Top 7 Supportive Supplements for Lung Health

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Top 7 Supportive Supplements for Lung Health

As flu season is coming around the corner again — and COVID-19 has yet to leave — many people are rightfully concerned about the health of their lungs and respiratory system. In this article, find out the top supplements for lung health and four lifestyle habits that support the respiratory system. 

Top 7 Supplements for Lung Health

1. Vitamin C

Vitamin C functions as an antioxidant in the body, scavenging for free radicals and reducing oxidative stress that can damage cells, including cells in the respiratory system. As the lungs continuously have to deal with various environmental pollutants that are breathed in, the antioxidant function of vitamin C can help reduce this burden. 

Vitamin C also supports lung health by its role in the immune system. The vitamin protects pathogens from disrupting the epithelial barrier of several organs, including the lungs. A dysfunctional epithelial barrier in the lungs is linked to respiratory infections, asthma, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). 

In an observational study published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition in November 2019, over 19,000 adults were followed for an average of 16 years. During that time, people with the lowest plasma levels of vitamin C were most likely to develop chronic respiratory disease or pneumonia. 

Research has also shown that a single infusion of vitamin C increased the ventilatory response in patients with smoking-related COPD. The most significant benefits were seen in the most severe COPD cases. A lower ventilatory response is linked to dysfunctions in the body’s acid-base balance, creating breathing disturbances.

supportive supplements for lung health include vitamin C and NAC

2. N-Acetylcysteine (NAC)

NAC is the supplemental form of the amino acid cysteine, which forms and replenishes levels of our master antioxidant, glutathione. NAC also works directly as an antioxidant by scavenging for free radicals and reducing oxidative damage.

NAC may prevent or reduce symptoms of various respiratory conditions, including COPD and bronchitis. NAC has also been shown to inhibit seasonal influenza viruses due to its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects in the lungs. 

A meta-analysis of 13 studies involving patients with COPD or bronchitis found supplemental NAC was linked to significantly fewer exacerbations of the respiratory illnesses. 

NAC has also been studied for its role in reducing inflammation related to respiratory diseases, as seen in a study looking at the effects of NAC supplementation on adults with pneumonia. The trial, published in Medicine in November 2018, found that 1200 mg per day of NAC significantly reduced markers of inflammation and oxidative stress compared to those not taking NAC. 

3. Vitamin D

Vitamin D is known for its anti-inflammatory and immune-supporting activity. The vitamin supports the epithelial barrier of the lungs, similar to vitamin C. 

Researchers believe that vitamin D improves lung health by maintaining a strong physical barrier between pathogens and the respiratory system and modulating both innate and adaptive immunity. 

Vitamin D is well-known for its ability to produce antimicrobial peptides called cathelicidin and defensins, which fight pathogens, lower viral replication rates, and reduce the expression of pro-inflammatory cytokines that damage the lungs. 

In a randomized controlled trial published in Nutrients in December 2017, a high-dose vitamin D supplement (200,000 IU to start, followed by a monthly 100,000 IU dose for one year) significantly improved the lung function of people who had ever smoked and those with asthma, COPD, or vitamin D deficiency. However, healthy adults did not see any additional benefits. 

Another study, published in Respirology in June 2018, found that low serum vitamin D levels in adults aged 45 to 69 were significantly associated with increased prevalence of asthma, bronchitis, wheezing, and chest tightness. Adults with higher serum vitamin D experienced greater lung function.

4. Ginseng

The two main families of the ginseng plant are Asian or Korean ginseng (Panax ginseng) and American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius). These plants contain bioactive compounds called ginsenosides that are linked to improved immunity and reduced inflammation. 

Researchers on a study published in the Journal of Ginseng Research in October 2018 isolated various ginsenosides from the Korean red ginseng plant and assessed their effects on a mouse model of lung inflammation. They found that these ginsenosides downregulated two pathways that stimulate pro-inflammatory cytokines, the MAPKs and NF-kB pathways. 

Another study found that mice who received fermented ginseng extract experienced improved survival rates and protection after being inoculated with the H1N1, H3N2, and H5N1 influenza viruses. 

Although ginseng does seem promising to support lung health, most studies have been done with cell cultures or animals. As research with humans is lacking, it can’t be said for sure that ginseng supports human respiratory health.

ginseng is linked to lung and respiratory health support

5. Chinese Skullcap

Also known as Baikal skullcap or Huang Qin, this plant exhibits antibacterial, antiviral, and antioxidant properties that modulate the immune response. There are dozens of bioactive compounds in Chinese skullcap, however, the flavones baicalin and baicalein provide the majority of its health benefits. 

A study published in October 2016 study in Scientific Reports found that baicalin extracted from Chinese skullcap inhibited mice from being infected with respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). This acute respiratory tract infection commonly affects young children and can lead to pneumonia or bronchiolitis. 

However, similar to ginseng, the available research on Chinese skullcap is still lacking in humans.

6. Cordyceps

Cordyceps is a parasitic fungus that contains over 700 species and is considered a medicinal mushroom, as it provides health benefits ranging from boosted energy to immune system support. 

Recent research has indicated that Cordyceps supports the immune system by reducing inflammation and oxidative damage. 

In a systematic review published in Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine in April 2019, researchers compiled data from 15 interventional studies in people with COPD. They concluded that supplementation with Cordyceps sinensis improved lung function, exercise endurance, quality of life, and symptom improvement in those with stage 2 or 3 COPD, the moderate to severe stages.

7. Curcumin

Curcumin, the yellow-hued compound found in turmeric, has been used for millennia in traditional practices to heal various ailments. In the respiratory system, curcumin may benefit the lungs by reducing inflammation, scavenging for free radicals and oxidative damage, and supporting immune cells. 

In a study of rats with COPD, curcumin supplementation alleviated inflammation and inhibited endoplasmic reticulum stress, which is a common factor in the progression of lung diseases. Curcumin also activated the sirtuin SIRT1 and promoted autophagy, both of which are beneficial processes to health and longevity. 

Although you can get some curcumin from using turmeric, the concentration and bioavailability are low in the spice. As curcumin is not highly bioavailable on its own, curcumin supplements should utilize a method to increase this bioavailability. Methods include using liposomal curcumin, formulating curcumin into nanoparticles or phospholipid complexes, or adding adjuvants, like piperine from black pepper. 

Other Ways to Support Lung Health

  • Dietary vitamin A: Adequate vitamin A levels are associated with improved lung health. However, supplemental vitamin A has been shown to worsen respiratory outcomes. Therefore, dietary vitamin A is recommended. Foods high in preformed vitamin A (retinol) include liver, milk, fish oil, and eggs. Foods high in the precursor to vitamin A (carotenoids) include carrots, broccoli, spinach, sweet potato, and other green or orange fruits and vegetables.  
  • No smoking
  • Minimize exposure to environmental pollutants
  • Regular and moderate aerobic exercise 

  • Key Takeaway:

    • Supporting lung and respiratory health is important to fight pathogens, viruses, and illnesses throughout the flu season. 
    • Supplements that may support lung health include vitamins C and D, N-acetylcysteine (NAC), ginseng, Chinese skullcap, Cordyceps, and curcumin. 
    • Lifestyle habits that support respiratory health are dietary vitamin A, not smoking, minimizing exposure to pollutants, and maintaining a regular aerobic exercise routine. 

    Show references

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    Grant WB, Lahore H, McDonnell SL, et al. Evidence that Vitamin D Supplementation Could Reduce Risk of Influenza and COVID-19 Infections and Deaths. Nutrients. 2020;12(4):988. Published 2020 Apr 2. doi:10.3390/nu12040988

    Lee JH, Min DS, Lee CW, Song KH, Kim YS, Kim HP. Ginsenosides from Korean Red Ginseng ameliorate lung inflammatory responses: inhibition of the MAPKs/NF-κB/c-Fos pathways. J Ginseng Res. 2018;42(4):476-484. doi:10.1016/j.jgr.2017.05.005

    Hartmann SE, Kissel CK, Szabo L, et al. Increased ventilatory response to carbon dioxide in COPD patients following vitamin C administration. ERJ Open Res. 2015;1(1):00017-2015. Published 2015 Sep 15. doi:10.1183/23120541.00017-2015

    Mulrennan S, Knuiman M, Walsh JP, et al. Vitamin D and respiratory health in the Busselton Healthy Ageing Study. Respirology. 2018;23(6):576-582. doi:10.1111/resp.13239

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    Shi H, Ren K, Lv B, et al. Baicalin from Scutellaria baicalensis blocks respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) infection and reduces inflammatory cell infiltration and lung injury in mice. Sci Rep. 2016;6:35851. Published 2016 Oct 21. doi:10.1038/srep35851

    Sluyter JD, Camargo CA, Waayer D, et al. Effect of Monthly, High-Dose, Long-Term Vitamin D on Lung Function: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Nutrients. 2017;9(12):1353. Published 2017 Dec 13. doi:10.3390/nu9121353

    Tang F, Ling C. Curcumin ameliorates chronic obstructive pulmonary disease by modulating autophagy and endoplasmic reticulum stress through regulation of SIRT1 in a rat model. J Int Med Res. 2019;47(10):4764-4774. doi:10.1177/0300060519869459

    Wang Y, Jung YJ, Kim KH, et al. Antiviral Activity of Fermented Ginseng Extracts against a Broad Range of Influenza Viruses. Viruses. 2018;10(9):471. Published 2018 Sep 1. doi:10.3390/v10090471

    Yu X, Mao Y, Shergis JL, et al. Effectiveness and Safety of Oral Cordyceps sinensis on Stable COPD of GOLD Stages 2-3: Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2019;2019:4903671. Published 2019 Apr 3. doi:10.1155/2019/4903671

    Zhang Q, Ju Y, Ma Y, Wang T. N-acetylcysteine improves oxidative stress and inflammatory response in patients with community acquired pneumonia: A randomized controlled trial. Medicine (Baltimore). 2018;97(45):e13087. doi:10.1097/MD.0000000000013087

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