Mind-Body Health

Ask Dr. Sheila: How Can I Improve My Lung Health?

Salmon salad with tomatoes and leafy greens
Salmon salad with tomatoes and leafy greens

Every month, Dr, Sheila, Chopra’s Chief Medical Officer will be answering questions from our followers. If you have a general question for her around health and wellness, please send us an email to askdrsheila@chopra.com, and your question may be the one she answers next month.

There were several questions that came in this month regarding lung health. Certainly, lung health is top of everyone’s mind, so I chose to answer questions related to this topic. In addition, I always like to answer at least one question related to the doshas, so keep scrolling for answers.

Question 1: What can ayurvedic or other alternative medical treatments do to alleviate the chronic inflammation in my lungs?

Dr. Sheila: Thank you for submitting this question. Chronic inflammatory lung conditions affect approximately 40 million people in the United States alone. This includes people with asthma, COPD (emphysema and chronic bronchitis) as well as other inflammatory lung conditions. In fact, scientists also recognize chronic lung inflammation as an underrecognized risk factor for heart disease. In addition, having chronic lung disease or lung inflammation can put individuals at risk of having more severe symptoms during acute respiratory illnesses. Therefore, it is important to control inflammation in the lungs. This is done by removing the cause of inflammation, as well as practices and herbs that can reduce inflammation once it is there.

One of the most important principles, from an Ayurvedic perspective, is to avoid the root cause of the inflammation in the first place. To the best of our ability, eliminating factors that can create inflammations is important. Of course, avoiding smoking or exposure to second-hand smoke is critical. Also consider eliminating the use of chemical air fresheners or strongly scented products, which can contain phthalates and other chemicals that can irritate the lungs and create inflammation. Chronic exposure to pollutants, toxins, dust, and other allergens can also cause chronic inflammation in the lungs therefore use of a good quality air filter in your home is helpful. Get more information here.

Since we can’t completely avoid all irritants coming into the lungs, there are practices that can reduce the inflammatory reaction that the lung creates in response to these irritants. Ayurveda recommends removing irritants from the entry point in the nose by performing daily neti pot rinses.

Another Ayurvedic practice that helps lung function is steam therapy to loosen mucus in the lungs, open channels of circulation, and remove irritants trapped in the mucus. This also reduces the symptoms of heaviness in the chest so you can more effectively do breathing exercises.

Regular breathing exercises can also reduce inflammation in the lungs and improve lung function. Exercise, in general, reduces inflammation in the body, and specific yogic breathing exercises have been shown to reduce inflammation. I recommend doing simple belly breathing for at least 20 minutes daily. Try doing 10 minutes in the morning and 10 minutes before bed.

There are also herbs that can reduce inflammation not only in the whole body but specifically in the lungs. Several experimental and animal models show a reduction of lung inflammation by using turmeric. Its anti-oxidant activity also reduces damage to lung tissue that can be creating inflammation.

Other herbs that are specifically used for lung health in Ayurveda are:

  • Tulsi: A potent anti-inflammatory, it has been used traditionally to treat all types of lung disease and has some evidence in improving bronchial asthma.
  • Licorice: This has been widely used across Asia for centuries in the treatment of asthma and other lung diseases; animal studies show benefit in reversing the chronic inflammatory changes in asthma. Use with caution if there is a history of high blood pressure.
  • Triphala: Is a combination of three dried fruits (amalaki, bibhitaki, haritaki) with potent antioxidant activity; amalaki has also been shown to reduce inflammation in bronchial epithelial cells.
  • Trikatu: This is actually a combination of three spices: dried ginger, long pepper, and black pepper; 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon was traditionally mixed with honey and taken twice daily to improve symptoms of asthma and lung inflammation; the anti-inflammatory mechanisms behind the observed benefits of these spices have been described.

Although these recommendations may not cure lung disease, they will help to reduce inflammation in the lungs and can improve symptoms from lung disease. Most importantly, combining these things with a healthy lifestyle that includes a regular meditation practice can reduce overall inflammation in the body.

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Question 2 What are foods you would recommend for lung health?

Dr. Sheila: As mentioned above, the key to overall good health in the body is a diet rich in anti-inflammatories and antioxidants. When it comes to lung health, here are some foods to incorporate into your diet and the phytonutrients that give them their lung benefits:

  • Green tea: Caffeine and polyphenols
  • Coffee: Caffeine and polyphenols
  • Turmeric: Curcumin
  • Berries: Anthocyanins
  • Leafy green vegetables: Carotenoids
  • Tomatoes: Lycopene
  • Beans and whole grains: Fiber
  • Fish such as salmon, sardines: Omega fatty acids

It goes without saying, but don’t eat any of these foods if you don’t tolerate them in some way or are allergic. Eating an overall healthy, plant-based diet is best for our lungs as well as overall health so these foods should be combined with other fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and beans.

Question 3: I’m a Pitta dosha type with strong digestion. Does that mean I will never have to worry about my weight? I’m a Vata dosha type with delicate digestion. Does that mean that I will never be able to cultivate strong agni?

Dr. Sheila: Remember that we all have all three doshas within us, and their qualities. Further, our lifestyle choices can cause some of these qualities to accumulate. Therefore, any of us, regardless of our nature, can get out of balance in any of the doshas.

A Pitta type, although naturally having good digestion, can accumulate too much Kapha in the body (gain weight) if they eat too much heavy, moist foods or don’t move their body enough. Also, if Pittas accumulate toxicity (ama), thus creating inflammation or disruption of the healthy gut bacteria, this can lead to impaired digestion and weight gain as well. Therefore eating a healthy anti-inflammatory diet is important for Pittas, as well as all the doshas.

Similarly, although Vatas naturally have delicate digestion, they can cultivate a strong agni by having a regular routine and regular practices that kindle the agni, such as meditation, pranayama, and restorative yoga. Taking mild pungent/warming spices (black pepper, cumin, ginger) and sour foods (lemon, pickle, fermented foods) can kindle agni as well. Having Vata as a primary dosha just means that you may have to pay more attention on a daily basis to keeping agni strong and may have more food sensitivities compared to other doshas. However, having the right lifestyle and diet can help you maintain a strong agni.

Discover your dosha type here.