It’s often the case that we take our lungs pretty much for granted.
Unless there’s a specific problem, we just expect to breathe without much fuss or attention from the day we emerge wailing (or otherwise) into the world to the day we finally expire.
For us, much of our work is teaching relaxation, mindfulness and meditation - all practices that focus hard on our breath, and yet we still seem to take the lungs for granted, assuming they are simply obliging tools that enable our breathing to happen.
But when coronavirus strikes hard, in most cases it strikes the lungs, and so lungs are in the news right now. It’s caused me at least, and probably many of us, to wonder about the state and nature of our own lungs for the first time.
How would they stand up when tested? Are we caring for them as we should?
It’s particularly important to make the best of your lungs if you are vulnerable to infection for other reasons, like cardiovascular disease or diabetes, but none of us want to experience the worst end of COVID-19, so strengthening our lungs, if that can be done, seems to be worth a small investment of our time to help add to our fighting power.
And it seems, there are things we can do, particularly those of us who are over the age of 35 or so, to keep our lungs in the healthiest possible condition and as strong as possible when it comes to living through an infection - by COVID-19 or any one of the very common infections that can affect our lungs and make us ill.
It doesn’t matter what your starting point is, you can take steps to improve from there. Always remember:
Our greatest health - power lies in making the very best of what we have.
So let’s start with briefly putting the spotlight on lungs.
If you live to be 80 you’ll have taken about 672 million breaths according to researchers at the Harvard Medical School. Each of those millions of in-breaths draws air into the lungs and fills up tiny air sacs (around 300 million of them, so pretty tiny!) deep inside each lung.
Each of these air sacs is wrapped in tiny blood vessels and your blood circulates through these minuscule blood vessels and a kind of ‘swap’ takes place between your blood and the air you’ve breathed in. Oxygen is passed from the air sacs to your blood, and your blood passes carbon dioxide back into the air sacs, ready to expel it from the body as your out-breath.
When you are a healthy young person this process is lovely and easy, everything is very fluid and flexible, and your lungs can hold a large amount of air.
However, as you get older (from around 35 years) your lungs gradually become less efficient. By the age of 65, you’re likely to have lost up to a litre of lung capacity compared with when you were 25.
What happens is that both your airways and your blood vessels become a little stiffer, and the little air sacs expand, making it more difficult for oxygen and other gases to move into your bloodstream.
You might notice this internal change happening gradually when you exert yourself. Perhaps you experience getting a bit more out of breath doing strenuous activities than you did when younger, or have more trouble walking upstairs or feeling more tired after doing vigorous exercise.
Things we do and experience in life can accelerate lung ageing, such as smoking, or inhaling high levels of pollutants, or having a lot of infections which affect lungs and breathing.
Other issues can contribute as some people grow older. For example, osteoporosis can bring about changes in posture which can make your rib cage smaller and stiffer. Some people also live in a permanently stressed state where breathing is quick and shallow and the lower part of the lungs is rarely used.
If you are concerned about your breathing or your lungs then you should seek your GP’s advice to check there are no serious underlying problems.
Even if you are not experiencing problems, however, and especially now where lung health is so important to manage through infection, there are steps that you can take to preserve your lung function at its best. These include:
Follow any medical advice that you are given for any other conditions you may have
Eat plenty of fruit. According to research published in the European Respiratory Journal, eating fruits higher in antioxidants and flavonoids (such as Bananas, apples and tomatoes) was associated with a slower decline in lung function. The research was based on four servings per day.
If you can’t get out into the sunlight much then consider taking a Vitamin D supplement which has been shown to enhance lung function https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/resp.13239
Try training which involves exercising and expanding the chest and shoulders, and lifts that strengthen the chest, shoulder and back muscles to help maintain a posture that makes breathing deep and healthy
Move in a way that raises your heart rate and makes you breathe a bit harder, which can help to improve lung capacity. This could be as simple as walking uphill, holding light hand weights when you walk or jog for general NHS advice on exercise to keep healthy for your age visit https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/exercise/
Stay hydrated to maintain the ideal blood volume and keep the mucous membranes in your lungs and airways healthy; this helps to resist infection and damage to the lung tissues
Avoid as much as you can environments where there are high levels of toxic fumes, or equipment and machinery that you know pollutes the air that you are breathing. Seek fresh air and well-ventilated spaces
Practice your breathing - after all that is what your lungs are for and like everything else practice pays off. Here are two types of breathing, both of which can help improve the performance of your lungs:
1/ Diaphragmatic Breathing
Diaphragmatic breathing, or “belly breathing,” uses the diaphragm (the muscle that separates your chest from your abdomen). It is really this muscle which is supposed to do the ‘lifting’ which is supposed to do the ‘lifting’ when you breathe, but we often fail to use it properly and breathe in a shallow way. So:
First, relax your shoulders by letting them drop and then lean back in a chair or lie down.
Now place one hand gently on your belly and one on your chest.
Breathe in through your nose for two seconds, noticing the air being drawn into your abdomen and feeling your stomach move out. You should notice that your stomach moves more than your chest does.
Then breathe out for two seconds through pursed lips while pressing on your abdomen.
Repeat at least three more times, and try to practice breathing like this several times a day. You might find it takes a little practice at first, but keep going. When you get it right it’s also immediately relaxing each time you do it.
2/Breathing with ‘pursed’ lips
Pursed-lips breathing helps to slow down your breathing and keeps your airways open longer, making breathing easier. Your lungs function better and the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide is improved.
This breathing exercise is often easier than diaphragmatic breathing, and it can be practised at any time.
So, to practice this type of breathing:
First, breathe in slowly through your nostrils.
Now purse your lips, as if about to blow gently on something.
Breathe out as slowly as you can through your pursed lips. It should much longer to breathe out than it did to breathe in.
Repeat. As well as the diaphragmatic breathing, try to do this ‘pursed lips’ exercise several times a day to add to your lung support.
And finally, if you feel so inclined, Sing!
All the benefits are explained here:
Keep breathing, stay well, be strong.