Asthma is a chronic respiratory disease – a long-term disease of the lungs. It causes your airways to get inflamed and narrow, and this makes breathing difficult. Typical symptoms include coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath and chest tightness. And it’s on the up. In England, more than 1 in 4 children now have asthma, compared to 1 in 18 back in the 1970s.
The question is, why? Most experts agree it’s likely down to changes in diet, lifestyle or environmental factors, with food allergies being very high on the list of contributing factors. Yet few sufferers are informed in any detail about the key contributory factors or checked out thoroughly for food allergies. Prescriptions for corticosteroid creams or inhalers are routine when you visit your GP (and, to be clear, you should always visit your GP if you are in any way concerned about your health).
There’s little doubt that the main anti-inflammatory drugs used to treat eczema and asthma, although they are very effective in providing relief particularly in the short term, can make things worse in the long run and there are often side effects.
Conceptually, the best approach is to consider that an asthma attack is triggered when a person’s total load exceeds their capacity to adapt. While there may be a specific trigger (like stress or cigarette smoke) these triggers can be seen as ‘the straw that broke the camel’s back’ rather than the actual cause. Perhaps, then, the goal should be increasing your capacity to adapt and lessening the total load.
Checking for allergies and food intolerances, upping your intake of antioxidants, essential fats and other natural anti-inflammatory foods will, at worst, reduce the need for drugs and at best, completely relieve symptoms. It is not a substitute for medical guidance.
While there’s a lack of good studies to prove the benefits of an all-round nutrition-based approach (which doesn’t mean that there’s no point in doing this, just that no one has actually studied it), there are plenty of good reasons to give these suggestions a go and see what happens to your symptoms.
NATURAL APPROACHES TO ASTHMA
FIND OUT WHAT YOU’RE ALLERGIC TO There are two kinds of allergies: IgE and IgG (sometimes referred to as intolerances). IgE (Immunoglobulin E) reactions are what you think of as conventional allergies. People with asthma often have higher levels of IgE, making them hypersensitive to certain substances. You can test your IgE sensitivity and identify specifically what you are reacting to with an IgE blood test. If you have asthma, you may already have had this done.
The test involves taking a pinprick of blood with an easy-to-use home kit and posting it to the laboratory for testing. Most asthma sufferers also have IgG sensitivities to foods. These intolerances are not as obvious (or immediate) as an allergic reaction and may not always precipitate an asthma attack. If they do, asthma symptoms may not occur until 24 hours later. Common foods that cause reactions are milk products, gluten cereals (wheat, rye, barley, oats) and yeast. You can dabble with cutting these foods out yourself but it’s much easier and quicker to take a test.
AVOID YOUR PROVEN ALLERGENS OR FOOD SENSITIVITIES
Once you know what you are reacting to, you need to avoid your allergens. When it comes to IgE sensitivities, these last for life. You can, however, ‘grow out’ of IgG sensitivities if you avoid the allergens a number of months and take steps to allow your body to heal.
However, not all allergens are easy to avoid. If, for example, you are allergic to pollen, you won’t be able to manage to avoid it completely. So, if you are pollen sensitive, you might choose to avoid all grains (which are grasses) and dairy products (made from grass) during the pollen season as the body can ‘cross react’ to similar proteins.
If you are allergic to house dust mites, which live in mattresses and carpets, you’ll need to go to war on these little creatures by changing your bedding regularly and always washing on a hot wash and drying really well.
House dust mite allergy has increased enormously since central heating became the norm because these bugs love moisture and don’t like big temperature changes. If you think you have an infestation, either get a new mattress or put yours out to sunbathe on a couple of extremely hot days. You might also look into having the mattress steam cleaned. Then use a house dust mite-proof cover for your mattress and pillows.
Invest in a bed base that lets the bed air really well. Although you may love the tidiness of a well-made bed, the best thing to do to prevent mites is to not make the bed and instead leave it to air naturally. You should let the room air as well – don’t be afraid to throw open the windows. In an ideal world, you wouldn’t have a carpet in the bedroom either.
IMPROVE YOUR DIGESTION
One of the major causes of food allergies is poor digestion. A lack of stomach acid often means you don’t digest protein properly, so you end up with undigested food proteins in the gut. If your digestive tract becomes at all inflamed, for example by alcohol, these food proteins can cross into the blood and trigger allergies.
Once you’ve identified and avoided your known food allergens, I’d recommend a 30-day digestive rest programme. This means minimal gluten (which irritates the gut), lots of fruit and vegetables, digestive enzymes with each main meal, plus other supplements (as needed) to help restore the integrity of the gut lining.
INCREASE YOUR INTAKE OF ANTIOXIDANTS
There’s no doubt that increasing your intake of antioxidants makes a difference to all aspects of health, including asthma. Numerous studies have shown that a high intake of fresh fruit and vegetables reduces asthma severity, and there is a strong implication that it is the high antioxidant nutrient content of fruits and vegetables that does this. The antioxidant nutrients that come out top are vitamin C, vitamin E, beta-carotene and bioflavonoids (which are especially rich in berries).
What will you want to add to your diet? Lots of broccoli, peppers, berries, citrus fruit, apples (all rich in vitamin C), carrots and tomatoes (rich in beta-carotene and lycopene) and seeds and fish (rich in vitamin E).
And remember that old saying about an apple a day keeps the doctor at bay? Here’s why. A survey of 1,500 asthma sufferers in the UK found that people who ate at least two apples per week experienced a 22% to 32% lower asthma risk than those who ate fewer. Apart from vitamin C, apples contain the antioxidant quercetin, which reduces histamine and has been shown to have broncho-dilating properties (which is code for the fact they keep your airways nice and open).
To have all bases covered, try to ‘eat a rainbow’, which means ‘have as many different colours of vegetables as you can’. This is because fruit and veg tends to be colour-coded for
the types of helpful plant chemicals they contain. What we know is that these plant chemicals have a synergistic effect in the body (their sum is greater than the individual parts), so try to get in as many different colours as you can over the course of a week.
INCREASE YOUR INTAKE OF NATURAL ANTI-INFLAMMATORIES
The actual constriction of the airways happens due to an inflammatory reaction. Allergic reactions can cause a release of histamine that triggers inflammation and consequently this constriction.
Most anti-asthma drugs are acting as anti-inflammatories, the most common being steroid inhalers. These mimic the action of the body’s own cortisol hormone that acts as a powerful anti-inflammatory.
Nature’s most powerful anti-inflammatories are omega-3 fats, boswellia, curcumin, ginger, quercetin and MSM, which is a form of sulphur. Astaxanthin may also help.
So how can you get more of these into your diet?
Eat a diet high in oily fish (wild or organic salmon, mackerel, herring, kippers, sardines and tuna steak), omega-3 rich flaxseeds and pumpkin seeds to help lower levels of inflammation.
Reduce meat and milk, again to lower inflammation. For the same reason, it can be very effective to supplement 1,000mg of the combined omega-3s EPA/DHA, which usually means two to three fish oil capsules a day with food. (Note: you are specifically looking for omega-3 and not combinations involving omega 6 and/or 9).
You may also want to experiment with astaxanthin, quercetin or the herbs boswellia, curcumin or ginger.
The supplement doses here are for adults but, if you have a child with asthma, the rule of thumb is to divide by body weight. So, a 5 stone child needs roughly half the amount. Nutritional therapists can help you find the best natural answers to asthma and test for possible contributing factors such as allergy.
IMPROVE YOUR AIR QUALITY
Most people with asthma are hypersensitive to changes in air quality and do much better in clean air. It’s well worth investing in a decent ioniser for the bedroom and/or your major living space. Ionisers take dust and other tiny particles out of the air, including smoke and pollen. In addition to ionisers for your home, you can now buy discreet personal ionisers that can you can wear and help protect you whether you are out in the fields or in a smog-filled city street.
WORKING WITH YOUR DOCTOR
Many of the recommendations made here to reduce your inflammatory and allergic sensitivity can be put into action without interfering in any way with medical treatment. And they may well reduce the need for it.
For instance, if you have asthma and you find taking in some of these suggestions makes your condition much better, it is worth talking to you doctor about whether it makes sense to reduce how often you use your inhaler – do NOT simply stop using it, however, without medical advice.
One of the most important factors to check for is allergies. Your doctor may be willing to refer you for allergy tests. It is important, however, that you are checked for both IgE and IgG allergies. As few doctors check for IgG-based allergies, you may need to do it using food allergy/ intolerance test