Some Ayurvedic herbs may help ease the agitation of smoke, smog, and more. Learn about threats to your breath and how to protect your lungs.
Herbs for Air Pollution
Here in Boulder, CO, it’s been smoky for weeks.
As I write this, on August 21, 2020, 2,163 forest fires rage in the western United States, sending billows of toxic smoke high into the atmosphere and blowing toxic particulate material across the US via easterly blowing winds.3 The NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) reports toxic air pollutants from fires can easily spread across the US and even affect air quality globally.4
Forest fires in the western US have become the new normal, peaking during the later summer months. If you are concerned about air quality or have breathing difficulties that seem to be exacerbated in late summer, there are steps you can take to help protect your lungs from the free radical and toxicity damage caused by air pollution.
Air pollution is a major risk factor for sickness and death around the world, which accounts for nine million deaths each year.2 While developing countries are at the greatest risk, here in the US, air pollution also poses a major threat to human health. According to the EPA, more than 70 million tons of pollutants were dumped into the atmosphere in 2019 in the United States.33
Today, nine out of 10 people live in places where air quality does not meet the WHO guidelines. Moreover, climate change is projected to exacerbate air pollution problems.9 In America, current air pollution concentrations are associated with increased mortality and loss of life expectancy, with larger impacts in counties with lower income and higher poverty rates.10 On top of existing air pollution rates, every summer there are, on average, 4,000+ forest fires, which compound the problem.
6 Major Air Pollutants that Harm Human Health and the Ecosystem1
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), there are six major air pollutants which harm human health and the ecosystem.
- Particle pollution is particles that form in the atmosphere as a result of complex reactions of chemicals, such as sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, which are pollutants emitted from power plants, industries, and automobiles.27
- Ground-level ozone is not emitted directly into the air, but is created by chemical reactions between oxides of nitrogen (NOx) and volatile organic compounds (VOC). This happens when pollutants emitted by cars, power plants, industrial boilers, refineries, chemical plants, and other sources chemically react in the presence of sunlight.28
- Carbon monoxide: The greatest sources of CO to outdoor air are cars, trucks, and other vehicles or machinery that burn fossil fuels.31
- Sulfur oxides: The largest sources of sulfur oxide emissions are from fossil fuel combustion at power plants and other industrial facilities.30
- Nitrogen oxides or NO2 primarily gets in the air from burning fuel. NO2 forms from emissions from cars, trucks, buses, power plants, and off-road equipment.29
- Lead: The EPA also regulates lead as a toxic air pollutant by limiting emissions from some industrial sources.32
There are many particle pollutants, including mercury from coal-fired electrical plants suspended in the air, such as dust, fumes, smokes, mists, gaseous pollutants, hydrocarbons, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), and halogen derivatives in the air, which, at high concentrations, cause vulnerability to many serious health concerns.1
Air pollution can affect the health of the susceptible and sensitive even on low-air pollution days. Short-term exposure to air pollutants is closely related to COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), cough, shortness of breath, wheezing, asthma, respiratory disease, and high rates of hospitalization (a measurement of morbidity).2
Long-Term Effects Associated with Air Pollution
- chronic asthma
- pulmonary insufficiency
- cardiovascular issues
- cardiovascular mortality
According to a Swedish cohort study, diabetes seems to be induced after chronic exposure to air pollution. Children and infants are particularity vulnerable to air pollution-related health concerns, such as respiratory, cardiovascular, mental, and perinatal disorders, leading to infant mortality or chronic disease in adulthood.2
A recent study discovered air pollution can accelerate LDL cholesterol oxidation, rendering it more damaging and likely to increase arterial plaque formation.5
Air pollution is also responsible for accumulation of toxic magnetic nanoparticles in the brain called magnetite particles. Typically, these particles can be found along busy roadsides from car exhaust, but not in the human brain. Significantly higher levels of magnetite particles in brain autopsies were seen in highly polluted areas (like Mexico City) and in those with neurodegenerative diseases.6
We RecommendAir Pollution Particles Found in Brain
Ayurveda Fights against Air Pollution
Perhaps the most recognized Ayurvedic herb, classically used for detoxification and purification, is Tulsi Holy Basil (Ocimum sanctum). Based on numerous studies and Ayurveda‘s traditional use of tulsi, the Indian government planted over 10,000 tulsi plants to combat severe air pollution in the city of Agra.8
Tulsi for Protection and Detoxification
Many of the physiological benefits of tulsi can be attributed to its ability to assist with the body’s internal housekeeping and protection from harmful toxins. These functions are linked to tulsi’s high content of phenolic compounds and antioxidants.7
NOTE: Many of tulsi’s active compounds are volatile and lost when the herb is dried. LifeSpa’s Tulsi Holy Basil combines the whole tulsi plant with a full-spectrum tulsi extract and captures volatile compounds, which you don’t get by drinking tulsi tea.
Laboratory studies show tulsi increases the body’s natural levels of antioxidant molecules, such as glutathione, and enhances activity of antioxidant enzymes, such as superoxide dismutase and catalase, which can protect cellular organelles and membranes by mopping up damaging free radicals.7
Tulsi also supports the body’s ability to effectively transform and eliminate toxins by enhancing activity of liver detoxification enzymes, such as the cytochrome P450 enzymes, which deactivate toxic chemicals and enable them to be safely excreted.7
While these actions are vitally important for protecting against natural toxins, they are perhaps even more important in the modern age to protect against the vast range of human-made pollutants, pesticides, pharmaceuticals, heavy metals, radiation, and other industrial toxicants, many of which can find their way into the atmosphere.7
Tulsi for Toxicant Stress: Chemicals, Heavy Metals + Radiation
Tulsi’s ability to support a healthy detox response is reported in numerous studies. Support for healthy liver, kidney, immune, cellular DNA, and brain response to pesticides, pharmaceuticals, and industrial chemicals has been demonstrated.7
Tulsi has been shown to support healthy liver detoxification from known toxicants, such as butylparaben, carbon tetrachloride, copper sulfate, and ethanol, as well as common pesticides, such as rogor, chlorpyrifos, endosulfan, and lindane.7
Tulsi has also been shown to support a healthy detox response against the toxic effects of heavy metals, such as lead, arsenic, cadmium, chromium, and mercury. Mercury and lead are leading causes of air pollution. Tulsi also exerts its radioprotective effects by supporting a natural free radical-scavenging effect, which antidotes cellular and chromosomal oxidation induced by radiation.7
Amalaki for Air Pollution + More
A 2009 study compared vitamin C and E content of amalaki (aka Emblica officinalis or Phyllanthus emblica), wheat grass, and spirulina to compare their protective antioxidant and detoxification potential against possible pollutants. 12
Vitamin C Content
- Amalaki raw herb: 5.38 mg/gram
- Wheatgrass: .22 mg/gram
- Spirulina: .101 mg/gram
Antioxidant Activity (Based on Vitamin E + Phenolic Compounds)
- Amalaki: 7.78 mmol/liter
- Spirulina: 1.33 mmol/liter
- Wheatgrass: .278 mmol/liter
How Vitamin C + E Work Together
Vitamin C and E have a unique relationship, suggesting they should be taken together. Nuts and seeds are loaded with fat-soluble vitamins (like vitamin E), which require vitamin C to protect them from damage and oxidation.12
What makes amalaki so unique is that it offers a rich supply of both vitamin C and E. Named the wonder berry, amalaki or amla fruit, aka Indian Gooseberry, has 10-20x more vitamin C than an orange.14-16
Water-soluble vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant that protects more fragile, fat-soluble vitamin E. When you have damaging oxidative stress or lipid (fat) peroxidation, vitamin E levels become exhausted. The good news is: vitamin C can regenerate it!
Without vitamin C, vitamin E becomes depleted, unprotected, and terminally damaged, leaving the body without two of the most powerful antioxidants required in the battle against air pollution.
Health Concernes Related to Vitamin C + Vitamin E Deficiency13
- weight gain
- blood pressure
- blood sugar
- cholesterol imbalances
Turmeric for Air Pollution + More
There is no shortage of studies on the benefits of turmeric and its so-called “most active constituent,” curcumin, as an antioxidant and protective against chemical and toxin exposure. While there is a fascination for using high dosages of curcumin instead of whole turmeric, new science suggests we look to the traditional use of the whole turmeric root for sustainable results.
Traditionally, black pepper was used in curry powder to boost turmeric’s bioavailability. As it turns out, piperine in black pepper is a potent inhibitor to the liver’s ability to metabolize turmeric.
In fact, mixing one part of black pepper to 16 parts turmeric extract boosts bioavailability by a whopping 2000%.17,18 I suggest using raw, organic turmeric mixed with black pepper at a ratio of 16:1.
Moreover, when herbs are made into extracts, like curcumin, they are soaked in food-grade alcohol, killing the microbes that naturally occur, which are thought to boost the plant’s biochemistry and potency. How and why microbes are attracted to certain plants and how these microbes boost their effectiveness and change our microbiome is under current investigation.
That said, regulatory standards in the US allow 1,000 times more microbes in dietary supplements compared to herbal extracts of the same plant.19,20 Microbes in the soils change from season to season, in perfect synchrony with the plants harvested in that season. Disturbing this in any way may be one reason why whole herbs regularly outperform herbal extracts or isolated “active constituents.”
Turmeric Health Benefits Outperform Curcumin
One study compared turmeric whole-plant extract with curcumin. Whole turmeric was twice as effective at inducing expression of perforin (a protein important in immunity) compared to isolated curcumin.21
In another study, whole-plant turmeric extract was shown to have twice the amount of antioxidant activity as isolated curcumin.22
Another study showed low doses of curcuminoids from whole-plant extracts administered over a longer period of time were more effective at supporting natural drainage of dangerous toxic aggregates from the brain than high doses of isolated curcuminoids administered rapidly.24
Turmeric and curcumin both have been found to boost stem cells. While curcumin did increase stem cells, the dose had to be precise. At a lower dose, stem cell activity increased, resulting in new nerve (brain) cell formation, but at a higher dose, curcumin was toxic.25
In another study, curcumin increased bone marrow stem cells at a low dose, while higher doses had toxic effects.26
Raw Turmeric’s Resume
Turmeric has numerous well-documented and time-tested benefits, including the following:23
- Supports stable mood
- Boosts immunity through antioxidant activity
- Helps liver and detoxification of environmental toxins (air pollution)
- Helps maintain healthy lymphatic drainage
- Supports inner and outer skin health
- Maintains healthy joint function
- Supports overall intestinal health
- Boosts gallbladder & bile function
- Supports healthy blood sugar balance
- Maintains brain health & cognitive function
- Supports a normal inflammation response to changes in diet & exercise
Air Pollution Conclusion
As the late-summer fires rage on, I hope you will consider supporting your body with tulsi, amalaki, and whole-plant turmeric.