Tell the truth: Do you get more winded going up a flight of stairs than you did a year ago? How about five years ago? For a lot of people, the answer is yes. And they probably chalk it up to being out of shape.
Of course, for a lot of Americans that’s exactly what the problem is. They’ve been lax about exercising, and little by little, they lose endurance. That decline goes unnoticed until it’s time to do something that requires a bit of exertion — like climbing stairs — and suddenly they’re out of breath.
It’s easy enough to brush off shortness of breath as just another sign that you’re getting older. But new research shows that ignoring it could be deadly. That’s because there’s another cause of shortness of breath that has nothing to do with fitness — and it’s something you absolutely should not ignore.
Shortness of breath is an early warning sign of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). COPD is the catchall term used to refer to describe lung diseases that get worse over time. It includes emphysema, chronic bronchitis, non-curable asthma, and a few other breathing disorders.
And it’s not something to put on the back burner. Especially considering COPD is the third-leading cause of death in the United States — just behind heart disease and cancer. And for people living with it, it can be debilitating.
In fact, recent research out of Sweden found that chronic shortness of breath has a serious impact on quality of life. But the good news is, the researchers also found that, with treatment that focuses on the whole person, COPD can be effectively managed. And as with most illness, the earlier you address the problem, the easier it is to deal with — and the better the outcome.
A closer look at COPD
As I said, COPD is a term used to describe several progressive breathing disorders. Here’s what they all have in common: These conditions all involve damage to the lungs that makes it harder to breathe.
The lungs, as you know, are the powerhouses of respiratory system. With each inhale they take in oxygen, which the body needs in order to burn the fuel in our cells and provide us energy. With each exhale, the lungs expel carbon dioxide — the byproduct of the cells’ energy production.
In order to get oxygen from the air into the bloodstream and the carbon dioxide from the bloodstream into the air, the lungs are equipped with tube-like airways that have small sacs (alveoli) at the ends. It’s in the blood vessels of the alveoli that the exchange of gases takes place.
The alveoli, when they’re healthy, function like little balloons. They expand when we inhale and contract when we exhale. But in some people with COPD, those balloons become too tough to expand and contract effectively. In others, the walls between the alveoli are destroyed. Or the airways themselves are the problem. They become inflamed or produce too much mucus, causing them to become clogged.
Any or all of these problems make it difficult to breathe.
How to know if you have COPD
Before going any further, I should point out a very important distinction in what we’re talking about today. We’re talking about chronic shortness of breath — something that develops gradually over time and persists.
Acute shortness of breath is something very different. It comes on suddenly or over the span of a couple of days, and it’s an emergency. If you ever experience acute shortness of breath, stop what you’re doing and seek medical help immediately.
Back to the topic at hand. Since chronic shortness of breath can be either a symptom of COPD or a factor of being out of shape, how can you tell the difference? Well, to put it bluntly, it’s not always easy…which is why it’s so important to work with a doctor to figure it out.
But there are a few major signs to be aware of.
If you have breathlessness that gets worse over time, a persistent cough with or without mucus, tightness in your chest, or wheezing, see a doctor as soon as possible. Don’t wait weeks, months, or even years. Because if you let it go, it can — and likely will — progress to the point where it interferes with your ability to do normal, everyday things.
So now that we’ve covered the symptoms of COPD, let’s talk risks.
Not surprisingly, the biggest risk factor is smoking. The majority of people who develop COPD are smokers or ex-smokers. But other assaults on the lungs can be just as detrimental. Things like chemical fumes, air pollution, dust, and wood- or coal-burning stoves.
There are several other major contributors to COPD. In fact, the common denominators are so predictable that a recent clinical trial found doctors can use them to determine a person’s likelihood to develop COPD even without a physical exam. But here’s what’s even more impressive — and more important, if our goal is to catch COPD before it does lasting damage…
This seven-item screening tool can predict COPD even before symptoms appear.
Here they are:
- Gender. Prevalence is higher among men, though women are quickly catching up.
- Age. Middle age and older are at higher risk.
- Pack/years of smoking. In other words, the number of packs of cigarettes you smoke (or did smoke) per day, multiplied by the number of years of smoking. (i.e. More smoking=more problems.)
- Breathlessness. As I explained above, chronic breathlessness that seems to be getting worse over time ups your risk of COPD.
- Cough. Persistent cough signals increased risk.
- Sputum. Coughing up mucus also indicates potential problems.
- Whether or not you’ve had a spirometry test before. More about those in a moment.
Taking all these factors into account, those at the highest risk of developing COPD are heavy smokers over the age of 50 with breathlessness. Overall, this 7-question quiz was a remarkably accurate screening tool. It was able to predict COPD at least 76 percent of the time.
Back to those spirometry tests that were mentioned in the list. These are commonly used to determine lung capacity and function. The test is totally painless. All you have to do is blow hard into a tube, and a small device measures how much air you’ve exhaled and how quickly. It’s the main test for COPD.
The only other diagnostic test available — and it isn’t a good one — is a chest x-ray. The reason it’s not effective is that lung changes don’t show up on x-ray until it’s pretty late in the game. Spirometry is often the first way to tell if you have any lung damage.
What happens if you have COPD?
Sadly, there is currently no cure for COPD. But as I said, catching it early means you can put the brakes on before too much damage is done.
Mainstream medicine approaches COPD with inhalers and steroids. They may stem disease progress and help with symptoms, but they also come with alarming side effects.
The most common mainstream treatment is Spiriva — a drug that can cause vision problems, glaucoma, and difficulty urinating, among other issues.
Atrovent and Proventil open the airways so you can breathe more easily. But they can also cause sudden death from heart attack.
Steroids like Flonase, Rhinocort, Qvar, and Advair are given to reduce inflammation and allow for tissue growth and repair. But they can cause bone loss, diabetes, and again, sudden death from heart attacks.
So while I think we’d all agree that it’s important to treat COPD for all the reasons I’ve outlined in this article, I think we’d also agree that there are better ways to do it than with risky drugs.
And the good news is that there are plenty of harmless, natural ways to combat this disease. The first one, it should go without saying, is to quit smoking if you’re a smoker. And if you live with a smoker, make them quit — or at least take it outside. Secondhand smoke is deadly.
Next, eliminate any other toxins you might be breathing in. Chemicals, pollution, wood smoke, etc.
And now, I know I’m going to sound like a broken record, but here goes: You must exercise. Regularly. It’s important for everyone, but for those with COPD it’s a matter of life and death.
In fact, I just came across a new study that shows that regular exercise boosts survival in COPD sufferers.
Just getting up off the couch can improve your odds by 28 percent
Listen, I know it’s not easy to think about exercising when you’re struggling with breathing during normal daily activities. But I promise you it’s worth it. A sedentary lifestyle weakens organ systems throughout the body, including the heart and muscles. And that just contributes to difficulty exercising.
The researchers in this new study found that those who did any amount of moderate to vigorous physical activity were 47 percent less likely to die in the 12 months after a COPD-related hospitalization than inactive patients. That’s a huge difference. But if vigorous activity feels out of reach, you can still make a difference by moving as much as you can. Even low levels of physical activity reduced the risk of death by 28 percent.
Exercise is one of the few proven ways to prolong your life when you have COPD. And the only “side effects” it causes are greater fitness, strength, and overall wellbeing.
Have a salad, slash your COPD-related death risk in half
Diet can also help with COPD prevention and management. One study found that a high-fiber diet can reduce your chances of developing lung diseases.
This study looked at data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys (NHNES). It found that in people who consumed the most fiber, almost 70 percent had normal lung function. Compare that to 30 percent for those who didn’t eat a healthy, fiber-rich diet.
Another study found a relationship between higher fiber intake and a lower risk of COPD. And another still demonstrated that higher fiber consumption was associated with a 40 to 50 percent reduction in respiratory-related deaths.
Bottom line: A healthy diet is the best foundation for a healthy and long life. These findings should come as no surprise to anyone. Just don’t forget that the best sources of fiber are fresh vegetables and (low-sugar) fruits. NOT pastas, breads, and other packaged foods whose only redeeming nutritional quality is a little bit of fiber.
Two essential tools for getting inflammation in check
When it comes right down to it, we’re looking at another inflammatory disease here. As you know, inflammation is the underlying cause of countless diseases. And lung disease is no exception. So any attempts to curb inflammation should be useful for COPD.
I believe that’s what we’re seeing with fiber. We know that fiber reduces inflammation. We also know that it helps in maintaining healthy intestinal flora. A healthy gut is essential for a healthy body. To further support intestinal flora, take a good probiotic, such as Dr. Ohirra’s. That will help curb inflammation throughout the body — and could potentially help with lung disease.
While we’re on the topic of supplements, I’m going to come back to one of my favorites: vitamin D. This all powerful supplement can also help those with COPD. Vitamin D deficiency is associated with an increased susceptibility to upper respiratory infection — a very common reason for exacerbation of symptoms and hospitalization for those with COPD.
In one study of 240 patients, supplementing with vitamin D3 protected against moderate or severe exacerbation in COPD patients with vitamin D levels below 50 nmol/L. Keep in mind that most people have vitamin D levels below 50 nmol/L. In fact, you’d be hard pressed to reach that level unless you’re taking 5,000 to 10,000 IU per day of D3.
And one other important piece of advice comes from that first study I mentioned in this article — the one that found shortness of breath needs to be taken seriously. It also reported some very important findings regarding the need for a whole-person to COPD treatment.
The “missing link” in most COPD prescriptions
One of the greatest challenges of COPD is that it has a serious impact on quality of life. But the study found that people who received support beyond medication — including social support, leisure activities, and coping strategies — saw big gains in quality of life scores.
So if you have COPD, make sure you’re getting the support you need. Whether that’s through therapy, support groups, yoga, or meditation, just make sure you’re taking care of all of you … not just your lungs.
Add to that the rest of my recommendations — a high-fiber diet with lots of vegetables, intestinal support, exercise, and vitamin D — and you’ll be well on your way to breathing easier again.