Your lungs interact with all body systems. Here, we’ll share tips to help you improve lung health.
What are lungs good for?
Lungs. You need them to breathe. They bring oxygen into your body and take carbon dioxide out. If they fill with water, you die. End of story, right?
Well, if that’s all you know about lungs, it’ll surprise you to learn that, from a health perspective, we’re still learning about the ways in which our lungs interact with our other body systems. We’re continually learning more about how lungs affect our overall health. Below, I’ll draw from this body of knowledge and share some tips you can use to improve lung health.
Lungs Are for More Than Just Breathing?
It was only about 30 years ago that we discovered that the lungs directly synthesize alveolar surfactant – the chemical needed to maintain lung structure and function. More recent studies have shown that the lungs selectively switch on and off and even produce a variety of hormonally active substances. Many of these substances are bronchoactive, but there are vasoactive compounds too. (In other words, by some definitions the lungs could be considered part of the endocrine system.)
Understanding the metabolic and endocrine functions of the lungs is critical to understanding not just pulmonary health but also the physiological and pathophysiological effects of the lungs on other organ systems. For example, you probably know the lungs are part of the respiratory system. But did you know that they occupy a unique position in the circulatory system as well?
Lungs Are Blood’s First Stop
Think about this: all of your blood – more correctly your complete cardiac output – will interface with the lungs via the alveolar-capillary junction before going on to all other tissues. The air spaces (alveoli) and blood compartments (capillaries) are lined with different types of cells. These cells are rich in enzymes and can produce metabolically active substances. The first stop position of the lungs means that all of your blood can potentially be affected by these enzymes.
Lungs as a First Line of Defense
One function of these enzymes is to support the alveolar macrophage. This macrophage is the most important defense that the lungs have against invading particles. These macrophages protect the lungs and act as a first line of defense for the whole body. The lung macrophage functions differently from blood-borne macrophages. It depends on an aerobic metabolism. Its internal enzymes allow it to digest the bacteria and foreign particles that it envelopes.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
The alveolar-capillary membrane can be thought of as a double layer with the air – capillary exchange backing up to the blood – bronchus barrier. On the blood side of the junction, about 145 square yards of microvilli and caveolae play a critical role in the metabolism of biologically active compounds. Examples of biologically active compounds made in the lungs include phosphatidylcholine, histamine, serotonin, ACTH, vasoactive intestinal protein, angiotensin converting enzyme, and several prostaglandins.
In correct proportion, these compounds are all necessary for you to live. But when lung health suffers, the consequences can go from bad to ugly. For example, a dysfunction of the endocrine processes of the lungs can result in bronchogenic tumors. Studies with cystic fibrosis patients show that lung function can affect absorption of nutrients in the gastrointestinal tract. Systematic lung issues can lead hypotension, inflammation, cardiac disease, and platelet aggregation. Systematic lung issues can also increase susceptibility to infection.
Without question, healthy lung function is critical to many body systems. To improve your overall health, first improve lung health.
What Can You Do to Improve Lung Health?
Protect – The lungs have a limited ability to remove particulate matter and repair cellular damage. It’s good practice to protect your lungs from particulate exposure. That means no smoking (not even vaping). It also means wearing the appropriate mask when working in dusty or chemical-laden environments.
Avoid Infection – Lung infections are a significant cause of pulmonary dysfunction. To the extent possible, avoid crowds during cold and flu season. (This works both ways – if you’re sick, stay home until you’re feeling better.) And practice good oral health. Brushing your teeth twice daily can help stop the germs in your mouth from leading to infections.
Exercise – Aerobic exercise is vital to lung health. Strive to get at least 30 minutes of moderate to vigorous aerobic exercise each day. Or, at minimum, 2.5 hours a week.
Eat Right – Lungs require phospholipids to produce their surfactant. Phospholipids are fatty acids, and we get them in our diet from eggs, fish, seeds (like pumpkin, sunflower, and chia), and nuts (like walnuts and almonds).
On a final note, you can also improve lung health and support healthy lung function by drinking a daily cup of Holy Basil tea. Polygala tenuifolia tea also has a historical use as a support to lung health that may be due to the protective effect of tenuigenin, one of its phytoconstituents. Finally, Phyllanthus niruri tea can help with oral health and bolster the immune system during flu season.