ASK EVE | Respiratory Health

Respiratory Health: "Breathe Easy"

Contributed by Eve Persak, Nutrition Advisor, MS RD CNSC CSSD

Is there anything my family and I can do – nutritionally - to protect our respiratory health during the haze? 
Each of us has an inbuilt respiratory protection system to counteract environmental elements such as cigarette smoke, exhaust fumes, chemical aerosols, dust, dirt and even foul odours, on a daily basis. Believe it or not, mucus is actually our dearest ally when it comes to respiratory health. The oily adhesive surface it creates traps any foreign invaders that enter the airways. The cilia - tiny hair-like projections lining the nasal passages and throat – then brush the unwanted particles out.  
But every year – like clockwork – air quality is compromised by the haze that descends upon Singapore. The pollution dial turns from manageable to maximal for four long months. Debris accumulates faster than our defences can clear it. Mucus, usually thin and fluid, becomes sludge-like. Cilia become sickly and stop sweeping.  Harsh compounds penetrate and inflame the underlying tissues. Air channels swell and narrow.  
Even the clearest sinuses and the strongest lungs can buckle under this prolonged burden. People with respiratory systems that are sensitive due to allergies, for example, fragile or immature, suffer the most.
What can we do? 
Most resources recommend avoidance - stay indoors or wear a mask when outdoors. Wash away superficial nasal build-up with Netti pots and sprays. Alleviate symptoms with decongestants, anti-histamines and expectorants.  
However, most medications are not intended for long-term use and often come with undesirable side effects including dizziness and dry mouth. While often overlooked, nutrition can help reinforce your body’s natural defence against the effects of the haze. Small changes to daily meals and snacks can maintain respiratory health and provide relief throughout this season. Here are some simple strategies to help you breathe easy: 
Our body produces over 1.5 litres of mucus daily – more during times of high demand. Dehydration thickens and slows these secretions. Simply increasing your liquid intake can curtail congestion. The best beverages to take? Warm drinks – right after waking in the morning. This helps to increase blood flow, moisten membranes, thin mucus, and wake up sleepy cilia. Menthol herbal infusions with fennel, licorice, or eucalyptus are personal favorites, but hot water with lemon is effective as well.
Turn up the heat
As with warm beverages, hot and pungent spices – like cayenne and chili pepper – alleviate stuffiness.  They stimulate mucus flow immediately after ingestion (a phenomenon called gustatory rhinitis) and the effects can last up to two hours.  
Make soup
Chicken soup, specifically. Touted as the cure for the common cold, I prefer it for bronchitis, asthma or allergies.  Why? For inflammatory conditions like these, doctors often prescribe inhalants with N-acetyl-cysteine, a chemical that reduces swelling and breaks down mucus build-up. Chicken soup contains the amino acid cysteine, a natural source of this active ingredient which has the same effect on respiratory symptoms. Plus, it’s another a source of warm fluids.
Go green – and orange
Fruits and vegetables of these colours are packed with beta-carotene. This antioxidant pigment protects against pollution’s damaging free radicals.  It also boosts the body’s supply of vitamin A – the most valuable of the micronutrients that nourishes and maintains healthy cilia. So, add some carrots and spinach into your chicken soup!
When applied topically, oils lock in moisture to prevent painfully dry and cracked skin. Dietary oils work internally to do the same for the delicate lining of the respiratory tract. They also enhance the absorption of vitamin A. For an added anti-inflammatory benefit, opt for omega-3 oils – like those found in cold-water fish, flax seeds and chia seeds.  
And finally, steer clear of these respiratory offenders: 
  • Allergens:  Keep your diet as hypoallergenic as possible. Definitely avoid your personal allergy triggers, but consider excluding other common food sensitivities such as gluten, eggs, or peanuts, as these can aggravate the sinuses and airways as well. 
  • Processed foods: Chemical preservatives can wreak havoc on the respiratory tract. Nitrates in deli meats, sausages, and bacon compromise oxygen exchange. Sulfites in dried fruits, bottled drinks, and condiments worsen wheezing, cough and other respiratory symptoms. So, read product labels carefully and avoid processed ingredients where possible.
  • Dairy: Milk products don’t increase mucus quantity, but they can thicken its consistency. Use soy, almond, or coconut as dairy alternatives.  
  • Sugar: Excess sugars can promote inflammation. Streamline your desserts, candies, and treats, and nibble on fresh fruit instead. You’ll satisfy your sweet tooth, and get a bonus dose of antioxidants.