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Nutrition for Optimal Respiratory Health

By: Vanessa Vogel Batt L.Ac. MSOM

Difficulty breathing, wheezing, mucus build-up in the lungs, tightness in the chest, fatigue, blue nail beds, and chronic coughing are common signs that your respiratory system is struggling to function.

Give your lungs a helping hand by opting for a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids, magnesium, antioxidants, and the most essential chemical substance: water. 

Doing so can improve lung function and possibly repair damaged lung tissue, as well as decrease cell damage.


Staying hydrated is essential for respiratory health. Dehydration can cause excessive, sticky mucus buildup, which can make breathing difficult. Water is a chemical-based nutrient (H2O) that moistens mucous membranes of the lungs. The lungs love water as this precious liquid helps thin out mucus and unblock air passages.

While our bodies are mostly made of water, the amounts required exceed the body's ability to produce it. So you'll have to replenish daily. Eight glasses of water are the baseline recommendation, but to break up tough mucus, up to 12 glasses of water a day may be needed to see improvement.

Interestingly, the lungs, according to Oriental medicine, are affiliated with the element of water and the emotion of sadness. This is why when one cries from grief, the lungs suffer. It can be said that a fully functioning respiratory system helps keep emotions in balance. In addition to drinking water, try to maintain a regular breathing pattern, especially at times when you're upset. This can help bring equanimity to the situation.

Omega-3 fatty acids

A real treat for the lungs and the entire cardiovascular system, omega-3 fatty acids have anti-inflammatory properties that can address lung irritations and swelling that result in asthma and difficulty breathing. This good fat may also be able to remove harmful plaque build-up from the walls of the arteries, so that the heart may receive a healthy flow of oxygen-enriched blood.

The most common sources of food for omega 3 fatty acids are Brussel sprouts, blueberries, salmon, herring, tuna, mackerel, sardines, walnuts, flax seeds, chia seeds, soybean oil, and flaxseed oil. Some meal suggestions rich in these nutrients are orange-glazed salmon with wilted kale, walnut-encrusted baked tuna with Brussel sprouts. For dessert, a blueberry banana smoothie.


To keep respiration flowing smoothly and breathing issues at bay, try foods with magnesium. When magnesium is low, that means calcium is high. High levels of calcium cause bronchial smooth muscle tension and contraction. This can result in difficulty breathing, especially for the asthmatic or COPD patient. Higher levels of magnesium will offset the dangerous presence of copious amounts of calcium in the lungs.

Rich sources of magnesium are found in a variety of foods such as spinach, quinoa, dark chocolate, black beans, avocado, tofu, yogurt, peanuts, and cashews.


Antioxidants are a group of nutrients that fight off free radicals that cause cellular damage. Eliminating free radicals in the lungs will lead to a reduction in the inflammation that causes asthma. This means easier breathing.

Good choices of foods endowed with antioxidants are kale, strawberries, artichokes, raspberries, kale, red cabbage, beets, kidney beans, pinto beans, black beans, and onion.

A simple and ready-to-go condiment--once it's made, of course--is pickled onion. Thinly slice an onion and dribble some vinegar over it. Let it marinate for at least 10 minutes. The longer you let it sit, the more flavorful and beneficial it becomes.

The onion has antioxidants in abundance, and the vinegar is particularly good for your liver. According to the theory of acupuncture and Oriental medicine, the liver, when overstressed from detoxifying the body, can interfere with the digestive system. When you are angry or indulge in too many greasy, heavy foods, the liver becomes overactive and is prone to 'invade the stomach and spleen.'

The end result of the invasion is excess phlegm, which is produced in the stomach but stored in the lungs. This build-up of pathological fluids interferes with breathing and creates an ideal environment for infectious agents. The onion and vinegar combo will not only help keep the lungs clean, but it has the added benefit of assisting digestion and promoting bowel movements.

Lung Institute. (2016). Staying Hydrated with COPD. Retrieved from

Berthon BS, Wood LG. (2015). Nutrition and Respiratory Health--Feature Review. Nutrients. Retrieved from

Contact an acupuncturist today to schedule an appointment or to learn more about acupuncture and Oriental medicine.

About the Author: Vanessa Vogel Batt, L.Ac., MSTOM, studied at the Pacific College of Oriental Medicine, and practiced acupuncture and Oriental medicine in New York for several years. Vanessa enjoys traveling the world, and has published articles on acupuncture and Oriental medicine and related health topics for websites and publications in both the U.S. and abroad.

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