Insufficient levels of oxygen can be a concern for many reasons including unhealthy lifestyle habits, birth defects, bodily injuries, or as the result of numerous illnesses and debilitating conditions. One of these conditions is called Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome – ARDS. The lungs and respiratory system are critical parts of our amazing bodies, and without these organs life itself would be impossible. Not only do they supply the air we need to survive, but they also provide oxygen throughout the body that is necessary for life and creates an aerobic (literally “with oxygen”) atmosphere in all of our organs. This oxygenation is absolutely vital for maintaining health and preventing illness, as most forms of disease cannot exist in the presence of oxygen, but thrive when the body is in an anaerobic (“without oxygen”) state.
While ARDS may be the result of chronic illness or long term unhealthy choices in our lives, its effects can, and usually do, come on suddenly and may quickly cause serious respiratory consequences. This is why the term “acute” is included in the title of the illness, which can be misleading because ARDS is often the result of much more chronic circumstances and conditions affecting our overall wellness.
How Does Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome – ARDS Damage Our Respiratory System?
A healthy, efficiently operating set of lungs is designed to introduce and replenish oxygen to the blood in the body’s circulatory system so that this oxygen-rich blood can then be distributed throughout the body. This process is meant to occur at a point where the smallest blood vessels of the lungs (the bronchiole) meet the minute air sacs in the lungs (the alveoli). If all is working properly, there are membranes in place that will allow oxygen to pass through into the blood and at the same time will keep blood from entering the lungs via the alveoli. When ARDS has damaged the body, these membranes become faulty due to the pressure of blood that builds up in the alveoli, and the system breaks down causing severe respiratory distress. This in turn damages the entire body by depriving it of enough life-giving oxygen.
Acute respiratory distress syndrome – ARDS demands immediate attention, especially since it often hits people who are already critically ill or injured. It can often be reversed, although it takes time for ARDS victims to return to full lung function and complete respiratory health. In about 25-40% of cases, acute respiratory distress syndrome is fatal because the body cannot survive such an acute blow to the respiratory system – particularly if other unhealthy conditions are present as well.
What Are The Symptoms of Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome – ARDS?
Severe shortness of breath is the most common indicator that one may have developed ARDS. This typically occurs within hours or days of the onset of ARDS, and should be watched out for in chronically ill people – especially if there are pre-existing respiratory issues — and trauma or injury victims. Besides sudden shortness of breath, other signs of ARDS may include:
- Rapid, shallow breathing
- Extreme fatigue
- Mental confusion
- Hypotension (low blood pressure)
- Fever (in a minority of cases)
Sudden breathing difficulty is always an urgent situation whether it is caused by ARDS, heart disease, or for any other reason, and it requires immediate intervention. Because of the nature of ARDS, it often afflicts people who are already hospitalized with chronic illness or sudden trauma. It is important to observe our loved ones in such situations for any signs of ARDS so that it can be promptly dealt with. Unfortunately, our health care system being what it is, sometimes these things can be missed by those entrusted with our care. It is sad but true that a hospital can sometimes be a place of increased risk rather than one of healing and restoration.
What Causes Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome – ARDS?
The most common cause of ARDS is a traumatic injury or illness that damages the sensitive membranes in the lungs that are responsible for oxygen exchange with the blood. While it is hard to predict and prevent accidental injuries that can trigger ARDS, there are many ways one can reduce risk for illnesses linked to ARDS, as we will discuss later.
Inflammation to the respiratory membranes is the major culprit in ARDS. Numerous conditions may cause such destructive inflammation. Some of these include:
- Trauma to the body, especially in the head or chest area
- Heart failure or other coronary disease that produces fluid in the lungs
- Systemic (body wide) infections, especially in the blood (sepsis)
- Pneumonia (bacterial or viral)
- Accidentally inhaling smoke or chemicals such as chlorine or ammonia
- Inhalation of vomit
- Near drowning (inhalation of water or other liquids)
- Toxic reactions to certain drugs. These can include illegal drugs like heroin or medications such as cancer treatment drugs (another danger of chemotherapy)
- Broken bones, particularly long ones like the femur, which can result in an embolism (fat particles that travel from the bloodstream into the lungs).
- Use of supplemental oxygen and/or a mechanical ventilator (“breathing machine”) for longer periods of time (several days to a week or longer). Oddly enough, these are two of the most common allopathic treatments for ARDS.
- Liver disease (cirrhosis) – especially chronic – or pancreatitis (“inflammation of the pancreas”)
- Other factors such as smoking (current or former), abuse of alcohol, and certain surgical procedures also increase risk for ARDS.
- Toxic fume inhalation
- Multiple drug transfusions
- Guillaine-Barre Syndrome
- Fungal lung infection
- Bacterial lung infection
Are There Possible Complications with Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome – ARDS?
ARDS in and of itself is a very serious disease, but what makes it even more dangerous is potential complications that can result chronically, in some cases, even for those who recover from ARDS. These complications may include:
- Ongoing bacterial infections: These may strike the lungs (pneumonia), bloodstream (sepsis), and other areas such as the spinal fluid or urinary tract.
- Pulmonary Fibrosis: This involves the accumulation of scar tissue between the alveoli in the lungs, further reducing the body’s ability to deliver oxygen to the blood.
- Mental confusion or depression: When a person is chronically deprived of enough oxygen, temporary or permanent brain damage can occur that potentially leads to foggy thinking, memory loss, or even emotional problems such as depression. Oxygen plays such a vital role in the body, and the brain will certainly suffer from insufficient amounts of this life-giving building block of life.
- Ventilator issues: Many ARDS patients are put on a ventilator as part of treatment. While it helps people to breathe better, it has its own risks. These include a collapsed lung (pneumothorax) and muscle weakness or wasting due to poor delivery of nutrition while on the ventilator. One of the factors in these complications is also the sedative drugs typically administered during ventilation. Bottom line, the longer one is on a ventilator – especially over a week – the greater the risk. We should all be aware of these issues for ourselves and our loved ones when treatment options are being weighed.
Treatment for ARDS
While current treatment focuses on keeping patients breathing through a mechanical ventilator, cutting-edge research led in part by UC San Francisco’s Carolyn Calfee, MD, an associate professor of medicine, is opening the door to the possibility of diagnosing and treating ARDS before it becomes life-threatening. Key to Calfee’s work is the Early Assessment of Renal and Lung Injury (EARLI) study at UCSF Medical Center, a novel research design that enrolls patients at risk for ARDS straight from the emergency room (ER) – before their condition has taken a debilitating toll. A major hurdle to ARDS research is that the condition is so acute and fast-moving that by the time patients normally participate in studies, their health is significantly deteriorated. (more info here)
The best treatment for any disease or illness is always prevention. This is surely true with ARDS because if one ends up with the condition and is hospitalized for it (or already in the hospital), the only thing mainstream medicine can basically do is give supplemental oxygen and/or put one on a ventilator and its associated sedative drugs. As discussed above, these involve certain risks.
How Can I Avoid Getting ARDS?
Keeping yourself as healthy as possible is the best way to avoid ARDS. Staying well prevents conditions that can cause or aggravate ARDS such as heart disease, other respiratory conditions, or a weakened liver or pancreas.
- It all starts with consuming healthy food and eliminating toxic food. A healthy diet of organic foods such as fruits and vegetables, organic whole grains, healthy fats and plant-based and/or free-range sources of protein should become a daily habit. This will help keep toxins out of your body as well as deliver high-quality nutrition to your body. And, of course, never smoke or abuse alcohol.
- Physical exercise is also a key to prevention, especially with a respiratory condition such as ARDS. Aerobic exercise strengthens the lungs, circulatory system, and delivers more oxygen to the body. However, implementing simple exercises such as walking (especially in the sunshine) and/or rebounding are also very effective.
- It is also important to learn how to deep-breathe regularly, not just when exerting yourself. Habitually shallow breaths, which is very common, leads to chronic deprivation of oxygen even to people without ARDS or other illnesses. Teach yourself to breath deeply until it becomes second nature.
- Naturally boost your immune system. Proper diet and exercise are important and necessary, but food-grade supplements can be a great help as well. There are many options to consider. If you want to get started simply, think about an effective immune system routine consisting of 2-3 cloves of crushed garlic daily, 2000IUs of vitamin D3, non-corn derived vitamin C, and a few tablespoons of organic apple cider vinegar in your daily water. This is a great daily regimen that will support your immune system without breaking your bank account. Other supplementation to consider for the immune system would be Lauricidin®, TOA-Free Cat’s Claw Prima U-a de Gato (Uncaria tomentosa) and E3AFA.
- Liver cleansing is also helpful to support healthy liver function, which is sometimes a factor in ARDS. The liver is such a critical organ for overall wellness that caring for it proactively – particularly in this day of increased toxins in our food, water, and environment – is one of the best health choices we can ever make.
References & Research
ER Patients Unlock Vital Info to Treating Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome. Kate Rauch. University of California San Francisco. 2013.
Heavy drinkers at greater risk of developing pneumonia and ARDS. Thomas Jefferson University. July, 2014.
Study reveals how stem cells work to improve lung function in ARDS. Dr Anna Krasnodembskaya. September, 2014.
National Institutes of Health. National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. Diseases and Conditions Index. Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS): What Is ARDS? November 2007. http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/dci/Diseases/Ards/Ards_WhatIs.html
National Institutes of Health. National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. Diseases and Conditions Index. Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS): What Are the Signs and Symptoms of ARDS? November 2007. http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/dci/Diseases/Ards/Ards_SignsAndSymptoms.html
National Institutes of Health. National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. Diseases and Conditions Index. Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS): Who Is At Risk? November 2007. http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/dci/Diseases/Ards/Ards_WhoIsAtRisk.html
Udobi KF, Childs E, Touijer K. Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome. American Family Physician. January 2003:315-22.
Iribarren C, Jacobs DR Jr, Sidney S, Gross MD, Eisner M. Cigarette Smoking, Alcohol Consumption and Risk of ARDS: A 15-Year Cohort Study in a Managed Care Setting. Chest. 2000; 117:163-8.
Wheeler AP, Bernard GR. Acute Lung Injury and the Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome: A Clinical Review.