Can your lungs assist a detox? We take a look at how to keep your lungs healthy
You excrete waste products from your lungs an average of 850 times each hour, 20,200 times each day and 8,103,000 times each year. That translates to around 650,000,000 toxic expulsions over an 80-year lifespan. Breathing is an ongoing, automatic process and a valuable ally for detoxification that can be supported through numerous practices, botanicals and foods.
The lungs are the transmutation points where oxygen and carbon dioxide enter and leave the fluid environment of the blood. The lungs are the exchange centre for these gases that keep us energised, functioning and alive. Deprivation of oxygen from body tissue for even few minutes can cause irreparable damage and death. The inability to release carbon dioxide changes various balances within the body, disturbing healthy function.
Swara yoga, the tantric science of brain breathing, considers that breathing goes further than the physical body; it takes us to our energy, then to the mind, then to consciousness and then to super, or cosmic, consciousness.
The sophistication of our respiratory systems is remarkable. The structure of the lungs resembles two upside-down trees. The trunk (windpipe) splits into two branches (bronchi) which then split repeatedly into numerous smaller branches (bronchioles) that lead to the leaves (alveoli). The alveoli are bubble-like leaves where gas exchange takes place. The alveoli are covered by a detergent called surfactant that provides support to prevent collapse when oxygen passes into the blood from the lung.
Considering that trees produce the oxygen we require to breathe, it is a stunning synchronicity that our lung structure mirrors them. Our lungs are our interface to the matrix of air that we all share.
Understanding your lungs
Despite the huge chasm between the paradigms of traditional medicine systems and western anatomy and physiology, it’s interesting to consider both the traditional and modern understanding of the lung and its function.
Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) defines the lung as “the tender organ” most affected by pernicious external influences. The lining of the respiratory system, from the nose to the lobes of the lungs, is moist and by necessity easily permeable by external forces. Lungs are continually exposed to gases or small pieces of matter suspended within the inhaled air, which can affect their function.
Traditional Chinese medicine simply states, “The lungs in harmony administer respiration.” Healthy respiration is the process of energy creation using oxygen and releasing carbon dioxide. Every inspiration brings in fresh oxygen, which hitches a ride on red blood cells. Once taken into a cell, the oxygen converts to water, energy and free radicals such as superoxides. Although essential for creating energy, respiration also creates a destructive reaction, known as oxidative stress.
In TCM the lungs rule qi (energy). In the tradition of yoga, prana (energy) rides on the breath. Both of these traditions recognise a fundamental energy source is controlled by the function of the lungs. Swara yoga, the tantric science of brain breathing, considers that breathing goes further than the physical body; it takes us to our energy, then to the mind, then to consciousness and then to super, or cosmic, consciousness.
Lungs as detox agents
Our exhalation contains carbon dioxide to help balance the body’s pH and maintain correct pressures within the system. However, CO2 is just the tip of the exhalation iceberg.
Studies undertaken by Michael Phillips of Menssana Research revealed many compounds showed up in the breath after ingestion of particular substances. An hour after drinking cola, limonene was detected in breath samples; thymol and eucalyptol were detected an hour after the use of mouthwash; sulphides persisted in the breath for 90 minutes after eating onions. Menssana Research established that exhalations from “healthy people” had more than 200 volatile compounds and 3500 different compounds were detected in all of the exhalations tested.
Essentially, there are huge numbers of substances other than carbon dioxide eliminated in the same breath. This means the lungs can throw off many toxins.
When it goes wrong
There are numerous impediments that can impede the detoxification capacity of the lungs. Excessive toxin inhalation is one impediment.
This can occur obviously through smoking but also through air polluted with high concentrations of particulate matter (PM). PM is a complex mixture of tiny particles and liquid droplets made up of acids like nitrates and sulphates, organic chemicals, metals, soil and dust. Particles between 0.5 and 2.5 microns can pass through the filtration systems of the throat and nose to enter the lungs. These can then irritate the lungs and cause serious health effects.
Vitamin C-rich foods are particularly helpful to the lungs, so feast on ripe kiwi, crisp capsicums and citrus fruits to aid your detox.
Essentially, high PM inhalation can lead to increased respiratory symptoms such as coughing, laboured breathing, decreased lung function, aggravated asthma, chronic bronchitis and heart problems. Dr Pauline Roberts suggests, “Such irritation exhausts the body’s own immune response over time, leading to lung fibrosis and immune dysfunction. Early signs of such irritation are mucous membrane responses: coughs, runny noses, itchy eyes and lack of breath in a non-infective situation.”
Air pollution is the primary culprit behind rising levels of asthma, suggests The David Suzuki Foundation. A recently published 10-year study of Southern Californian communities showed that children living in smoggy areas were three to four times more likely to develop asthma than those living in cleaner areas. Children have a higher respiration rate and are more sensitive to PM than adults.
Reduce the chemicals you inhale. Use your favourite perfume only on special occasions, not every day. Avoid everything with synthetic fragrances. According to the Environmental Working Group (www.ewg.org), there is very little control over what chemicals are used in “fragrance”. Additionally, to stabilise the smell they often contain phthalates which are known to act as a synthetic oestrogen.
Avoid chemical cleaners if possible and certainly do not use them with hot water, which vapourises chemicals, making them easier to inhale. Find non-toxic alternatives for cleaning like eucalyptus oil, which was originally distilled to treat many health problems including chest problems.
Mould and dust mites trigger allergy or irritation in many people’s lungs. Regular vacuuming, with a bag-free vacuum, putting bedding and pillows in full sun regularly and using eucalyptus oil are all tools to reduce the incidence of dust mites and mould in the home.
Traditional nature cure doctors would often prescribe brisk walks through nature as an integral part of any detoxification regime. Exercise helps to draw air deeper into the lungs and fresh country air is oxygen rich and generally low in particulate matter.
“Rate of respiration increases during aerobic exercise,” explains exercise physiologist Maryanne Long. “The harder you work, the deeper and more frequently you breathe.”
A good aerobic workout will draw air deeper and more frequently into the lungs, thereby increasing the amount of air coming in and out of the lungs and facilitating detoxification further.
The importance of how clean our air is becoming increasingly obvious. For more than a decade, Mexico City has been off limits for joggers. At this point it’s healthier not to jog at all than to jog through Melbourne CBD, suggests Dr Roberts.
The levels of fine particulate matter, predominantly from exhausts, building works and transport systems, lodge deeply into the exercising lung, which essentially cancels the health benefits of the cardiovascular exercise. It’s just as well many Australian CBDs have botanical gardens nearby; exercise there.
As many of us live in cities or in polluted areas, another solution to enhancing your air quality is having lots of plants inside your house. Broad-leaf plants are particularly effective for refreshing the air. Investigate the suitability of air filters for your home. Open your house up at least once a week to let the air flow through. Reduce the use of toxins in your home in terms of cleaning products and off-gassing furnishings. (See the article on detoxing your home in this publication.)
Upper respiratory health
The nose, as the beginning of the respiratory tract, is an important barrier for restricting large particulate matter and for warming cool inhaled air to reduce adverse reaction in the lungs.
One practice that enhances the health of the nasal passages is neti douching, or jala neti. This comes from Aryuveda as part of the kriya yoga tradition. Using a saline solution of the same osmolarity as the blood (0.9mmol/L sodium to water) prevents any smarting of the mucous membranes of the nose. The douching water should be less salty than the ocean to taste. When the correct concentration is achieved, the washing is a pleasant daily ritual.
Using a saline neti washes the membranes of the nostril. It clears away the excessive mucous and any pollution in the nostrils, allowing for unobstructed airflow. It also tones the membrane, thus supporting the optimal functioning of the lymphatic tissue embedded there. Neti helps to relieve colds, sinuses and allergies. It is understood to be cooling to the temperament, relieving anger and depression. According to yogic tradition, it also helps to awaken the third eye or ajna chakra.
A slightly more advanced pancha karma nasal cleansing practice called nasya involves injecting a few drops of herb-infused sesame oil into the nostrils and massaging points on the face associated with the sinuses. This practice helps to balance the individual and particularly affects kapha and vata doshas.
How to neti nasal douche
Use a spouted pot filled with warm water and a good pinch of sea salt. Insert the spout into one nostril then tilt the head to the opposite side at a 45-degree angle and slightly forward. Pour water into the nostril and allow it to flow out the other nostril. It may take a few goes to achieve this. There may be some blockages, but eventually the water will flow through. Do a bushman’s blow if you’re in the shower; otherwise use a tissue. Then repeat on the opposite side.
Herbal supports for the lungs
During a cleanse it is common to develop some mucous in the lungs. Oftentimes a cold symptom or short-lived phlegmy cough is a cleansing or detox reaction. Supporting the clearing of the lungs through appropriate herbs, foods and practices will enhance the any detoxification. Many herbs contain properties that assist in cleansing the lungs of mucous buildup, an action called expectoration.
Many herbal medicines lend themselves to optimising lung function and can be very supportive during a detox, particularly when one stops smoking or is living in a heavily polluted area. The leaf of ribwort (Plantago lanceolata) grows commonly throughout Australia and is a gentle general expectorant, which provides mucilaginous compounds that tone and nourish the moist mucous tissue. Ginger root (Zingiber officinale) is another common herb that warmly supports gentle expectoration.
Herbs to stop smoking
Naturopath Sally Leedman has had success with the following combination of herbs for people giving up smoking:
- Elecampagne (Inula helenium) is a lung tonic that stimulates the removal of phlegm from the lungs.
- White horehound (Marrubium vulgare) is useful for a wet or dry smoker’s cough and will also facilitate cleansing of the lungs.
- Liquorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra) is a soothing expectorant used for excess phlegm. It soothes irritation and can be useful for a hard, dry, non-productive cough and a sore throat. It also acts as an adrenal restorative and is an excellent support for people who have endured chronic stress and stimulant use.
- Amla (Emblica officinalis) is a versatile Ayurvedic herb rich in vitamin C that provides liver and blood detoxifying support. As a nervous system tonic, it can alleviate symptoms of anxiety, restlessness and stress associated with nicotine cravings.
- Oat (Avena sativa) helps restore the nervous system, enhancing mood and soothing headache and irritability. Some studies suggest that oat also helps reduce nicotine cravings.
It is advisable to discuss the suitability of any herbal tincture with a qualified herbalist because certain herbs are not suitable for people with particular health conditions or who are taking certain medications.
Foods that support the lungs
Vitamin C rich-foods are particularly helpful to the lungs, so feast on ripe kiwi, crisp capsicums and citrus fruits to aid your detox. Foods rich in selenium also provide benefit to lungs — these include garlic and Brazil nuts.
Foods that produce excess mucous can disrupt the clear transference of gases, so avoid foods that create this in you. For many people this includes dairy products. Many food intolerances stimulate mucous formations in sufferers.
Rudolf Steiner suggested pears are highly beneficial for the lungs. Interestingly, the pear is a low-allergenic food that rarely simulates intolerances.
As you increase in years on Earth you tend to decrease the volume of each breath. Observe right now where your breath flows in your lungs. Often times the breath is quite shallow, dwelling mainly in the centre of the lungs only. Due to this low volume, we therefore need to take more breaths to have the same level of oxygen satisfaction.
Anatomically, the lungs extend from just above the collarbone down to the diaphragm, or lower ribs. It isn’t surprising therefore that breathing techniques aimed at increasing the volume of each breath provide benefits to the functioning of the lung, the detoxification of the lungs and consequently the overall wellbeing of the body.
To breath properly takes retraining and practice. It is difficult to override habitual patterns but it is possible. When we were born we most probably breathed full breaths. Watch any newborn sleeping for insight into what unimpeded full breathing looks like. As babies, we breathed with our whole lung, or perhaps even with our whole bodies.
There are many muscles involved in respiration including the diaphragm, intercostal muscles and abdominal muscles. “Specifically targeted strength training for the respiratory muscles may assist with expiratory air flows in healthy individuals”, says Maryanne Long. By enhancing the strength of various respiratory muscles, the flow of the breath can become more nourishing.
Pranayama for detoxification
Essentially, deep abdominal breathing will support good detoxification. The pancha karma cleansing tradition from Aryuveda includes three or four sessions of deep abdominal breathing each day as part of all individuals’ programs, regardless of their dosha imbalance.
Two major detoxifying breathing practices in yoga are Bhastrika pranayama, the bellows breath, and kapalbhati pranayama, the shining head breath. These are both considered to be highly vitalising because they are dynamic and enlivening due to the increased oxygen and prana entering the body from deep breathing. Seek instruction directly from an experienced yoga teacher.
A breathing awareness exercise recently shared by international yoga teacher Diane Long was simple and effective in using the whole lung. It involves quieting and listening internally for a few breaths. Once centred and feeling grounded in the spine, invite the breath to enter deep into the base of the lung and let it fill the whole of the lung, the way it naturally wants to. Release the air naturally.
Repeat this breath and the notion that it wants to fill the whole lung, from base to tip, a number of times and feel the easeful beauty of this flow. Keep the focus on the inhalation and just allow the exhalation to happen.
Cleansing the mind with the breath
Breathing practices are also powerful tools to gain control over your immediate experience. They can help to change consciousness to more positive and constructive states of mind. A Buddhist technique called the black and white breathing meditation aims to enhance the ability to concentrate on a virtuous object, such as the mind of love, by removing negativities from the mind.
The practice involves visualising clear, white light entering the body with every inhalation and thick, dark smoke leaving the body with every exhalation. Imagining black smoke is symbolic of distractions and negative thoughts leaving our energy system and the white light symbolic of illumination entering our energy system.
“The function of the meditation is to purify negative karma, receive blessings from enlightened beings and make the mind peaceful and alert,” explains Kelsang Dornying of the Kadampa Meditation Centre in Monbulk, Victoria. “Therefore one could say it functions to detoxify the mind rather than the body.
“Since the mind is non-physical it has to be ‘detoxified’ using non-physical methods such as the purification practices explained in Buddhism. When the mind is pure, controlled and peaceful, we can say that there can be an improvement in the health of the physical body. However, if the karma for physical problems is already ripening, then despite the person being less disturbed by the physical problem, the problem may well remain.
“When we teach it at drop-in classes, we put less emphasis on the receiving blessings and more on the peace that comes from this special type of concentration.”
Detoxification is about cleansing the body of toxins so that it can function optimally. In order to function optimally, cleansing on all levels is required to remove the obstacles or stains that prevent unfettered metabolism.
“When we wish to dye a piece of cloth a certain colour we first have to bleach it,” says Dornying. “This meditation functions to remove all the impurities from the mind before we ‘colour’ it with virtue. Therefore this practice, in an indirect way, can assist with detoxification of a person.”
The holistic wellness model considers that we are simultaneously mind, body, soul and spirit and each of these levels influences the others. Our lungs play a pivotal role in supporting our cleansing and accepting our true vitality. Adopt tools that suit you to support your lungs in their vital work.