Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is most noted for breathing difficulties. Since this is a chronic, or ongoing and progressive condition, your ability to breathe will likely get worse unless you seek medical intervention. Difficulty breathing isn't the only COPD symptom. Over time, the disease can also lead to significant weight loss. Unintentional weight loss is a sign of a serious issue, especially if you lose quite a few pounds in a short amount of time. Along with managing COPD, you’ll need to learn how to maintain your weight while getting the nutrients you need to sustain energy levels.
COPD develops as a result of lung damage. There are two main forms: chronic bronchitis and emphysema. Chronic bronchitis causes severe inflammation (swelling) and irritation in the lungs' airways, which in turn leads to mucus build-up. This mucus leads to airway blockage, making it difficult to breathe properly. Emphysema, on the other hand, forms when air sacs in the lungs are damaged. Without enough air sacs, your lungs can’t properly take in oxygen and release carbon dioxide.
Smoking is the most common cause of COPD. Breathing issues and constant cough (or "smoker's cough") are often the first signs of the disease. Unfortunately, many people receive an advanced-stage diagnosis because they seek medical attention late. COPD is also a slow disease, so you may not experience any particularly bothersome symptoms until the disease has progressed.
Other symptoms of COPD include:
- tightness in the chest
- sputum (or phlegm) production with cough
- shortness of breath after moderate physical exertion
- muscle aches (myalgias)
The Link Between COPD and Weight Loss
Weight loss is a sign of severe COPD. At this point, inflammation of the lungs has gotten so severe that the lung volume has actually expanded in size. This reduces the amount of space between the lungs and your stomach, and when you eat, the two organs can push against one another and become quite uncomfortable. You might find breathing even more difficult. Such sensations may ultimately discourage you from eating.
Certain foods are also triggers for worsening COPD symptoms. This might also discourage you from eating regular, healthy meals. Some triggers include:
- high-fiber foods
- carbonated drinks
- salty foods
- spicy foods
- eating too fast
Breathing itself is also a natural calorie burner. You need to eat to sustain all body functions, including those of the lungs. According to the Cleveland Clinic, damaged lungs can burn as much as 10 times more calories than normal, healthy lungs. Even if you do have a good appetite, this phenomenon can lead to unintentional weight loss.
Sometimes the weight loss associated with COPD is caused by resulting mental health issues. COPD changes your life in many ways and it can be difficult to cope with the disease. It’s not uncommon to experience depression and anxiety along with this disease. Such mental health changes affect everyone differently: while some tend to eat more and gain weight, others lose weight from eating less.
Complications of Being Underweight
Being underweight is often associated with poor nutrition. In COPD, such effects can be even more serious. Not getting adequate nutrients can lead to infections because the body’s immune system is no longer strong enough to fight off illnesses on its own. This is why many people with COPD are hospitalized with chest infections.
Besides infections, being underweight can make you feel extremely tired. Chronic fatigue makes it difficult to complete everyday tasks.
Tips to Maintain a Healthy Weight
In considering COPD-related weight loss, the primary goals are to increase your body weight while also making sure you get proper nutrients. You can try to:
- eat smaller meals (but more frequently) throughout the day
- find ways to eat higher calorie foods (such as whole milk products instead of low-fat)
- reduce fluid intake during meals so that you eat more food
- drink more fluids in-between meals
- reduce salt in your diet
- eat while using oxygen treatments
You might also consider finding easier ways to cook your meals. Sometimes the physical exertion of cooking can be too much for someone with COPD, and they might get out of breath rather quickly. As a result, this can encourage some people from cooking at all. You can save some of the physical work of cooking by buying already cut produce and other products. Also consider low-sodium frozen foods that are easier to cook.
If you've noticed that you started losing weight around the same time you experienced high stress or feelings of depression, you might ask your doctor about antidepressants. Not only can this medication help your weight, but you’ll also experience a better outlook on life.
Properly treating the symptoms of COPD, like weight loss, can increase your overall quality of life. According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, COPD is the third most common cause of death among American adults. Since it’s a slow-progressing disease, it’s most often seen in older adults. Unfortunately, there’s also no cure for COPD, and lung damage can't be reversed. Maintaining a healthy weight and eating foods that don't worsen other symptoms can help keep other COPD issues at bay.
Managing COPD-related weight loss can take some work. Aim to make a few small changes at a time so you’re more successful. While these tips can help, you might also consider assistance from a registered dietitian.