Are you feeling frustrated about not feeling great, just “off” – low energy, headaches, runny or bloody nose, cough, sore throat or other symptoms? Yet, not really knowing why or what’s going on? Feeling like the oxygen isn’t actually getting to your working muscles? Feeling like you can’t lead the normal, active lifestyle you’re used to? You may be suffering the effects of smoky, polluted air.
Wildfires are a fact of life, but they seem to be getting more frequent, burn longer, more destructive and more common, especially the really big ones. (Currently, 5 of the 10 largest wildfires in California history are burning now – September 2020.) Wildfire smoke has been detected as far away as Europe. Some people are more sensitive to the smoky air than others. This blog is for otherwise healthy individuals looking for some ways to stay healthy when the air is unhealthy.
How do you know if the air is bad? Assess your own level of sensitivity
Many people don’t even notice that the air is bad, but wonder why they feel bad. Here’s a great resource to track the air quality in your area. It’s called the Air Quality Index. (There’s also an app for your mobile device.) The scale puts a numeric value on the current air quality: good, moderate, unhealthy for sensitive groups, unhealthy, very unhealthy and hazardous. As a sensitive individual myself, I start noticing symptoms when it’s in the moderate category. Check this website frequently and see how the levels match up with your symptoms. You don’t have to have a major, diagnosed breathing or cardiovascular disease to be negatively impacted by smoky air.
Visibility is also a great way to check the air quality. Can you normally see several miles, but now can’t see down the block? For example, we can normally see the Denver foothills and mountains from our house, but not when the air is filled with smoke. Also, is the sunrise or sunset bright red? Sometimes you see it, smell it and even see ash falling.
What happens to your body when you’re exposed to smoke or other air pollutants?
Wildfire smoke is mostly made up of wood and vegetation and is similar to cigarette smoke without the nicotine. Depending on the levels of smoke – and the level of particulate matter (PM) – it’s about the same as inhaling from the end of a cigarette. PM is the measure of extremely small particles of pollution. When buildings and other structures burn, the pollution is much worse. Then the air is similar to emissions from cars, trucks, power plants and factories.
These tiny particles irritate the lungs, sinuses, all breathing passages and alveolar sacs. They can lodge in the lungs or slip into the bloodstream effecting the liver and lymphatic system, i.e. your entire body. Many of us will feel some level of symptoms when breathing smoky air. There is emerging research that shows chronic exposure to high levels of PM can impair the immune system.
The good news is that most symptoms are short lived and resolve as soon as the smoke dissipates. But, what if the smoke is lingering for weeks and months at a time?
How to remove pollutants from your body naturally
There are many great supplements and herbs that help protect your lungs and keep the PM moving out of your system.
Herbs: Peppermint, turmeric, ginger. Any of these can be used in a tea to help the bronchial tubes stay open and reduce inflammation.
Ginger water or tea are especially hydrating and supportive to your body.
Spices: garlic, rosemary, sage and thyme. All can be used in foods, made into teas or inhaled with steam.
Hydration is critical
Staying well hydrated keeps the toxins flushing out of your body. Yes, our bodies have the natural ability to flush toxins quite effectively. But, sometimes our systems get overwhelmed and this is when we need to send in more support.
The best hydrating fluids are: water with added lemon or lime, cucumber juice, coconut water, and any and all fresh fruit and vegetable juices.
Nasal rinses help to clean out your sinuses and reduce inflammation and irritation. Keeping your nasal passages moistened helps them stay healthy. Here’s a simple product that is easy to use and keep clean: NeilMed
A good air filtration device cleans the indoor air, lowering the toxicity levels significantly. Here’s a great air filter that cleans 99.5% of particles. It’s the best air purifier available. IQAir with HyperHEPA filtration technology. Another option is the Pure Zone Air Filter – a good one at a lower price. MERV13 filters can be added to central ventilation systems to help filter bad air out of the whole house.
How and when to exercise – indoors vs outdoors
First, check the AQI website for current air quality and assess whether to exercise inside or outside. General guidelines for outdoor exercise are to stay inside if the AQI is above 150. But, lower levels may impact your individual situation. For me, even at the moderate level between 50 and 100, I’m choosing indoor workouts.
One of the unintended upsides of COVID-19 is that we’re wearing them and they’re more available than ever before. N95 masks – hard to come by these days – will filter out 95% of PM. If the air is so bad that you need an N95 to workout outside, it might be best to stay indoors.
Any mask will provide some protection, but you’re still breathing in smoky air, just not as much. One thing to try is a mask frame under your mask. This makes wearing the mask and breathing during a workout much easier. Click here for more information.
As much as you may not want to inhale smoky air, we do need to breathe. Keeping your breathing as efficient as possible will support your body’s ability to fight off the pollutants. Focus on nasal breathing to filter and moisten the air going into your lungs. Try Pranayama alternate nasal breathing to keep both nasal passages clear and balanced.
Check your mindset
Ultimately, we have very little control over the air we breathe. Accept and be at peace with the way things are right now. And, understand that many factors that are affecting you are out of your control. But, you always have some power and influence on how your body rebounds out of chronic exposure to smoky air.
Anytime you can work to calm your body through breathing, meditation, yoga, etc., you support your body’s ability to detoxify and stay clear. In fact, you can come out of this exposure healthier than you went into it.
References & Resources
Air quality index (AQI). Air Now website. https://www.airnow.gov/