Not a second goes by without your lungs hard at work. Twenty-four hours a day, 365 days a year — that’s how often they’re behind the scenes ensuring your body receives the oxygen it needs to survive. That translates to about 12 to 15 breaths per minute, or 17,000 breaths per day, according to the American Lung Association. Put simply, your lungs never clock out.
Considering their importance, it’s easy to see why you should practice healthy habits to keep your lungs performing at an optimal level. INTEGRIS Health Pulmonologist Katherine Little, M.D. and respiratory therapists Amy Cole, RRT-ACCS; Retia Dempsey, RRT-ACCS; and Kevin England, RRT-ACCS, provide you with information and tips on how to keep up with your lung health, including foods to eat and exercises to add to your routine.
Easy ways to maintain pulmonary health
Smoking is the leading cause of deteriorating lungs, so it makes sense you should refrain from smoking or inhaling any chemical substances into your lungs. When possible, stay away from secondhand smoke.
During the day, maintaining adequate posture while working or performing daily tasks can help keep your lungs healthy. Why? Your body position can affect lung volume and contribute to alveolar (lung) collapse.
Stay hydrated and drink plenty of water — at least 64 ounces a day — unless you have an underlying medical condition that limits fluid consumption. Proper hydration keeps the mucosal linings in your lungs thin.
At night, make sure you’re getting enough sleep. A lack of sleep can impact your health. Talk to your doctor if you have sleep disorders, especially obstructive sleep apnea.
This may go without saying, but keeping a clean household can go a long way in helping your lung health. There is a higher incidence rate of fungal infections, pneumonia and sepsis cases in homes that aren’t properly maintained. A buildup of pollen, pet dander, dust and mold can contribute to these conditions.
Healthy foods for lungs
Eating the right foods and nutrients provides energy that supports and improves the immune system and affects pulmonary health. The right nutrition can help you breathe easier and, in some cases, even reduce asthma symptoms.
Foods high in antioxidants have been proven to have positive effects on pulmonary health. This list includes the following foods:
- Dark leafy greens
- Fish, such as salmon
- Milk (fortified with vitamin D)
- Olive oil
- Orange juice
- Shellfish such as oysters
Take note of preexisting conditions
If you fall into this category of preexisting conditions, schedule regular checkups with a pulmonologist. Take your medicine as prescribed and call your physician if symptoms don’t improve with medication. Monitor your symptoms at home and avoid environmental asthma triggers when possible, especially environmental pollutants.
In certain cases of chronic lung disease, your doctor may suggest a low carbohydrate diet. Carbohydrates increase carbon dioxide production and, as a result, increase carbon dioxide retention in patients with certain types of obstructive lung disease.
Don’t forget to exercise, either. Incorporating cardio into your routine can help strengthen your immune system. It also improves lung capacity and blood flow to the lungs, allowing more oxygen to be delivered to the body. Exercise reduces the risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes and even certain types of cancer.
Know that you aren’t alone. Check for support groups in your area. Groups such as Better Breather Clubs and Pulmonary Fibrosis Support Groups are available at INTEGRIS Health and other hospitals throughout the state.
How to check if your lungs are healthy at home
Monitoring your lung health doesn’t always require a trip to the doctor. While a physician may measure lung function by having you blow into a spirometer, a machine that measures lung function, there are a few simple things you can use at home to check your lung health as well.
Peak flow monitoring, via a plastic peak flow meter that requires you to blow into a mouthpiece, measures forced exhalation volume from the lungs. You can buy a handheld peak flow meter to keep at home for your convenience. These measurements can also monitor changes in pulmonary status when an underlying episode is impending.
There are other types of handheld pulmonary function tests available for home monitoring, and some even come with an app that can be downloaded on your smartphone. For example, a pulse oximetry tool will monitor your heart rate and oxygen saturation.
Most of all, pay attention to your body’s signals. Symptoms such as chronic cough, shortness of breath and increased sputum production can be signs of respiratory infection. Contact your physician if any of these symptoms occur.
COVID-19’s impact on long-term pulmonary health
COVID-19 has been a “wild card” virus, with symptoms ranging from fatigue to Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS). Once you’re infected with COVID-19, the viral disease travels down to your alveoli, the tiny air sacs at the end of air tubes in the lungs. The alveoli provide the base of your lung function and are where the gas exchange occurs between your blood and the air in your lungs — inhaling oxygen and exhaling carbon dioxide.
When the alveoli become fibrotic (or scarred), which can happen due to COVID-19, your lungs can’t exchange gas across as they should, thus reducing your lungs’ ability to oxygenate your blood. Think of this process like the air filters in your home. A clogged filter can’t trap dust particles, allergens and other substances from escaping into your home.
The damage sustained by the alveoli has resulted in permanent pulmonary compromise in some patients. Conditions such as pulmonary fibrosis and other interstitial lung diseases have also been noted. This lung damage often presents a challenge to daily routines, such as exercising. Some patients may even require oxygen at home, either temporarily or on a long-term basis.
Exercises to keep your lungs healthy
The diaphragm, a dome-shaped muscle located below your lungs, handles 80 percent of your breathing. This crucial muscle tightens when you inhale and relaxes when you exhale.
As you go about your day, it’s easy to get out of the habit of deep breathing and instead rely on chest breathing, or shallower, less satisfying breaths. Diaphragmatic breathing is a way to train your brain to conduct slower, deeper breaths that fully fill the lungs and encourage full oxygen exchange.
To practice deep breathing, bend your knees either while lying down or sitting in a chair. Then take deep breaths, allowing your belly to rise, before releasing the air as you tighten your abdominal muscles.
If you find yourself struggling with shortness of breath, try purse lipped breathing exercises. Take a normal breath by inhaling through your nose and exhaling through your mouth by puckering your lips as if you were blowing out birthday candles. This method of breathing helps improve ventilation by moving old air out of lungs and allowing for new air to enter.
Exercising regularly can do wonders for your lung health. Aerobic exercises increase lung capacity and improve blood flow to your heart and lungs. Muscle strengthening activities improve muscular health, including your lungs. Yoga and Pilates serve a dual purpose, combining exercise with breathing techniques. Read about why you should try yoga.
Visit the INTEGRIS Health lung care or INTEGRIS Health respiratory therapy page to learn more about the services we offer. You can schedule an appointment with a pulmonologist or respiratory therapist by searching for a provider near you.
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