Supplements, Herbal Treatments, and Antioxidants

What are supplements?

Some patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) use supplements as a complementary therapy for treating their symptoms. “Complementary” therapy means that supplements are used in addition to their prescribed medications and COPD treatment plan.

It is very important for patients to let their healthcare providers know about any and all supplements that they are taking. This is because supplements can interact with some medications in a way that may cause side effects or affect the way the medications work. It is also possible to overdose on vitamins and supplements by taking too much. This can cause very serious health problems.

Some patients with COPD use the following kinds of supplements as complementary therapy:

  • Nutritional supplements
  • Herbal treatments
  • Antioxidants

What nutritional supplements are used for COPD?

The body needs certain vitamins and nutrients in order for its cells to function well. Some COPD patients do not get enough of these from the food they eat. Healthcare providers may advise these patients to take supplements to make sure the body is getting enough vitamins and nutrients.

Some of the vitamins and nutritional supplements that may be beneficial for some COPD patients include:

  • Vitamin D
  • Magnesium
  • Fish oil

Patients with COPD may not get enough Vitamin D. This can happen because:

  • When people get older, their bodies do not make as much Vitamin D
  • People with COPD often do not spend enough time outside - sunlight is a source of Vitamin D
  • People with COPD may not get enough Vitamin D in their diets

Some research has suggested that having low levels Vitamin D may be linked to an increased risk of COPD flare-ups. Vitamin D can also help lower the risk of osteoporosis, which is a disease that causes the bones to become weak and brittle. There are several different food sources that naturally contain Vitamin D, including:

  • Fatty fish such as mackerel, tuna, and salmon
  • Lean meats
  • Cheese
  • Poultry
  • Eggs
  • Nuts
  • Beans

If blood tests show that a patient does not have enough Vitamin D, then a healthcare provider might prescribe supplements.

Magnesium is a mineral that helps the lungs to function well. It is common for people with COPD to have low magnesium levels. This can be caused by poor nutrition, or by certain types of COPD medicines. A variety of foods naturally contain magnesium, including:

  • Nuts
  • Seeds
  • Whole grains
  • Legumes
  • Leafy greens, such as spinach
  • Foods containing dietary fiber

Some patients may benefit from magnesium supplements if their levels are too low. However, patients need to take magnesium exactly as advised by their healthcare providers, because it can cause side effects and it interacts with many types of medicines.

Fish oil is a supplement that contains important substances called “omega-3 fatty acids.” These are known to be involved in:

  • Transferring oxygen from the air in the lungs into the bloodstream
  • Reducing the amount of mucus produced by the lungs
  • Reducing inflammation

Getting enough omega-3 fatty acids is important for COPD patients. They occur naturally in foods such as:

  • Fish including salmon, tuna and mackerel
  • Walnuts
  • Flax seeds and pumpkin seeds

Fish oil supplements are an alternative way to get omega-3 fatty acids. Patients should talk with their healthcare providers about whether they should use these kinds of supplements.1,2,3,5,6

Which herbal treatments are used for COPD?

Herbal treatments are a natural form of medicine that can be helpful for some COPD patients. Herbal treatments are made from plants that are thought to have health-related benefits. They come in many forms, such as:

  • Tablets or pills
  • Powders
  • Teas
  • Extracts

Patients need to discuss any herbal treatments with their healthcare provider before starting to take them.

Herbal treatments that may help relieve some COPD symptoms include:

  • Ginseng
  • Eucalyptus
  • Turmeric

Ginseng is an herb that is thought to improve lung function and exercise stamina for some COPD patients. However, it can interact in a harmful way with many other types of medicines. It also carries a risk of some serious side effects. For this reason, it is especially important to take ginseng only under the supervision of a healthcare provider.

Eucalyptus is an oil that is traditionally used as an expectorant in cough drops. This means that it can help make mucus thinner and easier to cough up out of the lungs. Eucalyptus can also be delivered as an essential oil. In this form, it can be inhaled directly by placing a few drops in the palm of the hand. It can also be put into an infuser that transforms the oil into a mist that infuses into the air.

Turmeric contains a substance called “curcumin” which is thought to help reduce inflammation and swelling. Some people believe that it can help reduce swelling in the airways caused by COPD.1,2,3

Which antioxidants are used for COPD?

Antioxidants are chemicals that work by blocking the effect of other chemicals, called “free radicals.” Free radicals are created by bodily processes, and can harm and weaken cells in the body. This can make a COPD patient have a higher risk of getting infections, which can cause COPD flare-ups.

Vitamins A, C, and E all contain antioxidants. Some people can ingest enough of these vitamins in the food they eat.
Natural sources of Vitamin A include:

  • Salmon
  • Green leafy vegetables
  • Green, orange, and yellow vegetables
  • Fruits such as cantaloupe, apricots, and mangos
  • Dairy products
  • Beef liver and organ meats
  • Fortified breakfast cereals

The following foods are good sources of Vitamin C:

  • Citrus fruits, such as oranges and grapefruits
  • Broccoli
  • Strawberries
  • Cantaloupe
  • Baked potatoes
  • Tomatoes

Vitamin E is found in the following foods:

  • Vegetable oils
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Green vegetables

However, some COPD patients may be advised to take supplements if they are not getting enough of those vitamins through food.

N-acetylecysteine (called “NAC” for short) is a substance that also works as an antioxidant and triggers the production of other kinds of antioxidants. It can be used as a supplement or prescribed as a medication for people with COPD. Patients taking nitroglycerin should not use NAC.

Some studies have suggested that NAC may:

  • Relieve COPD symptoms
  • Reduce the risk of acute bronchitis and bacterial infections
  • Thin mucus and make it easier to clear out of the airways

However, other studies have shown that NAC may not actually be that effective in relieving COPD symptoms. More research will be needed to learn more about the effects of NAC.2,3,7,8,9

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Written by: Anna Nicholson | Last reviewed: August 2020.