Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), a chronic respiratory illness characterized by shortness of breath and cough, is a lethal disease. Smoking and prolonged exposure to pollutants are primarily blamed for this disorder.
According to the Global Initiative for Obstructive Lung Disease, in 2020, COPD will become the third major cause of death worldwide. Overtime this progressive disease leads to lung failure, which eventually might lead to death.
What causes COPD?
The air that we breathe enters the lungs through the airways or the bronchial tubes. The bronchial tubes distribute the air in the lungs through branches of smaller thinner tubes or bronchioles. The bronchioles end in tiny air sacs called alveoli. Tiny blood vessels are present on the walls of the air sac.
When we inhale air, oxygen passes through the walls of the air sacs into the blood flowing through the blood vessels. And when we exhale, carbon dioxide moves into the air sac from the blood flowing through the blood vessels. The air sacs are like small balloons that inflate when we breathe in and deflate when we breathe out.
COPD develops when the air sacs fail to perform their normal functions. Breathing difficulties occur when the air sacs lose their elasticity. COPD might develop if the walls of the airways become thick or swollen. Destruction of the walls between some of the air sacs reduces airflow in the lungs, resulting in shortness of breath. Excessive mucus production might clog the airways, leading to cough and breathing difficulties. COPD usually includes chronic bronchitis and emphysema.
Smokers have the highest risk of developing COPD. Even secondhand smoking is a key cause of respiratory problems. Indoor and outdoor environmental pollution can contribute to this problem. Prolonged exposure to lung irritants damages the air sacs and the airways. COPD might be triggered by a rare genetic condition known as alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency.
Alpha antitrypsin (AAT) is a protein produced by the liver. People suffering from this condition have low levels of AAT. Even non-smokers with low levels of AAT have a higher risk of developing COPD than the general population. In smokers with AAT deficiency, the symptoms of COPD aggravates at a faster pace. The symptoms of COPD rarely appear before the age of 40. However, if a person suffers from AAT deficiency, the symptoms might develop at an early age.
Treatment of COPD
There is no cure for COPD. Nonetheless, the progression of the disease could be slowed down with proper medication and by adopting a healthy lifestyle.
To prevent the progression of the disease, COPD patients should give up this harmful habit. They should also avoid passive smoking.
Bronchodilators improve breathing by relaxing the muscles around the airways. The medications are taken through inhalers. Depending upon the severity of the breathing problem, your doctor would prescribe either a short-acting bronchodilator or a long-acting bronchodilator.
Short-acting bronchodilators, usually recommended for people with mild COPD, eases breathing for up to six hours. Long-lasting bronchodilators are usually suitable for COPD patients with moderate to severe breathing problems. Your physician might prescribe inhaled steroid to reduce flare-ups.
Although shortness of breath limits physical activities in COPD patients, certain exercises, if practiced daily, could increase endurance and improve the symptoms of COPD. A well-designed pulmonary rehabilitation program could improve the quality of life of COPD patients.
People diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease could exercise for about 20 to 30 minutes, at least thrice a day. They should gradually increase their activity level. A typical workout session should start with a five-minute warm-up session, which would comprise of simple stretching exercises. Low to moderate intensity aerobic or cardiovascular workouts such as walking, bicycling, water aerobics and skating could be included in the daily exercise schedule.
However, the exact nature of the exercises and the duration of the workouts would depend upon the exercising capacity and the health condition of the person. Strengthening exercises that increase the strength of the respiratory muscles could reduce the breathing difficulties of COPD patients. COPD patients should breathe slowly during physical activities.
They should breathe in through the nose, and breathe out slowly through pursed lips. Certain yoga poses are beneficial for people diagnosed with COPD. Diaphragm and belly breathing exercises could reduce breathing difficulties.
Oxygen therapy is beneficial for people with severe COPD. The extra oxygen eases breathing, reduces discomforts caused by low oxygen level in the blood and improves the quality of life.
Rarely surgery or lung transplant benefits people suffering from severe COPD.
Vitamin D for COPD
Recently researchers at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, in Belgium, have found that vitamin D supplements might alleviate discomfort caused by COPD. The study, presented at the American Thoracic Society’s annual meeting, held in Denver, claims that COPD patients have a higher risk of experiencing vitamin D deficiency than the general population. Breathing difficulties tend to limit the physical activities of COPD patients.
As a result, they are less likely to spend sufficient time outdoors in the sunlight. Inadequate sun exposure inhibits the natural vitamin D synthesis process in the body. Physical inactivity in people suffering from respiratory illness increases the risk of osteoporosis, muscle weakness and heart diseases. Vitamin D deficiency further aggravates muscle weakness and increases risk of falls.
In the Belgian study, researchers observed that after participating in a pulmonary rehabilitation program for up to three months, the exercising capacity improved in COPD patients with a history of acute COPD exacerbation who took large doses of vitamin D in supplements daily. Researchers speculate that by improving the peripheral and respiratory muscle strength, vitamin D might reduce breathing difficulties triggered by physical activities.
The volunteers in the Belgian study were asked to take 100,000 International Units (IU) of vitamin D, which is significantly higher than the minimum recommended dose. The recommended daily allowance of vitamin up to the age of 70 is 600 IU, and for elderly people above 70 the recommended amount is 800IU.
Herbs for COPD
In traditional medicines, Echinacea, Asian Ginseng, astralgalus root and licorice root are used for treating chronic breathing problems.
Photo Credit: Ovariancancersymptom-s.com