Should Vitamins and Supplements Be Part of Your COPD Treatment Plan?
Last updated: February 2020
When you have a chronic disease like COPD, it's natural to want to do everything you can to make the symptoms go away and to feel your best. Quite often, your doctor may have prescribed medications and/or supplemental oxygen. And those treatments certainly help many people who have COPD to have a better quality of life. But should vitamins and supplements also be a (more "natural") part of your COPD treatment plan?
That's a great question, and if you search Google, you'll likely find all sorts of claims and promises that every supplement under the sun can not only help but also cure COPD. Sadly, the facts may tell a different story. For one thing, there is currently no cure for COPD.1 However, there are many therapies that can help relieve some of your symptoms, feel better and even live longer and better, often for many years or even decades.
The good news is that vitamins and supplements may play a role in your overall health, as well as your respiratory health. So, let's take a closer look.
Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin, an essential nutrient that all of us need, whether we have COPD or not.2 It helps promote health in the following ways:
- Boosts bone density
- Helps the body absorb the minerals, calcium and phosphorous
- Plays a role in the immune system
A hallmark feature of COPD is the inflammation in the lungs, which leads to the narrowing and tightening of the airways. Vitamin D has been proven to reduce airway inflammation via a number of mechanisms.3 In addition, people who have COPD are at a higher risk of osteoporosis. Vitamin D can help with that as well.2 Some experts have even suggested that Vitamin D may assist with antioxidant therapy for better lung function.4
Healthy people who are able to be outdoors may be able to get enough vitamin D simply by being in the sunshine. If that's not possible for you, then certain foods are enriched with vitamin D, including milk, orange juice, certain cereals, and yogurt. Fatty fish like salmon and sardines are also a great source of vitamin D. Or you can get your vitamin D in a daily vitamin too.5
Vitamins A and B
Vitamin A and the many B vitamins are also essential to good health, including vision, bone, and skin health. Plus, like the other vitamins, they are antioxidants.2 Their role in respiratory health still appears to be somewhat in question, with conflicting results from different studies.2
Vitamins C and E
Vitamins C, a water-soluble vitamin, and E, a fat-soluble vitamin, are both antioxidants and may also play a role in the immune system.2 Although both vitamins are important in overall health, their role specifically with COPD health is not as clear. However, there is some evidence that when a person with COPD has low levels of either of these vitamins, they are more prone to exacerbations of their COPD symptoms, including:
- Shortness of breath
- Coughing up mucus
Fruits and vegetables are the best sources of vitamin C, although it is also found in most multivitamins.6 Nuts, seeds, and vegetable oils are the best sources of vitamin E in food.6 Like vitamin C, you can also find vitamin E in multivitamins and individual supplements.
The bottom line on vitamins for COPD
Although it seems that vitamins could improve some of the symptoms of COPD, at least in the short term, there's not enough evidence at present to give the go-ahead on taking vitamin supplements as COPD treatment. However, taking vitamins carries very little risk, as long as you stay within the guidelines for recommended amounts and you coordinate with your health care team. Plus, there are many overall health benefits for taking vitamins, especially if your nutritional intake is not what it should be.
Magnesium is one mineral found naturally in the body but some people who are deficient may benefit from supplementation. Magnesium is an essential body mineral that plays a role in more than 300 body functions. These include functions such as:8
- Protein synthesis
- Muscle and nerve function
- Blood glucose control
- Blood pressure regulation
According to ClinicalTrials.gov, a magnesium deficiency could have an effect on some aspects of the airways associated with COPD and studies have shown a positive role for magnesium with asthma. In addition, people with COPD may be more at risk of being deficient in this mineral, possibly due to certain medications, poor dietary intake, and/or heavy smoking. However, there is not enough clinical evidence at present to confirm that taking a magnesium supplement would help with COPD.9
Boosting your dietary intake might be in order at any rate, though. Magnesium can be found in many plant and animal foods and beverages including:8
- Green leafy vegetables, such as spinach
- Legumes, such as black beans or lima beans
- Nuts and seeds
- Whole grains and certain enriched cereals
Calcium is the most abundant mineral in the human body and is essential for bone and tooth health. It works hand in hand with vitamin D.10 Although there have been claims that people with COPD would benefit from calcium supplements, I found no evidence of that in my review of the literature. I suppose it is possible that because calcium and vitamin D work together, that future research will produce a better understanding.
Omega-3 fatty acids
Omega-3 fatty acids have been noted to have anti-inflammatory effects.11 Since COPD is a disease of airway inflammation, omega-3 supplements are often suggested. Studies have revealed mixed results from this type of supplement, so it appears further study may be needed.11, 12
Omega-3 fatty acids are readily available in fatty fishes such as salmon, tuna, and mackerel. Walnuts, flax seeds, and pumpkin seeds are also great sources. But you can also take omega-3s in supplement form.
There are many claims on the internet about herbal remedies for COPD as well. Here are a few that have been studied to some extent:
- Turmeric (which contains the active ingredient curcumin)13
- Green tea14
- Ginseng, which is not recommended as it may cause a rise in blood pressure15
In my opinion, none of these studies show enough evidence that supplementation with any of those herbs will have any certain benefits for people with COPD. But you could certainly discuss it with your health care team.
More study is needed
The use of "natural" supplements in the treatment of COPD remains somewhat controversial. Although there have been some studies, more study is clearly needed. If you do decide you want to try any of these supplements, be sure to discuss it with your health care team. Here are some factors to consider:
- Make sure you know how much of a supplement is safe to take. More is not usually better. It is possible to overdose even on "natural" supplements. Read the labels carefully.
- Get the clearance from your doctor first. Some vitamins, herbs and minerals can interfere with certain medicines.
- Buy high quality supplements. Not all supplements or vitamins are created equal. They may have varying amounts of the desired ingredient, or some may have unwanted additives. Do your homework and read the labels. And sometimes it makes sense to pay a bit more for better quality.
Do you know the difference between a COPD exacerbation and lung function decline?
Join the conversation