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Rejuvenate your lung health

Discover the importance of lung health with Dr Michael Eltein and ways to protect your respiratory well-being. 

Betting agencies won’t give you odds on your principal organ, but when it comes to your most primal survival-based functions, your lungs are arguably your saviour. It’s your sacred temple where you exchange oxygen, the vital resource that keeps you alive by fuelling your energy with carbon dioxide, a substance sequestered by plants that provides them with essential sustenance. It’s a universe preserving symbiosis, plants in turn recycling carbon dioxide that supplies us with oxygen, and so humans survive in tandem with their natural environment. Your lungs are also your initial and primary defence against invading microbes. They are your pre-eminent fortress where foreign insurgents are corralled and annihilated before they can breach your barricades.

During the early stages of 2023, the northern hemisphere winter witnessed an unravelling of that process as hospitals were inundated with patients both young and old suffering from respiratory infections caused by an array of viruses including influenza and the coronavirus. In just over a month between December 8, 2022 to January 12, 2023 close to 60,000 people perished from COVID in China, a number that was staggering enough if it wasn’t considered an under-representation of the actual death rate. Health authorities were scrambling to find answers, claiming that China’s diminished vaccination numbers and a lack of access to antiviral medications might account for its burgeoning mortality statistics. In Europe and America they blamed mushrooming illness on naive immune systems due to the COVID lockdown or inadequate vaccination to guard against the influenza virus.

At the same time in Australia a rather different and unusual phenomenon was emerging: a lack of available antibiotics. A curious event that beset the global supply and demand chain caused this sudden dearth in what is regarded as an indispensable medication. In the end it was ascribed to our position in the worldwide market. As we’re not a large populace, and therefore not a lucrative financial haven, with a sudden undersupply of antibiotics manufacturers were quick to forgo our needs, a rather ironic circumstance given our voracious appetite for inappropriate antibiotic prescribing to treat predominantly viral illnesses and the medical fraternity’s obtuse desire to comply with patient demands.

It’s human nature, and more so in times of extreme duress, to put the blame on someone else, and the coronavirus has exposed us to the most dire of natural cataclysms, invoking our need to make the vaccine or health authorities or, even worse, some sinister, iniquitous desire to control all of us culpable for our plight. What we appear unwilling to do is look inwards to see what we can do to fortify our resources so that we can rely on our inherent guile to overcome these marauding subversives and so resist the challenges of our microbial universe. When it comes to the respiratory environment we have a formidable sentinel, but it too becomes indolent as we get older. Your lungs undergo structural changes that make it more difficult to take in oxygen and release carbon dioxide. They become less elastic and more rigid, your small air sacs become wider while you lose the cells that serve them, making it harder to eliminate mucus that might be teeming with infected microorganisms. Stem cell reserves that have the ability to repair and regenerate defective lung tissue become exhausted, leading to diseases like emphysema and pulmonary fibrosis or the stiffening of your lungs.

The lung has its own immune system, but that too becomes dysfunctional and weaker as you get older, making you more vulnerable to infections that you were formerly able to resist. Conventional treatments like bronchodilators or corticosteroids like prednisone and antibiotics are used to palliate symptoms, but these aren’t able to reverse the destruction that has already set in.

Scientists eminently aware of our predicament as they too face the slings and arrows of an ageing body have been assiduously exploring the restorative treatments we can embrace to rejuvenate ailing lungs. They have uncovered a molecule called phosphatidylinositol–3–kinase, a protein intimately associated with ageing and diminished lung function, and they have uncorked a number of medications that inhibit this substance, including the statin medications, currently deployed to lower cholesterol, metformin, used to treat diabetes, rapamycin the anti-ageing wonder drug to be reviewed in an upcoming article, and other powerful immune modulators, but all of these have side effects and a downside.

There are a number of natural substances that are less fraught that have the ability to regenerate lung tissue and prevent age-related lung diseases like emphysema and pulmonary fibrosis. These include formononetin (derived from red clover and the Chinese herb Astragalus membranaceus), resveratrol and quercetin. N-acetylcysteine is another powerful antioxidant that has lung revitalising potential, but it needs to be treated with caution as in one experiment on mice it prevented emphysema while at the same time stimulating the development of lung cancer. It also needs to be acknowledged that all these natural remedies have been tested in laboratory animals but have yet to be incorporated in clinical trials on humans.

Climate change and the unique environmental challenges we face are mirrored by our own internal dilemmas. Rehabilitation or universal devastation depends upon the choices we make.

Article featured in WellBeing 206

Dr Michael Elstein

Dr Michael Elstein

Dr Michael Elstein is a Sydney-based anti-ageing physician and writer. He is the author of three books including his latest, The Wellness Guide to Preventing the Diseases of Ageing. He has also designed the app The Diet Guide to Ageing Prevention.

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