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Breathe Easy – Foods to Support Respiratory Health

Autumn and winter can be a great and exciting time of the year, but it also marks the time when respiratory illnesses become far more common. These illnesses can include the common cold, flu, pneumonia, bronchitis, asthma and of course Covid 19. So whilst Christmas shopping may be the main thing on everyone’s mind at the moment, your respiratory health should be a top priority too. So how can food actually help support your respiratory health and help you breathe a little easier this winter?


There are many foods that have been shown by science to help support our respiratory system, which comprises of our mouth, nose, throat (Pharynx), voice box (larynx), windpipe, small and large airways (Bronchi & bronchioles) and lungs. Different respiratory illnesses affect these structures in different ways, just as certain foods have been shown to benefit respiratory health in different ways too. So let’s see what foods should be on your breathe easy menu this winter and why they have the beneficial effect they do on our respiratory health.



Thyme is a medicinal herb that has been used throughout history for its medicinal effects, especially in relation to respiratory health. Fresh thyme is high in antioxidants and contains about 29 active compounds, the main two being Thymol and Carvacrol, which have shown to have anti-inflammatory, anti-spasmodic, anti-viral and antitussive (helps prevent or alleviate a cough) properties, which shows why it can be potentially helpful for supporting respiratory health and can be contained in cough sweets.


Thyme has also shown to be a natural expectorant, which means it is something that can help loosen and expel mucus from the airways that may be difficult to cough up without help. Some research has also shown that Thyme may offer benefit for helping bronchitis too, with one study concluding that thyme can be ‘considered as a potential antimicrobial agent for the treatment of some respiratory tract infections’ and may also help reduce the severity and duration of an infection.


You can add fresh thyme to any of your meals, make a tea using the fresh thyme leaves and leaving to steep in hot water for a time, and you can also buy Thymol oil that you can use in water to drink or gargle with (do make sure it is food grade though, suitable to consume, and not cosmetic grade).



You may not have directly heard of Quercetin, but you will have heard of onions, cherries, citrus fruits, apples, parsley and green leafy vegetables, all of which contain the compound Quercetin, which is a flavonoid (a plant pigment) shown to be a powerful antioxidant and anti-viral and anti-inflammatory agent. Onions are by far the highest food source of quercetin, but you can also buy Quercetin as a supplement too. Quercetin has had renewed interest since the Covid 19 pandemic due to its strong anti-viral properties, and many research studies have reviewed its potential benefit in managing Coronavirus symptoms. Although more research is needed in this area, there have been some positive research results published so far, including in the International Journal of General Medicine where Quercetin intake was shown to reduce frequency and length of hospitalisation and death in outpatients.


In addition to the above, quercetin has also shown to be helpful in people suffering with asthma, as studies have shown quercetin can help reduce mucus production and airway inflammation. In fact a number of studies conclude that quercetin has the potential to treat and support chronic airway disease and respiratory viral infections, especially as it is a flavonoid with an extremely high safety profile. Hopefully, given time and more research, this little natural phytonutrient will gain even more recognition in the health and medical world. In the meantime ensuring plenty of onions are on your menu will be helpful in supporting your respiratory health.


Liquorice root

Now, just to be clear,  we are not talking liquorice allsorts here I’m afraid, but liquorice root, which has been used for centuries for its medicinal properties and has been shown to be beneficial for respiratory health given its proven abilities as an anti-viral, anti-bacterial, antitussive (relieves coughing) and anti-inflammatory agent. It can also easily be combined with Vitamin C to help further support and boost general immune health.


The main bioactive component of Liquorice is called glycyrrhizic acid, which has shown to be an effective expectorant, helping to loosen mucus from the airways and nasal passages. Liquorice is also classed as a demulcent (something that provides a soothing effect by covering mucus membranes in a protective film), so can be helpful for sore throats, tonsillitis, laryngitis and general irritation of the airways. It also has a reputation for being helpful in cases of bronchitis, asthma and COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), as some studies show it can help reduce airway constriction. Due to the benefits shown above for respiratory health, Glycyrrhizic acid has also garnered interest from researchers for supporting therapy for Coronavirus symptoms, but more research is needed here before conclusions can be made.  Please note though that liquorice should not be taken if you suffer with high blood pressure as it is a hypertensive and could cause blood pressure to increase further.


Beetroot & Beet greens

Red beetroot has been shown in many research studies to have biological activity and that’s activity that can specifically benefit our physical health, which includes our respiratory health. Beetroot contains high amounts of biologically active substances including betalains, carotenoids, phenols, B-vitamins (B1 , B2 , B3, B6 and B12) and inorganic nitrate. The nitrates in particular have shown in many studies to be very beneficial for our lungs and blood vessels, as these nitrates have a relaxing and dilating effect on our blood vessels, which results in increased blood flow through the body. Increased blood flow means optimized oxygen intake and increased oxygen to our muscles and tissues too.


Most people know that at times of stress, especially chronic stress that is prolonged for some time, causes our immune systems to become less effective and we can become more susceptible to illness, which is not what we want at the height of respiratory illness season! Consuming beetroot juice during times of psychological stress has actually shown to protect against cold symptoms, with evidence suggesting this can be particularly helpful in people who suffer with asthma.


The beet greens themselves (the leaves at the top of the beetroot) are also packed full of nutrients such as magnesium, vitamins C and potassium, all of which are vital for respiratory health and immune function. Magnesium in particular, which is the fourth most abundant mineral in the body, has a direct impact on muscle relaxation, and that includes the smooth muscles that are found in our bronchial tubes. When the muscles lining the bronchial tubes relax, the tube dilates meaning more air can get into the lungs and less coughing occurs. When these bronchial muscles are contracted, breathing is more laboured as the bronchials are narrowed meaning less oxygen can get into the lungs and more coughing occurs. Magnesium is therefore a vital mineral for respiratory health and management of any respiratory illness where the lower airways are affected.


Prebiotics & Probiotics

When it comes to improving and maintaining a good healthy functioning immune system to guard against infections, including respiratory infections, then both prebiotics and probiotics are important. Probiotics are ‘good bacteria’ that help the healthy functioning of your digestive system and maintain the ‘gut flora’ and prebiotics are the ‘food’ for probiotics, so both are essential in the diet. Studies have shown that respiratory tract infections and their associated symptoms and respiratory conditions such as asthma, chronic bronchitis and COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder) can benefit from a good intake of probiotics and prebiotics. Remember that prevention is always better than cure, so improving our immunity to help guard against infections in the first place should always be a primary focus.

Cultured yogurt containing ‘live bacteria’ is a good source of probiotics. Onions are a good source of a natural prebiotic called Fructan. Consuming these will have a positive effect on the good bacteria in your gut and help promote better digestive health, which is directly linked to immune health.


Fermented foods such as yogurt, Sauerkraut, kefir, kimchi, sourdough and tempeh are also rich sources of probiotics. Fermented foods have undergone a process of fermentation that results in these foods being naturally high in probiotics and one specific probiotic called Lactobacilli is found in most of these fermented foods. Studies have shown that certain Lactobacilli strains help improve the body’s resistance to infection and also exhibit a certain anti-viral effect. Studies have also shown that people that eat yogurt appear to have more Lactobacilli in their intestines than non-yogurt eaters, so if yogurt isn’t currently part of your daily diet it is definitely something to add. Due to its soft, cold texture, it’s also a great choice of food if you have a sore throat!!


So we might not always be able to escape the bugs, germs and respiratory viruses that are common at this time of year, but we can certainly give our respiratory system a fighting chance by eating a healthy balanced diet, which includes the foods mentioned above.


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