By Dr. Andrew Wright
Take a deep breath, really. Wonder at the engineering of our respiratory system. From nose hairs filtering large particles, to the mouth and infection-fighting lymph tissue ring at the front of the throat, into the windpipe, and branching out from substantial to smaller branches with cilia to flush out fine particles and viruses. Our pulmonary system is like an upside down tree. At the ends of the branches are the alveoli, the "leaves". There, if all is well, effective delivery of oxygen and removal of carbon dioxide occur at the lung-blood supply filter system. When our breathing system is healthy, we take it for granted; like a good umpire at a baseball game. When the system is damaged, we have trouble catching our breath.
Let's focus on 3 aspects of maintaining and improving our breathing health. First, the biggest and most consistent insult to our lungs is smoking. Secondly, we'll touch on particulate matter, particles 20 times smaller than the width of the human hair, that cause a toll over repeated exposure, sometimes leading to cancer. Finally, we'll consider ways to gradually gain or maintain a healthy respiratory system.
Smoking affects all of us, but most especially the nearly 1 billion people worldwide who still smoke and those closest to them, often their loved ones. We all know about the marked increase in lung disease, vascular disease, and cancers caused by smoking. In spite of this, quitting is difficult, more difficult than quitting heroin in some survey-based studies. Not only must one contend with the habits associated with smoking like drinking coffee, driving to work, breaking at work, or dealing with stress, but also the mind-body rebellion that occurs when our nicotinic receptors are deprived of the nicotine. So, how does one quit? Firstly, the desire to quit is essential. Secondly, developing a plan to quit--which is statistically more effective with a nicotine replacement like patches AND gum or patches AND lozenges. Thirdly, a daily honest assessment of progress is important. Finally, a desire to try again when a person relapses. Relapse is common, and part of the quitting process. Often 10 or more good attempts are needed to lick the life-choking habit. Your health care provider can support you along this journey.
Besides smoking, the other biggest insult to our breathing health is particulate matter. While this includes the allergy-inducing particles like pollen, I would like to focus on long-term industrial particulate matter exposure. Past major disease outbreaks have occurred as a result of coal dust and asbestos exposure, causing pneumoconiosis (Black Lung) and asbestosis respectively. The microscopic particles are too small for our amazing filter system to weed out. As a result, the particles make it all the way to the alveoli, the "leaves" of our lungs. Once there, our immune system mounts an inflammatory assault to remove the garbage. This results in scarring, which causes a decline in ability to breath and get oxygen to our blood stream and bodies. This process also increases our risk of cancer, especially if the exposed person smokes. Thanks to current research by the UW-Eau Claire Environmental Public Health Program, we know the air near a sand mine contains 5 to 50 micrograms per cubic meter of silica dust. The Environmental Protection Agency recommends levels be less than 12 micrograms per cubic meter at all times to avoid developing silicosis. We will not see cases of silicosis for 10 to 20 years, but we may see individuals with atypical mycobacterial or fungal infections before that time. Three ways to minimize particulate matter exposure are: wear the OSHA recommended ventilators in at-risk work places, monitor air quality via websites such as , and lobby for workplaces to meet EPA recommended standards at all times.
Finally, let's touch on ways we can all improve and maintain our lung health. Not surprisingly, regular exercise that lasts at least 30 minutes per day can improve our ability to not only breath, but also use the oxygen we take in more efficiently, sort of like upgrading to a more efficient car. Regular engagement in focused breathing exercises like belly breathing helps too. And please remember, the one who laughs most, laughs last.