How to Strengthen Your Lungs
- Written By:Dr. Will Cole
The average adult takes anywhere between 17,000 - 20,000 breaths per day. Needless to say, breathing is a huge part of your everyday life, but most of us don’t understand exactly what is happening in our bodies with each breath.
Every time you breathe, your lungs take in oxygen that passes through your bloodstream to be delivered to your cells. During this process your lungs also dispose of carbon dioxide to ensure it doesn’t build up in your body. Carbon dioxide is extremely toxic at high amounts and every one of our trillions of cells that make up each of our organs rely on oxygen to function.
Basically, without our lungs, we wouldn’t be able to function. But there’s not a lot of focus until recently on the importance of lung health and how to actually support your lungs. As a functional medicine practitioner who consults people around the world, I aim to shed light on the various ways in which we can optimize our health for a thriving life. So let’s take a look at how to protect our lungs and how we can elevate their health.
Things that harm our lungs
1. Air pollution
There are two kinds of air pollution: natural such as wildfire smoke, dust, pollen, and mold, and man-made, such as factory emissions. Both of these can do a number on your lungs. Mold for example has been shown to cause pulmonary fibrosis (lung scarring) which can make you more likely to develop lung cancer.
2. Environmental toxins
Smoking is the leading cause of lung cancer in the United States, with 80-90% of lung cancers triggered by smoking. But even if you aren’t a smoker secondhand smoke can increase a person’s risk of lung cancer by 20-30%. And that’s just smoking. A lot of things we are exposed to on a daily basis contain toxic chemicals that we breathe straight into our lungs. These can include simple fumes from everyday items such as beauty products (hair spray, nail salons) or gasoline.
Certain people can be more predisposed than others to lung problems. While certainly not the main factor for most people, it’s estimated that 8% of lung cancers are hereditary. In fact, studies have found that certain genetic mutations can contribute to a higher risk of developing lung cancer.
EGFR There are 10 types of EGFR gene mutations linked to lung cancer. This gene alters the production of a protein known as epidermal growth factor receptor that is responsible for helping cells respond well to their environment including the exposure of toxins in the lungs. This mutation is most common in women and non-smokers.
KRAS This gene is responsible for production of the K-Ras protein that signals cells how to function. The KRAS gene mutation can occur alongside EGFR mutations and close to 20% of those diagnosed with lung cancer also have this mutation.
ALK This gene is also responsible for producing a protein that helps facilitate cell growth and division.
BRCA2 This mutation is also associated with breast cancer, and studies have shown that those with this mutation also have a higher risk of lung cancer. It’s been shown as well that smokers who have this mutation are twice as likely to develop lung cancer compared to non-smokers with this same mutation.
That’s why it’s important to understand your genetics, and it's one of the labs we run at my functional medicine telehealth center. This helps us better understand your risk factors and how to adjust your lifestyle to mitigate these genes from expressing themselves. After all, studies have shown repeatedly that the majority of our health is up to lifestyle factors that you control (epigenetic) that determine gene expression.
Tips to improve lung health
Aerobic exercise such as walking or running gives your lungs a workout too and strengthens their function.
2. Breathing exercises
Not only do deep-breathing exercises help maintain oxygen levels, they can help strengthen your lungs and expand your lung capacity similarly to exercise.
3. Avoid lung irritants
While no one can avoid toxin exposure altogether, you can do your best to limit it as much as possible. Make the switch to natural hair sprays and nail polishes (the EWG has a great resource of clean beauty brands), give up any type of smoking that can further irritate your lungs, and limit your time as much as possible around those who smoke to avoid secondhand smoke.
4. Manage air pollution exposure
Just like toxins, air pollution can’t be avoided altogether but can it be mitigated. A great way to do this in your home or workplace is to invest in an air purifier. These work to filter out environmental pollutants such as smoke, dust, mold, and pollen from a single room.