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Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease

World COPD Day is held on 21st November each year, to improve awareness about chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).  COPD is the umbrella term for a number of conditions that cause chronic inflammation and progressive damage to the lungs. The two main forms of COPD are chronic bronchitis and emphysema, although many COPD sufferers have a combination of both of these conditions.
In chronic bronchitis, the lining of the airways becomes chronically inflamed, which causes it to thicken, and the airways to become narrow. The inflamed membranes produce large quantities of thick mucus, which causes further obstruction in the airways, resulting in shortness of breath, wheezing and coughing. The mucus also provides a breeding ground for bacteria, leading to recurrent chest infections and increased risk of developing pneumonia.

In emphysema, the alveoli (or ‘air sacs’) in the lungs, become damaged, resulting in a much smaller surface area for the transfer of inhaled oxygen into the bloodstream. This leads to extreme breathlessness and lack of energy. In the long term, people with COPD may find it difficult to walk or carry out normal daily activities. COPD also places a strain on the heart and sufferers are at increased risk of developing heart disease. Chronic irritation of the lungs may also lead to lung cancer.

COPD is caused by long term irritation to the airways by over-exposure to smoke or fumes, pollution, dust and other inhaled irritants. This may be due to working in certain industrial environments, but by far the most common cause of COPD is cigarette smoke. In rare cases, a genetic disorder called Alpha antitrypsin deficiency may also cause COPD.

Unfortunately there is currently no cure for COPD, as there is no way to reverse the damage to the lungs. Breathing difficulties may be managed with steroids, and antibiotics are used to treat any infection. However, there are many natural ways to help prevent COPD and to treat the symptoms in people who have developed the condition.

First of all, it is important to avoid anything that irritates the lungs. Give up smoking, and if you work with chemicals or in a dusty or smoky environment, remember to wear a mask. It is particularly important to eat plenty of fresh vegetables (particularly coloured varieties such as leafy greens, pumpkin and squash), and nuts and seeds, which are all high in antioxidant nutrients, vitamins A,C,E, selenium and zinc, which help to reduce inflammation and damage to the tissues. Vitamin D, which is found in oily fish and produced by the skin on exposure to sunlight, is very important for immune system health and preventing infections. In addition to a healthy diet, COPD sufferers may benefit from nutritional supplements to increase their levels of these important nutrients.

It is important to maintain a healthy weight because being overweight can exacerbate breathing difficulties. Conversely, people with COPD may experience weight loss due breathing difficulties and may need to increase their consumption of healthy fats such as nuts and seeds, sources of protein such as chicken and eggs, and wholegrain cereals. If you are suffering from COPD, it is advisable to eat smaller, more frequent meals, as eating large meals can make breathing more difficult. Likewise avoid any foods that cause bloating such as white bread and fatty foods, as this can also put pressure on the lungs.

Adequate fluid intake, such as water and herbal teas, help to prevent mucous getting too thick and difficult to expectorate. Avoid foods that encourage the production of excess mucous, such as dairy products, sugary foods, and citrus fruits such as oranges. It is also best to reduce consumption of salt and salty foods, as this can lead to accumulation of excess fluid.

If you are suffering from COPD, a Medical Herbalist can put together a treatment plan, which includes both detailed nutritional advice and a herbal prescription to help reduce the symptoms. For example, Lobelia is a bronchodilator which helps to reduce breathlessness and wheezing. Plantain reduces the production of mucous, and thyme helps to reduce coughing and prevent infection. This approach can help to reduce the reliance on steroids, and prevent infection, in order to reduce the need for antibiotics.