Did you know your body takes around 17,000 to 30,000 breaths each day? Well, take a deep breath and get ready to learn how your respiratory system works and how to keep your lungs healthy.
Life begins outside the womb with your first breath. Breathing is a natural biological function. It is a vital process in which your lungs bring oxygen from the air into your body and expel carbon dioxide produced by your cells. This process keeps you alive.
The first phase of breathing is called inhalation or inspiration. Air enters your body through your nose and mouth, travels down the back of your throat into your windpipe (trachea), and makes its way through your bronchi, large tubes that connect to your trachea and direct the air you breathe into your lungs. The oxygen in the air you breathe is then transferred from your lungs into your bloodstream.1
How do we get the oxygen from our lungs to our bloodstream?
Your lungs are fascinating. Under a microscope, the inside of your lungs looks like a giant sponge. The bronchi branch into tiny tubes called bronchioles, which are the size of one single hair strand. At the end of these tubes are tiny air sacs called alveoli.2
Did you know that your body has about 600 million alveoli and each one is surrounded by a mesh-like covering of tiny blood vessels called capillaries? Oxygen travels from your alveoli into these capillaries and then enters your bloodstream where it can be carried to every cell in your body.
The second phase of breathing is called exhalation or expiration. The purpose of expiration is to remove carbon dioxide, a waste product your body forms during energy production. Carbon dioxide follows the same path as oxygen, but it moves in the opposite direction. Carbon dioxide travels through your bloodstream into your pulmonary capillaries, then makes its way into your alveoli, bronchi, trachea, and gets expelled through your nose and mouth.
Despite not being fully exposed to the environment (like your skin), your lungs have some contact with the outside world.
Your respiratory system has several mechanisms in place to protect your lungs.5 For example, tiny hairs (called cilia) that line your respiratory tract help filter out dust and other particles that enter through your nose. Additionally, the mucus in your lungs catches and holds dust, germs, and other potentially harmful substances that have entered your lungs.6 There are also things you can do to promote the health of your lungs.
Here are eight tips to keep your lungs healthy:
- Don’t smoke
- Eat a healthy diet and drink plenty of water
- Exercise regularly
- Wash your hands often to prevent infections
- Get a flu vaccine each year
- Minimize your exposure to unhealthy air conditions. Check the air quality forecast in your community by visiting airnow.gov or breezometer.com
- Avoid pollutants that can damage your airways, including secondhand smoke, chemicals, mold, dust mites, and radon.
- Wear a mask when you can’t avoid air pollution
The American Lung Association (ALA) states that more than 40% of Americans live in areas where the air quality can be dangerous to their health.7
In the most recent State of the Air report released by the ALA, emissions from transportation, power plants, and manufacturing as well as a changing climate are said to be responsible for poor air quality.7 The report looked at two of the most widespread and dangerous air pollutants: ozone and fine particulate matter. Researchers state that while ozone pollution is improving, likely due to the Clean Air Act, pollution from fine particulate matter is getting worse. Environmental factors, such as extreme heat and wildfires, are causing short-term spikes in particle pollution in many areas and are challenging efforts to keep the air clean.7
Both short- and long-term exposure to poor air quality can be detrimental to your health.8 Short-term effects are temporary and include irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat; breathing difficulties. Long-term effects are typically more serious as they involve damage to your cells and body systems (especially your lungs).
Your airway has natural defenses that can protect against pollution-based damage. However, increased exposure to pollutants can overwhelm your defense system and lead to oxidative stress in your respiratory system.9 Oxidative stress is linked to cell damage and is caused by an imbalance between free radicals and antioxidant defenses. If left unmanaged, cell damage can disrupt the normal functioning of your respiratory system and eventually interfere with your health.
Avoiding air pollution is the best way to protect your lung health. Unfortunately, this is not always feasible so finding other means of protection is important. As has been noted, eating a healthy diet, specifically one that is rich in fruits and vegetables, is one way to support lung health. Research has shown that certain natural compounds found in foods may help promote lung health by:
1. Removing potentially harmful particles from your respiratory system
- Ginsenosides from ginseng root extract and vitamin C have been shown to stimulate immune system cells in the lungs, which help support the removal of particles.
- Thymol, from thyme extract, and N-acetyl L-cysteine are known mucolytics, which assist the cilia and mucus to move particles up the trachea.
2. Protecting against damage when harmful particles enter your lungs
- Anthocyanins and bioflavonoids from bilberry and citrus fruit extracts; sulforaphane from broccoli seed extract; and vitamins C, E, and beta-carotene act as antioxidants. Antioxidants help prevent the buildup of harmful free radicals that can form when your lungs are exposed to high levels of pollutants.
3. Supporting lung tissue and breathing function
- Black cumin seed extract contains thymoquinone – a natural active compound that relaxes the airways, soothes the respiratory tract tissue, and helps with lung function during challenges such as air pollution.
These compounds are also found in dietary supplements, which can be used alongside a healthy diet to help optimize respiratory function.
Protecting the health of your lungs is an important part of maintaining your wellbeing. Support your lungs and overall respiratory function by adopting the healthy lifestyle practices discussed in this article and avoiding exposure to air pollution whenever possible.