Pneumonia is an infection of the lungs that can cause cough, trouble breathing, and fever, with possible severe complications such as respiratory failure. In the United States, pneumonia is the sixth leading cause of death in people 65 and older, and causes about one million hospitalizations each year.
Fortunately, several integrative interventions such as pu-erh tea, cistanche, zinc, vitamin D, and probiotic supplements may help fortify the body’s defenses against infections like pneumonia.
- Pneumonia is caused primarily by infectious organisms.
- If immune defenses are impaired (as occurs with age-related immune senescence), then pathogens are more likely to establish an infection.
- Age and a weakened immune response
- Infections such as colds or the flu
- Chronic bronchitis and emphysema, asthma
Note: Proton-pump inhibitors are normally used to suppress stomach acidity for relief of gastroesophageal reflux. They may be a particularly problematic risk factor for pneumonia because their use is widespread and those taking them may be unaware that they are associated with significantly increased pneumonia risk.
Signs and Symptoms
- Fever and chills
- Chest or abdominal pain
- Pain with breathing, shortness of breath
- Cough, dry or with phlegm; cough producing green or yellow sputum
- Night sweats
- Rapid heart and breathing rate
Diagnosis is typically based on medical history, physical exam, chest X-ray, and a complete blood count.
- Antibiotics are the mainstay of bacterial pneumonia treatment.
- Adjunctive corticosteroids may improve outcomes and reduce complication risk
- Vaccines targeting pneumococcal and influenza infections are the cornerstone of prevention.
Novel and Emerging Strategies
- Using antibiotics for a short amount of time and not using them for viral infections may reduce the risk of inducing resistance.
- A study on pneumonia patients admitted to a hospital showed that those who were chronic aspirin users were about half as likely to die within 30 days of hospital admission as those not taking aspirin.
- The use of statins has been associated with decreased risk of pneumonia and pneumonia-related death, as well as reduced rates of acute bacterial infections.
Diet and Lifestyle Considerations
One of the most important ways to avoid pneumonia is to keep the immune system functioning normally.
- Avoid smoking and excessive alcohol consumption.
- Eat a nutrient-dense diet rich in unprocessed whole plant-based foods.
- Exercise is thought to activate immune cells, help expel bacteria from the airways, and reduce stress.
- Regular hand washing is recommended as a strategy for avoiding respiratory infections.
- Maintain good oral health, because harmful bacteria in the mouth can be drawn into the lungs and cause infection.
- Probiotics: Probiotics may prevent hospital-acquired pneumonia in critically ill patients and lessen the incidence and duration of upper respiratory tract infections in healthy adults and children.
- Vitamin D: People with the lowest vitamin D levels were 2.6 times more likely to develop pneumonia compared with those with the highest vitamin D levels in a study that followed older people for nearly 10 years.
- Zinc: In a one-year study, nursing home residents with lower zinc status had almost twice the risk of pneumonia as those with normal zinc status.
- Cistanche: Cistanche deserticola has been used historically in traditional Chinese medicine to stimulate immunity in the elderly.
- Pu-erh tea: Pu-erh tea was found to enhance immune cell number while decreasing the inflammatory cytokine interleukin-6 in mice with immune senescence.