The lungs are essential for human life. They work almost tirelessly, pulling in air and dumping out what can’t be used over and over, day and night. Breathing brings in oxygen and expels carbon dioxide, a waste product of metabolism. Breathing is also essential to our ability to talk and sing.
To keep our bodies in optimum condition, your lung health is critical. Some nutrients, in particular, can help improve breathing conditions and may help you to breathe better. By following a healthy diet, you can keep your lungs healthy and protect your health for the future.
Here are 14 foods for healthy lungs and improved breathing:
- Garlic and onions
- Chili peppers
- Cruciferous vegetables
- Beans, seeds and nuts
- Red bell pepper and cayenne pepper
How Your Lungs Work
The lungs are made of hundreds of thousands of branching tubes that end in tiny air sacs, or alveoli. There are over three hundred million of these tiny sacs in our lungs, offering roughly the surface area of a tennis court to keep up with the respiratory demands of the body. The membranes of these tiny air sacs are also thinner than tissue paper to maximize the exchange of gases.
Our lungs make up a large part of our immune system. Pollutants and infection-causing microbes and viruses are captured by mucus in the lungs and shuttled upward by tiny cilia for us to cough out or swallow. Sneezes are another way the lungs help rid us of infection or pollution, often before these invaders even pass beyond the sinuses.
How to Keep Your Lungs Healthy
The lungs are remarkable. They should be cared for. First and foremost, do not smoke. Smoking destroys the cilia that help remove infection and pollutants, resulting in clogged airways.
Smoking is linked to most lung diseases including chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and asthma. Smokers are 12 to 13 times more likely to die from COPD than non-smokers. There are thousands of chemicals in cigarettes and every time you breathe them in, these toxins can damage your lungs. Smoking also causes your lung cells to age more quickly. This can cause lung cells to change from normal to cancerous.
No matter how long you’ve been smoking, it’s always beneficial to quit smoking. Within a few months of quitting, your lung function starts to improve. After a year of quitting, your risk of heart disease is half that of a smoker’s.
Limiting your exposure to indoor and outdoor pollutants can also help. Wear a respirator when painting or doing any hobbies that include dust or industrial gases. Try to avoid secondhand smoke and exercise near heavy traffic areas.
Exercise is also important. It doesn’t necessarily strengthen the lungs as they rely on the diaphragm muscle, but any improvement of the cardiovascular system makes the job of the lungs easier. Do something active for 30 minutes each day to lighten the load on your lungs and increase the efficiency of oxygen transportation and metabolism. These 30 minutes can even be broken up throughout the day. Park further from the grocery store, take the stairs, get up from your desk and walk around the building, do some jumping jacks, walk your neighborhood, or even run in place for a bit. Anything is better than staying on the couch.
How Food Affects Your Lungs
What we eat may not directly affect the lungs, but our food indirectly touches them through the cardiovascular system and by providing antioxidant protection.
It’s no secret that a well-balanced diet keeps the body and mind strong. But, eating the right nutrients may support better breathing and even reduce asthma symptoms. When the body processes or metabolizes food to fuel, oxygen, and food are taken in and energy is produced. Carbon dioxide is a waste product of this process that we exhale.
Proteins, fats, and carbohydrates metabolize differently and produce different amounts of carbon dioxide. According to the American Lung Association, for some people with COPD, eating a diet low in carbohydrates and more healthy fats help them to breathe better.
A high-fat diet has also been linked to a higher risk of developing lung cancer. People who eat a lot of saturated fat like the kind found in processed meat are more likely to develop lung cancer.
On the other hand, eating fruits has been shown to lower these risks. Eating well goes hand in hand with exercise in keeping your lungs clear, healthy, and not overburdened. Fresh, raw foods are the best way to get the enzymes, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants that will keep you breathing easy.
14 Foods for Healthy Lungs and Help You Breathe Better
Water plays a huge role in health and is the base of any cleansing action. Pure, clean water is essential to keeping blood flowing to and from the lungs. It also keeps our lungs hydrated and the mucus flowing. It may sound disgusting, but that mucus is important and needs to be the right consistency for the cilia to move it—along with toxins, microbes, and pollutants—out.
A large part of the body is made up of water. When the body is dehydrated, our bodies start to feel the effect. Proper hydration is essential for more than just lung health. It helps to remove waste from the body, transport nutrients throughout the body, and regulate body temperature.
Related: Why Proper Hydration Is Essential
2. Garlic and Onions
These pungent foods are great for the heart and thus the lungs too. They reduce inflammation, lower cholesterol, and fight infection. Garlic is known for its powerful anti-inflammatory properties.
One study published in the journal Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention found that smokers who ate raw garlic had a 40% lower lung cancer risk compared to those who didn’t consume raw garlic.
This spice has anti-inflammatory properties and promotes the elimination of pollutants from the lungs. Ginger has a ton of benefits not just for the lungs but for the rest of the body too. Ginger can help to decongest and unclog air passages helping to boost lung health and improve breathing.
Related: Ginger: A Spice for Health!
4. Chili Peppers
Peppers are filled with capsaicin, the spicy compound that gives them their bite. Capsaicin improves blood flow, stimulates mucus membranes, and fights infection.
5. Cruciferous Vegetables
Cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, and kale have been shown to halt the progression of lung cancer and cut the risk of developing lung cancer in half. They are rich in chlorophyll that cleans and builds blood and full of some very effective antioxidants.
Pomegranate juice slows the growth of lung tumors. Pomegranates contain many antioxidants including ellagic acid, which is gaining strides in cancer research.
This spice is related to ginger with many of the same benefits. It also contains curcumin, a compound that encourages the self-destruction of cancer cells. Curcumin helps to relieve inflammation and chest tightness that’s associated with asthma.
One study followed 77 participants with mild and moderate asthma who took curcumin capsules for 30 days. Researchers found that the supplements reduced obstructions in the airway and could be a complementary treatment for asthma sufferers.
Flavonoids, vitamin E, and vitamin C all help the lungs function at their best. Apples are rich in all of these and those who eat several a week have healthier lungs. Apples are rich in antioxidants which can help keep your lungs healthy.
Naringin, a flavonoid in grapefruit, inhibits the activation of a cancer-causing enzyme. White grapefruit contains a high amount of this flavonoid, though pink grapefruit has some too along with the antioxidant lycopene. Grapefruit is especially good at cleansing the lungs after quitting smoking. The fruit is 92% water so it’s ideal for keeping you hydrated, supporting your overall health.
10. Beans, Seeds & Nuts
These all contain a good amount of magnesium, a mineral that contributes to healthy lung function. They also provide essential fatty acids that are good for the cardiovascular system. Flax seeds are a great choice as they contain a healthy dose of vitamin E, boosting the immune system and supply of red blood cells.
Try adding a handful of walnuts to your diet. They are packed with omega-3 fatty acids and are thought to contain anti-inflammatory properties that can help combat asthma and other respiratory conditions. Nuts are also a fantastic snack when you’re on the go.
These roots are rich in vitamin A, vitamin C, and lycopene, all antioxidants that affect lung health and lower the chances of developing lung disease. Researchers found that drinking carrot juice may help to prevent a type of damage that leads to lung cancer in smokers. Carrots are a healthy and tasty snack to eat on the go.
Citrus is rich in vitamin C and vitamin B6. These help the lungs transfer oxygen. Oranges are full of lung-friendly antioxidants and packed with vitamin C which is known for fighting infection and inflammation.
A review of studies published in Allergy, Asthma & Clinical Immunology found that vitamin C may play an essential role in reducing exercise-induced asthma by 52%. Exercise-induced asthma refers to the narrowing of the airways in your lungs that’s brought on by strenuous exercise. Symptoms include wheezing and coughing.
Pumpkin is another food rich in beta carotene and vitamin C, like carrots. Pumpkin is full of antioxidants that may help to combat cancer, in particular, prostate and lung. It’s also a good source of fiber and potassium.
14. Red Bell Pepper and Cayenne Pepper
These mild peppers are rich in vitamin C and the carotenoids lutein and zeaxanthin. Carotenoids have been shown to cut the risks of developing lung cancer.
Cayenne pepper is rich in capsaicin which helps to stimulate healthy secretions that protect the mucous membranes in the lungs. Try drinking cayenne pepper tea. It’s also a great source of beta-carotene which is thought to reduce several symptoms associated with asthma.
To keep your lungs in tip-top shape, it’s important to exercise regularly, avoid smoking and follow a healthy diet. There are certain nutrients that benefit the air passageways, improve breathing and keep the lungs healthy. By including these foods in your diet and following a well-balanced lifestyle, it’s not just your lungs that benefit but your overall health.
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Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on April 7, 2014 and has been updated for quality and relevance.