Ask Pharmaca: How Can I Naturally Reduce Asthma Symptoms?

Asthma affects 7% of the US population, and asthma cases are on the rise, especially in children. Specialists surmise that this is related to a variety of things: increased exposure to environmental pollution (which creates stress on the immune system), earlier weaning from breastfeeding and earlier introduction of solid foods, food additives, higher incidence of obesity, and genetic manipulation of plants (i.e. GMOs) resulting in greater allergic tendencies.

Asthma attacks can be triggered by a variety of things, such as allergens, irritants, infection, stress, exercise, NSAIDS (e.g. aspirin, ibuprofen) or rapid changes in weather. Asthma is classified as either allergic (also called extrinsic) or non-allergic (also called intrinsic), but the two categories often overlap each other.

  • Allergic asthma occurs when the immune system is responding to an allergen, which then results in airway inflammation. Common allergens include environmental pollutants, pollens, molds, chemicals, drugs, animal dander, feathers, food additives (e.g. MSG or sulfites), seafood, dairy products, nuts, yeast-based foods, fumes and tobacco smoke.
  • Non-allergic asthma involves a reaction to things such as stress, cold air or temperature changes, respiratory illness (e.g. bronchitis), exercise, infection, or emotional upset such as anxiety and fear.

Integrative treatments for asthma
Currently, there is no outright cure for asthma, so treatment includes controlling symptoms and addressing underlying factors such as sensitivities, allergies and triggers. Conventional medicine utilizes controller medications (e.g. bronchodilators) that provide immediate relief by decreasing inflammation and opening airways.

While these medications can be life saving and provide immediate relief for an acute attack, their effects are temporary and long-term use is associated with side effects such as anxiety, nervousness, insomnia, dry mouth and elevated blood pressure. They can also become less effective if overused. (Of course, the life-saving measures of conventional drugs should not be undervalued!)

The integrative approach to asthma involves taming a hyperactive immune system and increasing the allergic threshold—i.e. increasing your level of tolerance to allergens and decreasing immune sensitivity and reactivity. The allergic threshold can be strengthened in several ways. Here are the most important ones.

  • Reducing exposure to airborne allergens can include removal of pet dander, using an air purifier, washing linens weekly in hot water, reducing dust and mites through regular cleaning efforts and removing old carpets, curtains and upholstered furniture that may be harboring allergens.
  • Avoiding trigger foods, which lower the allergic threshold, can reduce immune hyperactivity responses and asthma. Dietary offenders also pave the way for leaky gut, which can further overwhelm the immune system and lower the allergic threshold.

The most common food allergens are eggs, fish, shellfish, nuts, corn, soy and peanuts. Common food sensitivities that may trigger a delayed immune response are milk, chocolate, wheat, citrus and food colorings. Food additives such as artificial dyes and preservatives (e.g. tartrazine, benzoate, sulfur dioxide and sulfites) have also been linked to increased asthma attacks in susceptible people and should be avoided.

Vegan diets have been shown to provide significant improvement in asthmatics, most likely in part due to the elimination of animal products that contribute to inflammation and in part because they focus on fruits and vegetables that provide antioxidant support. And obesity has been linked to the development and severity of asthma in both adults and children, making weight management critical for minimizing asthma occurrence and severity.

Helpful nutrients
Controlling asthma symptoms is not just a matter of avoiding food triggers, however; it’s a matter of incorporating healthy foods and ensuring adequate intake of the right nutrients.

The blatant rise of asthma over the past 20 years is correlated with decreased antioxidant intake, and lowered serum antioxidant levels are noted in acute asthma distress. Several studies have concluded that a diet rich in fruits and vegetables (loaded with antioxidants) is linked to lower risk of poor respiratory health.