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Indian lungs are 30% weaker than those in the West, and pollution in cities doesn’t help. Here’s how you can rescue them

Before the show at the multiplex begins, the sight of two hands wringing liquid tar out of a sponge makes you queasy. You are told that’s what cigarette smoking does to your squishy pink pair of lungs. You feel better because you don’t smoke, or you can ‘control’. But it turns out you don’t need to puff on cancer sticks to paint your lungs black. In a study conducted across five cities on 10,000 healthy, non–smoking individuals, Pune’s Chest Research Foundation has found that we Indians have 30 per cent lower lung function as compared to Europeans, and air pollution is the villain.

Our lungs literally introduce life into our system, with each of the 22,000 breaths we take in a day, pumping oxygen in, throwing carbon dioxide out, nourishing every cell of our bodies. Our lungs are so wellequipped that they can easily last us a lifetime if we don’t subject them to hell. "But once they are damaged, it’s a downhill course from there," says Dr Sundeep Salvi, who along with Dr Rahul Kodgule, helmed the study.

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The lung strength of 10,000 individuals across Pune, Jaipur, Kolkata, Srinagar and Hyderabad, was assessed by measuring the Peak Expiratory Flow Rate (the rate at which a person exhales). Women had 30 per cent lower PEF values than men. "Such poor lung strength makes us susceptible to chronic lung diseases such as asthma and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD). Caused by air pollution or smoking, COPD happens to be the leading cause of death in Maharashtra, and in India, it’s second only to heart disease," says Salvi. This study perhaps corroborates what Canadian researchers had already found in an international study across 17 countries — Indians’ lungs were the worst off.

Dr Pralhad Prabhudesai, Consultant Chest Physician, Lilavati Hospital, says Indian cities, especially Mumbai, have witnessed a sharp spike in respiratory illnesses. "Not just the elderly and young adults, but children too have been increasingly getting respiratory problems related to viral infections and allergies. The trick is to not turn to antibiotics, because they will only worsen the condition. Instead, bronchodilators for COPD, and inhaled steroids for asthma, work well."

Prabhudesai holds the ridiculously high air pollution responsible for ruining denizens’ lungs. "Citizens are choking with rampant construction and debilitating traffic jams. The resultant dust, Carbon Monoxide (CO), Carbon Dioxide (CO2), sulphur dioxide and suspended particulate matter wreak havoc on our lungs. This is why healthy, nonsmoking individuals are getting bronchitis and emphysema. The government must figure ways to provide us clean air," he says.

Salvi seconds him. "For instance, we can’t stop new vehicles hitting the road but we can set a quality standard for vehicles to regulate emissions. Trees are terrific at absorbing vehicular smoke. With CO2 and CO being nutrients for trees, it’s a give–and–take solution. Neem and Gulmohar are especially efficient in absorbing suspended particulate matter."

You must consciously give up on shallow breathing. Deep belly breathing boosts lung strength. But if you want to do more, do what your favourite singer would do. Practising a technique like diaphragmatic breathing ups your lung capacity. It works by focussing on lowering the diaphragm (the muscle that separates the organs in the abdomen from the lungs) as you breathe in. Correcting your walking and sitting postures helps, and so does regularly having a good belly laugh. "If you can climb two flights of stairs without feeling short of breath, your lungs are in good shape," says Salvi.

The prime cause of lung ailments like lung cancer and COPD, smoking has no safe threshold. "Second–hand or third–hand smoke is just as bad," says Prabhudesai. Smoking destroys your lungs’ natural cleaning and repair apparatus, trapping cancercausing chemicals in them. Smoking also paralyses cilia, the fine hairs that line the airways of the lungs and push toxins out of your lungs. "Smokers’ lungs degenerate at twice the rate of a non–smoker," says Salvi.

Antioxidant–rich foods have been proven to enhance lung function. Make space in your plate for cruciferous veggies like cabbage, broccoli, bok choy, green leafy ones, and all kinds of fruits. Omega–3 fatty acids are friends of the lungs too — so include more fish and walnuts in your diet. "You can’t stress enough on drinking more water, because good hydration keeps the airway mucus moist and hence clear of irritation," says Prabhudesai.

Since you need to do more to push your lungs to their fullest capacity, give them a tough time. Working out, running or cycling will work wonders, but Salvi recommends swimming over them all. "Swimming gives your lungs the ideal workout. Also, if you cycle or run in an open space that has high vehicular pollution, you are harming your lungs because by breathing faster, you are inhaling a higher volume of pollutants. Try and find greener pockets cut off from vehicular madness," he says.

Times of India
11 Sep 2013

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