavirus patients placed on the breathing machines have died.
Consequently, some doctors believe the machines could be doing more harm than good.
An alternative to ventilators that some doctors are using to keep patients alive is nitric oxide inhalation therapy. This therapy has proved beneficial in treating previous coronavirus outbreaks, such as one that occurred in 2004.
In the meantime, many sufferers of chronic lung diseases are wondering if there’s any way to improve chances of staying out of the emergency room. (Further on in this article, a method to increase your body’s own supply of nitric oxide will be discussed.…)
The bad news is, of course, to date, there is no cure for COVID-19. But the good news is, it is possible to manage chronic lung illnesses and improve lung health.
There are three primary factors that can help improve respiratory function:
- Breathing Exercises
- Proper diet and nutritional supplementation
- Lifestyle factors
Let’s take a look at the first step…
Breathing Exercises For COPD, Asthma, Emphysema & Bronchitis
Patrick McKeown is one of the world’s leading experts on breathing and lung function. On the faculty advisory board of the International Academy of Breathing & Health, McKeown, in this video, mentions several useful tips for maximizing your chances of preventing becoming infected by viruses. He also discusses a few helpful exercises for people with breathing difficulties.
Assessing Breath Hold Time
According to the Lung Health Institute, increasing your lung capacity may help prevent respiratory mortality. Before commencing breathing exercises, however, McKeown suggests recording your breath hold time. This will provide you with a baseline metric to assess whether or not your breath hold time—and, hence, lung capacity—improves.
In order to record your breath-holding time, you’ll need a clock with a seconds timer. Or, if you have a smartphone, press the clock button on your home screen. Within the clock feature, you’ll find a timer.
To properly assess your breathing time, McKeown recommends doing it first thing in the morning while you’re sitting up in bed. After sitting up in bed, take a normal breath in and out. Then, begin holding your breath. Stop the timer when you start feeling “starved of breath” as McKeown puts it. Ideally, you’ll be able to hold your breath for 40 seconds; McKeown says in the video that functional breathing is 25 seconds or more.
How To Breathe If You’re Feeling Short of Breath
When you feel like you can’t breath, the normal response is to take several rapid shallow breaths. But breathing fast and shallow is actually the opposite of what you should do. In fact, taking rapid short breaths decreases blood oxygen saturation. According to McKeown (and other respiratory experts), the optimal way to increase oxygen reaching into the air sacs in the lower lungs is breathing in and out through the nose very slowly and deeply.
McKeown recommends keeping the acronym “LSD” in mind if you’re feeling short of breath. LSD stands for light, slow, deep. To increase blood oxygen saturation and lung capacity, aim for an inhale of 4 seconds and an exhale of 6 seconds. Remember to both inhale and exhale through the nose.
How To Breathe If You’re Coughing or Wheezing
When some people get an asthma attack, the innate response is to breathe in with maximal effort. But by doing this, McKeown says, the airways in the lungs narrow, cool and dry out. Again, focus on taking calm, steady breaths.
Here’s a simple exercise to increase the duration of your breath-holding ability throughout the day. This exercise, which McKeown shows in his video, involves first taking a normal breath in and out through the nose. Next, hold your breath while pinching your nose. As soon as your nose is pinched, begin counting down from 5. Let go. Then, breath normally for 10 seconds. Repeat.
How To Breathe If Someone Coughs Or Sneezes In Your Direction
There’s another downside to rapid, shallow breathing besides lowering the amount of oxygen that goes into your bloodstream. It also lowers the amount of nitric oxide that your nasal passages and sinuses produce.
McKeown says that nasal nitric oxide contains anti-viral properties. And the only way to harness these anti-viral properties is through nasal breathing. So if you or your spouse are a mouth breather, practice the simple breathing exercises mentioned above to train yourself to be a nose-only breather.
Nitric oxide is the first line of defense against viruses. When you’re walking in the street, exercising, resting, sleeping and doing practically everything else when you’re not talking, breath through your nose.
If somebody sneezes or coughs in your direction, McKeown advises to turn your head and hold your breath (your mouth should obviously be closed) and take in the shallowest amount of breath possible.
Breathing In Public
If you absolutely have to travel these days, slow down your breathing rate while you’re on a plane, train, bus or subway. Taking deep, slow breaths better ventilates the lower region of lungs. This in turn increases the oxygen and nitric oxide capacity.
To sum up McKeown’s suggestions for breathing, take small, slow, light, gentle breaths in and out through the nose, with longer exhalations than inhalations. Practice breath holding. Another simple technique to increase oxygen capacity of the lungs courtesy of McKeown: humming.
Other Breathing Tips
Many respiratory health experts recommend practicing diaphragmatic breathing. (You can feel your diaphragm muscle if you place your hand in between your belly button and ribs and cough.) To strengthen the diaphragm here’s what you can do….
Sit up tall or while lying down, place one hand on your belly and one hand on your chest. As you breath in through the nose, push your hand away from your belly. To do this, imagine you’re blowing up your stomach like a balloon. As your belly fills up with air, start pushing the hand that’s on your chest away from you. You can keep the same inhale/exhale count (4/6 seconds) as McKeown recommends in his video.
There are many breathing exercises for lung capacity videos on YouTube. Some experts may recommend pursed-lip breathing, while experts such as McKeown recommend only nasal inhalation and exhalation. However, one common theme runs through many of these videos: sustained, deep, gentle and controlled breathing is better for lung function than short, rapid shallow breaths. Keep that in mind in the event you experience breathing difficulties in the future.
Eating Your Way To Better Lung Health
According to this study in Respiratory Research, certain nutrients have been shown to protect the lungs against pollution damage. Pollution can trigger asthma and COPD, and contribute to lung cancer.
The nutrients in the study are:
- Carotenoids: Antioxidants found in carrots, grapefruit, oranges and apricots and squash, etc.
- Vitamin D: In the warmer months of the year, your body can synthesize vitamin D through sunlight exposure. During the cold months, take a vitamin D3 supplement.
- Vitamin E: According to MyFoodData.com, the best sources of foods with vitamin E include sunflower seeds, almonds, spinach, avocados, squash, kiwifruit, trout, shrimp, olive oil, wheat germ oil, and broccoli.
- Curcumin: A natural compound in the spice, turmeric, which is composed of about 5% curcumin. Consider taking a curcumin supplement with black pepper. (Black pepper helps the body absorb turmeric by up to 2,000 percent.)
- Choline: A nutrient that regulates brain and nervous system function. The best sources are eggs, liver, and peanuts.
- Omega-3 fatty acids: These polyunsaturated fats can help lower inflammation. Foods rich in Omega-3’s include wild salmon, sardines, mackerel, cod liver oil, herring, walnuts, flax seeds and chia seeds.
- Vitamin C: Citrus fruits (avoid if you have acid reflux), melons, berries, sweet potatoes, red peppers and broccoli are excellent sources of this antioxidant.
In addition to eating a diet rich in these nutrients, herbal supplements that support lung function may also help.
Lifestyle Factors That Improve Lung Function
Let’s get the obvious lifestyle factor out of the way: don’t smoke. If you can’t shake the nicotine habit, ask your doctor about options for weaning off tobacco smoking.
If you’re confined to a wheelchair and can’t go for walks, exercise by doing arm rotations over your head and out to the side. Or practice air boxing by throwing imaginary punches.
Want to improve your lung capacity? Either to improve your quality of life or to avoid being placed on a ventilator at a hospital? Then start practicing these simple breathing techniques, eat foods rich in lung-supporting nutrients and move your body every day.