Chronic shortness of breath affects tens of millions of Americans. When medical researchers examine the underlying causes of persistent shortness of breath, the one that garners the most attention is inflammation created by prolonged exposure to cigarette smoke and/or inhaled industrial pollutants.
You see, cigarette smoke and industrial pollutants contain massive amounts of dangerous chemical compounds known as “free radicals,” which damage the lining of the lungs (called the epithelium) and allow other toxic chemicals in the smoke and pollutants to penetrate the cells behind the protective lining. Over time, these chemicals disrupt the lungs’ normal reaction to invading bacteria and fungi, and cause an exaggerated response (overreaction) when unrecognized foreign matter is inhaled into the lungs. The exaggerated response is characterized by the accumulation of large quantities of fluid/material containing white blood cells, and proteins inside of lung tissues and in the airways themselves.
This overabundance of fluid/material causes lung tissues to swell, which in turn narrows the airways into which fresh oxygen is inhaled. With narrowed airways, one cannot ingest as much oxygen as is needed, and this creates the sensation of shortness of breath.
Under normal conditions, the human body consumes or produces free-radical-fighting compounds known as “antioxidants,” which seek out the free radicals, bind to them, and render them harmless. But in people with chronic shortness of breath, these antioxidants are routinely found to be deficient. In short, the overwhelming population of free radicals consumed through cigarette smoke and other dangerous airborne pollutants is simply too great in number for the body’s supply of antioxidants. Scientists call this imbalance between free radicals and antioxidants “oxidative stress.”
What Can You Do To Combat Oxidative Stress?
Many pulmonology researchers believe that reducing oxidative stress helps to reduce inflammation and thereby helps relieve shortness of breath. The most effective ways to reduce respiratory-related oxidative stress include some combination of the following actions:
1. Permanent smoking cessation (lowers free radicals)
2. Reduce exposure to industrial pollutants (lowers free radicals)
3. Increase daily physical activity (boosts antioxidants)
4. Increase daily exposure to direct sunlight (boosts antioxidants)
5. Increase consumption of antioxidant-rich foods (boosts antioxidants)
6. Take antioxidant-rich dietary supplements (boosts antioxidants)
For this article, we’ll focus on the last step, increasing antioxidants through dietary supplements, in response to a new review article examining glutathione and its role in respiratory health.
According to the glutathione review article author, glutathione is the most abundant antioxidant found in human cells and is critical to normal immune response. Further, the author tells us, glutathione deficiency has been affirmed in previous respiratory health studies as a significant contributing factor in the development of oxidative stress and lung inflammation.
The article also highlights that glutathione is very sensitive to the presence of free radicals, meaning it is highly attracted to them and, therefore, particularly effective in neutralizing them. So not only is glutathione the most abundant antioxidant in cells, it’s the most effective in battling free radicals — a potent combination to be sure!
But there’s a rub. Glutathione is not absorbed well by human cells when consumed directly as dietary supplement. Indeed, the review article author notes, “Conversely, repleting GSH (glutathione) levels with precursors of its synthesis such as N-acetyl-cysteine (NAC) or 2-oxothiazolidine-4-carboxylic acid (OTC) has protective effects. Cysteine precursors, rather than cysteine (glutathione) itself, are used because they are more cell permeable, and can be given orally.”
As an aside, other studies have shown that boosting levels of vitamin D can also help the body produce glutathione, and a number of other antioxidants have been studied for their ability to alleviate oxidative stress in respiratory health research (including vitamin C, vitamin E, vitamin A, coenzyme Q10, resveratrol, quercetin, baicalin and curcumin, to name some of the more recently studied antioxidants).
Finding the Right Supplement
For anyone with poor respiratory health, we recommend you consult your physician regarding supplementing your current diet with NAC, especially if you continue to smoke and/or already have a respiratory condition. Your doctor can order blood tests to assess your levels of glutathione, vitamin D and other antioxidants, and then recommend specific dosages if you are deficient (and a majority of those with poor respiratory health are deficient in a host of antioxidants).
Respiratory research studies note inflammatory improvements and increased exercise capacity with 1,200 mg of NAC daily. Additionally, the National Academy of Sciences’ upper recommended limit for vitamin D3 for those who are considered deficient. In truth, many respiratory researchers believe that even higher dosages of vitamin D3 can be tolerated well by those who are vitamin D deficient (some studies have examined dosage levels at 5,000 IU to 10,000 IU).
Please keep in mind that these ingredients will not cure or prevent lung disease. That said, they may be very helpful (especially combined with the other oxidative stress recommendations noted above) in reducing oxidative stress and inflammation in those with poor respiratory health.
 Ghezzi P. Role of glutathione in immunity and inflammation in the lung. International Journal of General Medicine. 2011: 4;105-113.