Some Ayurvedic herbs may help ease the agitation of smoke, smog, and more. This Earth Day, learn about air pollution threats to your health and how to protect your lungs.
The Air Pollution Crisis and Ayurvedic Philosophy
Some 2,500 years ago, Ayurveda texts, including the Caraka Samhita, predicted that air, water, and land pollution would cause severe seasonal irregularities, like floods, fires, and droughts, and lead to severe disease and epidemics.1
It was said that the air would become so polluted that breathing it would cause disease. The polluted air was predicted to filter into the water, making rivers and lakes so toxic that animals would not drink from them and the land would stop growing food and become a toxic color.
The pollution and subsequent imbalance in natural cycles and seasons would come from greed and corruption. This corruption would start at the highest levels of government then slowly trickle down to the people, who, throughconceit, anger, and weapons, would destroy their communities.
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Air Pollution and Climate Change
The link between air pollution and climate change has been firmly established. Some particulate matter and excess methane from industry and agriculture, for example, contribute to heating the atmosphere, which then heats the land and oceans, which in turn alters the seasonal rhythms of nature In addition, studies have found that as climate change heats up the planet, the impact of air pollutants becomes more deleterious to human health.2,3
Small changes may have big impact. For example, methane release from cattle farming is a major source of climate change-causing greenhouse gas that by some estimates accounts for more than 20% of total global warming. Plus, cattle farming can be considered an inefficient use of farmable land. Reducing methane gas emissions from cattle farming could play a huge role in the fight against climate change. In a 2021 breakthrough study at the University of California at Davis, researchers found that feeding cattle just a small amount of seaweed reduced the cows’ methane gas emissions by up to a whopping 82%.4
Air Pollution-Related Health Concerns on the Rise
Air pollution is a major risk factor for sickness and death around the world, accounting for seven million deaths each year, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).5 Today, 9 out of 10 people live in places where air quality does not meet WHO guidelines. Moreover, climate change is projected to exacerbate air pollution problems.6 While developing countries are at the greatest risk, here in the US, air pollution also poses a major threat to human health.
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.
Where I live, in the American West, forest fires have become the new normal, peaking during the later summer months. Western fires send billows of toxic smoke high into the atmosphere and the wind then blows toxic particulate material across the country and can even affect air quality globally, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.7
The Health Impacts of Air Pollution
The major health-related concerns associated with air pollution are chronic asthma, pulmonary insufficiency, and cardiovascular issues.
In a study published in the European Heart Journal, researchers studied the impact of physical exercise on preventing heart disease and stroke. With clean air, exercise reduced cardiovascular risk, but when the volunteers exercised vigorously in polluted air, it increased their cardiovascular risk.8
In the journal Circulation more than 63 million volunteers over the age of 65 were evaluated between 2000 and 2016. The study found that long-term exposure to air pollutants that was even lower than the national standard levels for exposure significantly increased hospitalization for cardiac and respiratory conditions, including stroke, heart attack, atrial fibrillation, and pneumonia.9
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).
Conditions like diabetes and cognitive decline have also been associated with chronic exposure to air pollution.
A recent study discovered air pollution can accelerate LDL cholesterol oxidation, rendering it more damaging and likely to increase arterial plaque formation.10
Highly polluted air is hard on the heart, but there are a whole host of other ailments triggered by poor air quality, and some of those conditions are on the rise, including:
The research is in. Air pollution is linked to a dramatic increase in infertility for both men and women. In the new book Count Down: How Our Modern World is Threatening Sperm Counts, Altering Male and Female Reproductive Development, and Imperiling the Future of the Human Race, author and reproductive epidemiologist Shanna Swan, PhD, predicts human extinction from infertility if endocrine-disrupting pollutants are not removed from the environment. Her studies revealed a 50% reduction in sperm count in men. In a recent study at the University of Geneva in Switzerland, only 38% of the men tested had sperm counts that met WHO standards for fertility.11,12
Exposure to a range of toxic environmental compounds knows no bounds. Pregnancy doesn’t provide protection from toxic substances. In one study at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, researchers monitored pregnant mothers who were exposed to air pollution when the fetuses they were carrying were six months old. The fetuses showed reduced heart rate variability, which is a measure for stress and a known risk factor associated with numerous other health concerns.13
In another study, this one at the University of California at San Francisco, researchers discovered 109 chemicals in pregnant women. Fifty-five of these had never been seen before in humans. What’s worse, the source of 42 of these “so-called” mystery chemicals is unknown.14
Children and infants are particularity vulnerable to air pollution-related health concerns, leading to infant mortality or chronic disease in adulthood. A new study from Stanford University found evidence that when children breath polluted air, the risk of adult heart disease and other ailments increases. Air pollution can affect the health of the young, susceptible, and sensitive even on low-air pollution days.15
Theoxic magnetic nanoparticles associated with some air pollution, called magnetite particles, can also accumulate in the brain. Typically, these particles can be found in air pollution sources like car exhaust. Significantly higher levels of magnetite particles in brain autopsies were seen in highly polluted areas (like Mexico City) and in those with neurodegenerative diseases.16
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6 Major Air Pollutants that Harm Human Health and the Ecosystem
According to the WHO, there are six major air pollutants that harm human health and the ecosystem. They are:
1. Particulate pollution: Particles that form in the atmosphere as a result of complex reactions of chemicals, such as the combination of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides emitted from power plants, industry, and automobiles. This class of pollutants also includes mercury from coal-fired power plants 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.17,18 In a study at UC San Diego researchers gathered 14 years of hospital admissions data from California fires and found that wildfire smoke is several times more dangerous to human respiratory health than particulate air pollution from sources such as car exhaust.35
2. Ground-level ozone (O3): This gas is not emitted directly into the air, but is created by chemical reactions between oxides of nitrogen (NOx) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). This happens when pollutants emitted by cars, power plants, industrial boilers, refineries, chemical plants, and other sources react tosunlight.19
3. Carbon monoxide (CO): The greatest sources of CO are cars, trucks, and other vehicles or machinery that burn fossil fuels.20
4. Sulfur oxides (SOx): The largest sources of sulfur oxide emissions are from fossil fuel combustion at power plants and other industrial facilities.21
5. Nitrogen oxides (NOx) primarily get into the air from burning fuel. NO2 forms from emissions from cars, trucks, buses, power plants, and off-road equipment.22.
6. Lead (Pb): The EPA also regulates lead as a toxic air pollutant by limiting emissions from some industrial sources.23
Ayurvedic Detox Support for Countering Air Pollution
Ayurveda employs a detox technique call oleation and purgation, which is called lipophilic mediated detoxification in Western medicine. This process is where a healthy fat, such as ghee, is used in sequentially higher dosages to penetrate the deep tissues and attach to stored pollutants. Studies have shown that this technique removed toxic polychlorinated biphenyl (PCBs) by 48% and pesticides by 58% after a one week oleation detox.24
Ayurvedic Herbs for Fighting Against Air Pollution
If you’re concerned about air quality or have breathing difficulties that seem to be exacerbated with air pollution, there are steps you can take to help protect your lungs from free radical and toxicity. .
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.25
Tulsi for Protection and Detoxification
Many of the physiological benefits of tulsi are related to its phenolic compounds, antioxidant properties and ability to support the flushing out of toxic substances.26
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.26
Tulsi also supports the body’s ability to effectively transform and eliminate toxic material by enhancing the activity of liver detoxification enzymes, such as cytochrome P450 enzymes, which deactivate toxic chemicals and enable them to be safely excreted.26
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 toxics, many of which can find their way into the atmosphere.26
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.25
Tulsi has been shown to support healthy liver detoxification from known toxics, such as butylparaben, carbon tetrachloride, copper sulfate, and ethanol, as well as common pesticides, such as rogor, chlorpyrifos, endosulfan, and lindane.25
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.25
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.
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Amalaki for Vitamins C and E and Antioxidants
Amalaki is a vitamin C- and vitamin E-rich berry commonly used in Ayurveda. Named the wonder berry, amalaki or amla fruit (also known as Indian Gooseberry), amalaki has 10-20 times more vitamin C than an orange.
A 2009 study compared the vitamin C and vitamin E content of amalaki (aka Emblica officinalis or Phyllanthus emblica), to the vitamin C and vitamin E content of wheat grass and spirulina. The researchers found that Amalaki has 5.38 mg of vitamin C per gram, far surpassing wheatgrass (at .22 mg) and spirulina (.1 mg). In terms of vitamin E and other phenolic compounds, amalaki had 7.78 mmol/liter, while wheatgrass had .28 mmol/liter and spirulina at 1.33 mmol/liter. 26
Vitamin C and E have a unique relationship, and often should be taken together. For example, nuts and seeds are loaded with fat-soluble vitamins (like vitamin E), which require vitamin C to protect them from damage and oxidation.
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 vitamin E!
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.
The most revered herb in Ayurveda that support a well-studied detox process is an amalaka longevity formula called Chyawanprash. Studies have found this 50 herbal formula to be rich in antioxidants that support a healthy and natural detox response against radiation and smoke while protecting cells from toxicity damage.36 Dosage: take 1 tbs after each meal for 6-8 weeks.
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Note: Health concerns related to vitamin C and vitamin E deficiency include weight gain, blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol imbalances.
Turmeric for Air Pollution Protection
There is no shortage of studies on the benefits of turmeric and its active constituent curcumin, for protecting your body againsttoxic 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, smaller doses or pepper are more benefical: mixing one part of black pepper to 16 parts turmeric extract boosts bioavailability by a whopping 2000%.27,28 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.29 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.”
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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.30
In another study, whole-plant turmeric extract was shown to have twice the amount of antioxidant activity as isolated curcumin.31
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.32
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.33
In another study, curcumin increased bone marrow stem cells at a low dose, while higher doses had toxic effects.34
Let us know what Ayurvedic herbs or detox method you try to support easier breathing.