Nearly all of us take the act of breathing for granted. For most of us, it’s something that we don’t even notice. But for millions of adults and children, taking a deep breath of air is a struggle and always appreciated. With the rise of environmental toxins and other irritants in the air we breathe, it is easily understood that more and more people are dealing with poor lung and respiratory health.
An unhealthy respiratory system deprives the body of the most important nutrient of all – oxygen. Organs and tissues cannot function properly without adequate amounts of oxygen. Furthermore, a poorly functioning respiratory system puts people at risk for developing secondary health issues and increases the need for a strong, healthy immune system.
The respiratory system is a group of organs and tissues – not just the lungs. The main parts of the respiratory system are the airways, the lungs and linked blood vessels, and the muscles that enable breathing.
A combination of nutrients, botanicals, and essential oils can address the overall health of the main parts of the respiratory system and provide underlying support for the immune system.
HOW WE BREATHE
The lungs are located inside the rib cage. They are made of spongy, elastic tissue that stretches and constricts as we breathe. The trachea and the bronchi are the airways that bring air into the lungs; they are made of smooth muscle and cartilage, which allows the airways to constrict and expand. The lungs and airways bring in oxygen-enriched air and get rid of waste carbon dioxide made by the cells. When we inhale, the diaphragm and the intercostal muscles (muscles between the ribs) contract and expand the chest cavity, which allows air to flow in through the airways and inflate the lungs. When we exhale, the diaphragm and intercostal muscles relax and the chest cavity gets smaller, which forces air to flow from the lungs and out of the airways to the outside air.
As we breathe air in, it goes into the trachea and continues down through the larynx until it reaches the bronchi. From here, air passes into each lung. The air then follows the thousands of smaller, thinner branches called the bronchioles. These tubes end in bunches of tiny round air sacs called alveoli. Each of these air sacs is covered in a mesh of tiny blood vessels called capillaries. These capillaries facilitate the delivery of oxygen to the blood and the removal of carbon dioxide from the blood.
ANTIOXIDANTS AND OTHER NUTRIENTS
The lungs exist in an oxygen-rich environment, which requires balance between the toxicity of free radicals and the protective qualities of antioxidants. It is known that an increase in oxidative stress, caused by free radicals, can initiate dysfunction of the lungs. It is this process that makes cigarette smoking so dangerous for the respiratory system, because it creates an imbalance between free radicals and antioxidants. Antioxidants are the lungs’ first line of defense against free radicals.
Vitamin C is arguably the most important water soluble antioxidant found in the respiratory system. It is well-known that smokers and the children of smokers have far lower levels of vitamin C than non-smokers and the children of non-smokers. Cigarette smoke depletes the body of respiratory vitamin C. Vitamin C works in the respiratory system by protecting the airways against the effects of irritants like sulfur oxides from factories, pollen, cigarette smoke, and pathogens. These substances cause increased oxidative stress which can lead to a narrowing of the airways.
Vitamin B6 is another nutrient that is beneficial for those dealing with lung health issues. The body requires vitamin B6 for normal functioning of more than 60 different enzymes, some of which are directly involved in the respiratory system. Although extreme deficiencies of vitamin B6 may be rare, volumes of research demonstrate the importance of vitamin B6 in numerous health conditions. Clinical studies utilizing vitamin B6 supplementation show that it supports overall lung function and decreases the severity of wheezing and chest tightness even though no deficiency is apparent. For those people on conventional prescription medications, such as theophylline, to treat certain respiratory disorders, vitamin B6 supplementation is quite important. Theophylline depresses levels of the active form of vitamin B6 in the body.
Magnesium is a cofactor in over 300 biochemical processes in the body, and is critically important to the contraction/relaxation state of smooth muscle. Low magnesium enhances the contraction of smooth muscle tissue, while higher magnesium levels promote relaxation. Because the muscles of the respiratory system impact how the lungs expand, therefore, the capacity to trap air, it is important to provide these muscles with adequate amounts of magnesium. Studies show that dietary magnesium intake is directly related to lung function and the occurrence of airway hyperactivity and wheezing.
SUPPORTING HEALTHY LUNG FUNCTION
The lung tissues and the tubes within them need to remain elastic and spongy in order to work properly. The elasticity of the lungs, the bronchi and the bronchioles allows air to pass through easily and fully. A number of herbal supplements can provide specific support for the various components of the lungs beyond antioxidant protection, and quite a few of them stem from Ayurvedic medicine.
Adhatoda vasica is known as Vasaka in Ayurveda. It has been used in Ayurvedic medicine for over 2,000 years. This small evergreen shrub has a rich tradition of use to promote the health of the respiratory system. The active constituents of this herb are alkaloids, flavonoids and essential oils. Several studies, both in vitro and in vivo have been conducted on Adhatoda vasica. These studies demonstrate the plant’s ability to promote healthy bronchial muscle function; moreover, studies demonstrate that Adhatoda vasica also has anti-spasmodic activity in the lungs.
Tylophora indica (also called Tylophora asthmatica) is another Ayurvedic herb whose beneficial properties have been known since ancient times. The leaves, root powder and the root bark have been used traditionally for respiratory health. It has been the subject of many clinical investigations, to include double-blind, placebo controlled studies. The conclusions of these studies show that Tylophora indica also promotes normal function of the smooth muscle tissue in the respiratory system. Detailed lung function studies with Tylophora indica show that this plant produces significant benefits for lung function. These results were based on a number of lung function tests to include measurements of volume and air flow rate.
Phlegm, the mucosal secretions of the respiratory system, is a normal and required substance for healthy respiratory function. However, when the lungs are irritated, phlegm can accumulate and cause obstructions within the airways. This accumulation of phlegm provides an environment for bacterial growth. Certain herbs can promote healthy mucosal secretions and promote clear respiratory passages.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine, Fritillaria thunbergii is a common ingredient found in phlegm-resolving formulas. It is believed to affect the lung meridians and is used to support healthy lung function. Research on Fritillaria thunbergii shows that the active compounds of the plant promote normal mucosal secretions in the lungs and healthy clearing of the respiratory passageways. Ginger root is another common ingredient found in the phlegm-resolving formulas of Traditional Chinese Medicine. It provides a warming quality to the body which benefits those dealing with what is referred to as cold phlegm. The ancient writings of Chinese medicine often combine warming and cooling herbs to gain the best benefits in resolving phlegm.
Mullein is a very beneficial herbal supplement for the respiratory system. It is an approved herb in the German Commission E monographs, which recognizes it for its positive effects on a wide range of respiratory issues. It has demulcent action in the lungs and promotes normal mucosal secretions. Furthermore, mullein supports the body’s clearing of phlegm from the lungs.
PROMOTING A HEALTHY INFLAMMATORY RESPONSE
Inflammation can cause serious issues for those dealing with lung health problems. Inflammation can deter the normal elastic qualities of the bronchial passageways and make breathing difficult. Thankfully, many herbs can help support a healthy inflammatory response in the body. The combination of ginger root, reishi mushroom, Adhatoda vasica and Tylphora indica provides powerful support for a normal inflammatory response by positively impacting numerous stages of the inflammation cascade and modulating the many different compounds that influence inflammation.
Ginger root is widely known for its positive impact on inflammation. The volatile oils of ginger root modulate the release of immune compounds, such as prostaglandins and enzymes that can cause inflammation. The polysaccharides found in reishi mushroom support a healthy histamine response. (The release of histamine and leukotrienes in the body promote inflammation of the airways.)
SUPPORTING THE IMMUNE SYSTEM
Immune sensitivities are known to cause airway obstruction in some people. While we want our immune systems to be strong, we don’t want them to overreact when our bodies come into contact with normally harmless compounds.
Reishi is a mushroom that has been used in the folk medicine of China and Japan for over 4,000 years. It has been known as the “mushroom of immortality” and the “ten-thousand-year mushroom” and is often listed in Chinese and Japanese medicinal texts as one of the most prized and respected herbs. Reishi has a strong tradition of use for its immune balancing and adaptogenic properties. Modern research has shown that reishi has several benefits in the immune system. As it pertains to respiratory health, reishi has the ability to modulate immune system function. In other words, it helps to balance and promote normal immune system function. Reishi essentially helps your body block an unwanted response to harmless compounds that, for some reason, the immune system has treated as harmful. These compounds can include dust, mold and other environmental irritants.
Reishi also helps the immune system in other regards. It promotes natural-killer cell activity in the body. These cells recognize pathogenic invaders, such as bacteria and viruses. It also promotes healthy production of white blood cells, particularly T-cells and macrophages. These particular benefits of reishi are important considering that many people suffering with poor lung health are susceptible to the consequences of a weak immune system.
Aromatherapy involves the use of essential oils from plants for health purposes. Essential oils have been used for therapeutic purposes for nearly six thousand years; this practice was led by the ancient Chinese, Indians, Egyptians, Greeks and Romans. Although essential oils are not exclusively inhaled as the term “aromatherapy” implies, in the case of lung and respiratory health, inhaling the vapors of a blend of essential oils is the most effective way to positively affect this body system.
Essential oils of cypress (Cupressus sempervirens) and sweet marjoram (Origanum majorana) were highly valued as medicines by ancient civilizations. They both have antispasmodic activity in the respiratory system and also promote clear airways within the lungs. Both oils have antimicrobial activity.
Niaouli essential oil (Melaleuca viridiflora) comes from the leaves of a tree related to the more commonly known tea tree. Niaouli oil is an approved herb in the German Commission E Monographs and is approved for uses in the respiratory system. This essential oil resolves phlegm in the respiratory passages and promotes healthy inflammatory pathways within the lungs. Like its cousin, niaouli oil has antimicrobial activity.
Red mandarin (Citrus reticulata) essential oil has slight antispasmodic activity, but its primary benefits come from its ability to decrease excitability and nervous tension. Both of these issues can create a tightening of the muscles, thus, decreasing overall lung capacity. The act of inhaling the vapors of red mandarin can offset these problems.
The lungs and the respiratory system are a complex set of organs in the body. Because they are constantly bombarded by environmental toxins and everyday exposures, like dust, the lungs and other parts of the respiratory system need strong and comprehensive nutritional support. Providing a blend of vitamins, minerals, herb and using complimentary aromatherapy ensures that respiratory health and underlying body systems are fully supported.
By Stacey Littlefield, Chief Formulator
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