Wintertime isn’t all snow angels and ice skating. It’s that special time of year when colds and influenza make the rounds at school, the workplace, and everywhere else people breathe and touch objects that others also lay their hands on (such as doorknobs). There is almost no escaping exposure to disease-carrying bacteria and viruses.
Why, then, do some folks get sick at the drop of a sneeze while others seem never to get sick? The answer has to do, in part, with genetics and luck – and there isn’t much we can do about them. But there is one thing we can all help control: the health of our immune systems.
Did you know that the lungs play a critical part in the body’s immune system, Mother Nature’s natural defense mechanism that constantly fights illness?
Think about it: all air-borne infections are inhaled and then travel directly to the lungs. Disease-resistant lungs can nip many troublesome health problems in the bud, so to speak.
In broad terms, the lungs are responsible for “gas exchange” – bringing in essential oxygen and getting rid of useless CO2. Life is a gas when our lungs are in tip-top condition. But when our lungs can’t pass gas – so to speak – hard times can follow.
Having healthy, unobstructed, efficient lungs is very important to good health and a strong immune system that naturally fights off respiratory illnesses.
The good news is that there are several simple ways to keep breathing easily. Note that “simple” does not necessarily mean “easy.”
First and foremost, if you smoke tobacco products, stop it. Now. (I warned you that lung health might not be easy.) Cigarettes are highly toxic. They deliver nicotine, carbon monoxide, and tar directly into the lungs. All of those substances are anti-life.
Ischemia is a medical condition “in which the blood flow (and thus oxygen) is restricted or reduced in a part of the body. Cardiac ischemia is the name for decreased blood flow and oxygen to the heart muscle.”
Narrowed heart arteries keep the body’s blood pump from getting the blood and oxygen needed to keep it beating properly. The resultant condition has many names, including coronary artery disease, coronary heart disease, and ischemic heart disease. Left unchecked, constricted coronary arteries may produce a heart attack.
A study published in 2005 by the BMJ (formerly the British Medical Journal) found that both men and women who smoke between one and four cigarettes a day have “a significantly higher risk of dying from ischaemic heart disease and from all causes, and from lung cancer in women.”
Second, exercise on a regular basis. Simple enough in theory, but not easy when your body is out of shape. Exercise forces the lungs and heart to work harder. Consequently, more oxygenated blood fuels the muscles.
Aerobic exercise is especially good for the lungs:
“Brisk exercise that promotes the circulation of oxygen through the blood and is associated with an increased rate of breathing.”
Even power-walking for 20 minutes four times a week brings tremendous health benefits. But you’ll do your lungs a big favor by doing 30 minutes of moderate exercise five days a week, according to a 2016 study, which also gave some good news:
“Any type of physical activity counts as exercise. It could be a planned sport such as running, swimming, tennis or bowls, an exercise training programme, or a hobby such as cycling or walking.”
Third, avoid exposure to environmental toxins such as second-hand tobacco smoke (or any other smoke, for that matter), vehicle exhaust, and workplace pollutants. As we age, the resilient lungs of youth weaken and becomes easier targets for infections and diseases.
The Cleveland Clinic warns us:
“Toxins have been found in beauty products, household cleaners, carpets, furniture, mattresses, house dust ― and even in foods and products from natural sources.”
Annoying as it can be, if you spend time anywhere that has high concentrations of pollution, wear a dust or chemical mask to reduce the number of unhealthy particles you inhale.
Keep your home and office area as dust-free as possible and use natural cleaning products rather than synthetic chemicals.
You can build up your natural immune system by eating a nutritious diet full of fruits and vegetables and drinking lots of filtered tap water.
Wash fruits and vegetables to reduce agricultural toxins (pesticides and fertilizers) or pay more for organic food products. Better yet, grow your own garden so you can control what you are eating.
The Cleveland Clinic said that “conventionally-grown strawberries, apples, celery, cucumbers, grapes, spinach, and potatoes contain the highest amounts of pesticides.”
Drink filtered tap water and bypass commercial bottled water which isn’t as pure as the labels would lead you to believe. According to the Cleveland Clinic:
“In 2008, the Environmental Working Group conducted a study on 10 different brands of bottled water. Their results showed 38 pollutants from disinfection byproducts, to industrial chemicals and bacteria.”
Fourth, one of the simplest things you can do to prevent infections is to wash your hands regularly with warm soapy water. The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety confirms this fact:
“You can spread certain ‘germs’ (a general term for microbes like viruses and bacteria) casually by touching another person. You can also catch germs when you touch contaminated objects or surfaces and then you touch your face…”
Effective hand-washing means use enough soap to produce some lather, rub your hands together to generate friction, and rinse under running water – preferably warm water.
Soap, water, and friction do not kill microorganisms, but antibacterial soaps go too far outside of a hospital setting, unless your hands are heavily soiled. Seek the middle ground by using ethyl alcohol-based hand sanitizers or waterless hand scrubs.
In addition, break bad habits you might have developed and train yourself not to touch the sensitive tissues on your face (mouth, eyes, and nose). Once again, this may not be easy for many people. But practice makes perfect.
Researchers discovered that “the average person touches communal surfaces about three times an hour, and touches her own mouth or nose even more frequently.” Communal surfaces include doorknobs, shared devices (keyboards or phones), and silverware someone else put away.
A combination of washing your hands often and touching your face as little as possible is the best way to go, according to Women’s Health Magazine:
“When you scratch your nose or rub your eyes, you hand-deliver the germs you’ve picked up from touching common surfaces, and increase your risk of infection. And because any object you touch between hand-washings can contaminate your hands, experts say the solution isn’t just washing more, but also touching your face less.”
Last, but not least, take deep breaths that flex the entire lung-bellows system. The average human lung capacity is around 6 quarts, but most people don’t stretch their lungs completely.
“Shallow breathing lets stagnant air and pollutants accumulate in the depths of the lungs and may lead to fatigue, respiratory sluggishness, and diminished tissue function,” says Dr. Edward Group for the Global Healing Center.
All singers know that shallow breathing comes from the chest, whereas deep breathing comes from the diaphragm.
Meditation is a great way to learn complete-breath techniques. Focus on breathing in completely and expelling all the air in your lungs. Repeat.
The bottom line is that if you are nice to your lungs, they will serve you well throughout your entire life. You can breathe easier – literally – when your body’s gas exchange system is well-tuned for high performance.