Love Your Lungs!
You breathe, on average, 26,000 times a day. Besides powering you through the day, breathing can be a calming meditation or a dangerous practice, depending on the Air Quality Index*. For this month, especially for those grimy days, we have compiled an arsenal of methods for you to Love Your Lungs. Here they are—the gizmos, techniques, foods, plants, herbs and folk remedies. Do one, do them all, just do something nice for your lungs this month! *App to try: UtahAir — Rachel Silverstone
It begins with how you breathe
We all know how to breathe once we step into yoga class. But “for most of the day, we breathe like rabbits, little tiny shallow breaths in the upper lobes of our lungs, which triggers an emergency response, every time you breathe,” says Boulder, Colorado-based ayurvedic practitioner John Douillard, DC (author of Body, Mind and Sport).
To get a picture of this, imagine the huffing and puffing runner, whose respiratory action could be compared to someone who just saw a bear in the woods—short emergency breaths.
Douillard explains, “These breaths tell us we are in an emergency situation. That triggers receptors in the upper lobes of your lungs, and produces a host of degenerative stress-fighting hormones that break your body down and that make the experience an exhausting one.”
Dr. Douillard advises us to breathe through the nose. “When you breathe through your nose, you breathe through turbinates—turbines that drive the air to the lower lobes of your lungs, as well as clean and humidify incoming air.”
The more romantic and historically rich version of this simple nasal breathing is, of course, found in yoga and qigong, which both revolve around ancient breathing techniques practiced for enlightenment and longevity.
Dr. Douillard explains, “the lower lobes of your lungs, where the majority of the calm nervous system receptors are, oxygenate 60% of your blood supply. This is part of why breathing through your nose will create a neurological calm.”
You may travel by mass transport, bike or on foot. You may have solar panels on your home and the highest-rated water heater. Your life may even be 100% carbon neutral. Too bad: You’ll still have to endure toxic levels of particulate pollution during the Wasatch Front’s wintertime inversions.
And when the air does get bad, through no fault of your own, you’ll likely still need to walk the dog or ride your bike to work, in which cases you should wear a respirator mask. But which one?
During the winter months, the pollutant of principal concern in Utah is PM2.5. A composite of chemical particles wafting in the air, PM2.5s are small—2.5 microns, almost 30 times smaller than a human hair—and they can’t be scrubbed by your body’s filtration defenses, so they end up accumulating in your upper respiratory tract. That means you need a mask that can filter out these minute toxins, some of which are proven carcinogens.
Respirator masks are rated by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), and masks given an “N” rating of 95, 99 or 100 provide ample protection from PM2.5s. If a mask is rated N95, it filters out 95% of particulate matter larger than .3 microns, which is, of course, much smaller than 2.5 microns. NIOSH ratings are readily visible on respirator masks and their packaging.
The multinational conglomerate corporation 3M makes a line of N95 masks that can be found at most hardware stores. They’re easy to use, cheap and easily available. Masks with small valves on the front are easier to breathe through and reduce condensation buildup. The masks are made to be disposable, but they can be reused as long as they are clean and undamaged. $10-50/10-pack.
Larger half-facepiece masks can provide N100 protection and they look bad ass, but they’re expensive and condensation quickly becomes a problem if you wear them while walking or riding a bike.
Consider the stylish N99 masks produced by San Francisco-based Vogmask. Their comfortably fitting, washable masks have a purported three-year life, feature a functional breathing valve and come in small, medium and large and in various designs. According to one report, Vogmask products are manufactured at the same South Korean factory that produces 3M masks, and they provide test results of their masks on their website. At N99, these masks should provide more than ample protection from PM2.5s along the Wasatch. $27-35 online
Iconoclad, a downtown clothing store, carries masks they’ve had manufactured directly. We‘ve not test-driven them yet, but owner and longtime clean air activist Tom Sobieski says they do capture PM2.5s. $17.50-20.
Active Salt Lake City winter cyclist Jim French swears by the Respro masks. He has found them to be the best for heavy exercise. Many appropriate models are available, depending on your needs. His choices: Cinqro and Techno Black. See Respro.com
On January 28 at the Utah Clean Air Fair we met the makers of JaMo Threads, which manufactures their PM2.5-guarding gaiter masks right here in Salt Lake City! Find them at Wasatch Touring. $22-24.
Whichever mask you choose, it must fit snuggly, with no gaps between your face and the mask lining. (Bearded men: good luck.) Breathing any quantity of unfiltered air defeats the purpose of wearing a mask.
If you exercise outdoors, wear a mask. Only you can protect your own lungs.
— Benjamin Bombard
Undo dirty air with yoga!
The Romans had detox in mind when they added February to their calendar in about 700 BCE. The Latin februum means “purification.” February is named after the Roman purification ritual that took place each year on February 15.
The skin is the body’s largest eliminative organ, and sweating naturally detoxifies your tissues. But hatha yoga’s methods are less about perspiration than about restoration.
Over the millennia, hatha yoga has developed many purification tools, including breathing practices and neti nasal washing. Paired with certain asanas these methods are powerful ways of releasing toxins.
One of yoga’s most powerful purifying poses that combats the respiratory distress of breathing noxious air is Setu Bandha Sarvangasana, also known as Bridge Pose.
Bridge Pose soaks the lymph glands in the neck and throat with blood. It also suppresses the “fight or flight” (sympathetic) side of your autonomic nervous system, restoring energy and supporting healing. (When your head is below your heart and your neck is flexed, the “baro reflex” is activated. This sets off a chain of events that suppresses the sympathetic nervous system.)
Weave Bridge Pose into your regular yoga practice, or practice it on its own. Practice it for purification, restoration of energy, or because it feels good. Its heart-expanding properties will prepare you for another of February’s iconic days.
—Charlotte Bell (author of Yoga for Meditators and Mindful Yoga, Mindful Life)
Instructions on how to do Bridge Pose (Setu Bandha).
Millcreek Herbs clinical herbalist Merry Lycett Harrison says osha root (ligusticum porterii; also called Porter’s lovage or bear medicine) is her “go-to” herb for lung cleansing.
As Navajo legend goes, bears eat this herb as they come out of hibernation to stave off parasites and harmful infections. It’s an antiviral, decongestant, expectorant, stimulant, diuretic and carminative (aids in gas exchange between stomach and small intestines).
Boil in a cup and a half of water and inhale the steam, then drink the tea. Strain the woody root off and save, as it is the herb that keeps on giving, and can be reused again and again.
Other herbal concoctions for the lungs, as recommended by Harrison and also by Marinda Bowen, BSRN of the Natural Apothocary:
Garlic: Helps lungs from becoming congested. Infuse warm butter or olive oil with garlic and drizzle over food.
Licorice root: The master fluid balancer, used to moisten dry membranes. Great for dry scratchy throats or dry lungs. Add the root to tea, or just chew on the root. It’s sweet!
Marshmallow (the herb, not the candy) and slippery elm: Both are mucilaginous. Place a heaping teaspoon of either herb in room-temperature water for about an hour. Sip this gooey concoction to reduce throat irritation.
Mint/ginger/cayenne pepper: Sip a tea of this mix to turn on the fire hose of mucous secretion, the key to kicking out irritants on bad air days. Use dried or fresh, organic when possible.
Pleurisy root: The magic membrane moistener, used traditionally for acute lung conditions—pleurisy, non-spasmodic asthma, dry pulmonary cough, bronchitis, influenza and pneumonia.
Coltsfoot: Good for asthmatic conditions, where tightness is present. Steam inhalation and tea.
Elecampane foot: It is a great expectorant to push congestion out of the lungs.
Mullein leaf: A mild sedative, mullein soothes a variety of upper respiratory disorders. Make into a tea.
Find these herbs at Natural Law Apothocary, Dave’s Health and Millcreek Herbs.
Breathe Easy tea
This Traditional Medicinals organic non-GMO product is commonly avail- able. Bi Yan Pian extract, the main ingredient, is a traditional Chinese formula that includes eucalyptus, ginger, peppermint, fennel and licorice. This blend gives your senses a wakeup call and your lungs a chance to relax!
Orange peels have many natural uses and lung cleansing is one of them. They are packed with beneficial compounds and nutrients that help the lungs cleanse themselves and have histamine-reducing properties. Orange peels are also rich in flavanones which are powerful antioxidants.
Not only do orange peels provide effective support against respiratory diseases, eating orange peels provides vitamin A, tons of vitamin C (a well known immune system booster), enzymes and fiber and pectin, which aid in digestion.
The signature citrus smell of orange peels comes from an aromatic compound, d-limonene, studied for its anti-tumor activity. It can neutralize gastric acid and dissolve gallstones, as limonene is a solvent of cholesterol.
Choose only organic oranges. Make a tea from the peels. Grate the peel into salads, tea, yogurt or onto fish. Add to soups, stews or smoothies. Slow-cook with chicken or duck.
Eucalyptus oil is the most commonly used essential oil for lung health. It can be a potent antiseptic, expectorant and decongestant—which is why we find so many over-the-counter allergy and cold medicine featuring this ingredient.
You can also inhale bergamot or peppermint to help open up your bronchial passages and help eliminate the presence of bacteria in your lungs. Peppermint’s expectorant qualities soothe upper respiratory congestion caused by asthma, bronchitis, allergies, colds and flus. Lavender helps eliminate infection in the lungs and, combined with eucalyptus, have been known to kill up to 70% of staphylococcus bacteria in the lungs.
Inhalation is the way to go with these herbs. Diffusers are a great option, but you can also boil essential oils and inhale directly—just make sure to keep your eyes closed!
Some diffusers worth trying: MONQ—the personal essential oil diffuser that works like vaping but contains no nicotine, tobacco or artificial chemicals; I keep doTERRA’s “Breathe” essential oil roll-on in my purse at all times; or try Utah’s own Young Living Essential Oils—check out their AromaDomes & Diffusers.
Castor oil pack
Castor oil is not just to swallow. You can put it on your body, too. As a folk medicine, it is said to draw out toxins from inside the body and cleanse the lungs of pollutants when used in a castor oil pack.
You won’t find definitive scientific studies on this one, just indications that people have been doing castor oil packs since at least the ancient Egyptians and in China and India before them.
The FDA has recognized castor oil as safe and effective. If you’re willing to experiment, try it. It’s inexpensive and remarkably relaxing (though very, very messy). And it just might actually break up congested toxins and clear them out of the body.
Check out instructions for making your own castor oil packs.
Air Cleaning Gizmos
Negative ion generators
Negative ion generators work basically by creating an electric charge on plates that attract pollutants out of the air. There is good research backing up the science of negative ion generators. Britain’s National Health Service trialed some high-grade machines and found that they could eliminate new infections of airborne acinetobacter in hospital wards.
Negative ion generators have also been found to be effective for the treatment of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) if the ions are released in large enough amounts—small amounts were not better than placebo. There are dozens, if not hundreds of generators out there, at all different price points and for all different sized rooms.
One thing to keep in mind is that even the best ionizers produce a little ozone as they do their work, though generally not enough to harm you. This brings us to…
A lot of ozone generators are promoted as air cleaners and you should buy none of them. In the upper atmosphere it’s very good for shielding the planet from UV rays, but in your lungs this highly corrosive gas will create irritation and chronic inflammation. Ozone generators don’t even address non-biological pollutants or particulates.
High-ozone shock treatment is sometimes used to help clean mold and unpleasant odors from contaminated buildings, but the ozone is aired out before the building is re-occupied.
HVAC/HEPA air filters
By far the most common method for purifying indoor air is the good old fibrous-material air filter for a standard HVAC (Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning) system. If you have ducted forced air heat or ducted air conditioning (and it’s likely you do), you are already using some kind of filter.
In this case, you’ll want to get up right now and go change that filter, because you probably haven’t done that yet this year, have you?
The key concept to grasp with HVAC filters is the MERV (Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value) rating. A higher MERV rating means more pollutants are filtered out. Decent MERV ratings start at about 7.
HEPA (High Efficiency Particle Arrestance) filters are slightly different, and are used in vacuum cleaners, industrial systems and NIOSH face respirators. You won’t get a “true HEPA” filter for your furnace; however, any filter with a 7-13 MERV rating will be almost as good.
But it won’t help if it’s dirty and clogged! A dirty furnace filter can actually make the air inside your house more contaminated. It also makes the furnace fan work harder, shortening its lifespan.
When the fiter is new, check monthly to assess your dirt progress. More red air days (and more long-haired pets) mean sooner replacement. Replacing a dirty filter (or washing a washable model) can lower the energy consumption of your HVAC system by up to 15% in some cases!
Freestanding air cleaners
These are for houses without forced air ducting, or for any room where you would want a little extra cleaning of the air.
In the CATALYST office we have an Air Free Onyx 3000 filterless air purifier. Air is drawn in to the ceramic core and heated to 400 degrees, which zaps dust mites, bacteria, fungi, viruses, pollen and other airborne microorganisms. Again, it has no effect on our unique PM2.5 particulate problem. However, it is good for overall lung health.
The arrival of this device has clearly correlated with less sneezing. However, our beloved Schnauzer, Tesla, died around the same time, so we can’t be 100% certain it was only the machine’s doing.
Note: We make a fair amount of fermented foods around here, where the natural yeasts in the air help flavor the outcome. For this reason, we would not use this device in the kitchen.
Available at Sharper Image, Bed Bath & Beyond, Home Depot. $300.
These are rather fun. Propolis is a resin gathered by bees, used to sterilize the inside of their hives. They use this gluey substance to seal up any gaps in the hive walls, and to disinfect any foreign biological material that they can’t physically haul out.
Egyptians used propolis in their embalming, and the Soviets used vaporized propolis for treating tuberculosis prior to the discovery of antibiotics. Stradivarius even used it in his violin-making.
Many studies show that propolis is antibacterial, antifungal, anti-protozoan, anti-tumor, anti-ulcer; it also has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. But can it clean your air?
A propolis diffuser won’t clean particulate pollutants out of the air in your house (in fact, diffusing it will add to the particulate load). But it might help kill airborne pathogens. There is no real science on its air-cleaning properties. Propolis certainly smells wonderful; you may wish to experiment and see if you can notice a difference for yourself.
Note: As propolis contains pollen and other botanicals, some people may have an allergic reaction to it in either solid or vapor form.
The Propolair car propolis vaporiser is $70. Household devices are upward to $300.
Himalayan salt lamps
These lamps clean the air by attracting humidity, which creates a buildup of ions, according to Salt Lake naturopath Dr. Todd Cameron’s newsletter last month. “Salt lamps ultimately generate negative ions, which draw positive ions out of the environment. Negative ions help neutralize electromagnetic chaos and radiation which then decreases allergens and irritants in the air. Sources of electromagnetic chaos (excess positive ions) include: television, computers and cell phones. The frequencies associated with these causes vibrations that are 20 times faster than brain waves. This lends to nervousness, sleep disturbances, lack of concentration and increased free radical damage.”
We’ve recently seen Himalayan salt lamps at Dave’s Natural Health and Turiya’s Gifts. $18-80
Grow your own air cleaners!
NASA studies in the 1980s proved what your great-granny always knew: Houseplants are a good thing. All plants absorb carbon dioxide (what you exhale) and release oxygen (what you want to inhale). Some plants also absorb benzene, formaldehyde and trichloroethylene.The big YES goes to:
Variegated snake plant aka mother-in-law’s tongue (Sansevieria)
Ferns (Boston, Kimberly queen)
Philodendrons (heartleaf, selloum, elephant ear)
Weeping fig (ficus benjamina)
Rubber plant (ficus elastica)
Dumb cane (Dieffenbachia)
Recommended dose: One decent-sized plant per 100 sq. ft. Paradise Palm and Cactus & Tropicals have nice selections. You can also often find them in grocery stores.
Healthy house check-up
“Radon is a radioactive colorless, odorless, gas that can cause lung cancer,” says Dr. Akerley of Huntsman Cancer Institute. Radon typically enters a household via cracks in the foundation, rising from the soil or groundwater. The Utah Department of Environmental Quality’s Indoor Radon Program focuses on radon-resistent construction, real estate discloure and testing, local government coalitions and radon awareness (testing and mitigation). Get your home checked with a short-term test kit for $9 or have a specialist visit your home.
Mold is another microscopic household assailant than can affect your lungs as well as the value of your home. Home test kits are the way to quickly answer the question of where seemingly random allergies, rashes, lung infections, pneumonia or other respiratory problems are coming from. The best kits use multiple testing methods and also identify yeast and fungus.
The gold medal winner of test kits is the Pro-Lab Mold: DIY Kit available on Amazon. At about $7 for the kit and $40 for the lab analysis, the kit is well worth your family’s lung health.
Carbon monoxide is another odorless, tasteless and fatal gas. It’s a normal product of combustion of fuels such as gasoline, oil kerosene, charcoal and wood. Improper ventilation is the most common source of these gases building up in living areas.
If you have unexplained headache, drowsiness, dizziness, confusion, nausea, vomiting or rapid heartbeat coupled with living in a house with older fireplaces or any kind of gas-burning appliance, furnace or space-heater, get your house tested for carbon monoxide! Pro-lab carbon monoxide test kits are available (under $10) at most hardware stores.
I’d rather be reducing my carbon footprint
The most important thing to remember about our inversions is that the air is dangerous to breathe. And not just a little dangerous, as if the damage you do to your lungs will heal itself in a week or two like a cold or the flu. It won’t! The damage you do to your lungs when you breathe big lungfuls of orange or red air is permanent.
If life situates you in a place where mass transit, carpooling or walking or biking (wearing a respirator mask, of course) just won’t get you where you need to go, there are things you can do to reduce the amount of pollution you create when you drive.
Most important, short term, is to reduce the number of miles you drive on bad-air days by consolidating or postponing trips.
In the long run, the type of car you drive is most important. If you can afford an electric car, buy one. In Utah, the electricity you charge your car with comes from coal (unless you have a solar rig like Rocky Anderson). Fortunately the coal-fired power plants aren’t in the Salt Lake Valley (though some of the natural gas-fired power plants are).
Also, do the little things:
• Turn off your engine if you will be idling for two minutes or more. It’s the law. (Exempt: idling as needed to operate defrosters and heaters to prevent a safety or health emergency.)
• Change your oil on schedule.
• Change your air filter on schedule.
• Keep your tires properly inflated.
• Pay attention at stoplights (ahem, texters) so that as many cars as possible can make it through the light before it changes.
• If you’re waiting to make a left turn, pull into the intersection so that, again, more cars have a chance of making it through.
But all of that can be negated by aggressive driving habits. Whether during an inversion or when our air is crystal clear, sensible driving habits reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Give yourself enough time to make your trip unhurried. Avoid the step-on-the gas, step-on-the-brake driving that lowers fuel efficiency. If your car doesn’t have a fuel economy gauge the best measure of the economy of your driving is how often you use your brake. The more you use your brake, the more you’ve used too much gas (unless you’re driving a hybrid that recharges as you break).
Fuel economy can be a fun game if your car has a useful fuel economy gauge. The best gauges show both your instantaneous fuel economy and trip fuel economy. Making a daily, or trip-based game of increasing your gas mileage is an effective way to focus on fuel economy. You may not get where you’re going in record time, but you can feel a bit better about driving.
— John deJong