Every Breath I Take…

It was inevitable. I knew, and I am sure the authorities were hoping, that once the Chinese New Year break rolled around the hazy skies would clear and the hazardous PM2.5 scores would roll back to breathable levels. And it did, thankfully.

Even this week with the return to work the air is staying pretty clear, so why write a blog about diet and air pollution? Well I am pretty sure , unfortunately, that the smog will return to our “fair” city. In the two weeks prior to the break I received dire warnings from the US government about the terrible consequences of high PM2.5 levels and was advised that unless I wanted to jog with a respirator, I should pretty much stay inside and watch TV.

Since I don’t really watch TV, I gave a thought to what I could do diet –wise to deal with the stress of dirty air. There isn’t any one specific dietary response to air pollution, like sucking on lemons while you walk down Hong Qiao Lu, that will make an immediate difference, but there are foods and supplements that you can include in your diet that will strengthen your lungs, your immune system and reduce the inflammation that results from stress on the body.

Dietitians have long recommended vitamin C supplementation to smokers as smoking lowers the total amount of vitamin C absorbed as well as increasing the body’s requirements over non-smokers. So is it a stretch to make the assumption that extra vitamin C might help people on smoggy days? Recent research out of London (Shanghai isn’t the only city with air quality issues) discovered that people (admittedly already with lung ailments) with low vitamin C levels were 1.2 times more likely to end up in the hospital on high pollution days. It is not yet known if the same is true for healthy individuals.

Another study(1), perhaps more relevant to those of you with children in Shanghai who suffer from asthma, concluded that asthmatic children in smoggy Mexico City  who were treated with a combination supplement of vitamin C and E  ” did not suffer from increased symptoms on high ozone days” . While the control group, no supplementation, reported a dramatic increase in symptoms on these same days. Again these are children with known lung problems, not healthy individuals.

However, look at it this way, vitamins C and E are strong antioxidants.  Those great substances that help the body fight cellular damage caused by free radicals. Free radicals can form when you breath in polluted air, stressing the lungs. We do know that if you have enough antioxidants guarding the door, they will bind with the free radicals keeping them from doing much damage.

So popping a vitamin C and E tab and packing  a few more nuts and seeds in your lunch with  a sweet orange or tomato when the PM2.5  goes above 50 just might give you that added bit of protection you have been looking for and despite what I said earlier, it just might help to suck on a lemon while walking around town too.

Besides vitamins C  and E, green tea and red wine are two drinks chock full of antioxidants, that can help your body reduce the oxidative stress that comes with living in a “high pollution environment”, ie. Shanghai and Beijing.

It is also not a stretch to say that a diet full of colorful fruits and vegetables, rich in antioxidants can only help you in your fight with Shanghai’s air pollution.

1.American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine (2002;166:703–9).

Eat Well, Live Well, Have Fun!