5 tips to breathe better if you are living with COPD

  • For most of us, breathing comes naturally
  • When lungs are damaged by COPD, the simple act of breathing may be challenging
  • By tweaking the way you breathe, you could improve your lung function

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) can turn something as natural as breathing into a challenge because of significant damage to your lungs.

People with COPD may often feel short of breath as it requires more effort for air to travel in and out of the lungs, increasing oxygen levels. But with some easy breathing techniques, you can improve your breathing.

1.  Breathe through your nose

We often breathe through our mouths, especially when we experience nasal congestion. Unfortunately, mouth breathing is not as effective as nasal breathing to properly filter, humidify and “warm-up” the air to avoid irritation to the lungs, especially in dry, cold conditions.   

It also activates the parasympathetic nervous system that does the opposite of the sympathetic nervous system – it slows the heart rate, dilates blood vessels and stimulates digestion. This induces a state of relaxation and a feeling of integration between body, mind and soul that explains why deep, nasal breathing is so fundamental to yoga and other relaxation practices.

If you suffer from nasal congestion, which forces you to breathe through your mouth, talk to your pharmacist about an effective decongestant or another remedy to tackle it. Also increase your water intake, as this will thin out thick mucus.

2. Try the belly breathing technique

“Belly breathing”, also known as diaphragmatic breathing, is a breathing technique where you engage the diaphragm, a dome-shaped muscle located at the bottom of your rib cage.

Your abdomen should rise as you inhale and lower as you exhale. When you suffer from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), your diaphragm doesn’t engage as strongly as it should. When this happens, you tend to compensate with the muscles in your neck and shoulders, which leads to “shallow” breathing.

3.  Pay more attention to your breathing – but don’t overcomplicate it

By being focused on the way you breathe, you can improve your health in general. According to Dr Mark Courtney, a respiratory therapist with the American Lung Association's Lung HelpLine, many patients tend to overthink breathing. We should, however, remember that our bodies are built and designed to breathe, and will adapt to circumstances.

"There are receptors in our body that constantly monitor the blood's oxygen and pH levels. It automatically sends signals to our brain to tell us how often and how deeply to breathe," he says.

When you feel short of breath, stop what you are doing and relax your shoulders and neck. Inhale deeply through your nose and exhale through pursed lips. Also pay attention to the air quality in your surroundings to avoid triggers, whether it’s smoke, dust, pollen, pet dander or chemicals.

4. Exercise

Contrary to popular belief, it is possible for those with COPD to safely exercise. In fact, regular exercise improves your lung function, your circulation and the oxygen levels in your body.

Talk to your doctor to establish what types of exercise and duration will be safe for you. Also know the signs of respiratory distress and stop immediately when your breathing becomes too laboured – that is your body’s way of telling you that your lungs are not coping.

 5. Tweak your diet

According to a previous Health24 article, the right mix of nutrients can significantly improve your breathing, especially if you suffer from COPD.

The food we consume is converted to fuel through a process called metabolism. Both oxygen and food are the “raw materials” of metabolism – which are then converted into energy and carbon dioxide – a waste product that we exhale.

Some foods metabolise more carbon dioxide for the amount of oxygen used – carbohydrates for example. This is why some people with COPD or other lung conditions may benefit from a diet lower in carbohydrates. Foods that cause bloating, such as greasy and salty foods, can also place strain on the lungs, which may cause discomfort and breathing difficulty. Cut back on these foods. 

Maintaining a healthy weight will improve your health, and food that contains a variety of antioxidants will strengthen your immune system.

READ | Overweight COPD patients at higher risk of Covid-19 

READ | This breathing technique could be just what you need

READ | How nutrition can affect your lung health 

 Image credit: VisionPic from Pexels

We live in a world where facts and fiction get blurred
In times of uncertainty you need journalism you can trust. For 14 free days, you can have access to a world of in-depth analyses, investigative journalism, top opinions and a range of features. Journalism strengthens democracy. Invest in the future today. Thereafter you will be billed R75 per month. You can cancel anytime and if you cancel within 14 days you won't be billed. 
Subscribe to News24
Show Comments ()
Editorial feedback and complaints

Contact the public editor with feedback for our journalists, complaints, queries or suggestions about articles on News24.