Catching Breath

Natural remedies may help make life a little easier for people with COPD.

by Beverly Burmeier

April 2013

COPD: It’s an acronym that many people have heard of without knowing what it means. The letters stand for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, which refers to lung abnormalities that make breathing difficult. “It is serious because COPD was the third leading cause of death in the world from 2007 to 2010 and the second cause of disability in the US,” says William E. Randall, MD, medical director of The Lung Center at Lutherville Personal Physicians in Baltimore, Maryland.

COPD generally includes two distinct conditions. In emphysema shortness of breath results from damaged air sacs in the lungs; in chronic bronchitis increased mucus blocks the airway because of inflamed bronchial tubes.

Smoking is the primary cause of COPD—it rarely occurs among nonsmokers. But exposure to secondhand smoke, chemical fumes and air pollution over a long period of time can contribute to the severe respiratory problems seen in this disorder. Asthma and bronchiectasis, a progressive dilation of the lung’s airways, are other complications that occur with COPD.

Searching for Explanations

Scientists are trying to understand why some smokers develop COPD and others don’t. “COPD is a systemic disease, and we’re looking at genetic patterns to understand why some people are protected against smoke issues,” says Neil MacIntyre, Jr., MD, chief of clinical services for pulmonary and critical care medicine at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. Duke researchers are also studying the possibility that COPD may be an autoimmune disease, in which a dysfunctional immune system attacks the body’s own tissues.

Recent animal studies indicate a relationship between low levels of vitamin D and reduced lung function. Randall says that although additional research is needed, supplemental vitamin D could significantly improve lung health for some people.

Coping with COPD

While most COPD patients undergo conventional medical treatment, complementary therapies can help manage respiratory distress.

A breathing technique taken from yoga—breathing in through the nose and out through the mouth—may help open blocked airways, improve circulation and ease anxiety.

Massage also lessens stress in addition to easing pain and gently working the muscles involved in breathing. “Relaxation is an important part of dealing with any airway disease because it helps patients be in control of the disease and lowers incidence of hyperventilation and chest pains,” Randall says.

In most cases of COPD, exercise is beneficial because it lessens anxiety, builds strength and helps patients perform daily activities. Inactivity results in short-windedness and possible disability. A respiratory therapist can manage a rehabilitation program that monitors heart rate and oxygen level during exercise.

Exercise can also foster improved sleep. “Sleep is a challenge for patients with COPD,” says Hartmut Schneider, MD, PhD, assistant professor of pulmonary and critical care medicine at Johns Hopkins University Sleep Disorder Center in Baltimore. Already-low oxygen levels may drop even more at night and obstructive sleep apnea (in which breathing stops repeatedly) can interrupt sleep. Broken sleep weakens the immune system, leaves patients fatigued and inhibits exercise.

“Avoid sleeping pills that slow breathing even more. Patients with obstructive sleep apnea may find relief using a CPAP device,” Schneider says, referring to machines that keep the airway open at night. Supplements that help promote restful sleep include melatonin, 5-HTP and lactium, as well as relaxing herbs such as passionflower, hops and chamomile.

Restless leg syndrome (RLS) and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), conditions common among COPD patients, may reduce time spent asleep. Gentle stretching, along with the use of heating pads, may help calm restless legs; magnesium may help. (Low levels of iron and folate have also been linked to RLS.) Licorice, an herb traditionally used to support both respiration and digestion, may help ease heartburn; practitioners often suggest licorice be taken in the form of DGL. The amino acid glutamine is also recommended to soothe heartburn and deter ulcer development.

Paying attention to diet can pay dividends for people with COPD. “Good nutrition is important and can help slow muscle wasting,” says MacIntyre. Fresh produce contains antioxidant phytonutrients that fight a range of cell-damaging free radicals. Omega-3 fatty acids, such as those found in fish or krill, flax seeds and walnuts are recommended for COPD patients. “Black tea contains theophylline, a brochodilator, which may provide relief from a tight chest and help open airway passages,” Randall says. Vitamin C may also help improve lung function. (To avoid medication interactions, consult a practitioner before using complementary remedies.)

COPD can’t be cured, but a wide-ranging treatment program can help provide relief.

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