Some of my older than 40 patients remind me of times back in the 1950’s when entire families would go for drives in the country to get away from the cities for some “fresh air” and sunlight. Today, however, those blue skies, sunlight and fresh air are becoming luxuries. More and more of our air and environment have become sick with air pollution and it’s causing our health to suffer as well. One recent study out of Britain cites that air pollution causes more heart attacks than cocaine! In addition, the World Health Organization estimates that air pollution is responsible for 2 million deaths worldwide every year!
When we consider the fact that we all need air to live and sunlight to make Vitamin D, we seemingly do not have much choice in being exposed to less than optimal air quality. As such, you may be wondering the same thing my patients ask me, can I protect my health against air pollution? The answer is yes, but first let me explain what forms air pollution can take.
Health Effects of Air Pollution
According to the EPA, health-harming gases and particles are released into the air everyday through automobiles, diesel trucks and buses, airplanes, and factories. Cities like Los Angeles has its infamous brownish “smog” that floats above the city but every big city in the United States has, to varying degrees, its own air pollution problems.
The worst air offenders are carbon monoxide, ozone, nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide, particulate matter (PM), and lead. But did you know that air pollution can also come from chemicals we personally use? That’s right. Cigarette smoke is, in fact, the number #1 personal air pollution offender. My patients are also surprised when I tell them that even things in their own homes like solvents, paints, cleaners, building materials that off-gas formaldehyde, and even buildup of soot and creosote from using their home fireplace, can be air pollutants!
All of these methods of air pollution can affect our health in varying ways. The human body has remarkable natural “filtration devices” in place to help deal with pollutants in the air. These are all the tiny hairs that line your nasal passages, called “cilia”. These cilia help trap particles of even a microscopic size so that they do not get into your lungs. Your body also produces mucus to surround these pollutants and help move them out of your body when you blow your nose. As I tell my patients, the better your general health, the better your body is able to fight pollutants.
However, through constant exposure, many of these cilia can become damaged and some particles invariably do get into your lungs. These particles then cause inflammation which can lead to scarring and constriction of the airways and, thereby, less oxygen intake. Less oxygen intake for your body can lead to a whole host of poor health domino-effects throughout your body. It is thought that air pollutants contribute to diseases like emphysema, asthma, bronchitis, Alzheimer, Parkinson disease, skin cancer, and heart disease.
How Can I Protect Myself From Air Pollution?
In the last few years, weather forecasters have been displaying Air Quality Index along with the weather forecasts. As I advise my patients, these can be valuable pieces of information, especially if you already have a heart and/or lung condition. Stay indoors on the days when the forecasts say high particulates in the air. Schedule outdoor work or exercise for times when the air quality is better. Or, if you have to go out to the store or an appointment, get a good quality respirator mask. You may feel a little self-conscious wearing it out in public, but it can help prevent bringing on an asthma or heart attack.
There are also some nutritional/health boosting things you can do to help your body ward off the effects of air pollution. They include:
• Exercise: The stronger your lungs and heart are, the better able they are to fight the effects of air pollution. Engage in progressively challenging aerobic exercise 3-4 days a week, where you gradually challenge your heart and lungs to respond to stress and build up your oxygen exchange capacity.
• Nutrition: An array of high powered antioxidants like Vitamin C, Vitamin E, selenium, resveratrol are necessary to fight the damage of free radicals that air pollutants can bring into your body. Beta carotene helps keep the lining of bronchioles (airways into your lungs) and your lungs themselves healthy and able to fight off disease. Getting enough B vitamins, and the amino acid methionine, help fight against air pollution. Vitamin D3 helps boost your immune system to fight disease in general. A good supplement, in addition to the foods you eat, can help ensure you’re getting enough.
• Stay Hydrated: Your body needs adequate water every day to flush out toxins and keep the tissues lining your nasal airway and lungs moist to be able to grab pollutants.
• Air cleaners: HEPA filters can be fit on your furnace/air conditioning system. Air purifiers are free standing units that can be used throughout your home. Both methods can be of assistance, in addition to general household cleaning, in improving air quality.
• Far Infrared Sauna: FIRs are great for removing toxins from your body through the sweat you produce. Unlike regular wet, heat saunas, they are dry and are much more comfortable to stay in. Many health clubs have them now and cost about $20 a visit, but I would suggest looking into a more economical portable home unit.
Getting enough oxygen and sunlight are crucial to human health. It is beneficial to our physical as well as our mental health to spend time outdoors exercising, working in the garden, or just “playing” with friends and family. As much as possible, stay away from heavy industrial outputs and freeway traffic, as these are areas with the most air pollution. In addition, improving and maintaining your personal health will also help you stave off the effects of air pollution.
Photo Credit: Danilo Rizzuti