Monday, January 21, 2013

Food as Medicine, Part 1: The Lungs

My mother's recent illness has made me decide to delve deeper into foods and other natural remedies that have been shown to help specific body organs.  While the body really should be looked at as a whole entity as opposed to a bunch of separate parts, there are things we can do to target specific systems.  This is the first in a series.  Today, in honor of my mom, I will address the lungs.

In Chinese medicine, the lungs are thought of as the "master of qi."  They take in clear qi (qi is hard to explain, but think of it in this case as basically your body's healthy force of life) and help push out all the waste and nasty stuff, all the while helping to move the qi to all the other organs in the body so that they work optimally.  They are thought to be associated with the emotion of sadness, and excessive sadness will cause problems in the lungs.  They are also thought to be harmed by excessive dryness, heat, or cold (and you have likely experienced this when weather conditions get extreme).

In Western medicine, the lungs pull in, circulate, clean, and exchange air so that our bodies can survive and function as they should.   However you look at it, if you enjoy activities such as singing, talking, laughing, and breathing, the lungs come in handy.

The first thing I would like to address on the topic of lung health is proper breathing.  Quite frankly, almost no one breathes correctly in Westernized countries.  We are all so stressed out that our breathing becomes shallow and inefficient-- it's "panic breath."  However, if you consider that around 60% of the body's lymph nodes are located right around the diaphragm, and that therefore diaphragm-centered breathing can actually activate lymph cleansing, eliminating toxins at about 15 times the rate they would otherwise be eliminated, it might be a good idea to change your breathing habits.

A smart guy named John West, in Respiratory physiology: the essentials. (6th ed. Philadelphia: Lippincott, Williams and Wilkins; 2000). documented the air capacity of the different portions of the lungs.  The lower 13% of the lung actually brings in 60ml of oxygen per minute as compared to the 4ml that the upper 7% brings in.  Breathing from the diaphragm and into the lower portion of the lung creates far better blood oxygenation than chest breathing-- actually, chest breathing is a symptom of many diseases such as cardiovascular disease, asthma, and more. 

One way I like to train people to breathe properly is to stick your fingers in your lower ribs.  Breathe in through your nose, and as you do so, try to use your breath to push your fingers out of your ribs.  Another way is to lie on your back with one hand on your chest and another on your abdomen, and while you breathe through your nose, try to make your lower hand move with your inhalation without your upper hand moving.  You can also try this lying on your belly, resting your forehead in your hands, and trying to push the ground away from you with your lower belly as you breathe in.  As a singer, one thing I can recommend to you, if you're really serious about breathing technique, is to get lessons from a really good vocal coach.  My vocal coach, Jaime Vendera, wrote a great book with all kinds of breathing techniques you can try if you like.  It is geared towards singers, but properly trained singers tend to breathe really well.

Me and my diaphragmatic breathing.  :)

So let's talk food.  Certain foods seem to have a protective effect on the lungs.  Here is a short list of some that look promising:

Pomegranates: Pomegranates seem to protect rat and mouse lungs from getting cancer. (1) (2)  While further research is certainly needed, pomegranates have a host of healthy benefits that make them worth consuming.

Green Tea:  Green tea has been shown in several studies to have a chemoprotective effect for the lungs (and other organ systems as well).  (1)  (2)  (3)

Certain types of flavanoids are protective against cancer.   Flavanoids are present in plants and usually help to pigment the plant.  They also play a role in protecting the plant against disease, and in helping the plant send chemical messages.  The following flavanoids seem particularly powerful against lung cancer:

  1. Catechin (green and black tea, strawberries)
  2. Kaempferol (Brussels sprouts, apples)
  3. Quercetin (beans, onions, apples)
  4. Naringin (white grapefruit and other citrus fruits)
(1) (2)

Astaxanthin (found in algae, it's the stuff that makes salmon pink) seems to have a protective effect on smokers' lungs.

Fruits and vegetables high in vitamin C and beta-carotene seem to have an especially good effect on lowering lung cancer risk.  Some of these include:

- carrots
-broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, and other cruciferous vegetables
- berries and cherries (think acerola cherries and strawberries)
- kiwi
- bell peppers
- dark, leafy greens like kale and chard
- tomatoes
- orange sweet potatoes
- orange winter squash (pumpkin, butternut, etc)

Of course, keeping the air around you as clean as possible has a great effect on your lungs.  Make sure you use natural, non-toxic cleaning products, and stay far away from smoke of any kind-- cigarette, marijuana (first or second-hand for either!), wood fire, etc (I use coffee logs in my fireplace instead of wood to reduce pollution that way).  Try using a really high quality HEPA filter in your home to remove particles from the air.

Get your place tested for radon.  Radon gas is the second leading cause of lung cancer, and it is not detectable any way other than with testing.  

While there is limited information currently linking cardiovascular exercise to a lower incidence of lung cancer, the studies that do exist show that it can help.  My exercise of choice is kettlebell swings, of course!

Questions?  Comments?  Post 'em here...


  1. Being a Respiratory Therapist, the title of this post was great to see!! If only I could get patients to breath properly. It's amazing how horrible people breath. Especially those who are carrying around 500 or more lbs of flab-which is something I see on a daily basis. In fact, the average weight of patients we see is 400lbs. They all think since they can't breath, they need a respiratory therapist when in deed, all they need is a physical therapist to get them out of bed and moving.
    Also having mild asthma and a bad mitral valve due to scarlet fever as a kid, I agree with the kettlebell swing to maximize my pulmonary and cardio endurance.

    1. Thanks so much for the input, Diana. I actually just added a bit at the end about radon gas-- forgot to put that in on the first pass!

    2. Nice add on the radon.....testing is so easy, yet people have the never ending "it will never happen to me" attitude-just like never changing their battery in their smoke detectors.