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The secret life of the lungs 1260x542

The secret role of the lungs – a healthy immune system

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The lungs are not only essential oxygenating the body, but they also play a role in immune health. Naturopath Jodi Van Dyk explains.

The lungs are a very important organ, as they enable us to breathe and obtain oxygen to fuel our bodies. However, the equally important role that they play in immunity is often overlooked.

The lungs are filled with alveoli, which are small air sacs surrounded by many capillaries (tiny blood vessels). These capillaries allow for exchange of two types of gases which come into and out of the lungs.

One of these gases is oxygen. When we breathe in, the lungs take in oxygen-containing air, which oxygenates the blood, which then provides the rest of the body with oxygen. Oxygen is required for nearly all bodily functions.

The other gas is carbon dioxide. The lungs also serve the role of removing carbon dioxide, which builds up in the body as a waste product. The removal of carbon dioxide from the body also helps ensure the pH (acidity) of the body remains stable.

What role do the lungs play in the immune system?

The lungs are lined with thin epithelial cells which allow for gas exchange and also secrete mucus into the alveoli. Mucus keeps the airways moist and traps unwanted particles that have been inhaled.

The lungs also contain small hairs which constantly beat upwards and remove unwanted debris to the throat which is then swallowed and destroyed in the gut or coughed up. The removal of this debris is an important part of the immune system protecting the respiratory system from infections.

The epithelial linings of the lungs also contain specialised white blood cells called macrophages which are able to engulf and destroy foreign particles in the lungs. This further enhances the role that the lungs play in the function of the immune system.

Dietary influences on lung health

A study in the USA questioned over 2,000 adolescents on their dietary intake and respiratory health and gave basic lung function tests. The study highlighted that low dietary intake of fruit, vitamins C and E and omega-3 fatty acids were associated with lower lung function and increased susceptibly to respiratory infections.

Vitamin A also has a critical role in keeping lungs healthy. More specifically vitamin A maintains epithelial tissue, found in the lungs, which is vital for immune function. Vitamin A is helps to maintain the epithelial tissue as well as mucus production.

Tips for keeping your lungs healthy and in tip top shape

  • Eat a variety of nutrients to ensure you are getting a range of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants
  • Consume fish at least 3 times a week or take a fish oil supplement
  • Eat yellow and red vegetables which are naturally high in betacarotene and vitamin C
  • Don’t smoke - if you do, plan to cut down and quit
  • Drink plenty of water - at least 8 glasses a day. Water is helpful in ensuring adequate mucus production

Did you know?

Vitamin A is essential for the health and function of epithelial cells in the respiratory tract.

Antioxidant nutrients such as vitamin A, C and E are thought to help protect the lung from oxidative damage.

References available on request