Breathing difficulties, shortness of breath, coughing, wheezing, and fatigue with exertion are common symptoms of lung problems such as asthma, allergies, respiratory infections, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). But these symptoms could also be a sign of heart failure, pulmonary hypertension, atrial fibrillation, or other cardiovascular disorders.
That’s why as a cardiologist I chose to pay close attention to my patients’ lung function. The cardiovascular and respiratory systems are closely related, and a problem that affects one may also affect the other. Therefore, I want to share a few tips for naturally promoting healthy lungs and clear breathing.
Breathing Exercises for Healthy Lungs & Less Stress
Breathing exercises strengthen the muscles involved in respiration and improve lung function. As an added bonus, focusing on your breath and slowing your breathing are excellent tools for stress reduction. In fact, many meditation and relaxation practices involve breathing exercises, as they improve heart rate variability and calm your autonomic nervous system.
- Belly breathing: Put your hand on your belly, breathe in through your nose, and focus on the rise of your belly underneath your hand. This ensures you are breathing properly, from your belly and diaphragm rather than your upper chest. Simply breathe deeply in and out. Do this daily, starting with just two or three minutes and working up to 5–10 minutes during the day.
- Alternate nostril breathing: Take a deep breath in and out through your nose. Then use your right thumb to close your right nostril and inhale slowly through your left nostril to the count of 3–5. While still holding your right nostril closed with your thumb, close your left nostril with your right ring finger so both nostrils are closed, and hold the breath for a moment. Now open your right nostril and breathe out slowly, exhaling for at least as long as you inhale. Inhale slowly through your right nostril to the count of 4. Hold both nostrils closed again briefly. Then open your left nostril and breathe out slowly. Repeat for a couple of minutes. (This short video may be helpful.)
Physical Exercise Improves Cardiorespiratory Fitness
Physical exercise is also important for both lung and heart health. Cardiorespiratory fitness refers to the capacity of your circulatory and respiratory systems to take in oxygen and supply it to your muscles during physical activity.
If you have good exercise endurance, you probably have good cardiorespiratory fitness and a healthy heart and lungs. If you get winded with minimal exertion and peter out after a few minutes of exercise, you need to get in shape. Low cardiorespiratory fitness is associated with a higher risk of not only heart and lung disease but also premature death from all causes. In fact, the American Heart Association (AHA) has called it as significant a risk factor as smoking, hypertension, high cholesterol, and diabetes.
Endurance, aerobic, or cardio exercises like walking, jogging, swimming, etc., are the best way to improve your cardiorespiratory fitness—and your heart health, lung capacity, and pulmonary function. Before beginning an exercise program, talk to your doctor, start slowly, and build up gradually.
Air Purifiers Are a Must
There is a strong connection between air quality and the health of your lungs. Smoke, dust, vehicle and industrial emissions, household chemicals, mold, and other pollutants cause airway and lung irritation and exacerbate asthma, allergies, and COPD.
Air pollution also affects your cardiovascular system. Fine particulate matter—tiny airborne particles, some of them 30 times smaller than the diameter of a hair— get deep into your lungs and enter your bloodstream. This has been linked not only with difficulty breathing and decreased lung function but also with heart attacks, irregular heartbeat, and increased risk of death.
Do your best to avoid obvious sources of pollution. A high-quality HEPA filter air purifier helps remove pollutants, including the fine particulates that are particularly harmful. Placing air purifiers in areas where you spend the most time is highly recommended for individuals with respiratory problems, but it’s not a bad idea for everyone to have one in the bedroom to support overall lung health.
Plants also do a decent job of removing airborne pollutants. Spider plants, peace lilies, English ivy, and other common houseplants help clean the air—plus they brighten up your home and your spirit.
Best Diet for Healthy Lungs
Did you know that what you eat affects the health of your lungs? Research has linked a diet rich in fish, fruits, vegetables, and healthy oils—and avoidance of processed and refined foods, sweets, and sugary beverages—with better lung function.
If this diet looks familiar, it’s because it is similar to the heart-healthy Pan-Asian Modified Mediterranean (PAMM) Diet I recommend. These foods are therapeutic for all aspects of your health. Their abundance of antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, and essential fatty acids help curb oxidative stress and inflammation, which are underlying factors in most diseases.
Also, make sure you drink plenty of fluids. Staying well-hydrated helps thin mucus, reduce inflammation, and relax the blood vessels and airways. Coffee, in moderation, can also help to open up the airways.
Finally, don’t overeat. Large meals—as well as sugars, refined carbohydrates, and other foods that cause bloating—expand the abdomen and restrict the movement of the diaphragm, which can hinder breathing.
Supplements for Healthy Lungs
A number of nutritional supplements address inflammation and oxidative stress, as well as excess mucus production and an overactive immune response, which also contribute to respiratory problems.
- Magnesium: This mineral plays an important role in supporting lung structure and function. Just as it helps relax the smooth muscles of the arteries and improves blood flow and blood pressure, magnesium also helps open the airways for easier breathing.
- Quercetin: The antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and detoxifying properties of quercetin make it a terrific supplement for lung, heart, and immune health. It’s also great for allergies because it suppresses the release of histamine, which causes allergic symptoms.
- Boswellia: Another natural anti-inflammatory, boswellia helps reduce the response to allergens and the effects of pollutants in the lungs.
- Black seed oil: Numerous studies have shown that oils extracted from black cumin seed enhance lung function and improve symptoms of seasonal allergies.
- Andrographis paniculata: This herb has an honored place in traditional medicine for boosting immune function and treating respiratory problems, including seasonal allergies.
- Omega-3s: In addition to reducing inflammation, studies suggest that omega-3 fatty acids protect the lungs and blood vessels against the damaging effects of air pollution.
The Bottom Line
With every breath, your lungs take in oxygen. Every beat of your heart sends that oxygen coursing through your blood vessels to cells and tissues where it is used to generate life-sustaining energy. Neither of these systems can function properly without the other.
The good news is that all the therapies we’ve discussed for supporting lung function also support your cardiovascular system, directly or indirectly—and optimal health depends on both.