The Whole Body Effect of COPD: It Goes Beyond Your Airways

COPD is without question a chronic disease of the airways. The hallmark effects of this so-called lung disease are a chronic inflammation and swelling of your bronchial tubes, your bronchioles and your alveoli throughout the lungs. The end result are limitations on both the structure and function of your lungs. But if you already have COPD, you know this, right? These symptoms are no surprise to you:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Chronic cough, often with mucus
  • Chest tightness
  • Wheezing

But did you know that COPD can affect your whole body? This is called the "systemic effect" of COPD.

How COPD affects the lungs

Because COPD affects your ability to breathe well, less air flows into and out of your lungs. This is what happens:

  • Your airway walls swell and thicken, which results in narrowing.
  • The air sacs (alveoli) in your lungs lose their elasticisty.
  • Lung tissue dies over time.
  • The collection of mucus in your airways further blocks the flow of air.

When you get less air into your lungs, you'll also move less oxygen into your body organs and cells. You'll also have more trouble getting rid of waste gases, such as carbon dioxide. And that takes a heavy toll over time.

Experts are not sure of all the reasons why COPD has such a wide-reaching impact on your health,  but there are a few theories, many of which may be interrelated:

  • Limited mobility & activity
  • Widespread inflammation, not just in the lungs
  • Lack of sufficient oxygen in the tissues, called hypoxia
  • Oxidative stress, from an imbalance between free radicals and your body's antioxidant defenses

Let's take a closer look at some of the more common effects of COPD on your body.

Nutritional impacts of COPD

Although every person may be affected differently when it comes to weight, unexplained weight loss is actually quite common with COPD. In fact,

  • 50% of people who have severe COPD experience weight loss unrelated to nutritional habits
  • 10 to 15% of people who have mild to moderate COPD also have this unexplained weight loss

You might expect that eating less is the reason why people with COPD lose weight, but this does not seem to hold true. Even though shortness of breath and fatigue may affect appetite, this seems to be more of an intermittent situational effect, rather than a long term one.

Instead, scientists believe that a loss in muscle mass is more likely related to a speeding up of your metabolism. That change in your metabolic rate may be related to:

  • The sheer workload of breathing
  • Certain drugs used to treat COPD
  • Overall inflammation

On the other hand, I have to say that as a nurse and caregiver, I have also observed that some people with COPD have the opposite problem, being overweight or even obese. This is probably related more to lifestyle factors than to any physical effects of COPD on their bodies. In other words, if you eat more calories than your body can process through movement, you may gain weight. This may also occur if the quality of the food you eat is poor. For instance, processed foods, alcohol and fatty foods can contribute to weight gain.

Musculoskeletal impacts of COPD

As I explained above, people who have COPD tend to lose muscle mass. When that happens, you'll lose much of your strength and endurance, resulting in the fatigue so common to COPD. Reasons for loss of muscle mass are probably related to:

  • Being sedentary
  • Tissue death from lack of oxygen
  • Inflammation

In addition, people who have COPD may be more at risk for broken bones. Being sedentary is also one of the risk factors for osteoporosis, which leads to brittle bones.

Effects of COPD on the heart

Unfortunately, studies show that people with COPD carry two to three times the risk for heart disease as people with healthy lungs. We are not sure why this is, although some abnormal cells in both the lung and kidney circulatory vessels may be a factor. Smoking is also a shared risk factor in both lung and heart disease.

As with the other systems, the persistent, widespread inflammation present in the body of a person with COPD may also be a factor in weakening the heart and circulatory systems.

Other health impacts

COPD has more far-reaching effects than on just the physical body. Depression and anxiety are also quite common, as are fear and anger. Both the physical and mental health affects of COPD can interfere greatly with your personal relationships, your lifestyle and your quality of health.

Work with your healthcare team

I don't mean to paint a picture of doom and gloom for living with COPD. Just because these whole body effects can happen to you, doesn't mean they will. So much depends on how early your COPD is diagnosed and the actions you take once you know you have it. Your mindset and attitude toward life also have an influence.

Working closely with your healthcare team can help you identify issues quickly as they arise and then to take action to treat them or prevent things from worsening. Following your treatment plan is also essential.

By providing your email address, you are agreeing to our privacy policy. We never sell or share your email address.

More on this topic

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

Join the conversation

or create an account to comment.
poll graphic

Community Poll

Have you taken our COPD In America Survey yet?