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General Health

8 Ways to Breathe Better

What you eat, drink and supplement with can have a big impact on how well you breathe and reduce your risk of infections. Here are 8 areas to address.

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Respiratory infections, allergies, pollution, even cold, dry winter air can lead to nasal congestion, shortness of breath and make you feel like you’re gasping for air. If your breathing is even a little bit labored, try these eight ways to breath better, right now:

1. Flush it out. Rinsing the nasal cavities with salt water or a special solution flushes out bacteria and debris, thins mucus, and soothes and moisturizes delicate tissues lining the nasal passages. For the easiest option, look for a nasal wash system with a squeeze bottle, or try a Neti pot—a small ceramic pot used in traditional Ayurvedic medicine. Use morning or night, to irrigate nasal passages and promote easy breathing. During the day, a nasal spray is a convenient way to keep nasal passages moisturized, minimize congestion and ease breathing. Look for one made with xylitol and grapefruit seed extract; studies show both can protect against viral pathogens and lessen the risk of infection.

2. Hydrate. Drink more to breathe better: increasing water consumption thins sticky mucus secretions, making them drain more easily from the sinuses. Adequate hydration also keeps the mucus membranes moist and less prone to irritation. Sparkling water or filtered water laced with unsweetened fruit juice are more interesting alternatives. Or sip teas made with herbs that support lung function, loosen and thin mucus and promote easy breathing: try respiratory blends with ingredients like ginger, peppermint, marshmallow, licorice, slippery elm or mullencamp. An at-home water filter we suggest is this one from LifeStraw.

3. Steam. Cold winter air and indoor heating dry out and irritate the respiratory system, exacerbating allergies and asthma, and increasing the risk of infection. Ease breathing, with a steam treatment: warm, moist air helps clear excess mucus from the lungs and sinuses, lessens congestion and soothes irritation. A hot bath or shower is an easy fix; add a few drops of eucalyptus, spruce or peppermint essential oil to up the effect. Or fill a sink with hot water, cover your head with a towel and breath in the steam. During the winter, run a humidifier or vaporizer at night, especially if you live in a dry climate. Clean humidifiers religiously to prevent the growth of bacteria and mold, and don’t overdo it; too much moisture encourages mold growth and exacerbates respiratory conditions.

4. Focus on foods. The right diet can fight infections, support respiratory health and help you breathe easier. Focus on these:

  • Chickpeas are rich in zinc, shown to support immune function and protect against respiratory viruses.
  • Kiwi is loaded with immune-boosting vitamin C to protect against bronchitis, sinusitis and other respiratory infections.
  • Sardines are high in omega-3 fats, linked with improved lung function and decreased symptoms of asthma.
  • Sunflower seeds are rich with vitamin E, important for overall immunity; vitamin E also reduces allergic airway inflammation and can protect against lung disease.
  • Winter squash is an excellent source of vitamin A, critical for immunity and the health of mucosal cells in the respiratory tract.
  • Shiitake mushrooms contain beta-glucans, shown to support immune response, reduce inflammation and protect against pathogens.

5. Purify your air. Indoor air pollution can irritate lungs, exacerbate breathing problems and, over time, increases the risk of respiratory conditions and other diseases, even cancer. Some of the most common: tobacco smoke, mold, outgassing from new flooring or carpets, furniture made of treated pressed wood, and improperly maintained heating and cooling systems. Even everyday culprits, like chemical-based cleaning products, incense or scented candles, diminish air quality. Eliminate as many of these as possible, and switch to green cleaning products made from plant-based materials; unscented versions are best, or choose one scented only with pure essential oils. Visit Environmental Working Group’s guide to household cleaners, for a list of the cleanest stuff. Also consider a home air purifier. We like this one from PurOxygen.

6. Protect against pathogens. Bacteria and viruses can lead to bronchitis, pneumonia and other upper and lower respiratory tract infections. Banish bugs, with supplements shown to support immunity and fight infections. Some of the best:

  • Quercetin, an antioxidant found in apples, onions, grapes and tea, inhibits viruses, decreases lung inflammation and protects against infection.
  • Andrographis supports overall immunity and reduces the incidence and symptoms of respiratory tract infections.
  • Curcumin, from turmeric, fights inflammation, protects against pathogens and inhibits viral infection.
  • Astragalus lowers inflammation, supports immune function and can reduce upper respiratory tract infections.
  • Probiotics enhance immune response, regulate inflammation, protect against pathogens, and lessen the frequency and duration of infections.
  • Vitamin D plays an important role in overall immunity, and can significantly lower the risk and severity of respiratory tract infections.

7. Try traditional herbs. Used for hundreds of years to treat coughs, relieve asthma and allergies and support lung health, traditional respiratory herbs and extracts reduce inflammation and increase airflow to help you breathe better. Several studies suggest butterbur is as effective as over-the-counter antihistamines, and pelargonium (also called umckaloabo), enhances immune response, protects against infection and improves respiratory illnesses. Other herbs and supplements to help you breathe better: mullein, elecampane, osha, plantain and schisandra. Look for syrups, capsules or tinctures, or try a combo formula.

8. Exercise your breath. Deep breathing practices train your body to breathe in a way that improves respiratory function, enhances lung capacity and reduces stress (linked with lower resistance to infection). Try a simple belly breathing exercise: lie down in a comfortable space, or recline in a chair; place one hand over your chest, the other on your belly. Slowly inhale into your belly to the count of three, breathing through your nose and allowing your abdominal area to rise with the inhale. Slowly exhale through your nose or mouth, releasing all the air and allowing your belly to deflate. Repeat the cycle 10 times to start (about one minute); work your way up to five or ten minutes. And make it a habit during your daily routine: practice deep breathing at work, in your car, watching television, and you’ll start to breathe better, all day long.

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