Whether you have been pounding the pavement with your runners, catching some waves at first light or simply enjoying the smell of freshly cut grass there’s nothing quite like sucking in a big deep breath of cold, crisp air on a sunny winter’s morning.
Feeling that cool fresh air race down into your lungs really lets you know you’re alive.
Despite the vital role our lungs play in keeping us alive, how often does anyone stop to think about how amazing the human respiratory system really is?
Did you know, the average adult will take somewhere between 12 and 18 breaths every minute? That amounts to roughly 22,000 breaths every day, allowing the lungs to soak up 13,000 litres of air.
These numbers can expand to 50 breaths per minute under peak exertion meaning the body will be taking in 14,400 litres of air every hour.
Most people can be excused for taking their healthy lungs for granted. It’s not as if you have to think about your breathing, it is just something that happens automatically while you go about your daily life.
But every time you fill your lungs with precious life-giving oxygen a whole series of sophisticated processes are taking place.
Imagine a free diver standing at the edge of a boat preparing to dive into the crystal clear tropical waters to explore the reef below.
The diver takes one final deep breath of perfectly clean air before diving head first into the sea.
The diver’s diaphragm contracts, causing the lungs to expand and up to 4.8 litres of air rushes in through the nose and mouth and down the trachea into the bronchi. From there the oxygen the diver needs to feed their muscles, organs and, most importantly, brain, while underwater continues through the bronchioles and finally enters the alveoli.
While sounding a lot like a delicious condiment the alveoli are actually small folded membranes at the end of the bronchioles that allow the air that you breathe to transfer into the blood that is pumping around your body. The average set of human lungs contains about 600 million alveoli and if the alveoli from just one lung were laid out in a single layer they would cover an area roughly the size of a tennis court.
All of this is happening inside the diver’s respiratory system without them ever being aware. Allowing them the time to admire and contemplate the wonders that lie on the ocean’s floor until they resurface and exhale the carbon dioxide waste from their body before repeating the whole process.
The other side of the coin
All this talk of smelling roses and tropical lagoons just makes you want to head outside and make the most of those amazing lungs in your chest but unfortunately, not everyone is able to utilise their lungs to the fullest.
There is a portion of the population that suffers from a lung condition known as Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD). This disease results in two fundamental processes that affect the bronchi and the alveoli walls; chronic bronchitis and emphysema.
Figures from the Australian Lung Foundation suggest that as many as 1 in 7 Australians suffer from COPD in varying severities.
Far removed from the healthy lungs that taste the rarefied air at the top of a mountain, sufferers of COPD have to contend with a myriad of debilitating symptoms that can really affect their quality of life. Typical symptoms include a chronic cough, excessive mucus production, wheezing and shortness of breath and an overall reduction of lung capacity.
People with COPD will find as their disease advances that more and more daily tasks will become increasingly difficult, leaving them puffing and panting as they try to suck enough oxygen into their damaged lungs. Eventually even menial tasks such as showering or getting dressed will leave the patient blowing harder than a marathon runner at the finish line.
The Australian Lung Foundation estimates that half of sufferers with at least a 50% reduction in lung capacity are not currently seeking treatment for COPD, instead confusing it with other lung conditions such as asthma which can have similar symptoms.
It is important for anyone that suspects any type of respiratory problem to seek professional medical advice as quickly as possible. As COPD progresses undetected, it leaves the patient more susceptible to colds and respiratory infections.
An ounce of prevention
While there is no specific cure for COPD there are a plenty of steps that can be taken to reduce the severity of the symptoms and the impact the disease has on lifestyle.
Right at the top of the list is quitting smoking. Smoking is known to be by far the leading factor in development of COPD.
It is said a pack-a-day smoker is 20 times more likely to die from COPD than non-smokers. Even if you have already developed COPD, quitting smoking will still help to reduce some of the severity of the symptoms. So, it is never too late to quit!
But it makes more sense to quit now before the disease starts to take hold, or better yet, don’t ever take up smoking.
Quitting smoking can be one of the hardest things for anyone to do but your doctor or medical professional has a wealth of information, advice and strategies to help you kick the habit once and for all.
Aside from giving up the smokes there are several other treatments that doctors can provide to try and alleviate symptoms and improve the quality of life.
Drug therapies such as steroids can be used as well as physiotherapy on the chest to help remove fluid from the airways. Making sure vaccinations against things such as influenza are up to date is important and maintaining a healthy weight through good diet and exercise is vital in keeping the human body fit and strong and capable of fending off any disease.
Whether you want to compete in a triathlon or simply stroll through the bush listening to the birds and smelling the wild flowers, you’re going to need a healthy set of lungs and the best way to achieve that is by not smoking. Travel the world, experience new things and never forget the vital contribution made by your lungs in the quest for a content and fulfilling life.