Watch Out for Fake COPD Treatments: 9 Natural and Alternative COPD "Remedies" That Don't Live Up to the Hype
If you've spent much time at all reading about COPD online, you've probably come across articles and advertisements for “natural” therapies and alternative treatments for COPD. These include things like vitamin supplements, lung detox cleanses, and unconventional medical treatments (like stem cell therapy) that claim to relieve COPD symptoms, regenerate lung function, or even cure chronic lung disease.
These treatments might seem promising at first glance, but the vast majority of “alternative” COPD treatments just don't live up to the hype. Most are unproven, dis-proven, or simply have very little, if any, real health benefits to offer at all.
However, the hope (however false) that these treatments offer is undeniably—and understandably—enticing to many people with COPD and other chronic respiratory diseases. The appeal is even stronger for patients struggling with severe breathing symptoms who don't get the results they want from conventional treatments for lung disease.
Because of this, it's no wonder that many people with COPD and other chronic health conditions turn to “natural” and alternative treatments for relief. Unfortunately, even though many of these treatments (e.g. vitamin supplements) might seem harmless, they can be risky and even dangerous in ways that you might not expect.
In this post, we're going to take a look at some of the most popular “natural” and alternative COPD treatments to see whether they work as advertised and what they're all about. We'll do our best to take an objective approach that considers both the available research on each “treatment” as well as expert reviews and opinions on how safe and effective the therapy is.
We'll also discuss some simple strategies that can help you recognize dubious treatments and unreliable health advice in general. That way you can better protect yourself from all kinds of health and disease misinformation, not just the stuff related to COPD and respiratory disease.
Recognizing & Understanding COPD Treatment Scams
Lots of people are interested in the idea of “natural” or “alternative” medicine, and its a particularly common topic to stumble upon online. And while some of these treatments do have some proven benefits, most of them don't meet the standards required to qualify as a valid treatment for COPD.
Unfortunately, figuring out what works and what doesn't isn't easy, especially in the murky waters of social media and amid the explosion of health product endorsements online. Let's take a closer look at this phenomenon and how it can lead well-meaning people to spread misinformation that exploits the hopes of people suffering from COPD and other chronic health conditions.
Misinformation Can Be Sneaky: Beware of What You Read Online
You can find ads, articles, and social media posts making untrue claims about dubious COPD treatments in just about every corner of the internet—often right alongside valid information about proven COPD treatments. Without further investigation, it's impossible to tell what's legitimate, what's inaccurate, and what's a downright scam.
This is especially difficult when misinformation is posted with good intent by well-meaning people who believe it to be true. After all, health, disease, and disease treatment are all extremely complex topics that take a great deal of experience and expertise to fully understand.
There are also bad actors who intentionally peddle false treatments in order to take advantage of patients, caregivers, and loved ones seeking alternative solutions for their health problems. They deliberately twist the truth by misrepresenting science and cherry-picking data to make their “treatments” sound more legitimate or effective than they really are.
Unfortunately, the internet is the perfect environment for misinformation to spread and multiply, a fact that scammers and snake oil salesman are all too eager to exploit. It allows them to not only spread their lies with little pushback, but also reach a massive audience of people with minimal effort and expense.
That's why you should never take endorsements for natural, alternative, or novel COPD therapies at their word; always take the time to investigate and verify first. Fortunately, there are plenty of expert resources that can help us better understand the science behind these “treatments” and determine which ones are legitimate and what's too good to be true.
We consulted a large number of academic studies and other expert resources for this guide, and you'll find the links to all these sources sprinkled throughout the following sections. For even more information about COPD treatments and how to manage your COPD symptoms, check out our large repository of practical COPD guides in our Respiratory Resource Center.
The Different Flavors of COPD Treatment Scams
Natural and alternative COPD treatments (whether legitimate or sham) aren't limited to any particular type or category. Just as legitimate COPD treatments take several different forms (e.g. medication, diet & lifestyle changes, etc), you can find alternative treatments that fit each of those categories and more.
For the sake of this guide, we're going to group the most common natural and alternative COPD treatments into four different categories. This lets us more easily compare alternative treatments with common characteristics and tease out the differences between those that work and those that don't.
Here's a quick summary of the four main types of natural and alternative COPD treatments you're likely to come across online:
- Supplements & Nutrition-Based Treatments: These include specific vitamins, herbs, and other supplements that advocates claim can relieve COPD symptoms or improve the disease itself in some way.
- Lung “Detox” Treatments: These are treatments that claim to cleanse your lungs (and therefore make them healthier & relieve respiratory symptoms) by getting rid of toxins or other supposedly harmful substances from your lungs.
- Lifestyle remedies: These include activities, habits, and lifestyle changes that are claimed to relieve COPD symptoms or otherwise improve the disease.
- Stem Cell Treatments: These are cellular therapies involving stem cells—usually offered by private clinics—that are advertised to reduce lung disease symptoms or reverse the course of COPD.
Measuring The Merits of Alternative Treatments for COPD
It's important to acknowledge that evaluating disease treatments is a complicated and nuanced process. It's involves not only determining if a treatment works, but how it works, how well it works, and if the potential benefits are worth the potential risks.
It often takes years of research and expert analysis to evaluate a new treatment, and the answers are often not clear cut. That's why we have to consider a spectrum of possibilities for natural and alternative COPD treatments, including the possibility that some treatments might have marginal benefits even if they don't live up to the promises that the people promoting the treatments make.
For each treatment we discuss in this guide, we'll present a brief overview of the available research and what that research means for people with COPD. Our goal is to give you a better idea of each treatment's overall effectiveness and whether or not it has proven merit as a treatment for COPD.
Keep in mind that what we've included in this guide is just a snapshot of all the available information out there on these topics. It is not a comprehensive guide, and it's certainly not meant to be a substitute for professional medical advice.
It's always best to consult your doctor or other specialists involved in your treatment who know the most about your particular health needs. They can offer the best advice about what kinds of medications, supplements, and other treatments are right for you.
A Note on Conventional Medicine
Because the point of this guide is to identify unproven or “sham” COPD treatments, we won't be talking much about “conventional” COPD treatments in this guide. Treatments used in standard COPD healthcare—such as inhalers, antibiotics, and steroid medications—have already been thoroughly vetted by experts and are widely accepted as the most effective ways to treat COPD.
In this guide, we're focusing instead on non-traditional remedies: things that are not usually considered to be a standard part of COPD healthcare. Almost by definition, these remedies haven't (yet) met the high standard of evidence that medical experts generally require before incorporating a treatment into conventional medical care.
In this guide, we'll attempt to untangle which—if any—of the most popular natural and alternative COPD remedies actually have any merit, as well as which ones are dangerous, disproven, or downright scams. We'll also discuss some of the common fallacies and science misinterpretations that underlie many these false health claims.
If you're interested in learning more about conventional COPD treatments, we've included links to several guides on the topic below. These guides will give you a more in-depth look at all the major COPD therapies, including the research on why, how, and how well the treatments work.
- How Supplemental Oxygen Therapy Treats COPD
- How Antibiotics Work to Treat COPD Exacerbations
- How COPD Inhalers Work: An In-Depth Look at Long-acting and Short-acting Bronchodilators
- How Steroid Medications Work to Treat COPD
A Note on Self-Prescribing Natural & Alternative Treatments
While we will continue point this out in specific examples throughout this guide, we think think it's important to emphasize how risky is can be to start any kind of natural or alternative treatment on your own. “Natural” does not mean harmless, and even the most benign-sounding natural and alternative “treatments” can come with some serious risks.
For example, one 2015 study found that there is an average of 23,000 emergency room visits every year in the US related to dietary supplements alone. Other studies have found that some “natural” and herbal supplements were tainted with potentially dangerous prescription drugs (you can find a list of these products here on the FDA's website).
That said, many natural and alternative treatments are available right over the counter at your local pharmacy or grocery store. But just because they're widely available doesn't mean they work (or that they're safe), which is why it's always best to talk to your doctor before starting any kind of new health treatment— even if it's just a “natural” vitamin supplement or dietary routine.
Even if you do decide to go ahead and start a new treatment without your doctor's input, it's still very important to let your doctor know. Your doctor needs accurate, up-to-date information about your health to give you the best possible treatment, and that means he needs to know about every medication, vitamin, supplement, natural remedy, and alternative treatment you use.
Nutritional Supplements & Herbal Treatments for COPD: Do They Work?
If you've ever taken a look at the supplement aisle at your local grocery store or pharmacy, you've probably noticed the rows and rows of supplements on sale. If you take the claims on the bottle at face value, it seems like there's a supplement for everything from anxiety and depression to digestive issues and chronic pain.
Supplements are by far the most popular category of natural treatments. This is no wonder since they're available just about everywhere and make such appealing claims. They're used by wide variety of people—both healthy and unhealthy—to treat an astonishingly wide variety of health conditions and concerns.
Supplements touted as COPD treatments are claimed to bestow a variety of different benefits including better lung function and reduced COPD symptoms like breathlessness and fatigue. Unfortunately, research on these treatments tends to come up with weak, disappointing, or inconsistent results.
That said, many supplements are relatively harmless and inexpensive, which is why so many people are willing to give them a try, even if they don't get concrete results. Polls show that 86% of Americans take supplements, while only 24% of them have a diagnosed nutrient deficiency.
In the following sections, we're going to take a closer look at some of the most popular categories of supplements for COPD. These include: vitamin & mineral supplements, herbal supplements, and anti-oxidant supplements.
Vitamin & Minerals Supplements: 7 Dubious “Natural” Remedies for COPD
Vitamin and mineral supplements are a tricky issue, because they definitely do have a legitimate benefits for some people in some situations. The problem is that they're often useless—and sometimes even harmful—when self-prescribed.
Most supplements are only proven to work when prescribed by a doctor for very specific conditions, such as confirmed nutrient deficiencies and complications of certain diseases. That means that, unless they're specifically recommended by your doctor, over-the-counter supplements are not likely to have any beneficial effect on your COPD.
Generally, most people only need enough vitamins and nutrients to meet the minimum threshold for what their body needs to function. In most cases, taking extra vitamins and nutrients beyond that threshold doesn't “enhance” the body's functioning—they just go to waste.
The same logic applies to “superfoods” and other nutrient-rich foods that are touted as having specific health effects. While eating healthy foods is important, eating any one specific healthy food generally isn't; you can get just as good of results from eating a balanced diet made up of a wide variety of different healthy foods.
Of course, some people with COPD have nutrient deficiencies, and certain types of nutrient deficiencies are more common in people with COPD. The main problem with vitamin and mineral “remedies” for COPD is that they're not advertised as a treatment for a deficiency—they're claimed to have specific health effects all on their own.
In most cases, those claims are unsubstantiated; though research has found that some vitamins are correlated with improved COPD symptoms, they usually fail to find any causal link between taking vitamin supplements and improvements COPD.
Here's how one research review put it: “Although there are many studies that associate vitamins with improvement in lung function tests, there is no clear evidence of the benefit of vitamin supplements. Most studies regarding supplements showed no benefit of multivitamin supplementation in symptoms, spirometric function or hospitalization for COPD.”
But for the sake of of debunking some common natural COPD remedy myths, let's take a closer look at some of the most common vitamin and mineral remedies touted as treatments for COPD.
Vitamin D is probably the most frequently recommended supplement for COPD. This is partially because people with COPD have a higher-than-average incidence of vitamin D deficiency, but also because vitamin D is known to play an important role in immune system function and general respiratory health.
Proponents of vitamin D sometimes claim that vitamin D supplements can improve breathing function, reduce exacerbations, and relieve other symptoms of COPD. This idea is supported by research that has found improvements in some patients' COPD symptoms after giving those patients supplements (or injections) containing vitamin D.
However, studies that actually measure patients' vitamin D levels before the start of vitamin D treatment have repeatedly found that the only patients who benefit are the ones who started out deficient in vitamin D. This indicates that vitamin D supplements don't improve general, baseline COPD symptoms, but rather symptoms that have been exacerbated by a vitamin D deficiency.
Even so, there is some discussion in the medical community about whether or not it's worth it to recommend vitamin D supplements to patients as a preventative measure against vitamin D deficiency. That's because minor vitamin D deficiencies (often referred to as “vitamin D insufficiencies”) are relatively common, and because vitamin D supplements are relatively safe in doses up to 2,000 IU (or 50 mcg) daily.
Ultimately, however, the only COPD patients who are likely to benefit from vitamin D supplements are those who are not getting enough vitamin D in the first place. Since most people get up to 90% of their vitamin D from the sun, you might have a higher risk of being deficient if you have don't spend much time outside or you don't get enough of the right kind of sunlight where you live.
If you think you might be deficient in vitamin D, the first step is to schedule an appointment with your doctor. Depending on the circumstances, your doctor might recommend formally testing your vitamin D levels or he might treat you for a deficiency based on your symptoms and risk factors alone.
Magnesium is an essential mineral that plays an important role in lung function and breathing, and some studies have even found correlation between low magnesium levels and an increased risk of COPD exacerbations. Because of this, it's no surprise that magnesium supplements are frequently touted as a natural treatment for COPD.
Unfortunately, while intravenous magnesium is considered a valid COPD treatment for patients hospitalized with COPD exacerbations, there is no evidence that magnesium supplements have any benefit for people with asthma or COPD. In fact, some research suggests that taking too much magnesium can have respiratory side effects that could be particularly dangerous for people with respiratory diseases.
One the most serious potential side effects is pulmonary edema, which causes the lungs to fill up with fluid and can lead to acute respiratory distress. Another danger of magnesium is that it interacts with many common medications (e.g. by making them less effective), including antibiotics, blood thinners, and medications used to treat osteoporosis, high blood pressure, and heart disease.
Because of these and other risks—and the fact that there's little or no evidence of benefit—magnesium supplements are not generally recommended for the general public or for people with COPD. Despite this, research shows that up to one third of COPD patients might be deficient in magnesium, and magnesium supplements are considered to be relatively safe in doses of up to 350mg daily daily (for adults).
However, this doesn't mean that you shouldn't still talk to your doctor before starting magnesium supplements, even if you think that you're magnesium deficient. It's important to get your doctor's opinion on whether magnesium supplements are safe for your condition and to make sure that they won't interfere with any other medications you take.
Calcium is a mineral that's often included in lists of natural supplements and treatments for COPD. This is likely because it's an important nutrient for preventing osteoporosis, which is a condition that's especially common in older adults and people with COPD.
Unfortunately, this leads some to mistake calcium as a type of COPD treatment, despite the fact that calcium doesn't have any kind of direct impact on COPD or its symptoms. However, osteoporosis can cause injuries and mobility difficulties that can significantly effect your ability to manage your COPD.
If you don't get enough calcium, your bones can start to lose density, which makes them brittle and weak. This can lead to a variety of detrimental health effects—including instability, falls, bone fractures, and loss of physical mobility—that can lead to a downward spiral of poor health and worsened COPD.
The best way to make sure you're meeting your daily calcium requirements (about 1,200 mg daily for older adults) is to eat calcium-rich foods like dairy and calcium-fortified foods.