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We often treat our health a lot like a cat-and-mouse game: it’s not until something is wrong that we chase after it. In honor of Healthy Lung Month, and in the interest of taking a more proactive, preventative role in our health, we’re putting the spotlight on an oft-forgotten organ: the lungs.
As a function of the Autonomic Nervous System, breathing happens largely below the level of consciousness. Like with most automatic, reflexive things, it’s easy for us to take our breaths for granted, barely thinking about them at all. But the work our lungs do is essential to our quality of life — they get oxygen into our bloodstream where it’s then brought to the rest of the cells, tissues, and organs in our body, keeping us alive and well.
While the process of breathing itself is performed by the diaphragm, the critical exchange of oxygen happens within the alveoli, tiny sacs connected to the bronchioles.
While this process is self-sufficient, is there anything we can actively do to keep our lungs healthy and prevent disease?
Love Your Lungs
The delicate nature of the lungs makes them vulnerable to a number of illnesses. The lungs are also the only internal organ in constant contact with the environment outside the body, breathing in approximately 2,100 to 2,400 gallons of air every day in order to oxygenate the blood. The following tips will help you reduce your risk of developing lung-related diseases.
Reduce Exposure to Toxins
Thus, it’s vital that you become more aware of the air you breathe. Germs, secondhand smoke, air pollution, chemicals like radon, and other harmful substances like asbestos can cause severe damage to the respiratory system and lead to disease when breathed in. Asbestos in particular, which can be found in older buildings and a variety of other materials, is the only proven cause of pleural mesothelioma — an aggressive cancer affecting the lining of the lungs.
Be mindful of air quality in places you spend the most of your time, such as your home, car, and workplace.
Included in this category is making the conscious decision not to smoke, or to work on a plan to quit. Smoking cigarettes — which constricts the size of the air passages, causes chronic inflammation of the lungs, kills lung tissue, and causes abnormal cell growth — is the primary cause of COPD and lung cancer, along with conditions like bronchitis and emphysema. To quit smoking, visit the American Lung Association’s (ALA) help center.
Aside from challenging your lungs with the daily exercise you should be getting regardless, there are ways you can “work out” your lungs to their full capacity. Diaphragmatic breathing and simple deep breathing are a couple examples. Exercises like this can help reduce the energy breathing requires, decrease oxygen demand, and strengthen the diaphragm.
We also often take for granted how series a common cold or respiratory infection can become. Here are a few reminders from the ALA on how to be proactive in protecting yourself:
- Wash your hands with soap and water multiple times a day.
- Avoid large groups of people during cold and flu season.
- Maintain good oral hygiene.
- Get the flu vaccine every year.
- If you’re sick, avoid spreading it by staying home and limiting contact with others.