Breathing is something we take for granted until it becomes hard to do. And breathing can be very difficult indeed with a condition called chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which also includes emphysema and chronic bronchitis.
Midge Wilson, a retired nurse and trophy winner in strength competitions, found she had a lot of trouble catching her breath just lifting an empty bar off the rack while doing weightlifting. An article in Good Housekeeping describes her battle with COPD, which she developed because of exposure to second-hand smoke from chain-smoking grandparents.
Eventually she had to give up her strength training and now takes oxygen from a tank to sleep and if she is particularly busy during the day. “I get shortness of breath, so I always have an inhaler with me when I leave the house,” says Wilson. “And sometimes I need to sit when I get home for a few hours with oxygen until I can breathe normally on my own again.”
In Canada, COPD affects about three million people and is the country’s fourth leading cause of death.
People who have COPD usually suffer shortness of breath, long-lasting coughs, and high phlegm production. It often deprives people of their health and quality of life. Up to 79% of Canadians with COPD avoid everyday activities.
What is COPD?
According to the Mayo Clinic, COPD is “is a chronic inflammatory lung disease that causes obstructed airflow from the lungs. . . . It's typically caused by long-term exposure to irritating gases or particulate matter, most often from cigarette smoke. People with COPD are at increased risk of developing heart disease, lung cancer, and a variety of other conditions.”
While COPD is a disease that gets worse over time, its symptoms can be eased and the rate of progression slowed with the right treatments. First and foremost, if someone is a smoker, then they need to quit.
Some of the common medications to treat COPD include:
- Bronchodilators: The medications in these “puffers” relax muscles around airways. There are both short-acting and long-acting bronchodilators.
- Inhaled steroids: Corticosteroid medications can reduce airway inflammation and help prevent exacerbations.
- Oral steroids: These are used when COPD symptoms become more severe.
- Phosphodiesterase-4 inhibitors: This medication helps people with severe COPD decrease airway inflammation and relax airways.
- Theophylline: This is used when other treatments don’t work or if cost is a factor. It may help improve breathing and prevent worsening COPD episodes.
- Antibiotics: These can help battle respiratory infections, including acute bronchitis, pneumonia and influenza, which can aggravate COPD symptoms.
People with moderate or severe COPD might sometimes use oxygen machines, including portable models. Some forms of severe emphysema may require surgical options, such as lung-volume reduction surgery or even a lung transplant.
Natural Treatments to Help You Breathe Easier
To avoid the side effects of some traditional medications (for example, long-term use of steroids can lead to weight gain, diabetes, osteoporosis, cataracts and an increased risk of infection), some people will turn to lifestyle changes and natural treatments for COPD, depending how severe their symptoms are.
For example, regular exercise can help slow damage to the lungs, strengthening the body and respiratory muscles. Of course, exercises can be hard if you are short of breath, so you have to choose the right ones and be sensible in your approach. Water exercises, interval training and strength training are among the recommended workouts.
Other natural treatments that may help with COPD include:
- Vitamins: Vitamins A, C, D and E can help do everything from boosting the immune system to protecting against colds and flu.
- Antioxidants: These substances protect cells from damage by free radicals, which are highly reactive compounds. Antioxidants may serve a role reducing oxidative stress and promoting better lung function.
- Herbal Remedies: Herbal supplements include ginger, eucalyptus, oregano, peppermint, ginseng, turmeric, melatonin, and red sage. They can help with everything from reducing congestion to helping with inflammation.
- A Good Diet: Extra weight can put extra pressure on the lungs and body, worsening COPD symptoms. A well-balanced diet in conjunction with exercise can help achieve and maintain a healthy body weight.
Using Medical Cannabis for COPD
Smoking cannabis when suffering from COPD is a NOT suggested, since smoking generally can cause and aggravate the disease. That said, medical cannabis can be consumed in a number of different forms, including edibles, capsules, oils and tinctures.
Not much research has been done to show how effectively cannabis can deal with COPD. Even so, it does have properties that show promise. For example, cannabis can have anti-inflammatory qualities. One doctor found that administering drops of a CBD tincture sublingually to asthma patients helped to increase their lung capacity. There’s also evidence to suggest that CBD can reduce mucus production, which is one of the issues with COPD. In light of COVID-19, there are some ways that cannabis may help people breathe easier, although this is different from COPD
A 2015 study demonstrated that CBD, a compound found in cannabis, can aid in opening up bronchial passages. This could in turn help COPD patients to breathe more easily and improve low blood oxygen levels and address other complications. Then there was a 2014 CBD study on mice with damaged lungs in which the cannabidiol helped reduce inflammation and improve lung function.
Medical professionals are also looking at the possibilities of whether or not cannabis can replace or decrease the use of corticosteroids in inhalers, helping to avoid potential side effects such as depression, anxiety and high blood pressure.
COPD can be a serious condition, so it is best to consult with a physician before embarking on any course of treatment. Shopper pharmacists and the Shoppers Cannabis Care team would be glad to tell you about different treatments for COPD, including ones involving medical marijuana.