California’s wildfires. They’re big. They’re scary! Yet they are also necessary. Did you know that forest fires replenish the soil with nutrients from charred vegetation, allowing for restoration? And that the water that vegetation can no longer use fills streams for animals to drink? Within proper parameters, wildfires are necessary and beneficial to our ecosystem. As our climate warms, and wildfires become more common, we must adapt develop strategies to dampen their more detrimental effects.
When fires encroach upon our communities, destroying homes and buildings, and inhibiting our ability to enjoy the wonderful, therapeutic benefits of being outdoors, it’s particularly difficult and potentially harmful to us humans. In particular, the burning of homes and buildings can release toxic chemicals such as asbestos, dioxins, carbon monoxide, metals, plastics, herbicides, pesticides and particulate matter, which travel through the air for hundreds of miles. Horrible, right? Well, did you also know that our bodies are impressively equipped with mechanisms to protect us from air pollution?
The first line of defense against chemicals and particulates are the fluids that cover your lung lining and respiratory tract. They create a physical barrier, preventing tiny, toxic chemicals from entering into the body! These fluids are high in antioxidants, proving an initial neutralizing defense against these toxins. Some of the antioxidants found in respiratory tract fluid include glutathione, vitamin E, and vitamin C.
Another defense comes from our liver, which helps our body eliminate thousands of toxins every day. In fact, the more often our liver is exposed to certain chemicals, the more efficient it becomes at eliminating them. However, if our body gets overwhelmed by a toxic load that exceeds our physical capacity, our body’s natural defenses will be unable to keep up and this leads to symptoms. In the case of smoke and particulates, we can have burning eyes and trouble breathing, or even more serious cardiovascular symptoms if over prolonged periods.
Here are some things you can do to help optimize your body’s defense systems and improve your home air quality:
- Supplementation! There are a number of nutrients which have been found to support detoxification of airborne pollutants and decrease associated health risks. Check in with your provider if you’d like to know more – always remember that nutrients and supplements in therapeutic doses should be prescribed and taken with supervision from a license care provider.
- Keep doors and windows closed as much as possible.
- Use a high quality air purifier indoors, especially in your sleeping area. The air purifiers we recommend are made by Blue Air: www.blueair.com and IQ Air: www.iqair.com. If you don’t have an air purifier available, an acceptable hack is to tape a MERV13 filter to a box fan.
- Try to use air conditioning instead of opening windows during warmer weather, if power use recommendations for your area permit.
- Consider relocating temporarily if you have significant risk of illness with exposure to smoke.
- Hydrate well, consider adding electrolytes to your water or drinking coconut water. Generally adults should drink 1/2 of their body weight in ounces.
- Limit physical exertion, including reducing the intensity of your work-out if outdoors.
- If you must be outside, use a particulate respirator. This will have either “N95” or “P100” printed on it and have two straps for a secure seal around your face.
- Emotional support: If you or your loved ones have been significantly impacted, please give special attention to your emotional health. The National Center for PTSD has tips for coping with emotional trauma after a wildfire.
Additionally, a number of nutrients have been found to support detoxification of airborne pollutants, attenuating associated health risks. A few of these include:
B vitamins (B6, B12, methylfolate)
Reduce the risk of the effect of fine particles on DNA methylation and improve markers of cardiovascular health (heart rate, heart rate variability (HRV), white blood cell count) (7, 8)
Vitamins B6 and B12 are found in fish, meat and poultry
Methylfolate (Vitamin B9) is found in dark green vegetables, and fermented food like kombucha and the Indian idli
Reduces airway irritation, improves airflow (9)
Amla, Kiwis, Guava, Papaya, Strawberries, Mango
Reduces oxidative stress (10, 11, 12, 13)
Omega 3 (EPA/DHA)
Anti-inflammatory, Protection from reduction in HRV with exposure to ultra-fine particles (14, 15)
Algae, anchovies, salmon, sardines and mackerel
Antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, increases glutathione levels, mucolytic (17)
Sulphur-containing foods such as garlic and brassica family (e.g., broccoli) may support N-acetylcysteine and glutathione production (18)
Increase antioxidant enzymes, increase in enzymes involved in mitigating damage from air pollution (19, 20)
Broccoli sprouts, broccoli, cauliflower, kale, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, cabbage, bok choy and watercress
Supports the liver in eliminating toxins. Helps regulate bowel movements. Having daily bowel movements is key to clearing pollutants, especially heavy metals (21, 22)
Insoluble fiber isn’t broken down by the gut and absorbed into the bloodstream. Sources of insoluble fiber include: the stalks, skins, and seeds of nuts, seeds and vegetables
This article is not intended to provide medical advice. Nutrients and supplements should be prescribed and taken with supervision from a licensed medical care provider.
The problem of air pollution and its effects on humans is truly of global concern, affecting urban areas around the world. Let us all do our part to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, promote good forestry practices, and reduce our own footprint.
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Patrick, L., & Crinnion, W. (Directors). (2019, January 3). Wildfire Smoke Challenges and Solutions for Human Exposure [Video file]. Retrieved August 22, 2020, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9dz5lnY-aS4 Environmental Health Symposium