All-day, every day, your lungs wage endless battles against bacteria, pollution and respiratory viruses. A good way to keep your lungs healthy and in tiptop shape can be through what you eat. Here are some nutrients and foods for healthy lungs to consider adding to your diet.
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Some nutrients are key when it comes to your lung health and your ability to fight off respiratory infections. According to Coronado, California-based double board-certified pulmonary specialist Asha Devereaux, MD, MPH, these include:
- Omega-3 fatty acids.
- Vitamins C and D.
- Antioxidants like polyphenols and carotenoids.
A May 2018 meta-analysis in Respiratory Research of 109 studies on topics pertaining to nutrients and respiratory disease also found that increasing evidence shows these nutrients may also have a protective role:
- Vitamin E.
Read more: 3 Vitamins That Are Awesome for Your Lungs
Try the Mediterranean Diet
It may sound like a lot, but according to Dr. Devereaux, "If you follow the Mediterranean diet, it'll cover it all." Per the Cleveland Clinic, there is no single method for the Mediterranean diet, except that you will eat mostly plant-based foods such as:
- Fruits and vegetables.
- Whole grains.
- Nuts and seeds.
- Extra virgin olive oil.
Per Respiratory Research, the Mediterranean diet seems to benefit your airways and even protect against tobacco smoke — though no protection against other air pollutants was shown.
Chomp on Vitamin C
For that breath of fresh air, think C — vitamin C. "I always tell my pulmonary patients to make sure they get a serving of broccoli in at least a few times a week," Dr. Devereaux says. "And, of course, citrus … and bell peppers are good sources of vitamin C." It seems so simple, but yes, a little dose of orange or lemon can be good for your lungs.
The Office of Dietary Supplements (ODS) recommends you aim for five varied servings of fruits and vegetables per day to get your vitamin C. Some other foods rich in vitamin C include tomatoes and tomato juice, potatoes, Brussels sprouts and cantaloupe, as well as some fortified breakfast cereals.
Devour More Vitamins D and E
Vitamins D and E can also help protect the lungs from pollution damage that can trigger asthma flare-ups, COPD and lung cancer, according to the Respiratory Research review. Per findings in a September 2020 review in PLOS Pathogens, vitamin D has been proven effective in hampering hyperinflammatory responses and accelerating healing in the lung tissue in myriad upper respiratory infections.
The easiest way to get more vitamin D is 10 minutes of sunshine daily, Dr. Devereaux says. Beyond those rays, she suggests you add cod liver oil, fatty fish or fortified milk to your diet as the best sources for achieving the 800 to 1,000 IU/day she recommends.
And to get your vitamin E, the ODS suggests adding nuts, seeds and cooking oils (soybean, canola and other vegetable oils), as well as green leafy veggies and fortified cereals to your meals.
Consume Carotenoids and Omega-3s
Important carotenoids, as noted by the Respiratory Research review, include lutein, lycopene, beta-carotene and vitamin A.
Though smokers and people exposed to asbestos are discouraged from taking beta-carotene supplements due to a potential increased risk of cancer, eating foods high in this nutrient is safe and potentially even beneficial for their lung health, Dr. Devereaux says.
Dietary sources of vitamin A come in retinol and carotenoids. You can find the former in animal sources (eggs, whole milk, liver), while carrots and other orange and yellow fruits will give you the latter.
For lycopene, Dr. Devereaux recommends tomatoes — but be sure not to refrigerate them, she notes, as that degrades their lycopene. And, she adds, you should up your leafy greens intake to get more lutein, which "can improve lung function in smokers."
Finally, don't forget those lung-healthy anti-inflammatory omega-3s. Some easy ways to get more omega-3s include fish and nuts (like walnuts), she notes.
Protect With Polyphenols
Another potential lung protector, polyphenols are widely found in plants and are anti-inflammatory and antioxidant-packed, according to an April 2016 review in the journal Current Opinion in Food Science.
To up your intake, Dr. Devereaux recommends sipping on green tea and black coffee. And, bonus, she says: The caffeine can act as a bronchodilator to open up your airways. In terms of food, she suggests adding polyphenol-rich red and purple berries and fruits, including pomegranate, raspberries and strawberries to your diet.
Is This an Emergency?
- Asha Devereaux, MD, MPH, double board-certified pulmonary specialist, Coronado, California
- Respiratory Research: “Pollution and Respiratory Disease: Can Diet or Supplements Help? A Review”
- Cleveland Clinic: “Mediterranean Diet”
- PLOS Pathogens: “Exploring Links Between Vitamin D Deficiency and COVID-19”
- Current Opinion in Food Science: “Dietary Polyphenols, Oxidative Stress and Antioxidant and Anti-Inflammatory Effects”
- Office of Dietary Supplements: “Vitamin C”
- Office of Dietary Supplements: “Vitamin E”