If food is the best medicine, are supplements the second best? That's a question some patients with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease are asking. Find out if natural supplements can help patients with COPD breathe easier.

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) is sometimes called emphysema or chronic bronchitis.  The National Heart, Blood and Lung Institute defines COPD as a progressive disease that makes it hard to breathe. "Progressive" means the disease gets worse over time. COPD can cause coughing...wheezing, shortness of breath, chest tightness, and other symptoms. Cigarette smoking is the leading cause of COPD. Most people who have COPD smoke or used to smoke. Long-term exposure to other lung irritants-such as air pollution, chemical fumes, or dust-also may contribute to COPD.

Why would supplements help?  It's thought that certain minerals, vitamins or anti-oxidant elements may help reduce inflammation, strengthen the body to help with breathing functions, help with metabolism or provide other mechanisms for boosting the body's ability to heal. These elements are usually naturally produced by the body or available in food. The hope with taking them in a supplement form is that they will boost these elements in the body.    

The problem with supplements though is, most aren't all tested for safety or proven to be effective to treat diseases. There are often plenty of personal accounts and even some small studies that support their use, but scientific evidence in the form of double-bind clinical studies are few.  Still, here are some that are being examined as possibly effective for helping patients with COPD:

  • Bromelain:  Created from enzymes found in pineapple, this supplement is thought to reduce inflammation though the National Institutes of Health says there's not enough scientific evidence to support this claim. It's considered a safe supplement for most patients though and may be worth a try. It may cause bleeding in some patients so if you're already taking blood thinners, it's not recommended that you take bromelain.
  • Coenzyme Q10 is an antioxidant that is naturally produced by the body and thought to increase cell activity and reduce inflammation. While research shows that people with COPD have low levels of Coenzyme Q10, it doesn't appear that taking it in supplement form makes COPD any better.
  • L-Carnitine is another substance the body usually produces on its own to help burn fat and boost energy. It's thought to help strengthen muscles and provide an energy boost during exercise. Small studies indicate that when patients took L-Carnitine, they performed better in a walking program. But it's the exercise, not necessarily the supplement that's the most helpful to patients with COPD.   
  •  N-acetylcysteine is an antioxidant that's available as a supplement. It's thought to help break down mucous so it doesn't clog the lungs. So far, researchers are on the fence about whether this supplement helps.
  • Antioxidant vitamins: Some vitamins like A, C and E have antioxidant properties that might improve lung function and some studies show that people with COPD have low levels of these vitamins. Taking them in supplement form is generally considered safe, though it's best to consult your physician for dosing recommendations.  It might be even better to bump up the fresh fruits and veggies in your diet, which are natural food-based sources of a wide variety of antioxidants, vitamins and minerals.

Many physicians agree that nutrition is key to regaining health. Liesa Harte, MD, of Elite Care in Austin, Texas says, "I honestly think lifestyle factors are at least as important as drugs in most cases. I actually use more supplements than prescriptions in my practice. I would recommend patients work with a medical provider trained in the use of nutrition and nutritional supplements.  Also use only pharmaceutical grade supplements that are held to the same standard as drugs."  

Liesa Harte, MD, Elite Care, Austin Texas reviewed this article.


National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute

What is COPD?


National Emphysema Foundation

Can Natural Remedies Help Treat COPD?