Vitamins For The Respiratory System

  • Suzanna Nock BSc (Hons) Immunology and Pharmacology, University of Strathclyde, Scotland

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Introduction

The respiratory system is made up of the heart and the lungs. The lungs help fill the circulating blood with oxygen, and the heart then pumps all the oxygenated blood around the body to everywhere that needs it. Once it has travelled around your body, it will return to the lungs and this is where carbon dioxide, your body’s waste gas, is returned into the lungs and breathed out.

Following the COVID-19 pandemic, everyone was emphasised on the importance of respiratory health. Millions of people lost their lives, and many were unable to leave their homes for years in fear of catching the respiratory virus and falling ill. However, this wake-up call reminded us of how important our respiratory health really is. But how can we easily maintain our respiratory health through our diet? Vitamins are a great and easy way to improve the health of the respiratory system, and we can find them in many foods and also through supplementation. Vitamins A, C, D, and E are all great for the respiratory system, which we will discuss in detail in this article.

Vitamin A

During foetal development in the womb, vitamin A helps to develop and grow the alveoli, the lungs’ functional unit, which allows gas exchange. These are how your lungs let go of carbon dioxide and bring in new oxygen for your blood, so they are very important. Vitamin A also helps the alveoli to prevent collapsing and makes sure gas exchange is efficient. However, according to the World Health Organisation, there is a worldwide deficiency in vitamin A, and it is one of the most common deficiencies worldwide, and it has many negative effects on respiratory health. 

When you are low in this vitamin, there is a higher chance of getting very ill with respiratory diseases.

Although vitamin A helps to prevent any severe symptoms you may experience if you have an infection, vitamin A levels drop when you are ill with an infection. This increases your chances of becoming ill with subsequent infections, which makes getting vitamin A into your diet very important – especially when you are already ill.1

Main sources of vitamin A include:

  • Oily fish   
  • Milk and yoghurt
  • Cheese
  • Eggs
  • Red, yellow, and green vegetables such as carrots, sweet potato, kale
  • Yellow fruits such as banana, mango, pineapple

Like anything, too much of a good thing can be harmful, and you should, therefore, watch how much vitamin A you are taking as it can be detrimental to your health. Supplementation should be used with care as this can put you over the recommended dose for one day. Higher levels of vitamin A can cause your bones to be broken down and cause your calcium levels in the blood to increase. Older people and women should pay extra attention as too much vitamin A has been linked to brittle bones, which increases your risk of osteoporosis.2
There have also been links to too much vitamin A and growth abnormalities in unborn babies.3 For this reason, pregnant women should take care when supplementing and keep an eye on their  vitamin A intake.

Vitamin C

Vitamin C is vital for your respiratory health; it helps you keep infections at bay, and if you do get an infection, this vitamin helps you manage the symptoms. This is because vitamin C is an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compound. The antioxidant effects of vitamin C help to remove any damaged cells within the lungs caused by harmful agents called free radicals and also directly remove free radicals themselves. Vitamin C will also help to reduce inflammation if you have an infection or if you have an inflammatory condition such as asthma, which will help to improve symptoms.4

Vitamin C is also being viewed as a therapeutic approach to remedy some of the negative symptoms of respiratory diseases such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD). This is because it helps to reduce damage caused by the immune system and also helps to reduce the production of chemicals, which bring more inflammation to the lungs. Combining these two factors will help to restore respiratory health.5

Main sources of vitamin C include:

  • Oranges
  • Strawberries
  • Broccoli
  • Potatoes

Vitamin C can also have some negative effects when you consume too much. These include stomach pains and diarrhoea, but these should disappear when you stop taking excess levels of vitamin C. If you take excessive amounts of vitamin C for prolonged periods of time, you may experience kidney stones, so care should be taken when supplementing vitamin C. High levels of vitamin C throughout pregnancy can also lead to scurvy in the unborn baby.5

Vitamin D

Vitamin D can be made in humans after sun exposure through a type of UV ray called UVB. 

Vitamin D has been found to be very advantageous to your respiratory health. This is because sufficient vitamin D levels will improve your immunity against tuberculosis whilst also improving your symptoms. Vitamin D not only helps to keep bacterial infections at bay, but it also helps decrease the severity of viral infections. Vitamin D decreases the inflammation that comes with respiratory viral infections and can, therefore, improve your symptoms immensely. Inflammation is very important when you have an infection as it allows you to overcome the infection; however, too much inflammation can make you very unwell and leave irreversible damage to your lungs.
There are changes to your vitamin D levels throughout the year, depending on the level of sunlight, which can have substantial effects on your respiratory health. More people come down with upper respiratory infections such as the common cold during the winter seasons.6 Vitamin D supplementation during months when the sun is sparse is very important to keep your respiratory health strong. For most people, being out in the sun during the summer months is enough vitamin D, so be careful with supplementation as this will lead to an excess of vitamin D in the body.

Main sources of vitamin D include:

  • Oily fisk
  • Egg yolks

Red meat

Vitamin D also has its risks when consumed at high levels. If you consume too much vitamin D over an extended period, you may be at risk of hypercalcemia, which is when the body has too much calcium. This is because vitamin D causes calcium to be taken from the bones, which may eventually cause brittle bones later on in life.7

Vitamin E

Vitamin E is considered one of the most important compounds for improving your immune system's function. It is an antioxidant, which means this vitamin can help reduce the damage caused by harmful agents called free radicals. Deficiency in this vitamin, although rare, can have deleterious effects on your immune system and health. 
A deficiency in vitamin E can exacerbate an allergic condition called delayed-type hypersensitivity, which is an umbrella term for many conditions, including asthma. This is because vitamin E will help to reduce any unnecessary inflammation and improve your immune cell function, making you more efficient at controlling allergies or infections.

Main sources of vitamin E include:

  • Olive oil
  • Nuts and seeds.

As mentioned above, deficiency in vitamin E can have adverse effects on your immune system, which can make symptoms of certain infections worse and prolong the time you feel unwell. Over-supplementation of vitamin E has been found to be quite beneficial to your immune system as it helps to improve the function of an immune cell called T cells, which are important in killing viral cells along with cancer cells. Along with protection against viral infections, vitamin E has proven to be very good at decreasing symptoms of bacterial infections by suppressing the activity of bacterial cells in the body.8

Summary

  • Your respiratory system helps to supply your blood with oxygen and to remove any waste or CO2 gas from your blood.
  • Your respiratory health is crucial and should be maintained through a balanced and healthy lifestyle, making sure to include vitamins in your diet and supplementation.
  • Vitamin A helps to maintain the strong structure of your lungs and is very important during foetal development. This vitamin can be found in foods such as oily fish, milk, and yoghurt.
  • Vitamin C is very important in keeping infections away and helping remove free radicals. This can be found in foods such as citrus fruits and strawberries.
  • Vitamin D is the ‘sunshine vitamin’, and we can get all the vitamin D we need through sun exposure, but supplementation is advised during the winter months. This vitamin is very important in protecting against bacterial and viral infections. Vitamin D can be found in oily fish and red meat.
  • Vitamin E is considered one of the most important vitamins for your immune system. Deficiency in this vitamin can increase your risk of having severe symptoms if infected. Over-supplementation with this vitamin has proven beneficial when it comes to your immune system function. Sources of this vitamin include olive oil, nuts and seeds.

References

  1. Timoneda J, Rodríguez-Fernández L, Zaragozá R, Marín M, Cabezuelo M, Torres L, et al. Vitamin A Deficiency and the Lung. Nutrients. 2018;10(9):1132.
  2. Lim LS, Harnack LJ, Lazovich D, Folsom AR. Vitamin A intake and the risk of hip fracture in postmenopausal women: the Iowa Women?s Health Study. Osteoporosis International. 2004;15(7).
  3. Bastos Maia S, Rolland Souza A, Costa Caminha M, Lins Da Silva S, Callou Cruz R, Carvalho Dos Santos C, Batista Filho M. Vitamin A and Pregnancy: A Narrative Review. Nutrients. 2019;11(3):681.
  4. Holford P, Carr AC, Jovic TH, Ali SR, Whitaker IS, Marik PE, Smith AD. Vitamin C—An Adjunctive Therapy for Respiratory Infection, Sepsis and COVID-19. Nutrients. 2020;12(12):3760.
  5. Teafatiller T, Agrawal S, De Robles G, Rahmatpanah F, Subramanian VS, Agrawal A. Vitamin C Enhances Antiviral Functions of Lung Epithelial Cells. Biomolecules. 2021;11(8):1148.
  6. Hansdottir S, Monick MM. Vitamin D Effects on Lung Immunity and Respiratory Diseases. Elsevier; 2011. p. 217-37.
  7. Tebben PJ, Singh RJ, Kumar R. Vitamin D-Mediated Hypercalcemia: Mechanisms, Diagnosis, and Treatment. Endocr Rev. 2016;37(5):521-47.
  8. Lewis ED, Meydani SN, Wu D. Regulatory role of vitamin E in the immune system and inflammation. IUBMB Life. 2019;71(4):487-94.

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Suzanna Nock

BSc (Hons) Immunology and Pharmacology, University of Strathclyde, Scotland

With a strong interest for science, Suzanna pursued a degree in Immunology and Pharmacology in one of the top universities in Scotland.

During her final year and with the hopes of delving into a career in medical writing, she joined Klarity as an intern where she has elevated her writing skills and increased her range of knowledge within other areas of science and healthcare.

my.klarity.health presents all health information in line with our terms and conditions. It is essential to understand that the medical information available on our platform is not intended to substitute the relationship between a patient and their physician or doctor, as well as any medical guidance they offer. Always consult with a healthcare professional before making any decisions based on the information found on our website.
Klarity is a citizen-centric health data management platform that enables citizens to securely access, control and share their own health data. Klarity Health Library aims to provide clear and evidence-based health and wellness related informative articles. 
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