COPD can be difficult to treat. Doctors say one approach to helping patients may have nothing to do with medications.
The reason it's so hard for people with COPD to breathe is because the disease causes damage to the lungs over several years. And it can involve a mix of more than one type of lung disease, causing airways to become inflamed and irritated.
Tackling stairs, Kay Ferguson starts her day with a 10-minute trek, toting around a 28-lb. oxygen tank, and that's just the beginning of her day.
The pandas at the San Diego Zoo give Kay the motivation to stay healthy.
"This is Gal Gal. He's my terrible two-year-old," she said. "Bears keep me coming to work every day."
After 15 years as narrator at the panda exhibit, Kay had to take a break when her COPD took over.
"At first, I didn't want to survive," she said.
Although Kay gave up smoking 25 years ago, the 30 years she did light up caught up with her. She became housebound --until she found rehab could get her back to her bears.
A new way of treating COPD takes a natural approach.
At the University of California-San Diego pulmonary rehabilitation program, patients focus on exercise and weight training. The key is to find out what motivates each person.
"When you do that, people feel better able to do life," said Trina Limberg, UC San Diego respiratory therapist.
Therapists help the patients do more and be more aware of their body while doing it.
"People don't think taking a shower is exercise, but if you have a lung disease, and you have limited air flow, it's exercise," said Limberg.
Also, what you put into your body can make a difference. New research finds 100 milligrams of ginseng per day for three months improved a patient's ability to exercise. Vitamins C, D and E help reduce inflammation, and kali mur eases wet coughs.
Japanese researchers have found that omega-3 fatty acids decreased inflammation in the airway and helped more than 64 percent of patients breathe easier.
Exercising, eating right and incorporating oxygen into her daily routine got Kay back on track.
"It should make you work harder for your life," said Kay.
And it's the work with her pandas that will keep Kay moving for many years to come.
" I love my job," she said.
Eating more than 60 grams of soy in foods like tofu and bean sprouts also decreases breathing attacks.
Experts say patients with COPD tend to have a higher rate of depression, and in one study, St. John's wort was shown to help elevate their mood.Smoking is the most common cause of COPD.