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Talk about essential workers: Lungs are vital to filling our bodies with life. But did you know that how well they execute their duties has a real effect on how we feel and focus, and even on the foods we crave? Learn how to keep your respiratory system healthy and performing smoothly and efficiently. Your whole body (and mind) will benefit.

By Kelly DiNardo
March 24, 2021
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Inhale, exhale. You repeat this process over and over, about 25,000 times a day, mostly without even realizing it. Yet how you breathe affects practically everything you do. Research shows that taking shallow sips of air rather than deep ones can make you feel more stressed and less focused, and crank up your allergies. It can even cause junk-food cravings.

lung shaped tree
Credit: Mauricio Alejo

That's because your respiratory system touches all 10 of your body's other systems. It brings them the oxygen they need to function, and expels the carbon dioxide they produce. To start this cycle, your brain sends a signal to the diaphragm, an umbrella-shaped muscle under your lungs, telling it to pull downward. That sucks air into your nose and through your trachea and the two bronchial tubes of the lungs, which branch out into tiny air sacs called alveoli. There, red blood cells grab the oxygen and ferry it around your body, where it's used to generate energy for all sorts of vital processes. The red blood cells then take the carbon dioxide "trash" back to the alveoli, from which it whooshes out as the diaphragm relaxes.

All of this happens 12 to 15 times a minute, and when you're healthy, it's effortless. But when you're congested or sick, it's not. Almost 25 million U.S. adults have asthma; it disproportionately affects Blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans. About 14.8 million have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). More than 50 million have allergies. And while we now know what a pulse oximeter is (and that a healthy blood-oxygen level is in the upper 90s), we don't know what COVID-19's aftereffects will be. Here's what you can do now, and for the future, to support and protect these organs.

Breathe Through Your Nose

As opposed to mouth breathing (something half of us do, sending our stress levels up), this filters germs and toxins out of the air as it enters the body, and humidifies it so it's less dehydrating. It also draws in 20 percent more oxygen and boosts your intake of nitric oxide, a gas that relaxes the blood vessels and helps that oxygen get where it needs to go faster. "The human body is designed to breathe through the nose, not the mouth," says journalist James Nestor, the author of Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art ($16.75, amazon.com). When you inhale and exhale through your nose for six seconds each, a rate called resonant breathing, your cardiopulmonary system hits a state of peak efficiency. Try it out; it feels amazing.

Improve Your Air Quality

We each take in more than 2,000 gallons every day. For nearly half of us, that supply is unhealthy, per the American Lung Association; check your zip code's at stateoftheair.org. "We're breathing in pollutants like ozone, lead, and sulfur dioxide, and particulate matter like dust and smoke," says pulmonologist Michael J. Stephen, MD, author of the new book Breath Taking ($18.38, amazon.com). "Our body sees them as foreign invaders, so white blood cells move into the lungs to fight them off." Blood flow increases to get those white blood cells there, creating inflammation. In the short term, this can worsen asthma; over time, it can elevate one's risk of COPD, stroke, and cancer.

To reduce exposure, check the forecast. Click to your local weather station, weather.com, or airnow.gov to gauge the overall state outside and levels of specific culprits, like pollen, ozone, and particulates. Air quality is lowest when it's really hot, so if possible, plan to be outdoors early or late in the day. Ventilating your home is important, too, so close windows when the air quality is low or the pollen count is high; throw them open briefly when it's good (and not too cold or hot) to dilute any indoor pollution caused by cooking or cleaning fumes.

Investing in an air purifier is another route—but first, use the built-in filter that is your nose. Plants such as English ivy and snake plants can help absorb volatile organic compounds (VOCs) like ozone, though recent research finds their impact to be fairly small. An air purifier can remove fine airborne particles like pollen, dust mites, and pet dander. We can't say for sure whether it will kill viruses, but studies show that exposure to air pollution can leave you more vulnerable to infections. If you often feel congested, consider investing in a purifier with a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter for your bedroom, as well as a humidifier, says Neeta Ogden, MD, an allergy, asthma, and immunology specialist in Edison, New Jersey. She likes Filtrete's Smart Air Purifiers (from $247, filtrete.com).

Eat Lung-Supporting Foods

Much of the research linking nutrition to lung function focuses on COPD. But the takeaway is broad: Diets high in processed food can impair these organs, while ones brimming with fruits and veggies reduce risk of COPD and improve symptoms in people who have the disease. "It makes sense," says Nestor. "What you eat impacts inflammation. Fruits and vegetables are full of nutrients, antioxidants, and fiber, which reduce inflammation." Leafy greens also produce circulation-boosting nitric oxide. Keep tabs on your dietary iron, too. It's a building block of hemoglobin, the protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen around, explains Dr. Stephen. When it's low, you can feel extra-tired and bruise easily, among other symptoms. Inadequate iron levels are especially common in kids and pregnant or premenopausal women, per the National Institutes of Health.

Vegetarians and vegans should take care, too. Lean meat and seafood are major sources, but so are fortified cereals, beans, spinach, and tofu. Non-pregnant adult women need 18 milligrams a day, roughly what you'd get from three cups of lentils. Aim to hit your quota from meals, not taking a supplement, advises Dr. Stephen; foods have cofactors that help your body absorb the nutrient better. For example, pairing iron-rich foods with vitamin C-rich ones, like peppers and broccoli, optimizes absorption.

Expand Through Exercise

For sustained lung health, get your heart and muscles pumping daily. "Aim for about 20 minutes of cardio, be it dancing, running, or swimming; and 20 minutes of anaerobic exercise, like weights or yoga," says Dr. Stephen. Exercise can also help improve your body-oxygen-level test score, a measure of how efficiently you use oxygen, says Patrick McKeown, the author of The Oxygen Advantage ($14.19, amazon.com). To learn yours, rest for 10 minutes, then inhale and exhale through your nose. Hold your nostrils closed, and time how long it takes for you to want to inhale again. (The goal isn't to turn blue; just note when you feel the first distinct urge.) For most people, it's about 20 seconds, but per McKeown, 40 seconds is ideal.

Yoga also helps, since poor posture can constrict the diaphragm and encourage fast, stress-inducing chest breathing. Try moves that pull your shoulders back and decompress your spine, like cat-cow pose or a forward fold: Interlace your fingers behind you, bend over, and stretch your arms up. You'll feel your shoulders widen, giving you, quite literally, more room to breathe.

Instant Relief

The next time you feel stuffed up, try one of these simple tactics to clear your airways. First up? Humming. It may sound nuts, but the vibration can release 15 to 20 times more circulation-boosting nitric oxide into the blood vessels of your nasal passages, which can help flush congestion. Alternate-nostril breathing can also help. Put pressure on your left nostril and inhale through the right, then put pressure on the right nostril and exhale out the left. Reverse the order and repeat as many times as you like, suggests Jasmine Marie, an Atlanta-based breath-work practitioner who founded Black Girls Breathing, an organization that holds virtual and in-person sessions to help Black women nurture their mental, emotional, and spiritual health.

Last but certainly not least, shake it out. This exercise is from McKeown, who began studying breath work to fix his own asthma, rhinitis, and sleep-disordered patterns: Sit up straight, gently inhale and exhale through your nose, and pinch both nostrils shut. Shake your head up and down or from side to side until you need to breathe. Take a slow breath in through your nose, or through pursed lips if you're still feeling clogged. Breathe calmly for 30 seconds. Repeat five times.

Styling by Fidel Castañeda

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