Breathing normally can be a battle when you have a serious lung condition, such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). And, while there are good treatment options for these diseases, recent research suggests that taking a common supplement you can find at your local drugstore may help patients as well. The supplement? Vitamin D (yes, that vitamin D).
Asthma and COPD are two separate and distinct conditions, but they have some things in common — and they both make it hard for patients to breathe. Asthma is a chronic condition that causes a person's airways to become inflamed, narrow, and swell when they’re exposed to a certain trigger, making it hard for them to breathe. About 25 million people in the U.S. have asthma, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). COPD is an umbrella term used to describe a group of progressive lung diseases, such as emphysema, chronic bronchitis, and non-reversible asthma that block airflow and make it hard for people to breathe, the COPD Foundation says. COPD is the third leading cause of death in the U.S., according to the American Lung Association, and more than 11 million people have the disease.
Vitamin D isn’t a cure-all for these conditions, but the research on its ability to help patients is promising.
There have recently been a few studies that address the role vitamin D may play in helping people with chronic lung disease breathe easier. One 2018 meta-analysis, published in BMJ, analyzed data from 560 people with COPD and found that those who were vitamin D deficient and took vitamin D supplements saw a “substantial” reduction in how many breathing exacerbations they had.
Another study published in The Lancet also found that vitamin D helped protect people with COPD against having moderate or severe exacerbations if they had a vitamin D deficiency. And research published in The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology in 2017 found a link between people who have a vitamin D insufficiency and asthma.
The key here is vitamin D insufficiency, which is more common than you’d think. More than 1 billion people worldwide don’t get enough of the vitamin, which you typically get from exposure to sunlight and by eating fatty fish, eggs yolks, and vitamin D-fortified foods, Raymond Casciari, MD, a pulmonologist at St. Joseph Hospital in Orange, Calif., tells Yahoo Lifestyle.
It’s not entirely clear why more vitamin D may help people breathe easier, but it may be related to the vitamin’s ability to impact bodily inflammation, Albert A. Rizzo, MD, chief medical officer at the American Lung Association, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “Lung conditions like asthma and COPD cause inflammation that’s excessive in airways,” Rizzo says. “And having low levels of vitamin D is thought to be pro-inflammatory. So, if you correct the vitamin D deficiency, you may help decrease the inflammation in the airways that shouldn’t be there.”
It’s pretty easy to find out about your own vitamin D levels.
“You can measure it with a simple blood test,” Casciari says. This is something your primary care physician can do during your next physical, or you can simply make an appointment and request it, he says.
If you have a lung condition and find out that you’re vitamin D deficient, taking a supplement “could help with chronic cough and cause less trips to the hospital,” Casciari says.
Rizzo says that more research is needed until this becomes a mainstream method of treating asthma and COPD (along with other established medications and treatments), but it’s generally considered a safe option. “If you’re low in vitamin D and you have a lung disease, vitamin D supplementation is worth trying,” Rizzo says.