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What Doctors Don't Tell You

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July 2020 (Vol. 5 Issue 5)

Beating COPD
About the author: 
Joanna Evans

Beating COPD image

My father-in-law, an ex-smoker, has COPD, and I'm trying to find out about complementary therapies for him. He takes medication, but still suffers from symptoms and struggles with physical activity. Can you help?

C.C., via email

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is an umbrella term for a group of lung diseases that narrow the airways and make it increasingly difficult to breathe.

It includes the conditions chronic bronchitis—long-term cough with mucus—and emphysema—progressive destruction of the lungs. Most people with COPD have aspects of both.

As well as a persistent cough, symptoms of COPD include wheezing, shortness of breath that gets worse with mild activity, fatigue and frequent respiratory infections. Periods where symptoms become particularly bad are known as exacerbations or flare-ups.

It's good news that your father-in-law has quit smoking—one of the key causes of COPD. Stopping smoking is proven to reduce the progression of the disease.1 But he shouldn't stop there. There are a number of other lifestyle changes he can make that can be effective, from taking supplements to practicing mind−body techniques.

Here are some tips you can pass on to him to help him manage his symptoms.

Join a yoga class

The combination of physical poses, deep breathing and meditation appears to be beneficial for COPD sufferers, improving lung function, tolerance to exercise and the distress that comes with difficulty breathing.2 Try to find a class near you and go at least twice a week. Even better, consider having one-on-one sessions with a yoga therapist who can create a program tailored to your needs.

Get musical

If yoga's not your cup of tea, try singing or playing the harmonica. Both involve breath control, which may help with lung health. In fact, one study found that twice-weekly singing classes for six weeks resulted in positive physical changes as well as a reduction in anxiety among COPD sufferers.3 And harmonica playing was recently found to improve lung function and exercise capacity.4

Try tai chi

The ancient Chinese forms of exercise tai chi and qigong are proving useful for COPD. According to a review of 10 trials, tai chi, qigong, or a combination of the two, improved physical performance, lung function, shortness of breath and quality of life in people with COPD.5 Find a class best suited to you and aim to go at least twice a week.

Take supplements

It's best to work with an experienced practitioner who can recommend individual dosages, check for drug interactions and monitor potential side-effects. But here are some general recommendations.

N-acetylcysteine (NAC): This potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory has been found to cut the number of flare-ups in patients with moderate-to-severe COPD.6

Suggested dosage: 600 mg twice daily

Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10): COPD sufferers seem to be lacking in this vitamin-like substance, found in every cell of the body. And CoQ10 supplements have been found to improve blood oxygenation, exercise performance and heart rate in people with COPD.7

Suggested dosage: 90 mg/day

Vitamin D: Supplementing with the 'sunshine vitamin' may reduce the risk of flare-ups in those who are D-deficient.8 Consider getting your D levels tested to work out how much you need to be taking.

Suggested dosage: 1,000-5,000 IU vitamin D3/day

Consider herbs

The following herbal remedies may be helpful for COPD. Again, it's best to consult with a qualified practitioner for personalized advice.

Pelargonium sidoides: Extracts of this herb, also known as African geranium or umckaloabo, appear to be a beneficial add-on therapy for patients with COPD, reducing the severity of symptoms, frequency of flare-ups and need for antibiotics as well as boosting quality of life. The herb is now found in a number of commercial cough and cold remedies including Umcka ColdCare by Nature's Way and Kaloba Cough & Cold Relief by Schwabe Pharma.

Suggested dosage: follow label instructions

Panax ginseng: This East Asian herb has been found to improve lung function and quality of life in people with COPD.9

Suggested dosage: 100 mg twice daily

Eat well

Malnutrition is common in COPD sufferers and can affect lung function and overall health. So it's crucial to eat a balanced diet that includes all of the essential nutrients. Also consider investigating the possibility of a food allergy, as COPD has been linked to allergies in some reports.

Top tip

Breathing in cold air can trigger bronchospasm—when the muscles in the lungs tighten—and shortness of breath, so wear a cold-weather face mask if you're going out in low temperatures.

COPD factfile

•COPD is predicted to become the third leading cause of death and disability by 2030.1

•Smoking, including passive smoking, is a key cause, although air pollution and occupational exposures to dust and chemicals are also known risk factors.


COPD factfile



World Health Organization, World health statistics 2008

Main article



Thorax, 2003; 58: 803-8


J Thorac Dis, 2014; 6: 795-802; J Altern Complement Med, 2009; 15: 225-34


BMC Pulm Med, 2010; 10: 41


Respir Care, 2018: 63(Suppl 10): 3024192


J Altern Complement Med, 2014; 20: 79-86


Lancet Respir Med, 2014; 2: 187-94


Clin Investig, 1993; 71(8 Suppl): S162-6


Lancet Respir Med, 2015; 3: 120-30


Monaldi Arch Chest Dis, 2002; 57: 242-6; Respir Med, 2011; 105: 165-76

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