Learn to protect yourself from wildfire smoke. Many of us in the Western side of the United States are surrounded by smoke if not outright fire. I find most people are not aware of just how dangerous the smoke can be. If you want to know more about how to protect your living space and support your body in general, check out the "Protection From Forest Fire & Smoke Exposure article."
Along with our skin, the respiratory system is one of the first organs to come into contact with toxins in our environment. This causes a variety of reactions as the respiratory system reacts to and attempts to remove these toxins. This article will give you some tools to help protect yourself from wildfire smoke.
The Smoke Contains toxic gases such as nitrous oxides and sulfur dioxide as well as particulate air pollutants. Fires emit carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons, plus nitrogen oxides that along with sunlight will make ozone. Ozone is very hard on living tissue. Ozone from fires is at higher levels in the countryside than in cities, so country folk need to worry even more about ozone. It is thought that the pollutant nitrogen dioxide which is higher in cities, reduces the efficiency with which ozone is produced.
Fine Particulate Matter
Although the gases are an issue, the fine particulate matter is an even bigger health hazard. The fine particles in the smoke can penetrate deep inside your lungs. On its way there, it also penetrates into your nasal mucus membranes, and your throat. When your throat gets inflamed it can occlude the openings of your eustachian tubes leading to your ears, which causes plugged and even painful ears. These particles also cause burning eyes and a runny or stuffy nose. More serious matters are aggravation of asthma or other lung diseases as well as aggravation of chronic heart disease.
Our Lungs Biotransformation System Protects Us From Toxin Damage
Luckily, the lungs contain a detox/biotransformation system that is constantly on the watch for incoming toxins. This cellular biotransformational system takes those toxins and changes them into less harmful molecules. This is necessary as research suggests environmental toxicants including those in smoke may lead to the creation of lung diseases. This has lead to interest in xenobiotic (toxins from the environment) metabolizing capacity or the lung. It is evident from the studies carried out to date that the biotransformational enzymes CYP1A1, 1B1, 2A13, 2F1, 2S1 and 4B1 are preferentially expressed in the lung together with CYP2E1 and 3A5. Many phase II transformation pathways are also involved in the lungs biotransformational abilities of xenobiotics. Toxins in smoke along with other environmental pollutants can enter the lungs and activate the biotransformation enzymes that protect our lungs from toxins. However, what happens if these toxins overwhelm the biotransformation system or the system is not working up to par, due to lack of nutrients or genetic issues?
Excess toxins or inability to react appropriately to the toxins is thought to irritate, inflame, and open the tight junctions between the epithelial cells that prevents entry of environmental toxins. There is a breakdown of protein complexes in these tight junctions that allows entry of antigens, chemicals, and xenobiotics into the circulation which can lead to the formation of autoantibodies. These autoantibodies then cause a variety of systemic inflammatory responses through-out the body and a variety of symptoms. This reaction in the lungs is similar to the reactions that takes place in the intestines that we call "leaky gut".
Prevention And Treatment
You can protect yourself from wildfire smoke and specifically your respiratory system by staying away from smokey environments. Currently, with all the outdoor wildfires, this means staying inside with our doors with windows shut and making sure we have no open vents on our HVAC or anywhere else allowing smoke inside the house. If you smell smoke, find out where it is coming from. When outdoors be sure to wear an N-95 mask. Make sure they fit and wear them correctly.
How The Respiratory Tract Protects Us
Our respiratory system is set up to protect us from particulate matter, noxious fumes and such.
Mucus: It has a coating of mucus that protects the lungs surface. It catches particles in this mucus which acts as a barrier. The mucus that our respiratory system produces is our friend in small amounts although it can be annoying when on overdrive. It is there to protect our delicate mucous membranes. The mucus catches particulate matter and the cilia move it out of the respiratory tract into the nose to be "blown out" or it ends up being dumped into the digestive tract. The mucus also acts as a barrier to protect our cells from damage.
Cilia: Fine hairs called cilia that line the respiratory tract, move the toxins out and away from the lungs.
How to Protect Yourself and Support the Respiratory Tract in A Smokey Environment
Our lungs should be moist at all times. However, too moist and we start coughing up phlegm. Too dry and we get a dry cough, loss of voice, and a dry throat and nasal passages. Generally acute inflammation brings on mucus and excess moisture with chronic inflammation of long duration can end up causing dryness.
Hydration Is Important With Smoke Exposure
You need to support the mucus layer when exposed to smoke. Keep your body hydrated at all times. Drink water when you are thirsty. Listen to your body.
Moistening Herbs and Food
Herbs and food that can help to promote fluid and fluidity in the body are almonds, american ginseng, codonopsis, eggs, cold water fish, fish oil, flaxseeds, jerusalem artichoke, jujubee dates, licorice, marshmallow, or wild mallows, milk and diary products in general (organic with full fat), oats, purslane, sea vegetables, sesame seeds and oil, schizandra, slippery elm, rehmannia, and saw palmetto. This is not a complete list. These are just a few ideas.
Irrigate the Nasal Cavity
Irrigation of the nasal passages via a neti pot or even snorting saline/water after a smoke exposure can be beneficial if a person is sensitive to the smoke and there is nasal irritation. Doing it as soon as you come inside will remove much of the offending particles causing irritation.
Supporting the detox/biotransformation systems in the body
Milk thistle and Turmeric are two good choices for this. They both increase glutathione which is used an an antioxidant for the detox system as well as is used for glutathione conjugation. They both also support and protect the liver which is the powerhouse of detoxification.
Vitamin D & Sunshine
In the lungs, deficiency of vitamin D is associated with accelerated decline in lung function. Chronic respiratory diseases associated with vitamin D deficiency include cystic fibrosis, interstitial lung disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Deficiency of vitamin D has also been associated with increased risk of respiratory infection from influenza A and Mycobacterium tuberculosis. Absence of Vitamin D receptors (VDR) in mouse lungs can lead to an early onset of emphysema/COPD because of chronic inflammation, immune dysregulation and lung destruction. There is research showing VDR regulation of cell junction proteins in lungs like there is in the intestines.
If lab levels of vitamin D are low, it may be beneficial to give vitamin D3 to support the lungs through this smokey period.
B vitamins are needed for multiple Detox activities. I find small amounts of Bs such as found in the Biotics Research product called Bio-B 100 is a wonderful choice due to the lower level of B vitamins in the product. The average person without contraindications to taking any B vitamins usually takes one tablet 2-3 times per day.
Supporting your antioxidant system can be beneficial. Vitamin C is a good place to start. It is better to take small amounts of vitamin C multiple times per day rather than one big dose as it is urinated out of the body rather quickly. If you take too much you will know as it will cause loose stools. You can also get vitamin C from most fresh fruits and many vegetables.
The Queen of antioxidants is glutathione, however good glutathione is spendy. Liposomal glutathione should be used by people with gut assimilation problems and for others acetyl glutathione can be used. Small amounts can be helpful, while large amounts can dislodge heavy metals and mycotoxins as well as other biotoxins or other general toxins from cells and make a person feel sick. Most people will do okay with 100 mg twice per day if they do not have toxins stashed away in their cells. Higher doses are taken when needed. If a person is known to have a toxic load, giving glutathione in smaller amounts 3-4 times a day can be helpful to keep an even level in the blood and decrease reactions they might have. There are now some sustained release products, but I am not sure how well they work. If you use them, let me know how they are working for you. Additionally, glutathione contains sulfur which if used in high amounts can feed some bacteria in the colon that make hydrogen sulfide which can cause dysbiosis and digestive distress. Due to these issues, there is no one appropriate dose for an individual without examining their history and present state.
N-acetyl cysteine (another sulfur containing antioxidant) is often used in the lungs when there is inflammation and excess mucous such as in cystic fibrosis. It is also the limiting amino acid of the three amino acids that make up glutathione. So, it is used to support the bodies creation of glutathione. In some sensitive people it can cause some of the same issues as glutathione as it too can remove some toxins. If I am concerned, I start people on small amounts in the beginning and tell them to use a sustained release product, three times per day as it also has a short half-life. However, many people use 500 mg twice per day with no issues.
We often take our lungs for granted. It is not until they start to have issues that we take note of them. Exercising our lungs should be a part of our lives. Additionally, Taking our lungs out to the forest where we can breath clean, healthy air is something we should do as often as possible. Here are some ideas to exercise your lungs and invigorate your entire body. These exercises will help to make your respiratory tract more resilent and naturally protect yourself from wildfire smoke.
- Deep Breathing - slow and steady - breathe from your belly
- Qi Gong
- Yoga For The Lungs
- Walking & General Exerices
- Forest Breathing
- Clean Country Air Breathing
Additional Lifestyle Methods To Support Lungs
- Good Posture
- Healthy Diet
- Don't smoke anything
- Live where there is clean air
Healing From Exposure
For those of you that do not feel you have a serious condition but you have a stuffy or runny nose, irritated eyes, or you feel a burning sensation or general irritation in your throat and lungs, and or plugged ears, there are things you can do to support your body. First of course, you need to remove the cause of the condition. This means either don't go out into the smoke or at least wear a N-95 mask mask when you do.
If you have irritated eyes, even a rag moistened in cold water can be soothing. If you have saline eye drops or a saline eye rinse this can be helpful to use to wash the eyes also.
Plugged Ears And Sore Throat
For those with plugged ears from the smoke, the reason your ears are probably plugged is that you also have an irritated throat and the inflammation has caused the throat tissue to swell and close over the openings of the eustachian tubes. These tubes drain fluid from your ears into your throat. When they are occluded such as happens during an inflamed throat, it causes pain from backed up fluid. We want to decrease the inflammation and edema (excess fluid in tissues) in the throat and we also want to sooth and heal the irritated respiratory tract tissues. Treating the ears, and throat can all be done at one time.
Astringent Gargle Or Salt Water Gargle
You can use astringent herbs and/or salt gargles to decrease the edema. Removal of this excess tissue fluid will result in easing the pain in the throat and re-opening the eustachian tubes, unless the swelling is really bad, in which case you will need to perform the gargles repetitively at least 3 times per day.
I am sure most of you have used salt-water gargles on an inflamed throat during a viral illness. The same salt-water gargle will decrease inflammation from smoke irritation. In addition, or as another alternative, astringent herbs can be made into a hot cup of tea and that too can be gargled. Both the salt and astringent herbs remove edema in the throat tissue and this will decrease pain from edematous tissues and help open the eustachian tubes.
Salt-water gargles are made with warm to hot water and 1 teaspoon of salt to one cup of water. I have to admit I personally use more salt, but be careful about overdoing the salt. Don't swallow it, just gargle it and spit it out. Salt in excess is unhealthy and in excess has even killed folks.
Herbs Used For Astringent Gargles
Yarrow, Geranium, Sage, or Blackberry leaf/root are good choices for a gargle. You can however use your own favorite astringent herbs. Geranium has the least taste to it. Blackberry does not taste bad and Yarrow is by far the strongest and might bother some folks. However, Yarrow also is a great anti-inflammatory and will help the throat tissue to heal faster. Although many people have Sage handy in their kitchen, don't use the old Sage in your spice cabinet that you bought 10 years ago. It is no longer good. It should be only one year old at the most. You might add some rose petals in if you have them as they are a bit astringent but also contain mucilage which will additionally leave a healing coating on the throat to soothe and help stimulate healing of the irritated tissues.
If your nose is stuffy, you will find that gargling with these herbs will also help to alleviate the stuffiness. You can even snort the herbs/salt-water into your nose to help alleviate swelling of the nasal tissues by direct application. For people who have neti pots, you can use the neti pot for this application.
Respiratory System Support
To support your entire respiratory system, including your irritated throat and lungs, consider the following:
- Drink plenty of water.
- Eat healthy food that includes a lot of fresh organic vegetables and fruits and getting healthy oils, such as in the form of nuts and seeds or cold water fish.
- Lay off of recreation drugs and any other vices that might not support your body.
- You can also use demulcent herbs which are herbs that are known to be soothing and healing to the respiratory tract.
- Slippery elm
I would give you a few words of caution here. Everything has its good and bad side to it. Marshmallow and Slippery elm are both VERY mucilaginous. They should be taken with lots of water. Please see the contraindications for mucilage below. Licorice will cause your body to hold onto water, which is good for some people but not so good for others. It should not be consumed by people with some types of heart disease, liver disease or kidney disease that causes them to hold water in their body. No one with high blood pressure should take Licorice unless under the supervision of a practitioner who advises it. I will list the contraindications below for Licorice too. For directions on how much of each herb to use in a cup of tea, you can go to Herbs by Common Name and look each of the herbs up. If you need directions for how to make the tea, you can go to Herbal Tea Making. Additional methods of using mucilaginous herbs is to use them as slurries or as lozenges. For the respiratory tract a lozenge is a good choice. Most health food stores sell slippery elm lozenges that can be sucked on to slowly release their healing powers. It is also easy to make a mucilaginous lozenge in your kitchen.
A Healing Tea Combination
One last herb I would mention is Calendula. Calendula will assist in removal of the particles in the lungs, but it does this by irritation, so it might be too much for some people if their lungs are really irritated. If so, stop using it and use the demulcents by themselves. However, it can help to increase the amount of mucus that the lungs are producing and thereby help to remove the particles from your lungs. Additionally, it is an anti-inflammatory and healer of tissues. It will help heal the irritated respiratory tract tissues. You can make a nice tea mix of Calendula, Marshmallow and Licorice tea. If you have high blood pressure or edema, leave the Licorice out. It is best to make the Calendula as an infusion and the two roots (Marshmallow and Licorice) as a decoction as described in the tea making section of this website. Marshmallow is even better made as an overnight infusion, but I don't want to confuse you too much with that one. I would suggest 50% Marshmallow, 30% Calendula and 20% Licorice as a general anti-inflammatory and healing tea for the respiratory tract.
Mucilage (especially in powder form) has caused esophageal obstruction. This can be avoided by mixing it in plenty of water and allowing it to sit until it has fully absorbed the water. If necessary, more water can then be added to make sure it is not too thick. If obstruction is a concern, it is also best to stay away from capsule or tablet forms. Don’t take mucilage with other herbs, or drugs as it may decrease their absorption. Large, repetitive doses may also decrease absorption of other nutrients in food. It is best to take it separately from all other consumed products.
If your body is hydrated and you are using cut herb as opposed to powdered herb to make tea, and you follow the directions on the link for how much to use, you should not have any issues with the Marshmallow or the Slippery Elm as you are drinking them in a cup of water. Plantain (leaf) and Licorice do not have mucilage, so you don't need to be concerned about mucilage in these two herbs. They also will not coat your throat as the mucilaginous herbs will, but they are still healing demulcents. The mucilaginous herbs coating your throat is definitely an added bonus to decrease irritation.
Licorice is contraindicated in high blood pressure, heart failure, left ventricular hypertrophy, kidney disease, liver cirrhosis and cholestatic liver disorders. The contraindication in liver stasis disease is due to choleretic action, although this action is minimal in comparison with other choleretic herbs. Chronic licorice use mimics aldosteronism by increasing sodium resorption and potassium excretion by the kidneys. This action is due to glycyrrhizic acid content. Deglycyrrhizinated (de-glycyrrhinized) licorice has been investigated for its clinical use and safety. Its use has been controversial since it still contains . There is 2-9% glycyrrhizic acid (glycyrrhizin) in licorice root. The deglycyrrhizinated root extract has a maximum of 3% glycyrrhizic acid in it.
The toxic symptoms are hypertension, edema, hypokalemia, vertigo and headache. This ceases when it is withdrawn or by concurrent use of antialdosterone agents. Doses of 3 or more grams a day should not be taken for more than 6 weeks unless monitored under the guidance of a qualified health care practitioner. Elderly people are more prone to pseudoaldosteronism due to a greater increase of glycyrrhetinic acid levels from increased production by their gut bacterial enzymes on glycyrrhizic acid. Licorice potentiates the activity of anthraquinone drugs or herbs containing anthraquinones, like cascara and buckthorn, by increasing the wettability of the bowel contents because of the high surfactant activity of glycyrrhizin. It also potentiates the toxicity of cardiac glycosides like digitalis due to potassium loss in the urine. There may also be an additive effect with thiazide diuretics as far as potassium loss in the urine. When used with corticoid treatment, glycyrrhizic acid interferes with delta 4, 5 beta-reductase breakdown of corticosteroids, thus prolonging its biological half-life. When someone discontinues the use of licorice after consuming it over a long period of time, they should withdraw from it slowly, unless they are discontinuing it due to side effects. In the case of dangerous side effects, they should immediately withdraw from its use.
Don't forget your skin. If you are outside in smoke, take a shower to wash it off. Put your smokey clothing in the wash. If your skin feels irritated by the smoke take an oatmeal bath to soothe your skin after washing the skin off in the shower.
The toxins are coughed up from the lungs, and end up being swallowed along with those from the nasal cavity. This can cause irritation in the digestive tract also. Luckily, the same demulcent herbs mentioned above also soothe the gastrointestinal tract.