Emphysema is a chronic lung disease and the most common symptom is shortness of breath. Sufferers are often under weight and may develop a barrel chest. Because emphysema involves a structural defect of the lungs, as I explain below, you may not be able to come off your medication. However, I can suggest ways which may prevent it getting worse.
To allow us to breathe properly, our lungs need to expand and contract continuously. With this very common problem, the lungs have been stretched out of shape and can’t function properly. Think of the lungs as balloons. A new balloon always has a clear outline. But if you blow it up until it nearly bursts and then let the air out you’ll see that the outline has gone flabby and has lost its original size and shape. Now try blowing in half the amount of air and letting it out the balloon still can’t get back into shape and lets the air escape with much less force.
When we breathe, the lungs act like bellows, taking in oxygen and pushing out the waste product carbon dioxide. The lungs do this through small air sacs (alveoli), where this exchange of gases takes place. The alveoli have elastic fibres in their walls, which enable them to act like tiny balloons, continuously inflating and deflating.
If, however, there is any obstruction, such as mucus or phlegm, in the tiny ‘in and out’ tubes of the bronchial tract leading to the alveoli, the air cannot be expelled easily as we breath out. The trouble starts because the diaphragm and the rest of our breathing processes keep pushing air towards the alveoli as normal. Then, just like us blowing and blowing into the balloon, the pressure builds up in the alveoli and, over a period of time, the walls get overstretched and lose their elasticity. As the lung gets stretched out of shape, the enlarged areas trap ‘stale’ air and do not effectively exchange it with ‘fresh’ oxygenated air. The body can’t get the oxygen it needs for even the slightest exertion, such as walking. So the sufferer gets breathless, distressed and sometimes panicky.
The most common cause of obstruction is excessive mucus due to inflammation of the bronchial tract, in other words bronchitis. The number one cause of this is smoking and researchers believe that the reason twice as many men as women develop emphysema is because twice as many men smoke. (As women increasingly take up smoking the trend may change). Even if smoking does not lead to bronchitis, it can, like other forms of pollution such as exhaust fumes, chronic infection (viral or bacterial) and persistent mucus discharge, cause the bronchial tubes to be obstructed. As can asthma. Your doctor may do a sputum test to find out the type of infection involved. A chronic cough, which is often a consequence of obstructed bronchial tubes, can put even more pressure on the alveoli.
Sufferers of emphysema often become barrel-chested because the chest wall expands due to the overstretched lung tissues and persistent cough. Most sufferers are not diagnosed until the emphysema has taken hold and the lungs are severely impaired, so you should only stop or decrease your drugs in consultation with your doctor.
However, the following suggestions may ease the condition and help to prevent further damage:
- Give up smoking and avoid situations where you may inhale other people’s smoke.
- Avoid foods that produce excess mucus, including milk (except skimmed milk in tea), cheese, yoghurt, ice cream, ice cubes, iced water, bananas, spicy food and citrus fruits.
- Avoid products containing yeast such as bread, pasta, pizza, beer, wine, vinegar, Marmite blue cheese and mushrooms, especially if you have taken several courses of antibiotics for bronchitis.
- Avoid exposure to cold, damp places and try to be in warm, dry climates as much as possible.
- Take two to three cups of Dr Ali’s Winter Tea or Liquorice Tea daily with one teaspoon of manuka honey.
- Take Lauq Sepistan, a Unani herbal supplement that helps to eliminate mucus: half a teaspoon twice daily for one month. This is especially important if you have a cold that might lead to bronchitis.
- If you have a bad cough, take one teaspoon of Buttercup Syrup (available from chemists and health food stores) in warm water daily for a week.