As people are paying more attention to their health right now and supplements for respiratory health can bring an additional boost to supporting healthy breathing and immunity.
And although we might associate respiration simply with our lungs, “the respiratory system actually includes many other parts of the body, like the diaphragm, trachea (windpipe), mouth, nose and sinuses, and everything else you need to breathe,” says Sarah Tindall, N.D., of the National University of Natural Medicine. “It goes without saying that you cannot live without your respiratory system!”
The respiratory system ensures proper gas exchange—breathing in oxygen to be delivered to your cells and removing carbon dioxide by exhaling. Perhaps lesser known, the respiratory system also plays a pivotal role in our immunity—all that air coming in may contain potentially harmful invaders, and the respiratory system needs to act quickly and effectively against them, which is especially important because many colds and flus attack the respiratory system.
“It is probably one of those things most people take for granted or don’t frequently consider,” Tindall says of our respiratory system. “Unless someone has a respiratory health condition or meditation/yoga practice where they are really focusing on breathing, people in general may not give much thought to it.”
It would be wise to do so, from a whole-body standpoint, says Jennifer McLemore, L.Ac, an acupuncturist and Chinese medicine herbalist in Boulder, Colo. “We are born when we take our first breath, that breath of life, and it is through the act of breathing that our body is animated throughout our life,” she says. “We need to keep our lungs healthy to keep the process of life going.”
To boost your respiratory system, both McLemore and Tindall say it’s key to eat real food (with a focus on fruits and vegetables), cut out white sugar and drink plenty of water, plus get regular exercise and reduce exposure to indoor and outdoor air pollution. As people are paying more attention to their health right now, these experts also suggest the following research-backed supplements for added support of respiratory health.
“This is a well-tolerated (and also delicious!) botanical that is often used to help address colds and the flu,” Tindall says. Elderberries contain flavonoids, which have natural antioxidant activity, and there is also evidence that elderberry supplements have a triple-pronged action: It’s antiviral, antibacterial and anti-inflammatory.
Research has shown it to reduce both the severity and duration of upper-respiratory symptoms. A 2019 study in particular found that it blocks entry of viruses to the cells, helping with prevention, and also minimizes symptoms if flu strikes. “If there was one herb that I could recommend, it would be elderberry,” McLemore says.
Elderberry Recommended Dose: For adults, 1 to 2 teaspoons, one to two times a day is very safe, McLemore says.
Antioxidants are a powerful line of defense for immunity and respiratory health, and vitamin C leads the pack, according to McLemore. Though vitamin C is critically important, we can’t make it in our bodies, and for all we’ve heard about it, most people still aren’t getting enough through their diet alone, she says.
Studies indicate that vitamin C deficiency is related to risk of flu and severity of flu symptoms and, alternatively, that taking it decreases inflammation (helping subdue the processes involved in infections) and helps prevent the common cold. Vitamin C is currently being studied to test whether it may help with COVID-19 patients, but it is too soon to make any conclusions about this.
Vitamin C Recommended Dose: Adults should take 1,000 mg twice daily, McLemore says.
“Most people have probably heard about the benefits of this supplement for one reason or another,” Tindall says. It affects everything from cardiovascular to immune, mood and bone health.
Lesser known, perhaps, is vitamin D’s direct effect on lung function and as supplement for respiratory health. A deficiency of vitamin D has been associated with an increased likelihood of pneumonia, bronchitis and other lung infections, and higher levels have been found to improve overall lung function. Of course, vitamin D also helps regulate certain types of immune cells, encouraging an overall healthy immune response, Tindall says.
Vitamin D Recommended Dose: Adults should take 1,000 to 2,000 IU daily, McLemore says.
N-acetyl cysteine (NAC)
“This is probably my favorite supplement,” Tindall says. “There is abundant evidence supporting its efficacy in addressing several different health conditions,” including detoxification and immunity. Also, NAC is a precursor to glutathione, a critically important antioxidant made in our bodies, Tindall says—so important, in fact, that it is widely considered to be a master antioxidant. In terms of respiratory health, NAC is “mucolytic,” meaning it works to break up mucus, which in turn can relieve coughs. NAC has also been shown to help with viruses by reducing inflammation in lung cells and also decreasing the effects of pneumonia, which is linked with oxidative stress and inflammation.
NAC Recommended Dose: Adults should take 600 mg twice daily, best on an empty stomach, but can be taken with food if necessary, McLemore says.
Studies show that many people are deficient in zinc, and this deficiency is associated with reduced immunity. Specifically, zinc is a cofactor in killer T cell production (killer T cells find and destroy infected cells), McLemore says, and it also directly protects the cells in the respiratory system. In addition, a number of studies have found that if a cold does strike, zinc can reduce its length and severity. A 2020 meta-analysis found that zinc is particularly effective for adults (versus children), and there is also interest in maintaining zinc status among the elderly, who are at increased risk for respiratory diseases.
Zinc Recommended Dose: Adults should take 30 mg daily, always with food to prevent nausea, McLemore says.