COPD and Dietary Supplements: Everything You Need to Know
In order to maintain a healthy and well-balanced diet, it’s essential to consume a wide variety of nutrients. Most of these nutrients can be found in the food that we eat, but occasionally it’s advised that you take dietary supplements in order to boost your intake of certain vitamins and minerals.
While everyone needs the same nutrients, it’s usually a matter of what quantity you should consume them in. For example, babies need to consume a lot of vitamin D which helps regulate calcium and phosphate in the body. In turn, this aids in the development of strong bones, teeth, and muscles.
Similarly, a healthy adult may need to consume different quantities of nutrients than an adult with a chronic disease. COPD patients, in particular, are reported to have deficiencies in vitamin D and other nutrients with antioxidant capacity such as vitamins A, C, and E.
But getting the right nutrients isn’t as simple as it sounds. You’ll need to consult with your doctor and maybe even a dietitian who can examine your condition and compile a dietary plan that will work best for you.
In this post, we’ll take a look at some of the supplements that are most commonly used in COPD patients and we’ll provide you with all the information you need to know to start discussing supplements with your doctor. If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to leave them in the comment section so we can reach out to you.
The Good and the Bad of Dietary Supplements
According to a 2017 survey by the Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN), 76 percent of U.S. adults use dietary supplements. And while supplements are widely available and easily accessible, they aren’t always used in a responsible way.
Unfortunately, just like drugs, dietary supplements have well-known and well-documented side-effects. Supplements contain active ingredients and if they aren’t used in moderation, they can have strong adverse effects on the body.
One of the greatest dangers of supplements is that they aren’t regulated the same way many drugs are. According to the American Cancer Society, both supplements and drugs are regulated by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA). However, drugs are often considered unsafe until proven safe, whereas supplements are considered safe until proven unsafe.
The reason this happens is that supplements are categorized as a “food product” making them immune to many of the tests that are required to bring drugs to store shelves. Drug manufacturers are required to put their products through a series of clinical trials that test their safety and efficacy. On the other hand, supplement manufacturers only need to prove that their products do not result in “a significant or unreasonable risk of illness or injury.”
Because supplements are “self-prescribed,” it’s a lot more difficult for health professionals to track their use. Rather than being able to prescribe each vitamin and mineral that their patient takes, doctors and nutritionists need to rely on their patients to do their own research and address any concerns they have before purchasing any type of dietary supplement.
Lastly, supplement manufacturers do not need to seek approval from the FDA in order to market their products. Supplement advertisements often tout anecdotal evidence rather than empirical evidence as proof that their supplements work. In other words, their evidence is based on an individual’s experience instead of proven facts and statistics.
Dietary Supplements and COPD
With all of this being said, the best advice for COPD patients interested in dietary supplements is to be cautious about what you read. While supplements don’t typically have side-effects as severe as drugs, they still contain powerful active ingredients that can make COPD more difficult to manage if you don’t know what you’re doing.
Another thing to note is that supplements are not a “cure-all” and they’re not intended to treat a specific disease or illness. They’re most commonly used to treat nutrient deficiencies in your body, and you won’t know what these deficiencies are unless you discuss your symptoms with your doctor.
COPD is a progressive and irreversible lung disease characterized by chronic inflammation and obstructed airflow. COPD varies widely in terms of severity and many patients will experience comorbidities such as sleep apnea, osteoporosis, cardiac disease, as well as mental health disorders like anxiety or depression.
As a result, it’s impossible for a pulmonologist to provide a “one-size-fits-all” treatment plan for a COPD patient. Each patient is considered a unique case, so even if something works for one COPD patient, it doesn’t necessarily mean it will work for all of them. Without further ado, let’s take a look at some of the most commonly recommended supplements for COPD.
Every day, your body works around the clock to produce skin, bone, and muscle. It sends nerve signals throughout the body and creates rich red blood cells that nurture every organ in the body. But without essential nutrients like vitamins, your body would not be able to do any of this.
Your body requires about 30 different types of vitamins, minerals, and dietary components. But the problem is, many of these components are not produced by the body naturally, so you need to get them from either the food you eat or dietary supplements.
Vitamin D plays a number of important roles in the body. First and foremost, it promotes healthy calcium absorption. Calcium is a mineral that’s responsible for muscle function, hormonal secretion, nerve transmission, and vascular vasodilation and contraction. Vitamin D also plays an important role in the reduction of inflammation, immune function, and the modulation of cell growth.
Vitamin D deficiency is one of the most common side-effects associated with COPD. It’s estimated that about 25 percent of people with COPD have low levels of vitamin D. This occurs for two main reasons: COPD patients often don’t eat the recommended amount of meals each day because eating can be physically exhausting and lead to difficulty breathing.
Secondly, many COPD patients, especially those with stage 3 or stage 4 COPD, don’t get outside very much. Since a large portion of our vitamin D intake is absorbed from sunlight, respiratory patients are often deprived of this.
While COPD patients can take regular vitamin D supplements or vitamin D with calcium, vitamin D3 is a better alternative for many people. The reason for this is because vitamin D3 contains both sunlight and dietary-activated vitamins — both of which COPD patients lack.
Generally, vitamin D is believed to reduce the rate of lung decline for people with severe lung disease. Because vitamin D helps regulate inflammation, COPD patients may experience fewer exacerbations that are less severe. Regular vitamin D levels will also help prevent osteoporosis and other bone conditions that can make living with COPD even more difficult.
Too much vitamin D may result in vitamin D toxicity. This can cause too much calcium to build up in the blood (hypercalcemia), which can cause fatigue, weakness, and nausea. If hypercalcemia progresses, it can lead to the formation of calcium stones and pain in the bones and kidney.
Like vitamins, minerals are one of the essential nutrients for your body. Minerals are naturally occurring inorganic materials that play a number of important roles like maintaining healthy brain function, muscle function, and heart function. There are two types of minerals: trace minerals and macrominerals.
Macrominerals include magnesium, phosphorus, sodium, potassium, chloride, sulfur, and calcium. Generally speaking, macrominerals are needed in much higher doses than trace minerals and they play a larger role in your body functions. Trace minerals, on the other hand, include fluoride, selenium, cobalt, zinc, iodine, copper, and iron.
Magnesium sulfate (MS) is widely used as a treatment for asthma due to its bronchodilatory effects. What this means is that it can help widen the airways in the event of a severe asthma exacerbation. Unfortunately, MS has not been tested as widely when it comes to treating COPD, so its efficacy is still up for debate.
Several placebo-controlled trials have been conducted to test the benefits of magnesium sulfate in treating COPD. However, they have yielded mixed results and didn’t present enough evidence to indicate that COPD patients should adjust their treatment plan to accommodate for oral or nebulized magnesium sulfate supplements.
Zinc is an essential trace element that plays an important role in immunity. While zinc can be found naturally in foods like whole grains, red meat, and poultry, it can also be taken in the form of dietary supplements. Zinc is an antioxidant, meaning it protects your cells against dangerous free radicals that are produced when your body breaks down food or you’re exposed to tobacco smoke.
An imbalance between antioxidant capacity and oxidative stress is believed to play a major role in the development of COPD, so zinc may have beneficial effects when it comes to regulating this. Since zinc plays such an important role in regulating the immune system, COPD patients with zinc deficiency will be at a higher risk of experiencing lung infections that can lead to exacerbations.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are not one nutrient, but rather, a whole family of essential fatty acids. Since your body cannot produce these fatty acids on its own, you need to get them through your diet. Some examples of food that contain omega-3 include fish (salmon), flax seeds, chia seeds, and walnuts.
Omega-3 supplements are very popular nowadays and for good reason. It’s been proven to lower blood pressure, slow plaque development in the arteries, improve heart health, and even help you manage anxiety or depression. Omega-3 supplements, in particular, are great for people who don’t consume a lot of fish or other foods that contain omega-3.
One of the ways omega-3 helps COPD patients is by fighting inflammation. According to Richard Phipps, Ph.D. professor of Environmental Medicine and director of URSMD Lung Biology and Disease Program, “We never really knew why diets high in omega fatty acids seemed good, but now we know it’s because they provide the precursors for molecules that help shut down excessive inflammation.”
While many people take omega-3 supplements like fish oil without consulting their doctor, it’s recommended that COPD patients ask their pulmonologist first. There are three different types of omega-3s including alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), all of which have different uses. What’s more, it’s important to consume the correct ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids.
If you have a shellfish allergy, be aware that omega-3 supplements may contain trace amounts of shellfish. Be sure to address this with your doctor if you’re concerned about it.
N-acetylcysteine is an antioxidant that potentially has beneficial effects for people with COPD. While NAC has been shown to reduce cough and phlegm and thin mucus in some patients, it has shown little to no effect in others. More studies are needed to fully understand the pros and cons of using NAC to treat COPD.
From what we know so far, however, NAC seems very safe to use. What’s more, it can be taken either orally, or through a nebulizer which gives COPD patients plenty of options. NAC is typically prescribed in tandem with other treatment options rather than being used as a primary treatment for COPD.
Aside from vitamin D, ginseng is one of the most common supplements used for COPD. Ginseng is a root that’s found in many places around the world, but the most popular are American ginseng and Asian ginseng, the latter of which has been used in medicine for centuries.
While ginseng has many benefits for people with different conditions, for COPD patients, it has powerful antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties. Another benefit of ginseng is that it’s an all-natural herbal supplement. So, unlike manmade vitamin and mineral supplements, it’s much easier for patients to verify that they are receiving a pure product without any additives.
Questions to Ask Your Doctor
Everyone needs to maintain a healthy balance of vitamins and minerals to be healthy. However, like drugs, taking too many dietary supplements can have adverse side-effects. Many people take a daily “multivitamin” which contains a variety of vitamins and minerals. And while these have some proven health benefits for some people, they don’t target specific nutrients that will benefit COPD patients.
If you want to do what’s best for your health, especially if you have COPD or another chronic illness, it’s best to consult your doctor. He/she will help you understand how dietary supplements fit into your overall COPD treatment regimen and give you an idea of what side-effects to expect. Ask your doctor the following questions to get you started:
- Are there any tests I can take to see if I have vitamin deficiencies?
- How will supplements affect my COPD diet?
- What are the benefits and risks of the supplements I’m taking?
- How can I ensure the supplements I’m using are safe?
- Are there any effective alternatives to the supplements I’m taking?
How will supplements affect my comorbidities such as sleep apnea, heart problems, or anxiety?
Nutrition plays a fundamental role in our overall health. By getting our recommended daily value of vitamins and minerals, we provide our bodies with the raw materials they need to perform functions such as regulating blood production and blood flow, building strong healthy bones, and regulating metabolism. Dietary supplements are a great way to fine-tune our diet, but they can be equally destructive if they aren’t used correctly.
Similar to drugs, every dietary supplement has side-effects. If you’re someone with COPD or any other chronic illness, this could make your symptoms worse and even increase your chance of experiencing exacerbations. This is why it’s important to first discuss with your doctor so that he/she can recommend supplements that will work in tandem with your COPD treatment regimen, rather than working against it.