Complementary and Alternative Therapies for COPD

Medically Reviewed by Zilpah Sheikh, MD on November 22, 2023
4 min read

If you have COPD, you probably turn to medicine, lung therapies, and maybe surgery to manage your illness. COPD is short for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, a condition caused by damage to the lungs that blocks airflow, making it hard for you to breathe. It's most often caused by cigarette smoking.

It’s important to follow your doctor’s recommendations for treatment. But you might also wonder if mind-body therapies or supplements could help.

These methods cannot cure COPD, but studies show some may offer relief. Always check with your doctor before you take any of these, so you know what’s safe for you to try. Also, avoid anything that promises a cure, calls itself a “secret” treatment, or goes against your doctor’s advice.

Acupuncture involves using very fine needles to stimulate certain points in the body. It’s part of traditional Chinese medicine and is widely available in the U.S. It’s been studied for many conditions, but there hasn’t been much research on its use for COPD.

It could help with quality of life when given in addition to standard COPD treatments, according to a Chinese study. The study included 65 people with COPD, who were given acupuncture or a sham treatment using needles for 8 weeks, along with their regular COPD treatments. Those who got the real acupuncture treatments had less shortness of breath after walking for 6 minutes. They also reported better quality of life than those who got the sham needle treatments.

If you decide to try it, ask the practitioner about their credentials and experience. Also, plan on having several sessions.

Massage may help relax tight chest muscles. But there's not enough research to know if massage directly helps with COPD. There haven’t been enough studies on the topic.

However, massage can help with stress and relaxation in general. If that’s true for you, it may be something to consider as part of your self-care.

Yoga, both a form of exercise and meditation, benefits people with COPD in several ways. As a form of exercise, it can help with lung function and shortness of breath. It can lower stress and help with anxiety and depression, too.

Some studies have shown that yoga breathing exercises improve lung function in people with mild to moderate COPD but should be paired with conventional medical treatment. However, further research is needed.

NAC is a supplement that comes from the amino acid L-cysteine. Amino acids are molecules used to build proteins. NAC is also an antioxidant.

Having a constant cough that usually makes mucus is a common symptom of COPD. People with COPD often look for ways to ease that.

NAC is said to help your lungs work better. It might:

  • Thin mucus
  • Give you less phlegm
  • Ease your cough

However, the evidence to support that claim is weak, according to a research review done in 2006 on how NAC affects COPD. That review said the design of the study in question did not allow for “firm conclusions.”

More recently, an analysis published in 2023 looked at nine different trials involving over 2,000 patients to see if NAC helped people with COPD. The analysis showed that NAC didn't significantly reduce the risk of symptom flare-ups or slow down the decline in lung function in COPD patients. The outcomes were similar in both groups—those who received NAC and those who didn't.

This herb has been used for thousands of years for various medicinal reasons. Some early, small studies found that ginseng might have promise in treating COPD symptoms.

However, a more recent, larger study showed that ginseng was no better than a placebo for people with moderate to severe COPD. So, it’s not likely to be helpful if you have COPD.

Many people with COPD have low levels of vitamin D. That’s linked to a higher risk of getting upper respiratory infections, which can make COPD symptoms worse. Colds can trigger COPD flare-ups.

Doctors aren't sure if raising low levels of vitamin D to normal causes fewer flare-ups and helps your lungs work better. In some studies it does. In others, it doesn't.

One 2019 analysis of several studies on this subject found that increasing the level of vitamin D to normal did reduce the rate of COPD flare-ups in people with low levels of vitamin D. But for people whose levels were already at normal or above, adding more vitamin D didn't have any effect.

Your doctor may want to check your vitamin D levels and suggest supplements if required.

Also called red sage, Salvia miltiorrhiza is an herb long used in Chinese medicine. Some research says salvia may help protect your lungs during flare-ups. But there haven't been enough studies to be sure.

Some people take this as a supplement to help ward off or ease cold symptoms. Research shows that taking it after you have a cold won’t do much to shorten it. But taking echinacea while you’re well may help keep you from getting sick.

Some research shows that taking echinacea along with other supplements, such as zinc, selenium, and vitamin C, may ease cold symptoms. That, in turn, may help with flare-ups. But echinacea hasn’t been specifically studied for COPD.

Your body makes melatonin naturally, which helps promote sleep. Some people take melatonin supplements when they have trouble sleeping, hoping that it’ll help them rest better.

If you have COPD, you may have trouble sleeping. There's mixed research on whether melatonin can help. Some studies say melatonin makes it easier for people to breathe, along with helping them to sleep.