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Pulmonary fibrosis is a chronic, progressive lung disease that causes scar tissue (fibrosis) to build up in the lungs. This makes the lungs unable to transport oxygen into the bloodstream effectively. People with pulmonary fibrosis typically experience a dry, hacking cough, weakness and shortness of breath.
While anyone can suffer from pulmonary fibrosis, it’s most common in people between the ages of 50 and 70. In fact, it’s estimated that about one in 200 older adults has idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (one type of the disease).
Some risk factors for pulmonary fibrosis include smoking, exposure to toxins like asbestos, coal and silica, some medications, radiation and sensitivities to allergens, including mold.
According to the American Lung Association, another common cause is a group of autoimmune conditions that includes lupus, scleroderma, rheumatoid arthritis and Sjogren’s syndrome and others. Pulmonary fibrosis can also be inherited. But sometimes there’s no identifiable cause.
One study even found that people who sleep four hours or less per day double their risk of developing pulmonary fibrosis, and people who sleep 11 hours or more per day triple their risk.
Unfortunately, there is no cure for pulmonary fibrosis and no way to reverse lung scarring that has already occurred. Current treatments focus on preventing more lung scarring and relieving symptoms. They include medication, oxygen therapy, pulmonary rehabilitation or even a lung transplant.
Researchers are always exploring new ways to slow the progression of this debilitating condition. And they may have found one solution in a common nutrient that’s already associated with better lung function…
Omega-3s and pulmonary fibrosis
A group of U.S. researchers decided to study if omega-3s could impact interstitial lung disease, a group of chronic lung diseases that can lead to pulmonary fibrosis. They reviewed information on more than 300 people with interstitial lung disease, mostly men suffering from idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis.
What they found was an association between higher levels of omega-3s in the blood and better ability to exchange carbon dioxide. There was also a link between higher omega-3 levels and longer survival without the need for a lung transplant. These statistics did not vary much regardless of smoking history or the presence of cardiovascular disease.
In short, higher levels of omega-3s were linked with better lung function and longer transplant-free survival in patients with pulmonary fibrosis and other chronic lung diseases.
“Higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids were predictive of better clinical outcomes in pulmonary fibrosis,” says researcher Dr. John Kim, a pulmonary and critical care expert at UVA Health and the University of Virginia School of Medicine. “These findings were consistent whether you had a history of cardiovascular disease, which suggests this may be specific to pulmonary fibrosis.”
“We found that higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids in the blood, which reflects several weeks of dietary intake, were linked to better lung function and longer survival.”
Omega-3s for vegetarians and meat-eaters
Even though more research is needed to fully understand the mechanism behind how omega-3s benefit pulmonary fibrosis, there are many reasons to enjoy a diet rich in omega-3-rich foods.
For starters, eating fatty fish twice a week lowers the risk of heart disease. Supplementing omega-3 has benefits too including reducing the occurrence of autoimmune conditions and gum disease and blocking pain. But if you’re on medication for pulmonary fibrosis, it’s a good idea to discuss supplements with your physician.
The FDA says that you can safely take up to 3 grams of omega-3 supplements containing EPA and DHA per day. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) says that you can take up to 5 grams.
One serving of fatty fish like salmon, trout or mackerel gives you enough omega-3s for your daily needs.
If you’re a vegetarian, omega-3s are also present in flaxseeds, olive oil and walnuts. However, the AHA omega-3s these vegetarian sources give you aren’t as powerful as the EPA and DHA found in fish. You may be better off seeking out a vegetarian omega-3 supplement that gets its DHA from microalgae.
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Idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis — Medline Plus
7 Things Everyone Should Know about Pulmonary Fibrosis — American Lung Association