Superfoods for Those With Asthma and COPD (Part 11 of my Superfoods series)
While diet alone can’t typically cure chronic diseases, certain foods can lessen your chances of developing illnesses, help relieve symptoms, and improve your well-being while going through treatments. In particular, superfoods may be a great way to support your lung health.
Superfoods are packed with high levels of important nutrients such as vitamins and minerals. They can provide your cells and tissues with the building blocks they need to stay healthy and do their jobs. For people living with respiratory diseases that affect the lungs and airways, a healthy diet may be an important part of living a lifestyle that helps them breathe easier.
Asthma and COPD: The Basics
Respiratory diseases can have a big impact on your quality of life. Breathing problems may make it harder for you to be active or take care of yourself. You may miss work, school, or personal obligations because of respiratory disease symptoms. Finding ways to manage these conditions can help boost your health, be more comfortable, and do the things you want to do.
What Is Asthma?
Asthma is a common condition leading to coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, and chest tightness. It occurs when inflammation builds up in your airways, causing them to narrow and making it harder for air to pass through. Asthma symptoms come on more strongly during an asthma attack, which can be triggered by physical activity, allergies, cold air, infections, or chemicals.
Asthma can be treated with a variety of therapies. Fast-acting inhalers can help open up your airways during an asthma attack. Other daily medications can reduce your risk of an asthma attack. In more severe cases, a surgical procedure called bronchial thermoplasty can help widen your airways.
Lifestyle factors can also help you treat asthma. While they won’t cure your condition, things like quitting smoking, reducing stress levels, and avoiding allergens may help relieve symptoms and improve your sense of well-being. Choosing or avoiding certain foods may also help you manage your asthma along with your medications.
What Is COPD?
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) consists of two different conditions that affect the lungs and airways. Emphysema is a type of COPD in which the small sacs within the lungs can’t properly inflate with air. The other type of COPD, chronic bronchitis, causes ongoing swelling and extra mucus within the airways. If you have COPD, you may be diagnosed with either or both conditions.
COPD symptoms are very similar to those of asthma but they are different conditions. They also tend to get worse over time. People with the condition may experience “exacerbations,” in which symptoms suddenly flare up as a result of factors like infections, cold air, certain smells, or air pollution.
COPD treatments involve medication, oxygen treatments, or surgery. Quitting smoking and taking steps to reduce your risk of infections can also help you avoid COPD exacerbations. Lifestyle changes like getting good nutrition can also help improve your well-being.
Superfoods for Better Lung Health
Your diet may directly affect your lungs. It may also impact other genetic or environmental factors that cause or worsen respiratory conditions. Certain superfoods contain nutrients that may boost your lung health and help you breathe easier.
Fish high in fat — including salmon, mackerel, sardines, herring, trout, and tuna — contain a lot of omega-3 fatty acids, making them a popular superfood that provides many health benefits.
Eating more fatty fish may also help lower the risk of COPD for people who smoke. Some but not all studies also show that omega-3 fatty acids could help reduce symptoms for people already diagnosed with COPD.
Just one serving of almonds contains nearly half of the vitamin E you need each day.
Vitamin E helps prevent damage to your cells’ membranes (the outer barrier that holds cells together). It may also block the immune system from causing inflammation in your lungs, leading to easier breathing. Additionally, people often have lower levels of vitamin E when they are undergoing COPD exacerbations, showing that this vitamin may play affect symptoms.
Fruits are well-known to help protect against respiratory conditions because of all their nutrients. In particular, they contain vitamins that act as antioxidants — molecules that heal damage within cells.
Start your day with three-fourths of a cup (six ounces) of orange juice to load up your body with more than 100% of the vitamin C you need for the day. Vitamin C acts as an antioxidant that destroys damage-causing chemicals in your tissues. Antioxidants are particularly important for people with asthma or COPD who currently or formerly smoked because cigarette smoke contains chemicals that damage the airways.
Several studies have shown that eating hard fruits such as apples can boost lung health. It’s not entirely clear why this is, but experts believe that apples contain a large variety of vitamins and other nutrients that can heal tissue and fight inflammation.
Researchers have found that when mothers eat apples while pregnant, their children are less likely to develop asthma. Additionally, children who drink more apple juice tend to have fewer asthma symptoms, such as wheezing. Finally, adults who eat a lot of apples have lower rates of asthma than those who don’t eat any.
Apples may also help protect against COPD — those who eat at least five apples per week have better lung function. Additionally, the more apples a person eats, the less likely they are to develop COPD in the future.
Sweet potatoes are a nutrient-packed superfood that provide a lot of essential vitamins and minerals. They are one of the best sources of beta-carotene, a molecule that your body uses to make vitamin A.
Beta-carotene is also an antioxidant that fights damage and aging. People who eat more of this vitamin tend to have better lung function.
You can also find beta-carotene in other orange, yellow, and green fruit and vegetable superfoods, such as squash, carrots, pumpkin, kale, spinach, and collard greens.
Whole grains contain a lot of beneficial nutrients that white or refined grains lack. In particular, these superfoods have a lot of fiber.
Studies have found that people who eat a lot of fiber are more likely to have better lung function. Fiber also helps feed the “good” bacteria that live in your intestines and help you digest food. The balance of “good” and “bad” gut bacteria also influences your immune system and can affect lung inflammation, so eating more whole grains may lead to fewer breathing problems.
" Whole grains are grains that have been less processed. They include products like bread or pasta that are labeled as “whole grain” or “whole wheat.” Whole grains also include brown rice, oatmeal, quinoa, buckwheat, bulgur, millet, and even popcorn. Refined grain products such as white bread, white rice, and many cereals, crackers, and desserts usually have much lower levels of fiber.
Eating the occasional superfood can’t make up for a poor diet. Regularly following healthful dietary patterns may be your best bet for managing asthma or COPD.
The Mediterranean Diet
A lot of research has found that people who regularly follow a Mediterranean diet are much less likely to experience certain health problems, such as heart disease or diabetes. This diet also lowers levels of inflammation throughout the body, including in the airways.
Some research has found that adults and children who follow a Mediterranean eating pattern are more likely to keep their asthma symptoms under control. This diet may also help children have better lung function. The Mediterranean diet can also lower risk of COPD.
To follow the Mediterranean diet, aim for:
- At least four servings of vegetables and three servings of fruit per day
- Four servings of grains per day, emphasizing whole grains
- At least three servings of nuts and seeds per week
- Three or more servings of beans per week
- Plenty of fish and seafood
- Using olive oil in place of butter or margarine
- Limited amounts of low-fat dairy and alcohol
- Little to no red meats, eggs, and desserts
In particular, research has found that the more fruits and vegetables you eat, the less likely you are to develop asthma and the milder your asthma symptoms are. The same is true for eating meat — people who follow plant-based diets have less severe asthma and don’t need to use their asthma medication as often.
If you’re interested in trying this diet, there are a variety of websites, meal-planning apps, and subscription meal kits that feature Mediterranean diet recipes.
The Western Diet
The Western diet is not a specific type of eating plan that people choose to follow. Rather, it is a general pattern of eating that is common in Western countries. It is essentially the opposite of the Mediterranean diet. Common features of this eating pattern include:
- Eating a lot of processed meats such as bacon, sausage, and deli meat, and red meats like beef or lamb
- Consuming a lot of processed, packaged, or ready-to-eat foods (such as fast food, ice cream, bread, cereal, chips, artificial sweeteners, frozen dinners, cheese, and soda)
- Eating a lot of desserts or high-sugar items
- Incorporating a lot of potatoes and refined grains into the diet
- Avoiding fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and fish
This diet triggers inflammation. It may increase a person’s risk of developing asthma. Additionally, people who already have asthma may have more trouble controlling asthma symptoms while following a Western diet pattern.
These foods may also be linked to COPD. For example, one study found that people who eat cured meats are more likely to develop the condition, and those who eat a lot of processed meat tend to have worse lung function, especially if they smoke or they don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables.
Foods to Avoid for Asthma or COPD
Staying away from certain foods or drinks may also be an important part of feeling your best while living with asthma or COPD.
Foods that contain dairy — such as milk, cheese, yogurt, and ice cream — may worsen your breathing. However, if you cut out dairy from your diet, make sure to get calcium and vitamin D from other sources, such as supplements. Calcium can also be found in canned sardines and salmon, leafy green vegetables like spinach, and certain milk substitutes such as soy milk.
Research has found that eating dairy can trigger asthma symptoms. When people with asthma avoid dairy products, studies have found that they are more likely to have better lung function. Dairy may also be a problem for those with COPD since it can sometimes lead to more mucus in the airways.
Too Much Salt
Some research has linked high salt consumption with asthma. Researchers have found that people with exercise-induced asthma tend to have worse symptoms and poor lung function. However, these factors improve and breathing becomes easier when they switch to a low-salt diet.
A high-salt diet may also lead to worse health for those with COPD, as it can increase swelling and raise your blood pressure.
Foods That Trigger Heartburn
Asthma and COPD are linked to acid reflux, which occurs when the fluid or foods in your stomach travel backward, up into your esophagus (the tube that carries food from your throat to your stomach). Long-lasting or severe acid reflux is known as gastroesophageal reflux disease or GERD. These conditions cause heartburn — a feeling of pain or burning in your chest, neck, or throat.
Up to four out of five people with asthma say they notice GERD symptoms, and a similar number of those with COPD may also have GERD. Treating these symptoms may improve asthma symptoms, increase lung function, and boost your quality of life.
To avoid acid reflux, you may want to stop eating acidic foods such as tomatoes, oranges, and grapefruit. Other problem foods and drinks that may trigger heartburn include spicy foods, fatty foods, chocolate, mint, alcohol, and caffeinated beverages like coffee or soda. Other GERD treatments including different types of medications and procedures are also available.
The Bottom Line
Eating a balanced, nutritious diet is an important part of managing asthma and COPD. The things you eat can play a big role in how much your lungs and airways are inflamed and impact your breathing.
Several superfoods contain nutrients that can improve lung health. Additionally, following an overall eating pattern containing a lot of plant-based foods and very few processed foods may make a big difference in your condition and quality of life.
If you would like some extra help in making sure that your diet is giving you all of the nutrients you need, talk to your doctor or a dietician.