Make no mistake about it: Pneumonia kills. In 2002, almost 65,000 Americans died of pneumonia, and combined with influenza, this respiratory infection is the seventh leading cause of death in the U.S.
Although anyone can get pneumonia, it appears to favor older people, children, and those with certain heart conditions, diabetes, sickle cell anemia, and other chronic diseases.
Pneumonia is also more likely to prey on those whose immune systems have been compromised by AIDS, cancer treatments, organ transplants, or other causes. "Pneumonia is an end-stage disease process," says Herb Joiner-Bey, ND. "If people are elderly, or in a debilitated state, they're susceptible.
Causes and Symptoms
Simply defined, pneumonia is an infection that leads to inflammation of the lungs. Some of the main causes of pneumonia are viruses, bacteria, and mycoplasmas (disease-causing agents with traits of both bacteria and viruses). However, more than 30 different causes have been identified, including fungi and inhalation of gases or dust. Aspiration pneumonia may occur when someone inhales a liquid or solid. People with swallowing problems are at risk for aspiration pneumonia.
It helps to recognize the symptoms of pneumonia.
Aspiration pneumonia: Unconsciousness or vomiting, followed by fever, coughing with phlegm, and depressed appetite and weight loss.
Bacterial pneumonia: A cough yielding thick, yellow-green phlegm that may be bloody, chest pain that's exacerbated by deep breathing, abdominal discomfort, extreme fatigue, and shortness of breath.
Viral pneumonia: Coughing, chest pain, muscle pain, fever and chills, lack of energy, and swollen lymph nodes in the neck.
In addition, sudden fever, labored and rapid breathing, cough, and blue-tinged lips, fingertips, or skin characterize pneumonia in children.
Dr. Joiner-Bey recommends taking the same precautions against pneumonia as you would against colds or flu. "Protect your immune function by staying away from sugar, refined flour, and alcohol," he advises. Mark Stengler, ND, concurs. Besides avoiding immune-suppressive foods like refined carbohydrates and soft drinks, he adds, "Mucus-forming foods [dairy products, chocolate, and for some people, bananas] are a breeding ground for bacteria in the bronchial tubes, sinus, and lungs."
Dr. Stengler recommends eating plenty of fruits, vegetables, lean organic poultry, and fish once or twice a week. If you already have pneumonia, drink a glass of clean water every two waking hours and eat hot barley soup to thin the mucus secretions. "You can add an onion [to the soup]," Dr. Stengler advises. Onions are rich in quercetin, a flavonoid with anti-inflammatory and antioxidant activity.
Pure cod liver oil, a rich source of vitamin A, also helps the body produce antibodies. However, since vitamins A and D are fat-soluble and can be toxic in high doses, it's important not to take too much.
Stay away from smoke, Dr. Joiner-Bey urges. He explains that "the cilia (tiny hairs along the surface of the airways) need to move fluid up and out of the lungs, and smoking suppresses that process."
Washing your hands frequently helps reduce your exposure to pneumonia bacteria or viruses, Dr. Stengler says. He also suggests getting plenty of fresh air, especially if you work in a well-insulated building.
Stress raises levels of cortisol, a hormone that suppresses immune function," he adds. To reduce stress, enjoy exercise, yoga, and listening to music.
Those who are sick require ample bed rest and fluids, which help you cough up phlegm so you can clear the infection out of the lungs.
Natural Pneumonia Fighters
Bromelain, a protein-digesting enzyme found in fresh pineapple, reduces the production of phlegm in the bronchial passages. Vitamin A fortifies the body's defenses against respiratory infection and helps shorten the recovery time. Zinc accelerates healing in children hospitalized for severe pneumonia.
Vitamin C has been linked to a reduced incidence of pneumonia. Vitamin E cut the risk of pneumonia in half among physically active individuals. Essential fatty acids helped reduce pneumonia risk in a study of more than 38,000 men.
Dr. Stengler also recommends N-acetylcysteine (NAC) to thin mucus and raise the levels of the antioxidant glutathione. Dr. Joiner-Bey emphasizes the importance of the carotenes and flavonoids to "promote the integrity of the mucus membranes.
Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra), an herbal expectorant, helps break up lung congestion. American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) and Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus) decrease inflammation and open up the bronchial airways.
Garlic (Allium sativum) has been found to exert antibacterial activity against pneumonia-causing bacteria. Baikal skullcap (Scutellaria baicalensis) works to combat the fungi that cause pneumonia, as well as influenza viruses.
Mullein (Verbascum thapsus), an herbal anti-inflammatory, offers antibacterial activity against pneumonia.
Echinacea (Echinacea, various species) helps the body defend itself from the bacteria, viruses, and fungi that can lead to pneumonia and other infections. Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis) contains hydrastine and berberine, two antimicrobial agents.
If you've already developed pneumonia, Dr. Joiner-Bey recommends elderberry (Sambucus nigra) for its antiviral activity. He cites herbal expectorants such as lobelia (Lobelia inflata) and horehound (Marrubium vulgare) to break up lung congestion. Dr. Stengler adds astragalus (Astragalus, various species) and licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra) for reducing cough.
Selected Sources "Biological Activity of Common Mullein, a Medicinal Plant" by A. U. Turker et al., J Ethnopharmacol, 10/02 "Explaining Trends in Hospitalizations for Pneumonia and Influenza in the Elderly" by Paul L. Hebert et al., Medical Care Research and Review, 2005 "Intake of Omega-6 and Omega-3 Fatty Acids and Fish and Risk of Community-Acquired Pneumonia in U.S. Men" by A. T. Merchant et al., Am J Clin Nutr, 9/05 "Investigation on the Antibacterial Properties of Garlic (Allium sativum) on Pneumonia Causing Bacteria" by D. Dikasso et al., Ethiop Med J, 7/02 Personal communication: Herb Joiner-Bey, ND, naturopath and author of Water and The Omega-3 Miracle; Mark Stengler, ND, author of The Natural Physician and Drink Your Greens, and editor of the Bottom Line: Natural Healing with Dr. Mark Stengler, 10/05 "Pneumonia," National Center for Health Statistics, CDC, http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/pneumonia.htm "Vitamin C Supplementation and Respiratory Infections: A Systematic Review" by H. Hemila, Mil Med, 11/04 "Zinc for Severe Pneumonia in Very Young Children: Double-blind, Placebo-controlled Trial" by W. A. Brooks et al., Lancet, 5/22/04
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