Supplements and Herbal Medicine for COPD
People with COPD may not have enough vitamin D. That could happen for several reasons:
- Not enough time outside. (Sunshine helps the body make vitamin D.)
- Because of their age. "Most COPD patients are older," Hatipoglu says, and with age, it's harder for the body to make vitamin D.
- Not enough vitamin D in their diet. Vitamin D is added to milk and some other fortified foods. It's also available in supplements.
Higher levels of vitamin D have been linked to better lung function test results, Mikolai points out. But does that mean that supplements will help treat COPD? We don't know yet, Hatipoglu says.
In a 2012 study, high doses of vitamin D did not reduce the number of flare-ups for most COPD patients. The only people who benefited were those who had extremely low levels of vitamin D. The study was small, though, so it's not the final word.
Hatipoglu checks his patients' levels every one to three months and recommends supplements if their vitamin D levels are lower than normal.
An herb with a long history of use in Chinese medicine, ginseng has shown some promise in treating COPD symptoms. However, studies touting its benefits have been questionable, Hatipoglu says.
"There have been ten or twelve such studies, the quality of which are very poor," he says. "It may have a use, but I don't use it for my patients. It really requires good quality ... studies, but I remain curious about it."
Mikolai says ginseng may improve lung function. But, he stresses, it should only be taken after consulting with a doctor or other health professional, because it interferes with several types of medications, including blood thinners, stimulants, diuretics, some antidepressants, and drugs that suppress the immune system.
"You and your doctor have to decide if the benefits outweigh the risks," Mikolai says. He also points out that most ginseng studies lasted no longer than three months.
"We don't know about its long-term safety," he says.
Be sure you discuss any supplements you take with your doctor or other health care professional, so they can watch for any side effects or interactions with your medications.
"Many people have the misconception that natural medicine is harmless," Mikolai says, "but if it has the power to help, it also has the power to harm."
It's also crucial to work with someone who is knowledgeable about complementary and alternative treatments, MacKay says.
"The variable is working with a qualified person rather than simply rolling into a health food store," he says. "The type of clinician who has the right kind of knowledge can have an immense impact."
His advice is to find a doctor who is a "holistic thinker" who will add lifestyle changes, nutrition, and other appropriate interventions into your treatment plan.
"Not letting the disease progress -- that's the name of the game," MacKay says.