Supplements, Herbal Treatments, and Antioxidants

Some people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) use supplements, herbal treatments, or antioxidants as complementary therapy for treating their symptoms. Complementary therapy means they are used along with their prescribed medicines and COPD treatment plan.

It is very important for people to let their doctor know about all supplements, herbal treatments, or antioxidants they are taking. This is because they can interact with some medicines in a way that may cause side effects or affect the way the medicines work. It is also possible to overdose on vitamins and supplements by taking too much. This can cause very serious health problems.

What supplements are used for COPD?

The body needs certain vitamins and nutrients in order for its cells to function well. Some people with COPD do not get enough of these from the food they eat. Your doctor may advise you to take supplements to ensure you are getting enough vitamins and nutrients.

Some of the vitamins and nutritional supplements that may be helpful for people with COPD include:1,2

  • Vitamin D
  • Magnesium
  • Fish oil

People with COPD may not get enough Vitamin D. This can happen because:3

  • 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 diet.

If blood tests show that you do not have enough vitamin D, your doctor might prescribe supplements. Some research has found that having low levels of vitamin D may be linked to an increased risk of COPD flare-ups. Vitamin D can also help lower the risk of osteoporosis. This is a disease that causes the bones to become weak and brittle. There are several different food sources that naturally contain vitamin D, including:3

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

Magnesium is a mineral that helps the lungs 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:4

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

Some people may benefit from magnesium supplements if their levels are too low. However, people need to take magnesium exactly as prescribed. This is because it can cause side effects, and it interacts with many types of medicines.4

Fish oil is a supplement that contains important substances called omega-3 fatty acids. These are known to be involved in:1,3,4

  • 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 people with COPD. They occur naturally in foods such as:1,3,4

  • 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. Talk with your doctor about whether they are right for you.1,3,4

Which herbal treatments are used for COPD?

Herbal treatments are a natural form of medicine that can be helpful for some people with COPD. Always discuss herbal treatments with your doctor before starting to take them. Herbal treatments are made from plants that are thought to have health-related benefits. They come in many forms, such as:2

  • Tablets or pills
  • Powders
  • Teas
  • Extracts

Herbal treatments that may help relieve some COPD symptoms include:2

  • Ginseng
  • Eucalyptus
  • Turmeric

Ginseng is an herb that is thought to improve lung function and exercise stamina for some people with COPD. However, it can interact in a harmful way with many types of medicines. It also carries a risk of some serious side effects. For this reason, it is important to take ginseng only under the supervision of your doctor.1,2

Eucalyptus is an oil that is often used as an expectorant in cough drops. This means 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.1,2

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

Which antioxidants are used for COPD?

Antioxidants are chemicals that block the effect of other chemicals called “free radicals.” Free radicals are created by bodily processes. They can harm and weaken cells in the body. This can increase the risk of infections in people with COPD, which can lead to 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:5

  • 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:6

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

Vitamin E is found in the following foods:7

  • Vegetable oils
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Green vegetables

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

N-acetylecysteine (NAC) 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 medicine for people with COPD. People taking nitroglycerin should not use NAC. Some studies have suggested that NAC may:5-7

  • 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.5-7

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

More on this topic

Written by: Anna Nicholson | Last reviewed: March 2021