Nutrition and COPD

Authored by The Rx Advocates, / Medically Reviewed by Dr. Conor Sheehy, PharmD, BCPS
Last Updated: September 6, 2022

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease is not a new disease. Below you should find all the information to have a basic understanding of COPD and how we can treat it.

 

COPD

The term COPD, or Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, refers to a group of diseases that cause serious breathing problems. At this time there are more than 15 million diagnosed cases in the United States, but doctors believe there are many milder cases that go undiagnosed.

In the simplest terms, COPD is a chronic inflammation of the airways. This inflammation makes breathing difficult and can eventually lead to death if left untreated.

There are many causes of COPD. The main causes of COPD are:

  • Genetic Disorder
  • Asthma
  • Occupational Exposure to Dust and Chemicals
  • Exposure to Fumes from Burning Fuel

Despite this list of causes, the leading cause of COPD in the United States is smoking. It is estimated that 85-90% of all cases are directly linked to cigarettes, whether smoking or secondhand smoke.

The rest of these potential causes of COPD, while they make up around 10% of cases, are relatively minor, some constituting less than 1% of all cases.

 

Symptoms

The main COPD symptoms are regular across the board.

They are:

  • Shortness of Breath
  • Productive Cough
  • Chronic Chest Infections
  • Wheezing

Studies have shown that these symptoms grow worse with time if left untreated. Under a doctor’s care, they can be slowed down and even improved. However, there is no cure for COPD at this time.

There are other minor symptoms of COPD that are less common but may be present. These symptoms are generally rare and not life-threatening except when indications of escalating problems with COPD.

These less common symptoms are:

  • Weight Loss
  • Fatigue
  • Fluid Retention in the Lower Extremities

Chest pain and bloody phlegm are also listed, but with the caution that this is usually a symptom of something worse, such as lung cancer or a serious infection.

 

Treatments

There are multiple treatment levels, ranging from inhalers to oxygen tanks. The treatment options depend on the severity of your COPD. As stated above, there is no cure for COPD at this time, but there are treatment options that can halt and slow the progression of symptoms.

As each case of COPD is unique, doctors will run a series of tests to determine where a patient fits and what treatment options best suit the progression of the disease.

COPD treatment options are not one-size-fits-all and doctors will often find the best combination to maximize efficiency.

Since there is no cure, the treatment options help control symptoms.

Treatment options are:

  • Bronchodilators – inhalers help reduce inflammation in the airways.
  • Anti-inflammatory medications – oral medication to reduce inflammation in the airways. These are typically reserved for exacerbations.
  • Oxygen – is used to increase oxygen levels in the blood.
  • Rehab and breath training – helps improve lung efficiency and reduce shortness of breath.
  • Anticholinergics – helps relax muscles in the chest and lung area to allow easier movement of air and mucus.
  • Leukotriene modifiers – these drugs are used to block the bronchoconstrictor and proinflammatory activity of cysteinyl leukotrienes in the airways. They can help reduce inflammation and mucus production to ease breathing.
  • Expectorants – help increase productive cough to free space in the lungs.
  • Antihistamines – reduce inflammation and suppresses mucus production to encourage breathing.

There are further treatment options listed that target secondary symptoms like infections. These are medications specifically to protect or treat these symptoms while not directly affecting the shortness of breath generally associated with COPD.

These treatments are:

  • Antibiotics – to treat any secondary infections in the lungs.
  • Vaccinations – to offer protection against secondary infections.
  • Antivirals – used to treat the flu and other viruses that pose a regular threat to people with COPD.

With a wide variety of options for the treatment of a small number of symptoms, doctors have a lot of flexibility to craft the right combination to ease the symptoms.

 

Common Medications

The most common COPD medications are inhalers. These are usually either bronchodilators, inhaled steroids, or a combination of the two.

Bronchodilators:

Inhaled Steroids:

Combination inhalers:

Other medications used for COPD treatment:

 

Nutrition

What we put into our bodies makes a huge difference, not only to how we feel and our energy levels but also to the overall health of our bodies.

Research has shown that a healthy COPD diet can have an amazing benefit to patients fighting to halt the debilitating effects of COPD. A fact rarely touched on in COPD literature is that food requires oxygen to metabolize and different foods need varying levels of oxygen to process in our bodies.

Keep in mind that our bodies need fat to function properly. Natural fatty foods like avocados, cheeses, and salmon are always preferable to artificially fatty foods like fried foods.

Processed foods contain carbs our body does not break down as readily as natural carbs. Avoid foods that lead to clogging and bloating. Many of the medicines related to COPD are anti-inflammatory. Putting the wrong kind of processed foods into our bodies makes those medicines work harder.

Fruits and veggies are a must for any balanced diet. However, some fruits and veggies can cause bloating which in turn puts excess pressure on the diaphragm and makes it harder to breathe.

This is where you can experiment. Doctors recommend small amounts of fruits and veggies until you know how your body processes them. Eliminate anything that causes bloating.

Drink water, not alcohol and caffeine.

Does this mean you have to eliminate alcohol and caffeine from your diet? No, but both of these drinks are dehydrating, which can lead to thicker mucus. Thicker mucus is harder to cough up which can lead to congestion in your airways.

Water has the opposite effect. It thins your mucus, making it easier for you to get out of your lungs and frees up more space for you to breathe.

Think small when it comes to meals.

As we said, bloating puts pressure on your diaphragm and makes it tougher to breathe. The same is true for large meals. We have all had that Thanksgiving meal that makes you unbutton your pants and want a nap.

With COPD you may experience this same feeling with a normal-sized meal. The best advice is to eat small meals so you can avoid this level of fullness.

Overall, being aware of what you are putting into your body can go a long way to helping you balance out the stressful effects of dealing with COPD. With so much out of your control, grabbing your nutrition and making good decisions can help your overall health and minimize the impact COPD has on your life.

 

Sources:

  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Disease or Condition of the Week – COPD. July 29, 2021. Available at CDC.gov.
  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD). April 2022. Available at cdc.gov.
  3. The Mayo Clinic. COPD: Symptoms & Causes. April 2020. Available at mayoclinic.org.
  4. American Lung Association. COPD Causes and Risk Factors. March 2021. Available at lung.org.
  5. United Kingdom National Health Services. Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease – Symptoms. September 2019. Available at nhs.uk.
  6. Cleveland Clinic. Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD). May 2022. Available at my.clevelandclinic.org.
  7. National Institute of Health: National Library of Medicine. Leukotriene Modifiers in the Treatment of Asthma. April 1998. Available at ncbi.nlm.nih.gov.
  8. The Mayo Clinic. COPD: Diagnosis & Treatment. April 2020. Available at mayoclinic.org.
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  12. Mount Nittany Health. Theocron 12 HR Extended Release Oral Tablet 200mg. September 2021. Available at mount nittany.org.
  13. Pulmicort Flexhaler. Help Manage Asthma Symptoms with an Asthma Controller. July 2019. Available at pulmicortflexhaler.com.
  14. Atrovent HFA. Plan Your COPD Treatment With the Puffigans. May 2017. Available at atrovent.com.
  15. Tudorza Pressair. Tudorza Pressair (aclidinium bromide inhalation powder). June 2022. Available at tudorza.us.
  16. Advair. Advair (fluticasone propionate 45 mcg and salmeterol 21 mcg) Inhalation Aerosol. December 2021. Available at advair.com.
  17. Perforomist. Perforomist (formoterol fumarate) Inhalation Solution. 2021. Available at perforomist.com.
  18. Digihaler. Digihaler Inhaler System. 2022. Available at digihaler.com.
  19. Bevespi Aerophere. Bevespi Aerosphere (glycopyrrolate 9 mcg / formoterol fumarate 4.8 mcg) Inhalation Aerosol. January 2021. Available at bevespi.com.
  20. Stiolto. Stiolto Respimat (tiotropium bromide & olodaterol) Inhalation Spray. 2020. Available at stilolto.com.
  21. Temple Health. 5 Ways to Maintain a Healthy COPD Diet. May 2021. Available at templehealth.org.
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