Lung cancer is the #1 cancer-related cause of death for men and women in the United States. Shockingly, about two-thirds of all cases are in individuals who have either never smoked or quit smoking. A rise in pollution also seriously affects the health of our global population. Nearly 37 million Americans live with preexisting conditions, such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a chronic inflammatory disease. Education and support are crucial to improving the quality of life for all humanity.
Let’s start by exploring each area of the respiratory system and discussing how we can improve our lung health, breathe better, and live better.
The Respiratory System
The respiratory system consists of the nose, throat, mouth, larynx, trachea, bronchi, bronchioles, and lungs. Each element serves a specific function in the internal exchange of oxygen and carbon. Our body requires oxygen to carry out its normal functions. It is the basis of all life on earth. Therefore, when the respiratory system is operating at a less than optimal level, it can throw our entire body into a state of distress.
The process begins with an individual’s innate desire to inhale. Air enters through the nose or mouth, travels down the throat through the larynx and trachea, and enters the lungs in the bronchi. The bronchi divide, much like a tree branch, into smaller bronchi and bronchioles. Bronchioles have alveoli (tiny air sacs), which is where the actual exchange of gases takes place. The individual then finishes the process with an exhale of carbon dioxide, and the cycle begins again.
The preferred way to breathe is through the nose, as air is filtered through the nasal cavity, warmed, and humidified for optimal quality. Millennium Smiles explains, “Breathing through your nose allows you to take deeper breaths – which engages the lower lungs. When the lower lungs become active, they pump out more oxygen to the rest of your body. More oxygen means more support [for] your cells and maintains healthy tissue and organ function.”
When we spend most of our time breathing through the mouth, it encourages undergrowth of the maxillae, changes our jaw alignment, and can lead to sleep-disordered breathing (SDB).
In addition to the above, the respiratory system is also responsible for sound production, olfactory assistance (smell), and protection of the body’s systems through filtration. When we speak, air runs over the vocal cords, leading to sound production. The vocal cords are responsible for our tone and pitch. Individuals with longer, looser cords tend to have deeper voices versus those with shorter, tighter cords. The pleural cavity (chest) shape and amount of air passing through also influence the sound produced.
The airway and breathing are essential to life as we know it. Without it, living organisms would die, as their organs require oxygen to function. Therefore, when there is an issue with the airway, it causes a great deal of concern amongst individuals and healthcare providers.
The good news is that modern medicine is exceptionally well-equipped to handle many of the common conditions in the respiratory system. Let’s explore the most common ones.
Asthma is characterized by wheezing and breathing problems when the airway narrows from an inflammatory response, sometimes also producing extra mucus. For some individuals, asthma is easily manageable, while it can be life-threatening for others. Asthma isn’t curable, but symptoms are manageable with the proper treatment. It’s essential to speak with your trusted healthcare provider, as they will determine the best course of action.
Bronchitis is caused by inflammation of the bronchial tubes. It may be acute or chronic and often is accompanied by thick mucus and a heavy cough. It may develop from a cold or respiratory infection or come about seasonally. Other symptoms include fever, chest discomfort, and fatigue.
Emphysema is the gradual damage of lung tissue, specifically the alveoli. In this case, the air sacs often rupture and turn into a larger sac, reducing the surface area of the lungs, trapping air in pockets, and preventing oxygen from moving into the bloodstream. Over time, breathing may also become increasingly more difficult as air is trapped in the pleural space. Emphysema is strongly associated with smoking and, therefore, can largely be avoided by participating in a healthy lifestyle. Symptoms include shortness of breath, wheezing, and tightness in the chest.
Similar symptoms to the common cold characterize hay fever. This includes fatigue, sinus pressure, runny nose, congestion, itchy eyes, and more. It is brought on by exposure to allergies such as dust, grass, and pollen. While this seasonal issue can be bothersome, your healthcare provider can recommend a solution to manage your symptoms.
Influenza, also known as the common flu, is a viral infection that attacks your respiratory system. Individuals with weak immune systems are at particularly high risk for catching the illness. Symptoms include cough, fatigue, chills, muscle aches, fever, runny nose, and headaches. The key to overcoming this is rest and drinking plenty of fluids.
Laryngitis is characterized by inflammation of the larynx. The larynx contains the vocal cords, two mucus membranes covering muscle and cartilage. Normal, healthy vocal cords open and close with ease, allowing air to move through and vibrate the cords creating sound. However, when an individual has laryngitis, the inflammatory response keeps the cords from operating as they should, reducing airflow and leading to a loss of voice.
Pneumonia is an infection of the lungs. It can be caused by fungi, bacteria, or a virus. It is a severe infection in which the alveoli (air sacs) fill with pus, preventing the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide and causing extreme exhaustion, difficulty breathing, cough, fever, and chills. If a case of pneumonia becomes severe, hospitalization is often required to ensure the individual receives proper care.
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease is chronic inflammation that obstructs airflow to and from the lungs. It is characterized by difficulty breathing, coughing, mucus production, and wheezing. Long-term exposure to chemical irritants or smoking can increase an individual’s risk of developing COPD. In this case, the damage done to the lungs is irreversible, and treatment shifts to managing symptoms, including inhalers or oral steroids.
Ways to Improve Your Lung Health
While it is essential to understand what could go wrong, it is also good to realize that the ball is in your court to take preventative measures and protect your lungs. By reading this, you’re educating yourself on your respiratory system and how to protect your mind and body. Let’s explore ways you can improve your lung health.
Exercise is essential to our overall mental and physical health. This includes the lungs, as exercise increases our lung capacity, refreshes our bodies, and produces a positive release of hormones. Exercise also reduces stress, strengthens our immune system, and allows us to feel peaceful and happier, especially afterward. The Mayo Clinic recommends that adults participate in 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity each week to maintain optimal health. Strength training, walking, biking, or swimming are excellent examples of things you can do each day to enhance your lung capacity.
This is a given. Smoking worsens the air coming into your lungs, replacing clean air with harmful substances like asbestos, tobacco, and more. It is best to avoid smoking from day one, but don’t fret: It is never too late to quit and instead focus on healthier alternatives, such as exercise, meditation, or reading.
Eat Food Rich in Antioxidants
Antioxidants are known for their anti-inflammatory properties, and they help our lungs operate at their fullest capacity. In addition to this, they help keep the mind and body clean, healthy, and strong. Foods rich in antioxidants include fruits, such as apples, berries, and pumpkins, which are excellent sources, along with turmeric, green tea, yogurt, and nuts.
Improve Your Indoor Air Quality
While you can’t always control your outdoor environment, especially in the city, you can control the air quality inside your home. For individuals in dry climates, consider using a humidifier. Also, take advantage of many modern air filtration systems. This one from Dyson is an excellent choice as it can heat, cool, filter, and humidify your air. Another choice is this Bissell two-piece air purifier. It runs air through three filtration systems, making sure the output is healthy and free of contaminants.
The respiratory system is a vital component of life. Without air, we would not be able to survive or thrive. Therefore, it is essential that we take care of our lungs, airway, and other elements that make up our respiratory system. We can do this by following the above tips, considering our air quality, and living a more eco-friendly, conscious lifestyle. This includes participating in activities that benefit both our mind and body, such as exercise, connection, meditation or relaxation, and sleep.
For more information on breathing and wellness, contact us at vivoslife.com.