The human body is a machine of extreme complexity. More than 35 billion cells perform vital functions for our survival and well-being on a daily basis. From the ones that form our hair follicles (that generate hair) to the neurons that make us who we are. Without some organs you can lead a normal life (like anyone whose appendix has been removed); without others, death is assured. That’s the case with our lungs. His work, though monotonous, is fundamental: to empty the ‘dirty’ blood of carbon dioxide, product of cellular respiration, and fill it with sweet and vital oxygen. Every day we breathe about 23,000 times, which is almost 650 million exhalations and inspirations throughout our lives. Being something so important, it won’t hurt to take care of them as much as we can. Of course, their maintenance requires certain essential nutrients; and knowing which ones will allow us to maintain a healthier respiratory system.
Science has studied in depth how nutrition affects our respiratory system. A meta-analysis published by scientists Bronwyn S. Berthon and Lisa G. Wood reviewed all recent research on how both diets and specific nutrients affect people with asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), of which there are two branches: chronic bronchitis (affecting more than 5% of the population) and emphysema. The nutrients that were considered critical to our lung health are:
- Vitamin C
- Vitamin E
- Vitamin D
The role of antioxidants in our respiratory health is to counteract the effects that can have the ‘reactive oxygen species‘ (EOR) – very reactiveiones of this element – capable of causing oxidative stress and, therefore, inflammation. EORs are frequent in cities due to pollution. Lycopene can suppress neutrophil inflammation of the airways,” the researchers say.
Studies, both in vitro and in animals, have shown that vitamin C (which in turn is also an antioxidant) “could inhibit the production of negative proteins for the lungs by altering the function of the nuclear potentiating factor of the kappa light chains of activated B cells (NF-kB)”, which means that it would prevent our own DNA from generating a ‘bad’ protein. Something similar happens with vitamin E. This is able to neutralize the oxidizing agents that enter our respiratory system, and with the help of the aforementioned vitamin C, return to its original form (as before ‘antioxydize’) to continue fulfilling the rest of functions of our body.
In turn, flavonoids are famous for their antioxidant properties, carrying out similar functions. In the case of minerals and vitamin D, a great deal of literature exists regarding their role in protecting our lungs, but all of it is based on statistical data, and that, bearing in mind that correlation does not imply causality, opens new doors to research, but does not confirm anything.
The best (and worst) diet
Researchers Bronwyn S. Berthon and Lisa G. Wood of the meta-analysis mentioned above came to the conclusion that “Western nutritional customs, typical of developed countries, are characterized by the consumption of refined flours, red meats, sweets and large amounts of milk fats, which has been associated with an increased risk of lung disease. The good news is that, according to many studies, the best diet we can follow to maintain a good breath is the Mediterranean diet. In fact, the researchers clarify that “a study conducted in Japan found a strong association between following the Mediterranean diet and controlling lung diseases such as asthma.
What to eat
A diet, after all, is a guide. No matter how healthy the Mediterranean is, some of the foods it contains will necessarily be better for our lungs than others:
To achieve adequate levels of vitamin C we can resort to oranges or lemons, cauliflower, kiwi and broccoli.
Vitamin E is found in large quantities in virgin olive oil. It can also be found in other vegetable oils, nuts and vegetables such as spinach and broccoli.
The other vitamin that brings great benefits to our respiratory health is D. It is one of the most difficult to get, as explained by Dr. Angel Durántez in Alimente. The foods rich in it are blue fish such as salmon and tuna, veal liver, cheese, mushrooms and egg yolk.
Flavonoids are unique to vegetables, so all foods (although more leaf and fruit) will contain this nutrient.
If Spain is the second country in the world with the highest life expectancy, it is largely thanks to its diet. And now we know that it also protects our lungs.