Topics » In The Kitchen » Breathe Easy: Tips to Support Respiratory Health
T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies
Breathe Easy

Everyday, without much notice, each of us breathe in approximately 8,500 liters of outside air into our respiratory tracts.1 However, with each breath in, we are unknowingly taking more into our bodies than just oxygen. We are breathing air that also contains air-borne pollutants, bacteria, chemicals, and allergens, poised to attack our bodies. Thus, through our respiratory system’s interaction with the air we breathe, each of us is exposing ourselves to a tremendous amount of potential microbes and irritants everyday. Luckily, we also have a defense system in place that functions to stop these irritants before they become a problem. This defense hinges upon the ability of our body to mount the appropriate immune response within our respiratory system to neutralize, eliminate, and protect against these invaders.2 If a person has an immune system that reacts too heartily, this can predispose them to asthma or reactive airway disease, which can induce difficulty breathing and wheezing associated with an allergic reaction. Conversely, if someone’s immune system is underactive, this can predispose them to infection. Here are some tips, on how you can use plant-based nutrition to support your immune system and promote respiratory health:

Vitamin D

Evidence suggests a link between people with reactive airway disease and low Vitamin D levels. Studies demonstrate that a patient may experience a reduction of symptoms by reversing the Vitamin D deficiency.3 Further research links the anti-inflammatory properties of Vitamin D with improvement in asthma symptoms through, “improvement in immune function of lung tissue.”4 While exposing skin to sunlight is an excellent, natural way for your body to get Vitamin D, many of us are unable to fulfill our need in this manner due to time, weather, or skin condition restraints. If you are concerned about your Vitamin D levels, consult your healthcare provider who can accurately test your levels. Due to a lack of naturally occurring plant-based sources of Vitamin D, many are turning to fortified products and Vitamin D3 supplements to help them when they are unable to spend time in the sun. If you are utilizing supplementation, it is best to combine your intake of these supplements with naturally occurring fats such as nuts, seeds, coconut, and avocado, which can aide in absorption since Vitamin D is fat-soluble.


At some point in our lives, many of us have experienced the nagging annoyance an itchy throat or upper airway. Next time, instead of reaching for the cough syrup to quell the irritation, you may want to consider herbal tea instead. Eucalyptus leaf can aide in dilating bronchioles, clearing nasal passages, and has antiseptic properties.5 It is important to consult a qualified healthcare provider before using any herbal remedy and be aware of potential interactions, especially if you are pregnant or breastfeeding.

N-Acetyl Cysteine

N-acetyl cysteine is a powerful antioxidant that can help your body defend itself against free-radical damage. It has also been used to break up mucous in the respiratory system that can cause discomfort or disease.6 Try incorporating the following plant foods into your diet for a natural boost to your cysteine levels. High cysteine foods include: broccoli, red pepper, onion, and granola. Other cysteine containing foods to try are: bananas, garlic, soybeans, and wheat germ.[7] While adding Vitamin D, Eucalyptus, or N-Acetyl Cysteine may help promote health by protecting your immune and respiratory systems, the best method is to consistently provide your body with the benefit of a whole foods, plant-­based diet. At this time, “there is convincing evidence that plant foods and non-nutritive constituents associated with these foods modulate immunological and inflammatory processes,” leading to a better functioning immune system and subsequent protection against the invaders that your respiratory system must deal with on a daily basis.8 Enjoy a plant-based diet, and breathe easy. *This article is solely for informational purposes. It is not intended nor implied to be a substitute for medical advice. Before undertaking any course of treatment or dietary/health changes, you should seek the advice of a qualified healthcare practitioner.


  1. Papadaki HA., and Velegraki M. “Immunology and the Respiratory System.” Pneumon 4.20 (2007): 384-94.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Varney VA, Evans J, Bansal AS. “Successful treatment of reactive airways dysfunction syndrome by high-dose vitamin D.” J Asthma Allergy 4 (2011): 87–91.
  4. Haidong H, Konstantinos P, et. al. “Vitamin D in asthma and future perspectives.” Drug Design, Development, and Therapy. 7 (2013): 1003–1013.
  5. Juergens UR, Dethlefsen U, et. al. “Anti-inflammatory activity of 1.8-cineol (eucalyptol) in bronchial asthma: a double-blind placebo-controlled trial.” Respiratory Medicine 97.3 (Mar 2003): 250-6.
  6. Rogers DF. “Mucoactive agents for airway mucus hypersecretory diseases.” Respiratory Care 52.9 (2007): 1176-93.
  7. Wolfe, Ireland. “Food Sources of N-Acetyl Cysteine.” Live Strong, 13 Jan. 2014. Web. 17 Jan. 2014.
  8. Watzl B. “Anti-inflammatory effects of plant-based foods and of their constituents.” International Journal for Vitamin and Nutrition Research. 78.6 (2008): 293-8.

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