Malnutrition in COPD: Causes, Symptoms and Prevention

COPD can lead to malnutrition, which contributes to declines in health

Hospital Patient
Hospital Patient. Christopher Furlong / Staff / Getty Images

When you have malnutrition, it means your body isn't getting enough of the nutrients it needs. There are several potential causes of malnutrition, including an inadequate or unbalanced diet, digestive or absorption problems, or other medical conditions. Regardless of the cause, though, malnutrition when untreated can lead to serious illness and eventually death.

How Is Malnutrition Related to COPD?

Malnutrition can be a complication of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Why does this occur?

One reason is because people who have dyspnea, or difficulty breathing, have a great deal of trouble completing a meal. The hallmark symptom of COPD is difficulty breathing.

COPD also can make people feel as if they don't have any appetite at all. This can cause malnutrition in several different ways, including:

  • causing food intake that's not adequate, and
  • limiting or eliminating one or more important vitamins in the diet

In those with COPD, malnutrition is associated with weakness, loss of muscle tone, and weight loss. Evidence is mixed on whether it also leads to poorer pulmonary function and more COPD exacerbations.

Symptoms of Malnutrition

Symptoms of malnutrition can vary, from mild to very severe. General symptoms include:

  • Fatigue
  • Dizziness
  • Weight loss
  • Extreme lack of energy
  • Weakened immune system

In one study of COPD patients, women had worse nutritional status than men, and people who lived alone had worse nutritional status than those who lived with other people.

 

How Can COPD Patients Prevent Malnutrition?

People with COPD require 10 times as many calories as healthy people do to breathe, which means you need to take in extra calories just when you don't feel like eating, or can't finish your meal.

Insufficient calories leads to a lack of energy, and a lack of energy makes it even more difficult to breathe or complete any type of activity.

This creates a vicious cycle, in which your increased trouble breathing makes it nearly impossible to eat, and your lack of proper nutrition means your overall health, and possibly your breathing, gets worse.

This cycle will continue to spiral downward if not somehow interrupted.

The best way to supplement calories without having to actually eat extra food is to eat foods that are higher in calories. The following article includes a list of healthy, high calorie foods to add to your shopping list:

Can Nutritional Supplements Help?

Some studies indicate that specially-formulated nutritional supplements can help people with COPD gain weight, especially if those people are suffering from malnutrition. There's also some evidence that nutritional supplements may help improve the strength of your lungs and improve your exercise tolerance.

However, nutritional supplements don't seem to help people with COPD who are not malnourished. If you're having trouble keeping weight on, you might want to talk to your doctor about whether nutritional supplementation can help you.

Sources:

Ferreira IM et al. Nutritional supplementation for stable chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. The Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. 2012 Dec 12;12:CD000998.

Hsieh MJ et al. Nutritional supplementation in patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Journal of the Formosan Medical Association. 2016 Jan 25. pii: S0929-6646(15)00346-0.

Odencrants S et al. Nutritional status, gender and marital status in patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Journal of Clinical Nursing. 2013 Oct;22(19-20):2822-9.

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