To Your Health

My father has just been diagnosed with COPD. Do you have any suggestions on nutritional help for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease?

Q. My father has just been diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Do you have any suggestions on nutritional help for COPD?

A. COPD, which includes chronic bronchitis and emphysema, is a general term used to describe problems with airflow into and out of the lungs. It affects 10-20% of adults in America and is the second leading cause of disability. Although COPD is not directly caused by a nutritional deficiency, diet plays a very important role in its management. Proper nutrition will not cure COPD but it can improve stamina and help in the fight against infection.

One simple lifestyle change that helps almost everyone with COPD is an increase in fluid intake, aiming for eight cups or more of water daily. Water keeps mucus thin, allowing for better exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide. Limit caffeine-containing beverages since these cause the body to lose water and also increase the diuretic effect of medications.

People with COPD should include high-fiber foods in their diets, such as vegetables, cooked dried peas and beans (legumes), whole-grain foods, bran, brown rice, and fresh fruit. Fiber is the indigestible part of plant food that helps move food along the digestive tract, avoiding that "too full" feeling. High-fiber foods may induce intestinal gas that can cause uncomfortable abdominal pressure, but a digestive enzyme known as Beano will often reduce this tendency.

Several of the medications used to treat the various causes of COPD bring on additional nutrient requirements. Research confirms that inhaled steroids, often used for persistent asthma, are associated with a loss of bone-density in the hip and upper thighbone. Even premenopausal women who use them to control their asthma should take calcium, magnesium, and the other nutritional supplements that reduce the risk of developing osteoporosis. If diuretics are prescribed, which can disturb sodium/potassium balance, ask your physician if a potassium supplement would be helpful.

Avoid exposure to noxious chemical fumes that may trigger asthma. Lungs are perilously sensitive to such challenges that can aggravate COPD symptoms in any sufferer, but for the people who are already sensitive it can be disastrous. For people with COPD, the muscles used in breathing may already be using 10 times more energy than those of a person without COPD, so any added burden can be calamitous.

The results from three recent studies suggest that vitamin C may lower the risk of COPD. Since only about 15% of smokers develop emphysema, other factors besides smoking must come into play. Investigators found that the higher the intakes of vitamin C, the better the lung function. Those individuals who have relatively high levels of vitamin C in their blood have better lung function and a lower risk of COPD than do those with lower blood levels. One possible explanation for this is that vitamin C, an antioxidant, protects the lungs from the actions of free radicals. Free radicals are the harmful byproducts of our oxygen-based metabolism and antioxidants such as vitamin C can defend us against their harmful effects.

The right mix of nutrients in the diet of COPD sufferers can help them breathe easier. A well-nourished body helps the COPD patient to fight infections and may cut down on hospitalizations.

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