Almost immediately after quitting smoking, the body starts to repair itself. In fact, within 3 months of quitting, lung function begins to improve. Within 10 years, the risk of developing lung cancer is half that of a smoker, and 15 years after quitting smoking, the risk of coronary artery disease is reduced to the same as a nonsmoker. The body's natural detoxification process does most of this work, but you can help your lungs heal by staying smoke free, drinking plenty of fluids and eating more fruits and vegetables.
Breathe Clean Air
Some of the lung damage from smoke exposure may be reversible, as the body has the capacity to heal damaged tissue. The body also regularly removes toxins through the urine, stool, sweat and through respiration -- or the process of breathing. When the lungs are no longer subject to ongoing smoke damage, this natural detoxification process can become more effective at removing dirt, pollutants and other toxins from the lungs, allowing the lungs to function better and heal. So the best way to improve the health of your lungs is to breathe clean air and to avoid smoke exposure.
Eat Colorful Fruits and Veggies
Foods containing flavonoids, which are plant compounds responsible for the vivid pigments in fruits and vegetables, possess antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties that may protect and heal the lungs from smoke damage. For example, eating more fruits and tomatoes can preserve lung function in former smokers and help restore the health of lungs that have suffered smoke damage, according to a 10=year study. Fruits comes in many different colors, which are linked to particular health-promoting flavonoids. So nourish your body and your lungs by choosing a variety of green, purple, red, orange, yellow and white fruits and vegetables.
Eat Cruciferous Vegetables
Cruciferous vegetables, including broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, kale and Brussels sprouts, may also help with lung healing after smoke damage. While the mechanism of action is not fully understood, one study demonstrated that a diet that included several servings of cruciferous vegetables per week reduced the risk of lung cancer by 30 percent in former smokers. Also, a rodent study suggests that sulphoraphane, a chemical found in broccoli sprouts and other cruciferous vegetables, appears to help the immune system clear harmful bacteria from the respiratory system, suggesting one way these vegetables may help protect and heal the lungs.
Drink More Fluids
Another way to clean your lungs -- and help the healing process -- is to drink plenty of fluids. If your body is well hydrated, the mucus that lines the lungs stays thin. This helps the cilia, or the tiny hairs that line the lungs, be more effective at trapping smoke and other pollutants -- helping to propel these toxins out of the lungs. Clean water is an optimal way to get fluids in the body, but antioxidant-rich herbal and black teas have also been found to promote lung health. Drinking plenty of fluids also helps the body get rid of toxins through increased urination.
Long-term or excessive exposure to smoke or other pollutants can damage the lungs or harm the body, even years after exposure. So even if you take precautions to improve your diet and protect your lungs, be sure to receive regular medical care, and ensure your doctor knows you are a former smoker. Let your doctor know if you have any new or persistent symptoms, such as frequent respiratory infections, a cough that won't go away, or chest or lung pain.
Reviewed by Kay Peck, MPH RD
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- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Quitting Smoking
- Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: What's the Deal With Detox Diets?
- European Respiratory Journal: Dietary Antioxidants and 10-Year Lung Function Decline in Adults From the ECRHS Survey
- BMC Cancer: Cruciferous Vegetable Intake is Inversely Associated With Lung Cancer Risk Among Smokers: A Case-Control Study
- Science Translational Medicine: Targeting Nrf2 Signaling Improves Bacterial Clearance by Alveolar Macrophages in Patients with COPD and in a Mouse Model
- International Journal of Biomedical Science: Free Radicals, Antioxidants in Disease and Health