Is there anything better than being inside the house or apartment on a cold winter’s day when you don’t have to go out and you can enjoy all that beautiful heat that’s coming up from the furnace? Well – there’s probably a whole bunch of folks who will say, “Oh yeah? Move to Florida or the Carolinas or the Southwest where it’s warm all the time!”
Breathing better with fresh air
As much as I enjoy all that warmth, I always find that, with my COPD, I breathe so much better when I can open a window or stand outside for a little while whenever weather (and my layers of protective clothing) permits! I never knew, since I was diagnosed in 2011, whether there was a scientific reason for my wanting to breathe in fresh air whenever possible or if it was just my imagination.
Turns out – from what I could find – it’s a little bit of both.
Tuberculosis treatment history
Around the turn of the 19th century, there was no known cure for tuberculosis (TB) and doctors struggled to understand it. It was believed to be hereditary. There was no effective treatment. But physicians eventually noticed that those TB patients who spent time in the fresh mountain air while hiking or camping could stop its progression or even "cure" affected lungs.1
They began prescribing extended convalescence in sanatoriums like Stony Wold, which opened in 1902 in upstate New York, or the better-known Adirondack Cottage Sanitarium in Saranac Lake, founded by Dr. Edward Trudeau in 1885 he had chosen as a quiet retreat when he, himself, was diagnosed 13 years earlier while practicing medicine after his graduation from the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University.1
In 1885 the first patients arrived and began Dr. Trudeau’s treatment plan. The patients would spend at least 8-10 hours outdoors per day, regardless of the weather, often sitting on the large veranda that was a distinctive feature of the Adirondack Cottage Sanatorium. The patients were to gradually increase the time they spent exercising in the mountain air.2
And while the treatment did not “cure” tuberculosis, the cold, clean air allowed the TB patients to breathe easier for a time. You’re breathing in more oxygen when you’re out in the fresh air. When your brain gets more oxygen, it’s going to be able to function more efficiently. It brings greater clarity and improved concentration.3
The many benefits of oxygen
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, natural ventilation (opening the windows) is healthier than breathing stale air from the indoors. Indoor air in the United States is two to five times more polluted than outdoor air.4
Fresh air is also filled with negative ions, which have been linked to an improved sense of well-being, helping your immune system to fight off disease more effectively due to healthier white blood cells. It also supplies your immune system with the oxygen it needs to kill and destroy bacteria, viruses, and germs. Breathing in stale air will not supply your body with enough oxygen to keep your cells fueled and functioning properly.
But, breathing that fresh air in and out not only feels great, but it also benefits your lungs. And for those of us with COPD, every little bit helps. It helps the airways of your lungs to dilate more fully and improve the cleansing action of your lungs.
Being outside and getting some air straight from the great outdoors helps to improve both blood pressure and heart rate due to the decrease in pollution, providing you with better overall heart health. Stale and dirty air forces the body to work harder to get the proper amount of oxygen it needs.
Fresh air makes you happier. The more fresh air you get, the more oxygen you will breathe which will increase the amount of serotonin (the happy hormone) you inhale, consequently making you happier. 5
A famous drummer fights back
Talk about breathing in the fresh air always reminds me of this story.
For those of you who knew him, Levon Helm was a drummer for, what I consider to be, one of the best rock and roll bands ever. In 1996, Levon Helm was diagnosed with throat cancer. He was living in Woodstock – a semi-rural area of upstate New York.6
“The great thing was being able to fight back,” Levon recalled of this frightening time. “My whole appreciation for being alive in the world became a very precious thing.
On hot summer nights I’d walk into a big dark grove of evergreen pines near the creek behind my house and just breathe in the pine and oxygen and hemlock scent, trying to clear 50 years of smoking cigarettes out of my system. I’d wash my face off in the cool black creek water and tried to use the aromas and healing air out of the forest to help my body and spirit recover. Eventually, between the forest and my prayers, and the long drives to the radiation clinic, I started to get better.”6
So – open the window! (At least for a little while!)
Do you have a COPD exacerbation tool kit?