Last Saturday marked World Asthma Day so let's look at what asthma actually is.
Asthma is a chronic respiratory condition – a long-term disease of the lungs. It causes your airways to become inflamed and narrow, making breathing difficult. Typical symptoms include coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath and chest tightness. And it’s on the increase. 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 due to changes in diet, lifestyle or environmental issues, with food allergies being very high on the list of contributing factors. Yet few sufferers are informed in any detail about the key contributory causes or tested for food allergies, and prescriptions for inhalers are routine.
There’s little doubt that the main anti-inflammatory drugs used to treat 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 which broke the camel’s back’ rather than the actual cause. Perhaps, then, the goal should be to increase your capacity to adapt and lessen the total load.
As a nutrition professional, I can tell you that checking for allergies and food intolerances as well as upping your intake of antioxidants, essential fats and other natural anti-inflammatory foods will, at worst, reduce the need for drugs and at best, hugely relieve symptoms – but please note that 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 in depth), there are plenty of good reasons to give these suggestions a go and see what happens to your symptoms.
NATURAL APPROACHES TO ASTHMA
1. FIND OUT WHETHER YOU HAVE AN ALLERGY There are two kinds of allergies: IgE and IgG which are 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 dairy products, gluten cereals (wheat, rye, barley, oats) and yeast. While you can try excluding these foods from your diet, it’s much easier and quicker to take a test.
2. 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 over a period 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 avoid it completely. So, if you are pollen sensitive, you might choose to cut out all grains (which are in fact grasses) and dairy products (which are 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 allergies have increased enormously since central heating became the norm because the 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. You can buy them from most big department stores and online
Invest in a bed base which allows the bed to 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.
3. 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 inflamed, for example from alcohol, these food proteins can cross into the bloodstream and trigger allergies.
Once you’ve identified and avoided your known food allergens, I strongly 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.
4. 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 which does this. The top antioxidant nutrients in this case are Vitamins C and 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 (ie they keep the 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 vegetables tend to be colour-coded for the types of helpful plant chemicals they contain. What we know for certain is that these plant chemicals have a synergistic effect in the body (their sum is greater than their individual parts), so try to get in as many different colours as you can over the course of a week.
5. INCREASE YOUR INTAKE OF NATURAL ANTI-INFLAMMATORIES
The actual constriction of the airways is caused by an inflammatory reaction. Allergic reactions can result in the release of histamine which 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 which acts as a powerful anti-inflammatory. Nature’s most powerful anti-inflammatories are Omega-3 fats, boswellia, curcumin (in turmeric), 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) as well as Omega-3-rich flaxseeds and pumpkin seeds to help lower levels of inflammation
· Reduce meat and dairy products, 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
6. 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 which you can wear to help protect you whether you are out in the fields or in a smog-filled city street.