Respiratory Support Diet
by Sue Kira, Naturopath & Clinical Nutritionist
The Respiratory Support Diet is a support, but certainly not a cure for respiratory conditions. Different types of lung issues that the diet may assist with include, but are not limited to:
- Asthma (see also Asthma & Respiratory Conditions Diet)
- Emphysema & Mesothelioma
- COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease)
- Persistent postviral/bacterial cough (see also Immune & Illness Support Diet)
There are many aspects to consider when considering the best approach to support respiratory systems. Each condition has unique differences that need the guidance of your health practitioner.
Lung conditions can go through different phases, such as infection, allergy, coughing/wheezing, mucus congestion and inflammation. The Respiratory Support Diet helps to reduce inflammation and mucus, lower allergy risk (on a gut level which can help respiratory allergies), support the immune system and the gut (80% of our immune system is in the gut), and help to build healthy connective tissues in the lungs.
Each person is different as is each condition so there may be times, such as with acute infection or inflammation, that you may need more specific support. You may even need a Leaky Gut Diet or the Immune & Illness Support Diet at different times depending on what is going on with your health. Seek the advice of your health care provider to understand which diet is best for you, along with any other treatment plans.
Our lungs are made of hundreds of thousands of branching tubes that end in tiny air sacs called alveoli. To keep up with the oxygen demands of our body, there are over three hundred million alveoli in our lungs. If stretched out, they would roughly cover the surface area of a tennis court.
Our lungs are remarkable and make up a large part of our immune system.
Pollutants and microbes are captured by mucus in the lungs and shuttled upward by tiny cilia (like little hairs) for us to cough out, sneeze or swallow.
We need to care for our lungs by avoiding inhaling harmful substances both indoors and outdoors. For example, smoking destroys the cilia that help to remove infection and pollutants, resulting in clogged airways. Anything that we can smell and even some things that we can’t smell is in our lungs via the air we breathe in.
Eating healthy food and exercise are equally important to keep your lungs clear, healthy, and not overburdened. Fresh foods are the best way to get the enzymes, vitamins, and minerals needed to keep you breathing easily.
Move your body daily – cardiovascular exercise to elevate your heart rate will help to strengthen your lungs and keep the oxygen supply up. You may not be able to do a full cardio work out, but even raising your heart rate a little will help. A gentle walk around the house or block until you can build up to more substantial exercise is better than nothing.
WARNING: difficulty breathing can also be a sign of cardio-vascular disease, so please ensure that you have a full medical examination and get the OK from your doctor before embarking on any exercise regime.
Inflammation and your immune system
Your immune system attacks anything in your body that it recognizes as foreign such as invading microbes, plant pollens, or chemicals. Any damage to the body also triggers the same response (our immune trigger). This process is called inflammation.
Intermittent bouts of inflammation directed at truly threatening invaders protect your health. But when the inflammation persists day in and day out, even without foreign invaders present, inflammation can become your enemy.
If you have permanent damage to your lungs such as with emphysema, mesothelioma or COPD, then the body is constantly attacking itself (the lung tissue) to repair the damage. Reducing this on-going inflammation can slow down the destruction of the tissue in your lungs.
Because inflammation can be a driving factor for lung complaints, an Inflammation Diet can be very helpful to support and look after your lung health.
When considering foods to reduce inflammation, what you leave out of your diet is often more important than what you add. More details follow along with how to avoid toxins. Avoiding toxins, even those that are not directly related to the lungs, gives the body a better chance to heal.
Antioxidants, friend or foe?
There is a lot of information available that confirms anti-oxidants are great for your health. While this is true, for people with lung damage it is a different story. Many people now take anti-oxidants as supplements, rather than simply getting them from their food. The extra concentration of these nutrients can be great to ward off certain infections and disease, but it can also backfire and accelerate the growth of certain cancerous tumours.
According to a recent study published in Science Translational Medicine, the consumption of high doses of antioxidants such as vitamin E (beta-carotene), lutein, lycopene, selenium, vitamins A and C, and acetylcysteine may speed up the progression of lung cancer in smokers and people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) – a lung disease that is often triggered by smoking. These studies on lung cancer patients showed that the antioxidants harmed, rather than helped the patients, by accelerating the progression of the disease.
If you have never been a smoker, then this information may not apply to you. But if you are, or have ever been a smoker, then your risk of getting lung cancer increases. The above antioxidants are meant to protect the body from disease by preventing cell damage caused by molecules known as free radicals. The protection they initially intend to provide can backfire for those who already have cancerous or pre-cancerous cells in the lungs.
If the body detects any cell DNA damage, say from smoking for example, it releases a tumour-suppressing protein called p53. In the scientific research, the antioxidants not only cleared free radicals, but also prevented the release of the p53, thereby actually promoting cancer cells escaping from detection in the body, allowing it to multiplying quicker than usual.
Today there should be no doctor, naturopath or health practitioner who would prescribe anti-oxidant supplements to anyone who has smoked at any time, due to the increased risk of lung cancer.
Some reports throw food and supplements together into the one wagon. But in my (and many other’s) opinion, nutrients from food sources are there to help us heal naturally. Makes sense to me! See the Antioxidant Rich Diet
What has the gut got to do with your lungs? A lot!
The whole body works in synchronisation. When one part of the body is sick, you can be sure that the rest of the body knows about it and will do whatever it can to bring back balance. But this can also work in reverse, where if one area is unhealthy then that can affect other parts of the body.
You have receptors and neurotransmitters in your gut, just like within your brain. Even though our white blood cells, bone marrow and lymphatic system supports our immune system, our gut holds 70-80% of our immune system.
The food that passes down our throats has germs like bacteria, viruses, parasites, foreign particles, and more that our immune system must deal with. Our immune system is our first line of defence, rather like the front line in war zones.
If what we eat or drink is not in harmony with our body then our immune system will be so busy working on the front line, that there will be little energy left for it to work elsewhere in the body.
Similarly, if the liver is so busy detoxifying the rubbish we eat, drink, or breathe in, then it too cannot function properly to do all its jobs such as produce the enzymes needed to digest food and break down fibrotic tissue, damaged cells and more.
My point is that every part of your body needs to be as healthy as possible so it can focus its attention on pressing matters…like healing your lungs.
Many years ago when I ran a detoxification clinic, I came across research about gut healing to get rid of asthma. They even called it a cure, but I don’t like to use that word unless I know it will help everyone with that condition. The theory was that if you used Aloe Vera juice in large quantities (1 litre per day) then you would rid yourself of asthma.
I did have a few clients who were willing to give it a go (who had not resolved their asthma from other methods). We ensured they always kept their inhalers handy and they drank the Aloe Vera juice daily, along with a diet that was gluten, grain, dairy, and sugar free and they had great success.
I realised later that it was because they were healing their ‘leaky gut’. Intestinal permeability or leaky gut is somewhat of a new kid on the block compared to what was around 20+ years ago, but essentially, the treatment I recommended was the same as for leaky gut.
Now I’m not saying to drink copious amounts of Aloe Vera, but what I am saying is that healing the gut can make a difference, even if your asthma is due to airborne allergies. I have treated hay-fever and sinus from pollen allergy the same way. Treat the gut and boost things like zinc for the immune system and in a lot of cases their allergies go away, or so it seems. At the very least their body seemed less reactive to the pollens etc.
Warning – some people can have a salycilate sensitivity and aloe has a high salycilate content.
In the case of conditions such as asthma, it’s amazing how many kids and adults have fixed it with a diet that heals their gut!
It will take a while before we know and understand everything about the human body but one thing that seems to come up with just about any health condition is to look after the gut and make sure you have healthy microbiome (good levels of a diversity of friendly bacteria).
If you do some research you can quickly validate this information. So, doesn’t it make sense to heal and look after your gut?
It’s all about making the whole body strong and vital so that it can do its job of cleaning up any mess or damage made along the way.
Although there are many drugs and herbal/nutritional anti-inflammatory supportive potions, lotions, pills, and powders, you can increase their effectiveness and better support the body during times of inflammation with the right foods. Remember that when there is damaged tissue in the body, including the lungs, there will be a degree of inflammation.
Choosing foods that are pro-inflammatory will not only make inflammation worse, but you could also accelerate the inflammatory process and potentially turn a simple inflammation into a disease. This can occur when the immune system creates ‘Auto-Antibodies’ to clean up the damaged body part. These auto-antibodies are what create auto-immune diseases.
Generally, a clean (no additives), natural, unprocessed diet that is high in vegetables, fish, unprocessed oils and some nuts and seeds with a few good fruits is considered the best diet that is anti-inflammatory. Some people also need to look at histamine as a source of inflammation (more below).
But first, let’s look at foods and substances that are pro-inflammatory (increase inflammation) and anti-inflammatory (decrease inflammation).
Pro inflammatory foods and substances to avoid
When we use the word ‘pro’ as in pro-inflammatory, it may sound like that’s a positive…but it’s not. Pro-inflammatory foods and substances promote inflammation in the body which is bad for our general health, particularly for those with respiratory issues.
Here is a run-down of what to avoid…
Dairy products can congest the lungs and the body in general. For hundreds of my clients with asthma and other respiratory symptoms, just taking them off dairy made a huge improvement to their symptoms.
It seems that if someone has been tested and found to not have a direct allergy from dairy, milk, or lactose, they are told to just keep eating it. However, it’s not always about allergies. Because I have seen these products generate mucus in so many people, I really don’t know why they are still promoted as healthy food.
I may upset many by stating my views as these foods are high in calcium, but the bottom line is that they are congestive to the body and so many people react to them – but not in an obvious way like the diarrhoea of a lactose intolerant person.
My suggestion is to give up all dairy products (which includes cheese) for a month (it takes that long to get it out of your system) and then see how you feel. There are many healthyternatives to dairy such as fresh nut milks.
Refined and artificial sugars and fruit juices
Avoid any processed and artificial sugars and fruit juices, especially from a bottle, as these generally contain concentrated sugar which can affect your blood sugar levels which negatively affect your immune system and hormones. Some great alternatives are stevia, honey, or maple syrup in small amounts and whole fruits or blended fruit smoothies.
Avoid grains such as wheat, rye, barley (gluten containing) and white rice, as these can be very acidic, inflammatory, mucus forming and can react with your immune system and create inflammation.
Studies have shown that caffeine can increase inflammation.
Foods which are altered to be fat reduced or fat-free are usually highly processed and high in sugar. Choose foods as nature intended. Our bodies need good fats to be healthy.
Grain fed cattle can contain high levels of added hormones and antibiotics which are toxic to the body.
Large deep-water fish
Avoid large deep-water fish such as mahi-mahi, tuna, swordfish, and Chilean sea bass due to their potential concentrations of mercury. When choosing salmon, avoid farmed salmon and choose wild salmon instead if you can get it. Farmed salmon contains antibiotics and food dyes and are often fed pellets made from chicken feathers and bones.
Certain personal care items
Personal care items such as facial products, shampoos, conditioners, sunscreens, repellents, toothpaste and perfumes are just a few of the items that may contain toxic chemicals that could affect your health. With many of these items you can detect a chemical smell and if so, then it’s in your lungs, creating irritation and inflammation (and even for some you can’t smell). There are plenty of great alternatives that are chemical free. You may need to experiment to find what suits you.
Un-purified water can contain a host of chemicals including chlorine, fluoride, bromide, and heaps of other chemicals used to balance the Ph of the water and prevent water born disease like parasites and bacteria. Avoid water from inferior plastic bottles as some of these leach chemicals into the water.
My son used to refuse to drink water from the water purifier as he said it took too long and didn’t want to wash his glass after use, so he would drink straight from the tap, believing it to be fine. That was until his first day on the job as an electrician for the water board when he came home after work. I caught him drinking from the filter and asked him why he changed his mind. With a horrified look on his face, his said, “Do you realise what they put into our water!?” “Yes”, I replied and smiled 🙂
Anti-Inflammatory foods to reduce inflammation
Studies have shown that organic produce has more nutritional value. Where possible, chose organic or spray free fruits and vegetables, as conventional produce contains residues of harmful herbicides and pesticides which are toxic to your body. Similarly, it’s best to buy organic meats or at least grass fed if possible.
Free-range grass-fed animals
Grass fed meats are a great source of essential fatty acids, lower in saturated fat (compared to grain fed) and a great source of protein.
Grass-fed have higher ratio of Omega 3 to Omega 6 ratio of fats in their system, whereas conventional raised grain-fed animals have a higher Omega 6 pro-inflammatory ratio of fats. For healthy lungs, it is much better to eat meats richer in the Omega 3 fats.
If you find free-range, organic, or grass-fed chickens (or other meats) too expensive, consider having it less often or serve up smaller portions.
Cold water fish such as wild Alaskan salmon, cod, and Alaskan halibut contain good levels of healthy fats, proteins, vital minerals, and vitamin A, along with healthy Omega 3 fats to help reduce inflammation. Fish caught wild in pollution free waters are also beneficial.
Purify your water and drink plenty of it.
Grains are filled with fibre, important vitamins and immune supporting properties which can help the body stabilise blood sugar. Choose whole grain rice or whole grain rice pasta, quinoa, and brown rice. There are also plenty of great seeds and nuts which contain lots of healthy nutrients.
Specific lung healthy foods
Garlic and Onions
These pungent foods help to reduce inflammation and fight infection.
Peppers are filled with capsaicin, the spicy compound with the ‘kick’. Capsaicin improves blood flow, stimulates mucus membranes, and fights infection.
Cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, and kale are rich in chlorophyll which cleans and builds blood.
This spice is related to ginger with many of the same benefits. It also contains curcumin, a compound that encourages the destruction of cancer cells and is anti-inflammatory.
Especially good at cleansing the lungs.
Beans, Seeds, and Nuts
These all contain rich amounts of magnesium, a mineral that contributes to healthy lung function.
Bone broth & jelly
Both contain gelatine – a collagen supportive nutrient. Our lungs are made up of connective tissue consisting of collagen and elastin, so gelatine from bone broth and jelly can help to strengthen connective tissue and is also a good gut repair nutrient. Be sure to use sugar free jelly.
There are times when some of the healing foods in the diet for respiratory support such as the bone broths, jelly, nuts, or tinned fish, for example, may make things worse by inducing an asthma attack or increased coughing. This is a sign that you may have histamine intolerance and you need to eliminate foods high in histamine. It is rare, but worth looking out for.
To see a list of histamine foods to help determine if you have noticed any of these triggers, go to the article about the Low Histamine Diet. If you feel that you do have reactions to some of these foods, consult with your health practitioner as you may find the that the Low Histamine Diet feels better for you.
In essence, the focus of a Respiratory Support Diet is anti-inflammatory foods, gut healing foods, immune supportive foods, and specific nutrients, herbs and spices that help heal damage in the lungs. The gut healing foods also help the connective tissue of the lungs to repair.
Before you commence your diet, see your medical or health care professional for qualified guidance about what foods and supplements are best for your body. While on the diet do not stop any medications or supplements previously prescribed unless advised otherwise by your medical or health care professional.
During the early stages of a new diet, you may experience symptoms such as fatigue, headaches, or body aches, which may occur because your body is detoxifying. However, if you are unsure about a symptom at any time, check immediately with your medical or health care professional.
Client names and identifying information changed
This is really a double case study. A retired husband and wife came to see me a few years back. They had a great time travelling around Australia for many months and were in good health until they visited their children and grandchildren. The kids had a bronchial infection that Margaret and Tom both contracted.
Initially, they didn’t think much of it because the kids appeared to get over it quickly. But the cough stayed with Margaret and Tom, even after they didn’t feel sick anymore. This went on for weeks until they saw their doctor who promptly put them onto a double course of antibiotics. With no change in their cough, they continued their road trip.
Several months passed and because they were both still coughing, they saw another doctor who ran some tests. They had chest x-rays, MRI’s, CT scans and more blood tests.
Margaret’s results showed lowered white blood cells and low-grade inflammation. Tom’s tests showed inflammation, scarring and congestion on his lungs consistent with COPD (congestive obstructive pulmonary disorder) however many years before, Tom smoked cigarettes for about 25yrs.
They were prescribed cortisone tablets to help reduce the inflammation which may have triggered the coughing, but after for two weeks with no changes to their consistent coughing they stopped taking them. They continued their travels, still feeling ok apart from the constant coughing which was sometimes a dry cough, but mostly on the wet productive side (mucus coming up).
It was a year since their initial lung infection when they came to see me. I recommended they first visit a doctor to be re-checked, with similar tests to the previous ones to determine whether there had been any changes or their conditions had deteriorated.
Their tests showed that Tom’s lungs were a little worse, while Margaret’s white blood cells were still low and her inflammation was a little higher. That doctor suggested more antibiotics and cortisone, but they didn’t want to do that as it didn’t work before, so they came back to see if I could help.
We already discussed their diet on their previous visit but they didn’t want to make any changes until they saw the doctor – but now we needed to see what could be done to support the healing process.
Even though they considered themselves to have a healthy diet, their food and lifestyle choices reflected somewhat on their extended holiday travels. While their diet may have been healthy compared to other ‘nomads’ they met on their travels, there was certainly room for improvement.
Apparently 4pm beer o’clock is common with travellers. This is where they get together in a common area with their preferred alcoholic drink with shared nibbles of foods like cheese, nuts, dips, crackers, lollies, cakes or whatever they felt like that day.
Breakfast for them was usually cereal with milk and sugar and full milk coffee. Morning tea and afternoon tea were much the same with cake and full milk coffee. They usually skipped lunch due to the 4pm meeting, then sometimes had a late dinner of salad with meat, chicken or fish.
I spoke about inflammatory and anti-inflammatory foods and drinks and how it is difficult it is for the body to heal when it doesn’t have the right ingredients to do its job – and particularly how pro-inflammatory foods just keep driving and increasing the inflammation.
I asked them how committed they were to make the necessary changes to get rid of their coughs. They told me they were fed up with constantly coughing and having to explain to others that they weren’t going to pass on an infection, not to mention they were worried about developing lung cancer if things didn’t improve.
One doctor told them that this was possible if things didn’t soon change. One of their new blood tests showed some auto-immune markers that the doctor wanted to ‘keep an eye on’, and although not fully developed it might get worse over time.
So not only did they have the threat of lung cancer, but also an auto-immune disorder as their body was relentlessly trying to break down lung tissue in order to rebuild good tissue.
After our discussion, Margaret and Tom decided that it would be best to rent a house and stay away from the scene of merriment for a while to get their health in order and go travelling again when things were better.
The diet I put them on was gluten, dairy, grain, and sugar free, cutting out alcohol, coffee and additives of any kind including bacon, ham, and smallgoods, which had been a large part of their 4pm munchies. These foods contain all sorts of additives detrimental to the lungs.
The diet was anti-inflammatory and immune supportive. They were encouraged to eat plenty of fish, which Tom loved as he enjoyed fishing, and to temporarily cut out red meat, yet eat foods such as pasture fed chicken and turkey once or twice a week. They also consumed lots of turmeric made into an anti-inflammatory tea.
Initially I prescribed a supplement that was a mix of papain (from green papaya), bromelain (from pineapples) and protease (protein digestive enzymes) as well as a turmeric supplement. We began to restore their gut health with some strong probiotics which was followed by probiotic and prebiotic foods to encourage the growth of the good bacteria.
I also prescribed some magnesium rich foods and supplements to relax the lung muscles and suggested that they eat a lot of green papaya salad to get the papain digestive enzymes to break down fibrotic tissues in their lungs.
After a few weeks they found the supplements were too expensive, so they committed to continue with the diet I advised. I checked their progress every month and gradually their coughing reduced. Within three months they only coughed at night and after six months they had no cough at all.
After 12 months in the rented house they went back on the road again and revisited the doctor who organised their first round of tests. He was astounded and said he couldn’t believe their results and felt that he would have been diagnosing something much more sinister by then.
Margaret’s results were completely healthy, and Tom’s went from a diagnosis of COPD to mild scarring on the lungs. They both continued their diet so their healing could continue and both felt the extra vitality this had given them.
Better still was how they shared this information whenever they had 4pm gatherings (not beer o’clock for them anymore) with fellow campers. Tom and Margaret brought along healthy snacks and drank mineral water with frozen blueberries, which also ‘rubbed off’ on a few other happy campers and some of them also changed their diet for the better.