Where there’s fire, there’s smoke. Where there is a big fire, there is smoke for a long time. As I type this, the Eagle Creek Fire in the Columbia River Gorge, now 35,588 acres in size and 11% contained, is still raging. Every day the wind shifts and changes the air quality in Portland and the surrounding area. We are still over two weeks out from 100% containment, and everyone’s asking, “Is it safe to run yet?”
Wildfires produce particle pollution, which, when present in high enough concentration, will cause respiratory symptoms in most people.
There are two pathways of injury that occur when smoke particles come in contact with our respiratory system. Initially, the particles cause inflammation at the site, and subsequently those cells sustain oxidative damage (cell death and/or mutation). Inflammation of the lungs is what causes asthmatic-type symptoms: wheezing, constriction, and coughing. Oxidative stress, when repeated, leads to lasting tissue damage and eventually lung disease.
Unfortunately, certain areas like Northern California, Western Oregon and the Great Plains are predicted to have ongoing issues with wildfires for the foreseeable future. We run in the forests, and those forests are going to be predictably on fire each year. A one-time exposure to polluted air may have you coughing for a few days, but accumulated exposure over time is a different beast altogether.
So what’s a trail runner to do with that information? Lungs that function well are pretty helpful for trail running. The first thing is to assess your relative risk. Have you ever had asthma? Do you feel especially sensitive to environmental changes and air quality? If so, you’ll want to bookmark your local air quality monitoring station to stay updated.
High-risk groups include (from airnow.gov) :
- People with cardiovascular disease
- People with lung disease, such as asthma and COPD
- Children and teenagers
- Older adults
- Research indicates that Diabetes and Obesity may increase risk
- New or expectant moms that want to take extra measures to protect their babies.
If you find that you’re in a high-risk category AND the air quality is rated as anything beyond “GOOD”, these are the lung-friendly choices to make:
- Choose a less-strenuous activity
- Shorten your outdoor activities or exercise indoors
- Reschedule activities
- Spend less time near busy roads
They say an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. That’s a true story. In the case of wildfire smoke exposure, the window of prevention is small, but completely worth taking advantage of. When we think again of the two pathways of injury, inflammation and oxidative damage, we can start to understand which preventive measures we can take. My favorite way to combat inflammation is through diet:
INCLUDE plenty of these anti-inflammatory foods in your diet:
- Olive oil
- Green leafy vegetables like spinach, chard, kale
- Nuts and seeds
- Fruits such as strawberries, blueberries, cherries and oranges
- Fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, tuna and sardines
EXCLUDE the following, as they are the MOST inflammatory:
- refined carbohydrates, such as white bread, pasta, pastries
- French fries and other fried foods
- soda and other sugar-sweetened beverages
- red meat (burgers, steaks) and processed meat (hot dogs, sausage)
- margarine, shortening, and lard
The lungs love sulphur-containing foods and supplements to maintain a healthy lining and to make glutathione and taurine. Glutathione is necessary for our liver detoxification pathways to function properly, another component of post-exposure care. Go liver! Go lungs!
INCLUDE sulphur-containing foods to lower oxidative stress:
- Coconut milk, juice, oil
- Cruciferous veggies, including: bok choy, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, horseradish, kale, kohlrabi, mustard leaves, radish, turnips, watercress
- Dairy (except butter)
- Garlic, chives
- Legumes and dried beans
- Meat and fish
- Onions, leeks, shallots
If you make the decision to run outside before the air quality in your area has been designated as “GOOD” again, invest in proper particle-filtration masks. A buff or bandana might relieve some dryness, but will not filter out small particles. Preventively choose an N95 or N100 mask (the kind used in construction) that has two straps that go around your head and fits well. These are available at home improvement stores and pharmacies. You may even consider throwing one in your hydration pack in the unlikely event that you get caught in an area with smoke.
If you have known smoke exposure, and are experiencing increased respiratory symptoms either with or without running, it’s important to talk to your doctor about your treatment options.
Medical Disclaimer. The information on this site is not intended or implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. All content, including text, graphics, images and information, contained on or available through this web site is for general information purposes only.
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