Breathing is a way of life, something we do every few seconds, 24/7, whether we are awake or asleep, whether we are at rest with our feet kicked up or hard at work working out or involved in a strenuous activity that raises our heart rate and forces us to breathe harder and faster. This is our respiratory system at work, and like any other system or organ in our body, it needs to be properly fed with nutrients, and that can include vitamins and supplements.
Breathe in, breathe out: that’s a sign that we are alive, with our respiratory system never fully at rest. All day, every day, our breathing is the in-motion apparatus that allows oxygen to enter and carbon dioxide to be expelled. But our never-ending breathing (if we are alive and well) also carries a caveat: as we breathe through our nose and mouth, those two organs serve as potential entry points for all sorts of things we really don’t want to be breathing in – pollutants, dust, mold, fungus, various other toxins, and even unwanted insects. Yuck.
As globalhealingcenter.com puts it, “Unless you’re living in a bubble, the constant assault from impurities can take its toll.” This leaves our respiratory system vulnerable and at risk of disease and other unhealthy conditions. That’s why it’s a head scratcher for many of us who watch others risk lung disease and other afflictions by smoking unhealthy tobacco products.
How Does the Respiratory System Work?
The human body needs oxygen to sustain itself. If we go about four minutes without oxygen, such as being submerged underwater without an air supply, per livescience.com, brain cells start dying, possibly leading to brain damage and, eventually, death.
In the process of breathing, oxygen enters our body either through the nose and sinuses (primary route of inhalation) or the mouth (secondary), before the inhaled air goes to the windpipe (aka trachea) to be filtered, according to the American Lung Association. Next stop are the bronchi, a pair of tubes that transport air into each lung. The bronchi are lined with tiny hairs, called “cilia,” that push out mucus to collect dust, germs and other matter that have invaded our lungs, per livescience.com.
From there, the bronchial tubes carry the oxygen to the three lobes of the lungs, which is where the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide takes place – with the lungs then tasked with the duty of expelling the CO2, which can be harmful to the body. Oxygenated blood travels to the heart via the pulmonary vein and is then pumped throughout the body by the heart. Another key organ in the respiratory system is the diaphragm, located at the bottom of the lungs, which regulates breathing. The diaphragm expands during exhalation, forcing air out.
Vitamins, Supplements in Support of the Respiratory System
Keeping our respiratory system healthy and “purring” properly depends heavily on what we eat, and vitamins and supplements play a vital role. Note that chronic lower respiratory diseases are the fourth-leading cause of death in the U.S., per livestrong.com. Diseases closely associated with the respiratory system include chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, emphysema, bronchitis, tuberculosis, pneumonia, and asthma.
Although numerous vitamins and supplements are believed to contribute to the maintenance of respiratory health, a discussion with your doctor is always advised before you change your dietary regimen. Meanwhile, here are some of those vitamins and supplements to consider:
- Vitamin A. A fat-soluble vitamin that bolsters the immune system in its never-ending fight against infections.
- Vitamin B12. Pegged especially for women. This water-soluble vitamin supports red blood cell production, per woman.thenest.com. A B12 deficiency can mean an inadequate amount of oxygen supplied to muscles and organs, resulting in shortness of breath.
- Black seed. A type of plant used for more than 2,000 years, it remains helpful today in treating respiratory conditions such as asthma, allergies, cough, bronchitis, congestion, and emphysema, per webmd.com.
- Vitamin C. Supports the immune system and boosts manufacture of white blood cells in the lungs, preventing inflammation. As an antioxidant, it helps guard lungs against damage-causing toxins and pollutants.
- Vitamin E. Another fat-soluble vitamin. A study using vitamin e for respitory problems at a Boston nursing home concluded the following: "we observed a protective effect of vitamin E supplementation on upper respiratory infections, particularly the common cold, that merits further investigation." (National Institute of Health PMC2377357).
- Eucalyptus. An herb native to Australia, it is a common ingredient found in throat lozenges. It contains a substance known as cineole that acts as an expectorant, helping to ease a cough and curtail congestion.
- Folate. A folate deficiency carries an increased risk of respiratory-related diseases.
- Lobelia. Known to help horses breathe more deeply, it also works great for humans. It contains an alkaloid – lobeline – which can thin out mucus and break up congestion.
- Oregano. Known well as an aid to the immune system, oregano contains a pair of compounds, carvacrol and rosmarinic acid, that are known as natural decongestants and histamine reducers.
- Peppermint. Contains menthol, which can soothe the muscles of the respiratory tract and foster free breathing.
- Thyme. Another herb, it can be taken by mouth to relieve bronchitis, whooping cough, and sore throat.
- Umckaloabo. Per webmd.com, a flowering plant native to South Africa that has been used for upper-respiratory infections such as sinusitis, sore throat, and tonsillitis.