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At the time of this writing, more than two million people worldwide have lost their lives to COVID-19. The number is staggering. Now consider this: It is estimated that globally, at least seven million deaths are attributed to air pollution every year.1,2 Seven million deaths. Every year. That number is unthinkable. Even with laws in place to protect our “clean air,” our modern world exposes us all to some level of outdoor (ambient) and indoor air pollution.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), pollution levels in many areas of the United States exceed national air quality standards for at least one of several common pollutants, including fine particulate matter, ground-level ozone, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, and lead.3 The American Lung Association’s 2018 “State of the Air” report found that nearly 150 million Americans live in counties with unhealthy levels of air pollution,4 with African Americans and Latinos bearing the brunt.5
These pollutants carry with them a number of health risks beyond lung disease. Some of the health issues associated with exposure to air pollution, especially long term, include stroke, high blood pressure, and heart disease; dementia, Alzheimer’s, depression, impaired cognition, and mental health issues in children; increased risk of miscarriage and premature birth; reduction in bone mineral density; kidney disease; and a reduction in life expectancy.6, 7
Fine particulate matter, commonly found in smoke (think wildfires) and emissions from power plants and vehicles, is of particular concern for health because it can penetrate body tissues and organs, “posing an even greater risk of systemic health impacts.”8 This fine particulate matter has been implicated in cardiovascular disease, lung disease, and neurodegeneration and dementia.9, 10, 11, 12, 13 Avoiding exposure to air pollution—especially ambient pollution—may feel out of our control, but we can control how well-equipped our bodies are to handle the inevitable exposure. Here’s how to protect yourself.
Much of the damage wrought by air pollution is through its ability to increase oxidative damage and inflammation in our bodies. The omega-3 fats EPA and DHA are well known to have anti-inflammatory effects and new research is showing that they have the potential to mitigate the harmful effects of air pollution, including fi ne particulate matter. A 2020 study published in the journal Neurology examined the effects of omega-3 fat consumption on brain size in 1,315 dementia-free women between the ages of 65 and 80. Researchers found that exposure to particulate matter from air pollution reduced brain size, but these effects were mitigated in the women who had higher blood levels and dietary intakes of EPA and DHA. The women with higher blood levels and dietary intakes of the omega-3s had “significantly greater volumes of white matter and hippocampus.”14 The hippocampus is the part of the brain involved in the formation of memories, learning, and emotions.
Another recent study compared the effects of dietary omega-3 and omega-6 fat intake on asthma severity in 135 asthmatic children exposed to indoor air pollution in Baltimore City; the majority of the subjects were African Americans between the ages of five and 12. The researchers analyzed the amount of omega-3 and omega-6 fats the children obtained from their diets and then measured the amount of air pollution and particulate matter each child was exposed to in their homes. The researchers found that high omega-6 intake (commonly found in soy, corn, and cottonseed oils and prevalent in fast food and other highly processed foods) amplified the effects of indoor particulate matter, particularly systemic inflammation, and was associated with increased asthma severity and reduced lung function. However, in the children with higher omega-3 fat intakes, the negative effects of particulate matter exposure were diminished and asthma symptoms were reduced.15
Fine particulate matter, commonly found in smoke (think wildfires) and emissions from power plants and vehicles, is of particular concern for health because it can penetrate body tissues and organs.
Previous research has also found that the omega-3s reduce oxidative damage caused by fi ne particulate matter in part by significantly increasing the activity of the body’s internal antioxidant system.16 B Vitamins. The B vitamins folate, B6, and B12 have been shown to reduce the effects of fine particulate matter on the cardiovascular system, particularly in those with an “MTHFR” gene variation, who are also at a higher risk of developing cardiovascular disease. Research has found that a higher intake of these B vitamins prevents the negative effect exposure to fi ne particulate matter has on heart rate variability (HRV); exposure to fi ne particulate matter decreases HRV, which is associated with increased cardiovascular disease and death.17
Additionally, a 2017 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reported that folic acid, B6, and B12 could prevent the negative effects fine particulate matter has on DNA, mitochondrial energy metabolism, and methylation. In simple terms, methylation is a biochemical process in which “methyl groups” are added to DNA or proteins to help them function correctly. Healthy methylation is essential to overall health, and these B vitamins are critical to that process. In this study, researchers found that exposure to fi ne particulate matter induced negative methylation changes in genes involved in mitochondrial energy production. Supplementation with the B vitamins prevented these changes and also protected mitochondrial DNA.18
Because air pollution increases oxidative damage in our bodies, it is of utmost importance to arm your body with plenty of antioxidant nutrients. Vitamins C and E are two of the best, and are especially important when it comes to protecting the lungs. Both of these antioxidants are found in the lungs and have long been studied for their protective e ects against air pollution. When exposed to different types of air pollution including ozone, fi ne particulate matter, and nitrogen dioxide, the lung’s natural antioxidant defenses are depleted, making it critical to replenish them. Vitamins C and E enhance the activity of the lungs’ internal antioxidant defenses, restoring antioxidant levels back to normal and effectively decreasing oxidative damage. Further, a number of studies show that supplementation with C and E protects normal lung function in children and adults, with and without asthma, when exposed to both acute and long-term air pollution.19, 20, 21, 22
EPA and DHA, the B vitamins, and the antioxidant vitamins C and E are wonderful foundational nutrients that support whole body health in addition to protecting your body from air pollution. There are also some botanical nutrients that are proving to have a powerful protective effect. Broccoli sprouts are a concentrated source of sulforaphane, a potent inducer of the body’s detoxification enzymes. Research has found that regular consumption helps the body detoxify airborne pollutants.23 While broccoli sprouts are one of the most concentrated sources of this compound, other cruciferous veggies like broccoli, Brussels sprouts, kale, and cabbage also contain sulforaphane. Aim to eat at least two cups daily. Curcumin, a phytonutrient found in the spice turmeric, is a well-known anti-inflammatory and also protects against oxidative damage, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that this plant compound can also exert a protective effect against air pollution. Research published in 2019 found that curcumin significantly upregulated the expression of an important enzyme in the lungs of mice that were exposed to fi ne particulate matter. The enzyme—heme oxygenase 1 (HO-1)—functions as an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory in mammals and confers protection to the lungs in response to toxic stimuli such as air pollution.24 Another recent study found that curcumin exerted a neuroprotective effect in rats exposed short-term and long-term to ozone, reducing inflammation and oxidative damage caused by ozone in the hippocampus.25 And finally, an in vitro study published in 2017 found that curcumin inhibited fi ne particulate matter-induced vascular inflammation and reversed pro-oxidant activity in human endothelial cells.26
Exposure to air pollution—particularly to fi ne particulate matter—is the biggest environmental health risk in the U.S. Exposure, especially long term, can lead to a myriad of health problems by increasing inflammation and oxidative damage throughout our bodies. The best way we can protect ourselves is to arm our bodies with plenty of antioxidant and antiinflammatory support. A nutrient dense diet full of antioxidant-rich vegetables and anti-inflammatory fats goes a long way in supporting general health, including protecting against environmental insults like air pollution. Amp up the protection with supplements that have a proven track record and you’ll be able to confidently breathe in the air, polluted or not.