You breathe in and out 15 to 25 times a minute, more when exercising and less when asleep. More than 22,000 breaths a day – that’s 8000 to 9000 litres of air. With each breath, oxygen travels through your bloodstream, fuelling your 37 trillion cells. Your lungs, quite simply, are keeping you alive. You don’t have to think about breathing, because your body’s autonomic nervous system controls it. If you hold your breath, your body will override this action, forcing you to release the breath and start breathing again
Lung Foundation Australia CEO Heather Allan believes it’s important for people to know that lung disease can affect anyone.
“We all have a picture in our mind of someone who has lung disease, but, in reality, lung disease doesn’t discriminate,” says Allan. “It affects the young, old,
male, female, smokers, former smokers and non-smokers.
“It may surprise people to learn that one in three women who have lung cancer are non-smokers while one in five people with the chronic lung disease COPD [chronic obstructive pulmonary disease] have never smoked.”
Lung disease commonly goes undiagnosed, as people are unaware of its symptoms.
“A key symptom to watch out for with lung disease is breathlessness on exertion, more than someone else your own age,” says Jennifer Alison, Professor of Respiratory Physiotherapy at the University of Sydney. “People shouldn’t just assume that it is normal to get more breathless during activities as they age.”
Symptoms tend to creep up slowly, and people automatically adjust their activities to accommodate or reduce symptoms rather than getting help. “Many people minimise the symptom by avoiding exercise, which makes them breathless, hence the importance of exercise. If you have trouble exercising due to shortness of breath, you should have it seen to,” advises associate professor Gregory King from The Woolcock Institute of Medical Research. Other symptoms to look out for include a cough that lasts more than three weeks, wheezing, chest tightness, increased mucus production and coughing up blood.
How to care for your lung health
The importance of exercise both for healthy people wanting to look after their lungs, and for those suffering with lung disease, can’t be overstated. “Exercise is by far the best physiotherapy for your lungs,” explains professor King.
Other than weight control, there is interest into how dietary factors may affect lung health. Although the impact of diet needs further study, accredited practising dietitians Jenna Obeid and Christie Emsley suggest some healthy approaches: “A high intake of fruit, vegetables and fish; low salt intake; restricted intake of trans-fats, foods rich in antioxidants, foods rich in magnesium (nuts, cereals, seeds, carrots, spinach and seafood); and an adequate intake of essential omega-3 fatty acids (found in oily fish, shellfish, soy and leafy vegetables).” This way of eating is in line with an anti-inflammatory diet, and may help to manage airway inflammation, which has been linked to lung diseases such as COPD and asthma.
There has been evidence to suggest a possible link between a diet rich in cured meats – hot dogs, deli meats, bacon – and COPD. “The results of current scientific studies that have already been conducted show that people eating large quantities of cured meats could potentially increase risk of developing COPD or increase risk of COPD exacerbation,” explains Obeid. However, she stresses that future studies will help to conclude whether or not this is actually the case.
But there is no doubt not smoking is the most important way to keep lungs healthy. Smoking exposes the lungs to cancer-causing chemicals and damages their cleaning and repair system by destroying the cilla (tiny hairs) that line them. This allows germs and chemicals from cigarette smoke to remain in the lungs increasing the risk of disease.
As well as second-hand smoke, there’s mounting evidence that third-hand smoke could be harmful. The good news is the lungs of an ex-smoker can fully recover,
as long as no real structural damage has occurred. “The earlier you stop, the more likely you will benefit from quitting and the greater the long-term benefit,” explains professor King.
It’s also important to protect the lungs from harmful airborne particles. Asthma and Respiratory Foundation NZ advises we should: make our homes smoke-free, use an electric or flued gas heater, limit the use of strong-smelling cleaners and sprays, dust with a damp cloth, vacuum regularly and air the house regularly.
Read more: Top Foods For Lung Health