Part III: Living with COPD

That COPD is a progressive illness speaks loudly to the importance of lifestyle changes in the overall management of the disease. If detected early enough, lifestyle changes alone, can effectively alter the course of the disease.

As we mentioned in Part II: Treatment of COPD, smoking cessation is the single most important lifestyle change that you can make to prevent further damage to your lungs. But lifestyle changes don’t stop with putting out the last cigarette. Take a look at what else you can do to improve your life with COPD:

Eat a Well-Balanced, Nutritious Diet

Did you know that eating the right mix of nutrients can help you breathe easier? Although your doctor or registered dietician can help you develop an individualized meal plan, the American Lung Association recommends the following general nutritional guidelines for people with COPD:

  • Choose complex carbs – for some people with COPD, following a diet that’s lower in carbohydrates and higher in fats helps them breathe easier. If you’re overweight, opt for fresh fruits and veggies over bread and pasta for your complex carbohydrate needs. If you’re underweight, choose a variety of whole-grain breads, pastas, fresh fruits and vegetables.
  • Limit simple carbs – candy, table sugar, cake, and regular soft drinks have one thing in common: they’re high in simple carbohydrates which don’t metabolize very well in your body. Choosing complex carbs over simple carbs can help you maintain an optimal weight while making breathing easier.
  • Fiber-up – eat 20 to 30 grams of fiber each day from nutritional food sources, such as whole grains, nuts, seeds, fruits and vegetables.
  • Don’t forget protein – eating protein at least twice a day helps prevent lung infections and keep respiratory muscles strong. Excellent sources of protein include milk, eggs, cheese, lean meat, fish, poultry, nuts, dried beans, and peas. Choose lean meats and low-fat dairy if you need to lose weight and whole milk, and whole-milk cheese or yogurt if you’re underweight.
  • Choose the right fats – mono and poly-unsaturated fats don’t contain cholesterol and include olive, canola, safflower, and corn oils. If you’re overweight, limit – don’t avoid – your intake of these types of fats. If you’re underweight, increase the amount of these fats in your diet.
  • Vitamins and Minerals – most doctors recommend taking a daily multivitamin to supplement a COPD diet. Because many people with COPD take steroids that may increase the need for calcium, your doctor may recommend you take a calcium supplement as well, such as calcium carbonate or calcium citrate. Look for one with Vitamin D.
  • Watch the Salt – although a low-sodium diet is not specifically recommended for people with COPD alone, excess salt in your diet may cause fluid retention that can contribute to high blood pressure and worsening breathlessness. Avoid adding salt to your food and be sure to read the labels on store-bought food choosing foods with little or no added sodium.
  • Stay well-hydrated – drinking 6 to 8, eight-ounce glasses of water every day (unless your doctor tells you otherwise) not only keeps you well-hydrated, but it helps liquefy thick secretions making them easier to cough up.
  • Ask about nutritional supplements – if you’re unable to meet your daily nutritional requirements through the foods you eat, talk to your doctor or registered dietician about medical nutritional supplements. Many times they’re covered by insurance if ordered by your doctor.

Maintain a Healthy Body Weight

Being overweight makes it that much harder for the heart and lungs to efficiently pump blood through your body resulting in worsening breathlessness. Being underweight can make you weak and tired, leaving you more prone to chest infections. Maintaining a healthy body weight for your body structure is optimal for better breathing and overall quality of life with COPD.

Get Your Exercise Groove On

Moderate, physical activity has many important health benefits, particularly if you have COPD. In fact, daily exercise can:

  • increase energy
  • decrease breathlessness
  • improve sleep
  • improve the body’s use of oxygen
  • decrease anxiety and depression
  • build self-esteem
  • improve muscle strength and cardiovascular fitness

Many people with COPD find exercise intimidating, especially when it results in increased breathlessness. But regular exercise, such as walking, swimming, or biking, coupled with stretching and resistance training will ultimately help you feel better. The key is to start slow and build up to longer periods of exercise training.

Remember: before beginning an exercise program, talk to your doctor to make sure you’re healthy enough to exercise.

Practice Breathing Techniques

Pursed-lip breathing and abdominal breathing are important tools to add to your COPD tool kit. Practicing both methods five to 10 minutes, three to four times a day, helps strengthen breathing muscles, increases oxygen to the lungs, and decrease breathlessness.

  • Pursed-lip breathing is especially effective during sudden periods of shortness of breath. To master pursed-lip breathing, inhale deeply through your nose and exhale slowly through pursed lips. Repeat until breathing is under control.
  • Abdominal breathing, also called diaphragmatic breathing, should be combined with pursed-lip breathing for maximum effect. Follow the instructions below:
    1. Lie on your back with a pillow under your head and knees or sit upright in a chair to perform this exercise.
    2. Place one hand on your upper chest and the other just below your rib cage.
    3. Breathe in slowly through your nose while pushing your stomach muscles outward. You should feel your stomach moving out against your hand. The hand on your chest should remain still.
    4. Exhale through pursed lips allowing your stomach muscles to fall inward toward your spine as you exhale. The hand on your upper chest should remain still while the hand on your stomach should move downward with your exhalation.