Are you familiar with the third leading cause of death in the U.S.? I’m talking about chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, more commonly known as COPD. This respiratory disease is characterized by an abnormal inflammatory response in the lungs and restricted airflow, which both result in difficulty doing the most vital thing in life — breathing. And these are just a few COPD symptoms so many people deal with.
More than 11 million people in this country have already been diagnosed with COPD, but an estimated 24 million may have the disease without even realizing it. (1) COPD is actually an umbrella term that includes emphysema, chronic bronchitis and, in some cases, asthma. The No. 1 reason someone gets COPD in developed countries is smoking tobacco, so the best way to avoid COPD is not to smoke or stop smoking immediately. Sadly, close to half of U.S. adults over the age of 40 who have trouble breathing due to asthma or COPD still continue to smoke. (2)
If you’re willing, there are many ways to treat and reduce your risk of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease with your own efforts and natural treatment. But first, you must realize you have COPD symptoms to begin with — then you can pinpoint exactly how to treat them.
COPD Symptoms & Life Expectancy
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease includes chronic bronchitis, emphysema, bronchiectasis and chronic airway obstruction. These diseases are all commonly characterized by irreversible airflow limitation.
Symptoms of COPD often don’t appear until significant lung damage has occurred, and they usually worsen over time, particularly if smoking exposure continues. For chronic bronchitis, the main symptom is a daily cough and sputum production at least three months a year for two consecutive years.
Signs and symptoms of COPD include:
- Shortness of breath while doing everyday activities or during physical activities
- Chronic cough
- Chest tightness
- Frequent respiratory infections
- Blueness of the lips or fingernail beds
- General fatigue and lack of energy or chronic fatigue syndrome
- Producing a lot of mucus or phlegm
- Having to clear your throat first thing in the morning, due to excess mucus in your lungs
- Unintended weight loss (in later stages)
If you have one or more of these symptoms on a regular basis, then you definitely want to seek medical advice. Early detection of COPD is key to successful treatment. A simple test called spirometry can be used to measure pulmonary (lung) function and detect COPD in anyone with breathing problems.
People with COPD are likely to experience episodes called exacerbations. This is when symptoms become worse than usual and persist for at least several days. A 2016 study by colleagues at Johns Hopkins University found that higher indoor temperatures (along with air pollution) in your home can greatly impact the severity of COPD. The negative effects of the higher air temperatures lasted for up to two days after. (3)
According to a study published by the European Respiratory Society:
“Increased concentrations of greenhouse gases, especially carbon dioxide, in the earth’s atmosphere have already substantially warmed the planet, causing more severe and prolonged heat waves, temperature variability, increased length and severity of the pollen season, air pollution, forest fires, droughts, and heavy precipitation events and floods, all of which put respiratory health at risk.” (4)
With temperatures rising, pollen increasing and ice melting, climate change will continue to affect our health — respiratory and overall. With that being said, it seems possible that avoiding outdoor activities on hot summer days, turning on your air conditioning and optimizing indoor air can decrease your risk of exacerbations. (5) Monitoring your breathing and response to different surroundings will help you manage your COPD and stay safe.
There are four stages of COPD:
- Stage 1 — very mild COPD
- Stage 2 — moderate COPD
- Stage 3 — severe emphysema/chronic bronchitis
- Stage 4 — very severe COPD
Each of these stages has a different impact on each sufferer, but generally speaking, the higher the stage of COPD, the shorter the life expectancy. Overall, COPD can cause serious long-term disability and early death. Unfortunately, there is currently no cure for COPD, and the number of people dying from COPD continues to grow. However, there are natural ways to slow its progression.
10 Natural Treatments for COPD Symptoms
1. Avoid Smoke in Every Way
The most essential step in conventional and natural treatment plan for COPD is the same — stop any and all forms of smoking. Yes, this includes the electronic cigarette. If you smoke, this is the only way to keep COPD from getting worse.
In general, you should avoid smoke of any kind. You should also avoid air pollution as much as possible. If you’re not a smoker, then you definitely need to avoid places where others smoke. Smoking yourself is definitely the worst thing you can do when it comes to COPD, but secondhand smoke and air pollution can damage and irritate your lungs too. (3) (Even indoor fireplaces have been shown to create dangerous indoor air pollution.)
2. Improve Your Breathing
There are techniques for breathing that can help you breathe more efficiently with COPD. These breathing techniques can also help improve breathing for people with asthma as well as people who don’t currently have lung issues but want to optimize their breathing.
According to the American Association for Respiratory Care, pursed-lip breathing and diaphragmatic breathing may increase your blood oxygen levels and help reduce shortness of breath. (4) A respiratory therapist can be very helpful if you need assistance with breathing techniques.
3. Follow a Healthy Diet
A healthy diet can help manage and improve COPD symptoms. Some foods in particular should be mainstays when it comes to an anti-COPD diet while others should be majorly or entirely avoided. Your diet should definitely have plenty of fresh vegetables and fruits to ensure you’re getting lots of vitamins, minerals and fiber. Citrus fruits are especially helpful because they contain quercetin. Wild-caught fish, flaxseeds and chia seeds, along with other omega-3 foods, can provide anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids.
If you’re suffering with COPD symptoms, you definitely want to steer clear of conventional dairy since pasteurized dairy is mucus-producing and can plug the airways in the lungs. You always want to stay away from processed, canned and frozen foods and sugar as well. Additives, preservatives and food dyes are also known for contributing to breathing issues and even asthma attacks. (5)
4. Increase Water Intake Inside and Outside the Body
One of the common and frustrating COPD symptoms is having mucus collect in your airways. This mucus can be difficult to clear and result in persistent and uncontrollable coughing. One internal way you can improve this mucus problem is by drinking plenty of water throughout the day. Drink at least eight glasses of water daily to thin mucus and stay hydrated. (6)
When you’re having trouble breathing, exercise might seem like a terrible idea, but being sedentary won’t do anything to help your COPD symptoms. By regularly getting exercise, especially cardio workouts, you can strengthen your respiratory muscles and improve your overall endurance. (8)
About 40 percent of people with COPD experience high levels of depression and anxiety, which makes it even more difficult to quit smoking and comply with treatment. Exercise also increases endorphin levels, which improves mood, reduces depression and anxiety, and makes it easier to quit smoking.
Eucalyptus oil can be very helpful for people with COPD. A study in Respiratory Research showed that cineole, the main constituent of eucalyptus essential oil, actually reduced exacerbations in people with COPD. It also reduced dyspnea (shortness of breath), and improved lung function as well as health status overall. Furthermore, the research suggested that cineole is an active controller and reducer of airway inflammation in COPD. (9)
To get the benefits of cineole, you can use eucalyptus oil in a diffuser and/or humidifier and breath in the anti-inflammatory air. (Eucalyptus oil isn’t suitable around young children, though.)
7. Consume Ginseng
Ginseng is an herbal supplement that improves lung function and also decrease bacteria in the lungs. Panax ginseng in particular has a long history of use in Chinese medicine for respiratory conditions, including asthma and COPD.
A recent study published in the journal Complementary Therapies in Medicine highlighted therapeutic ginseng benefits. Panax ginseng and ginsenosides (active components of ginseng) appear to inhibit processes related to the development of COPD. (10)
8. Take N-Acetylcysteine (NAC)
Supplementing with NAC helps decrease the severity and frequency of asthma attacks and improves overall lung function by increasing glutathione levels and thinning bronchial mucus. Glutathione fights against oxidative stress in the respiratory tract, which can make NAC a powerful and effective natural treatment for COPD. (11)
9. Avoid Cold and Crowds
When you have COPD symptoms, it’s important to avoid things that make them even worse. I already told you that smoke and pollution are absolutely key to avoid. Another thing to be aware of is the fact that cold air can trigger bronchospasm, a sudden constriction in the muscles of airway walls that leads to shortness of breath. If the weather is really chilly, it’s a smart idea to avoid or reduce your time outdoors. You can also help your symptoms by putting on a face mask before going out into very cold temperatures. (12)
Another environmental hazard to avoid, especially if you have been prone to respiratory infections, is large crowds. Since respiratory infections can cause COPD symptoms to worsen, the less you’re in big crowds the lower your risk of being exposed to infectious germs. By no means am I encouraging you to be a hermit and never go to a mall again — I just want you to be smart and not unnecessarily put yourself in situations that could make your symptoms any worse.
10. Reduce Stress
As with all health issues and diseases, stress only makes COPD symptoms, like airway inflammation and shortness of breath, worse. By reducing your daily stress and managing stress in healthy ways, you’re more relaxed, and this has a direct positive effect on your COPD symptoms. (13)
If you suffer from COPD, you should make time every day to relax both mentally and physically. Try some of these natural stress relievers to start.
11. Stay Away From Chemicals
In a 2015 study looking at 167 participants diagnosed with COPD, more than 60 percent of participants reported cleaning supplies as a trigger for COPD symptoms. More than 50 percent of participants reported trouble after being exposed to perfumes, scented candles or insect spray. About 50 percent reported hairspray as a problem for their COPD. (14) By using natural DIY household products, you can avoid chemicals and improve your COPD symptoms.
The COPD Umbrella
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease is an umbrella term that includes emphysema, chronic bronchitis and sometimes asthma. Here are some alarming stats on COPD:
- According to the CDC, smoking accounts for as many as eight out of 10 COPD-related deaths. However, as many as one out of four Americans with COPD never smoked cigarettes.
- A hallmark symptom of COPD is shortness of breath that gets worse over time. It’s often accompanied by a phlegm-producing cough and episodes of wheezing.
- Typically, the first symptoms of emphysema occur in heavy smokers in their mid-50s.
- Shortness of breath occurs with chronic bronchitis, but it may not be as severe during rest as it is in people with emphysema.
- Classic symptoms of an asthma attack are coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath (dyspnea).
- People with chronic asthma can get airway obstruction that makes them more likely to develop COPD.
- Approximately 40 percent of those with COPD experience high levels of depression and anxiety, making it more difficult to comply with treatment and quit smoking.
COPD in the U.S.: (15)
- Women were more likely to report COPD than men (6.7 percent vs. 5.2 percent).
- Prevalence is lower among homemakers, students and the employed than among those who are unable to work, unemployed or retired.
- Prevalence decreases as income increases (from 9.9 percent among those making less than $25,000 a year to 2.8 percent among those making more than $75,000).
- 36.4 percent of those reporting COPD were former smokers.
- 38.7 percent of those reporting COPD continued to smoke.
- 43.7 percent of those reporting COPD had a history of asthma.
COPD Risk Factors & Root Causes
In developed countries, the central cause of COPD is tobacco smoking. In the developing world, COPD often occurs in people exposed to fumes from burning fuel for cooking and heating in poorly ventilated homes.
Root causes and risk factors for COPD include: (16)
- Smoking — By far, the biggest risk factor for COPD is long-term cigarette smoking. The more years you smoke and the more cigarettes you smoke daily, the greater your risk for developing the disease. People who smoke pipes, cigars and marijuana are also at risk.
- Tobacco smoke exposure — People exposed to large amounts of secondhand smoke are also at risk.
- People with asthma who smoke — The combination of asthma and smoking increases the risk of COPD even more.
- Occupational exposure to chemicals and dusts — Long-term exposure to chemical fumes, vapors and dusts in the workplace or elsewhere can irritate and inflame your lungs.
- Age — COPD develops slowly over years. The majority of sufferers are at least 35 to 40 years old when symptoms begin.
- Genetics — In about 1 percent of people with COPD, the disease results from a genetic disorder that causes low levels of a protein called alpha-1 antitrypsin. Alpha-1-antitrypsin is made in the liver and secreted into the bloodstream to help protect the lungs. Other genetic factors also likely make certain smokers more susceptible to the disease.
The following groups are more likely to report COPD: (17)
- Current or former smokers
- Those with a history of asthma
- People aged 65–74 years
- Non-Hispanic whites
- Individuals who are unemployed, retired or unable to work
- Individuals with less than a high school education
- People with lower incomes
- Individuals who are divorced, widowed or separated
COPD in Women
Deaths resulting from COPD are higher in women than in men. There are a few reasons why this happens: (18)
- In the late 1960s, the tobacco industry intensely targeted women. This resulted in a huge increase in women smoking. We are still seeing new cases of smoking-related diseases, including COPD, as women age.
- Women are more vulnerable than men to lung damage from cigarette smoke and other pollutants. Their lungs are smaller, and estrogen plays a role in worsening lung disease.
- Women are often misdiagnosed. Because COPD has long been thought of as a man’s disease, many doctors still don’t expect to see it in women and miss the proper diagnosis.
COPD Symptoms Takeaways
- COPD is the third leading cause of death in the U.S. More than 11 million people in the U.S. are diagnosed with COPD, while an estimated 24 million may have the disease without even realizing it.
- COPD symptoms include shortness of breath while doing everyday activities or during physical activities, chronic cough, wheezing, chest tightness, frequent respiratory infections, blueness of the lips or fingernail beds, general fatigue and lack of energy, producing a lot of mucus or phlegm, having to clear your throat first thing in the morning due to excess mucus in your lungs and unintended weight loss (in later stages). People with COPD are likely to experience episodes called exacerbations. This is when symptoms become worse than usual and persist for at least several days.
- There are four stages of COPD: Stage 1, very mild COPD; Stage 2, moderate COPD; Stage 3, severe emphysema/chronic bronchitis; Stage 4, very severe COPD.
- To naturally treat COPD symptoms, avoid smoking in every form, improve breathing, follow a healthy diet, increase water intake inside and outside the body, exercise, use eucalyptus oil, consume ginseng, take NAC, avoid cold and crowds, and reduce stress.
- The root causes and risk factors for COPD include smoking, tobacco smoke exposure, having asthma and smoking, occupational exposure to chemicals and dusts, age, and genetics. In addition, deaths resulting from COPD are higher in women than in men.Read Next: The Electronic Cigarette May Pose Major Health Risks