Food

If You've Ever Smoked, You Should Load Up on These Foods to Protect Your Lungs

A study suggests that foods high in plant pigments can reduce lung cancer risk.

No matter how many times you’ve been told not to smoke because the damage from even an occasional puff is irreversible (somewhat true, depending on a variety of factors, like genetics), it’s likely that at some point in your life you’ve inhaled tobacco smoke. Perhaps all the ads reminding you that “Kissing a Smoker Is Like Licking an Ashtray” were not enough of a deterrent. But whether you’re a one-time smoker or a recovering pack-a-day nicotine addict, ignoring your lung health would be a serious mistake: Lung cancer is the most common cancer in the world and the fourth most common cause of death in the U.S.

While the statistics are scary, lifestyle changes can help mitigate lung cancer risk.

“Even if you’ve smoked your whole life, quitting can improve your health and quality of life,” Rene Patino, a pulmonary disease specialist at Kaiser Permanente Los Angeles said. “Right away, your heart rate and blood pressure will go down, and your airways and lungs will start to work better. Quitting gives your body a chance to heal and in some cases, the damage to the lung is actually reversed as the lung heals itself.” 

A December 2016 study by Los Alamos National Laboratory shows that tobacco smoke (which can also be inhaled as secondhand smoke) seriously messes you up. “Tobacco smoking causes mutations that lead to cancer by multiple distinct mechanisms,” Dr. Ludmil Alexandrov, Oppenheimer Fellow at Los Alamos National Laboratory and co-lead author of the study wrote. “Tobacco smoking damages DNA in organs directly exposed to smoke as well as speeds up a mutational cellular clock in organs that are both directly and indirectly exposed to smoke." Gene mutations? Not great. But don’t let potentially permanent damage discourage you from taking proactive (and tasty) steps toward improved lung health.

While quitting smoking, regular aerobic exercise and annual doctor visits can all be beneficial to your lung health, there’s another delicious way to support your lungs: Eating well. A February 2017 study published in Frontiers of Oncology found that fruits and vegetables high in carotenoids (the pigments that make produce red, orange and yellow) and vitamin C could help mitigate lung cancer risks. Research showed that people who had medium to high weekly intakes of fruits and vegetables, including cruciferous vegetables, carrots and citrus fruits as well as tomatoes, reduced their risk of lung cancer.

As Dr. Patino explained, vitamin C works as an antioxidant by blocking some damage caused by free radicals, which can build up and contribute to health problems. While almost all fruits and vegetables contain vitamin C, Patino recommends kiwi, citrus fruits like oranges and grapefruit, and vegetables like broccoli, brussels sprouts and tomatoes, which are rich in the nutrient.

Patino also endorses other dietary antioxidants, which may have beneficial effects on respiratory health, though he noted, “To date we do not have robust evidence to advocate for continuous antioxidant therapies.” Still, “it’s important to follow a healthy, balanced diet, rich in a variety of fruits and vegetables and whole grains.” Consider prioritizing vitamin E (found in nuts, seeds and green leafy vegetables), flavonoids (found in apples, onion, parsley, berries and citrus fruits) and carotenoids (found in carrots, sweet potatoes, tomatoes and dark leafy greens) in your diet.  

Another dietary mineral that can improve lung health? Magnesium. Dr. Patino recommends green leafy vegetables, whole grains, beans and nuts as “great sources of magnesium.” Many of the recommended nutrients overlap in fruits and vegetables, yet another testament to the powers of whole foods and fresh produce.

Of course, your lungs aren’t completely isolated from the rest of your body, and while eating foods rich in vitamin C, vitamin E, magnesium and carotenoids may improve your lung health, this diet can also be beneficial to your heart and other organs. Erin Clifford, a holistic wellness coach, advocates eating a balanced diet for your overall health, which, by default, will help your lungs. While foods containing nitrates (bacon, hot dogs, deli meats) have been shown to potentially cause lung damage, there’s a plethora of tasty foods you can consume for your overall health.  

Below, Clifford recommends some supplements to a diet already rich in the suggested dietary antioxidants.

Chili peppers, which are filled with capsaicin—the spicy compound that gives pepper their unique heat level—can improve blood flow and stimulate mucus membranes to “help clear mucus from your stuffed-up nose or congested lungs.” Healthy mucous membranes (which line your nasal passages and lungs) are your body’s “first line of defense against invading pathogens.”

Heart-healthy foods, like garlic and onions, are also considered good for your lungs. “They reduce inflammation, lower cholesterol, and fight infection,” Clifford said.

Looking to herbs for health? Sage contains ellagic acid, known to be a strong natural antioxidant. If you’re congested, Clifford recommends steeping the mildly sweet herb in hot water for about 20 minutes to make tea (you can also add basil). For savory uses, Clifford recommends sautéing sage with garlic and onions to flavor pretty much any dish, folding the herb into a turkey burger or mixing it in a vinaigrette or pesto.

Ginger, often toted for its multiple health benefits, is a strong anti-inflammatory for lung health. Chest infections can be relieved with ginger tea or with a ginger-soaked hot compress and the freshly grated root can be stirred into everything from smoothies to stir fries.

Looking for a supplement to add to this cohort of ingredients? Clifford recommends adding astragalus to your diet to support lung health. “In Chinese medicine it is used in the form of huang qi to treat colds, flus and other respiratory infections. You can drink it as a tea or it can be taken as a tincture or pill.” Astragalus extract powder can also be added to smoothies or soups.   

It’s no secret that smoking does horrendous damage to your lungs. While you can’t reverse past tobacco transgressions, filling your plate with red, orange and yellow fruits and vegetables, and prioritizing chest and heart health with herbs, roots and whole produce will give your lungs their best chance at dodging cancer.

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Melissa Kravitz is a writer in New York City who writes about food and culture for First We Feast, Thrillist, Elite Daily, Edible, and other publications. She is a writing fellow for Earth | Food | Life, a project of the Independent Media Institute. Find her online at melissabethk.com. Follow her on Twitter @melissabethk.