Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) involves inflammation in the lungs and includes two main conditions: emphysema, and chronic bronchitis. As time goes on, it becomes more difficult to breathe, even with simple activities, because less air can flow in and out of the lungs. To improve outcomes for patients diagnosed with COPD, it's best to use a team approach with various healthcare professionals such as doctors, physiotherapists, respiratory therapists, social workers, and psychotherapists as needed.
Causes of COPD
The main cause for developing COPD is recurrent injury to the lungs due to long-term exposure to lung irritants.
Lung irritants include:
Smoke (including secondhand exposure)
Environmental or occupational exposures to harmful particles or gases
Ex: asbestos, beryllium, carbon dust, silica, chromium, bacterial species, avian droppings, thermophilic fungi, unvented coal stoves, etc.
Other causes include:
Inherited disease: Alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency (rare cause)
E-cigarette use or vaping associated lung injury (VALI): Direct or secondhand exposure to inhaled chemicals and ultrafine particles in e-cigarettes (ex: propylene glycol (food additive), vegetable glycerin, formaldehyde (carcinogen), acrolein (herbicide), 2,3-pentaedione, etc.). While some of these ingredients are considered safe for use in cosmetics and foods, the long-term risks of inhaling these substances are unknown and continue to be researched.
“Did you know? No vaping products have been approved as therapeutic (cessation aids) in Canada. While vaping products can help people quit smoking and switching completely to vaping is less harmful than continuing to smoke, it is not harmless.” - Health Canada
Symptoms of COPD
In early stages, COPD may present with no symptoms or only mild symptoms.
Over time, symptoms include:
Feeling more out of breath than usual with routine activities, like walking a short distance
Excess phlegm production
Chest tightness (can’t take a deep breath)
More trouble sleeping and/or drowsiness
Headache on waking up
Sudden and temporary irregular heartbeat
Adverse effects on blood pressure
Swelling in the feet
Depending on the severity of symptoms, COPD symptoms can be managed with medications, other therapies and lifestyle changes. Early detection through lung function testing is key to managing COPD and slowing its progression.
Blood Testing For COPD
Lab blood tests are not essential for diagnosing COPD. However, they can help with identifying potential causes, monitoring progression, and testing for underlying factors that affect progression. By identifying these underlying factors, healthcare providers can better determine the appropriate treatment and management strategies to slow down or prevent further worsening of the disease. Testing for these factors helps paint a clearer picture of what's happening in the body and allows for more targeted and effective interventions.
These may include tests such as:
1. Inflammatory markers (elevated during COPD exacerbation)
2. Liver, heart and kidney function tests
3. Alpha-1 antitrypsin levels
4. Immune and blood cell markers to screen for allergies, infection, anemia or polycythemia.
5. Screening for other aggravating comorbidities such as hormone health and metabolic syndrome
Natural Therapies for COPD
Evidence suggests certain natural therapies and lifestyle changes can significantly improve quality of life and slow progression of COPD. Research is increasing on use of natural therapies for lung health concerns such as cystic fibrosis, lung cancer, COPD, and asthma. Therapies address healthy lung function via addressing oxidative stress, immune function, mucus production, and nutritional intake.
1. Nutritional therapies & natural health products
Nutrient depletion in patients with COPD is common and has a negative impact on lung health and longevity. Available evidence suggests that certain nutrients and nutraceuticals are associated with improved lung function, reduced risk of infection, less lung function decline and reduced risk of COPD.
Diet quality is a modifiable factor in disease development and progression in patients with COPD.
Complications of malnutrition include:
Impaired immune function and wound healing
Digestive and skin complaints
Loss of muscle and increased risk of falls
Issues with heart, lung and kidney function
Mental health concerns
Difficulty with sleep and temperature regulation
2. Botanical Therapies: Some herbs have been shown to benefit antioxidant support, inflammatory markers and respiratory symptoms.
3. Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) & Acupuncture:
Acupressure and acupuncture at certain TCM point locations can help improve shortness of breath, inflammatory markers, quality of life and symptom control in some individuals with COPD.
Shortness of breath means having difficulty breathing or feeling like you can't get enough air into your lungs. It may feel like you're not able to take a deep breath, and you might feel breathless or winded even with minimal physical activity. Research on long-term benefits is still currently underway.
Preliminary clinical research in patients with COPD shows that receiving acupuncture for up to 12 weeks can decrease shortness of breath symptoms when compared with sham acupuncture; however, only a couple of trials have shown acupuncture significantly improved lung function, therefore it is only used as an adjunct supportive therapy.
4. Lifestyle counseling to benefit exercise capacity, including but not limited to:
Smoking cessation: For those who manage to stop smoking, their lung capacity will immediately begin to stabilize.
Daily breathing exercises such as pursed lip breathing and diaphragmatic breathing have been shown to improve exercise capacity. Effects of breathing exercises on shortness of breath varies depending on a variety of health history factors.
It is crucial for individuals with COPD to consult with their medical team and Naturopathic Doctor before incorporating any complementary therapies into their treatment plan. Our Naturopathic Doctors have experience working with patients with COPD and other lung conditions. They use a comprehensive and individualized approach, combining conventional medical treatments with evidence-based complementary medicine, to offer a holistic approach to managing COPD symptoms and improving overall well-being. If you would like to learn more about how a Naturopathic Doctor can address COPD or lung health, you can reach out to us here.