What is COPD and how can I help prevent it?

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, or COPD, is the term for a group of progressive lung diseases that lead to inflammation and destruction of the airways and air sacs of the lungs. The two major forms are emphysema and chronic bronchitis. Emphysema destroys the air sacs in the lungs that help move oxygen into your bloodstream, and bronchitis leads to inflammation of the bronchial tubes, causing them to narrow and become clogged with mucus, limiting airflow. Patients with COPD often have both conditions.

The main presenting symptom of COPD is difficulty breathing and unexplained shortness of breath. This breathlessness may start out fairly mild but usually increases over time, and often becomes worse with activity. Other symptoms include a slowly evolving chronic cough, wheezing, tightness in the chest and excess phlegm production.

COPD is the third leading cause of death in the U.S. and the largest risk factor by far is cigarette smoking. Although not everyone who smokes will develop COPD, about 90 percent of those who do are smokers or former smokers. The longer you smoke, the greater your risk — so the sooner you quit, the better.

COPD can develop over a long period of time before symptoms become noticeable. Anyone with breathing difficulties needs to be evaluated as soon as possible not only for COPD but for other high-risk illnesses, so talk to your doctor as soon as you notice any concerning symptoms. Unlike many other illnesses, once the damage to your lungs is done there is little you can do to reverse the destruction. The sooner COPD is diagnosed the sooner you can start taking measures to minimize any future lung damage.

Diagnosis may come from a physical exam, lung function tests, imaging tests like X-rays or a CT scan and tests to measure the level of oxygen in your blood. When it comes to treatment no two patients are the same, so the most important thing is to work with your doctor to formulate a treatment plan to optimize your breathing and quality of life. In addition to medications, some patients may require oxygen therapy and other measures to improve breathing throughout the day and night, since sleep can certainly be affected as well.

Patients with COPD have a higher risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, lung infections and lung cancer, and it frequently presents alongside these illnesses. Smoking increases the risk for all of these diseases, and quitting smoking reduces all of these risks. It’s a recurring theme: smoking is not good for your lungs or heart or any other part of your body.

Gut Health

What are some of the indications of poor gut health?

Scientists are finding dramatic links between microbial imbalance and health. When the microbe population of the gut are out of balance and lack diversity, it can lead to gastrointestinal conditions like IBS, diarrhea and/or constipation, and there may be a link to other conditions including rheumatoid arthritis, allergies, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, cardiovascular disease and even mental health problems such as anxiety and depression.


How does the microbiome affect the immune system?

It’s very likely that gut bacteria increase inflammation, which wreaks havoc on your immune system. Cortisol levels rise and storage of excess belly fat increases while cells become less responsive to insulin, interfering with blood sugar levels. A broad, diverse microbiome seems to enhance the immune system while decreasing overall inflammation.


What role do fermented foods play in a gut-healthy diet?

Fermented foods deliver actual living microbes directly into our guts. I recommend at least one probiotic (fermented) food every day, such as sauerkraut, kombucha, kimchi and miso. They must be kept cool to stay alive, so look for foods with live and active cultures in the refrigerated section of your grocery store.


What are good, natural sources for prebiotics?

All fruit, vegetables and plant proteins are good, natural sources of prebiotics — fiber that your gut bacteria can digest as fuel. This fiber passes through your gastrointestinal tract undigested and serves as nourishment for the healthy bacteria in your gut.


Is it possible to repair damage that has already been done to the gut?

Yes, and change happens fast, as soon as you start making simple microbiome-supportive diet adjustments — most importantly, starting to introduce more dietary fiber. As you are improving gut health you are engaging in diet changes that can help you lose a lot of unhealthy weight.


Besides the foods I eat, what else can I do to help my gut health?

Buying organic can limit damaging growth hormones and pesticides. Avoid unnecessary antibiotics that kill gut bacteria. Exercise improves gut health and may lower blood pressure, improve cholesterol levels and lower the risk for diabetes, stroke and heart disease. And don’t be afraid to occasionally get a little dirty. When you wipe away all germs, you’re also killing some of the good ones. Spend more time outside, relax your home cleaning standards just a bit, get a pet — your immune system actually seems to perform better if it has a chance to fight off some “bad” microbes on a regular basis.


What other important things should I know about gut health?

Your gut has its own nervous system — think of it as your second brain. We’re only beginning to see how gut health impacts our emotional health and influences our moods. Each week we learn more about how gut health is connected to overall health — but the good news is, we don’t have to wait for more research to start making positive changes today.

To learn more about gut health/belly diet check out Dr. Stork’s book with bonus chapter/ exclusive content for Sam’s Club members.

Find more of our Q&A with Dr. Travis Stork at HLMS.com

Tweet @TheDoctors and let Dr. Stork know you enjoyed his #SamsClubMag Ask The Doctors feature article.

Travis Stork, M.D., is a board-certified emergency room physician and the host of the Emmy Award-winning TV series The Doctors, The New York Times best-selling author of The Doctor’s Diet, and The Doctor’s Diet Cookbook. Visit thedoctorstv.com for more information.