Asthma is a common condition that leads to breathing difficulty, coughing, and wheezing. It is caused by a combination of spasm of the small airways of the lung and inflammation, both of which impair the ability of the lungs to exchange air. The severity of asthma symptoms can range from mild wheezing to life-threatening breathing difficulties. It affects about 3% of the US population, with children under the age of 10 being most at risk.
The natural treatment of asthma focuses on several key principles: reducing allergic exposure, reducing the sensitivity and spasticity of the airways of the lungs, balancing the allergic/inflammatory pathways in the body, and correcting nutrient imbalances.
More than 90% of asthmatic children under the age of 16 are allergic, about 70% of asthmatics between the ages of 16 and 30 are allergic, and one half of those over 30 are allergic. Reducing allergic exposure is therefore key to the treatment of asthma and includes avoiding not only airborne allergens such as molds, pollens, animal dander, and dust, but also food allergens such as dairy, eggs, and wheat.
Reducing allergic exposure is . . . key to the treatment of asthma and includes avoiding not only airborne allergens such as molds, pollens, animal dander, and dust, but also food allergens such as dairy, eggs, and wheat.
The first step in reducing exposure to airborne allergens is to determine what the individual is reacting to. There are two basic options to determine this: skin allergy testing (which is done by an allergist) and blood allergy testing (which can be done by most physicians). Once the allergic triggers have been identified, a plan should be developed to reduce exposure to those allergens. Dust mites, for example, can be found in especially high numbers in carpets and bedding. These items can be removed, treated, or covered to reduce dust mite populations. Air filters can be an effective way to remove allergens from the air as well. Both HEPA and ionizing air purifiers work well, but ionization units should be chosen carefully for low ozone output, which is itself an irritant.
Food allergies are very common in people with asthma, especially when the asthma starts early in life. A 1981 study of 284 asthmatic children found food sensitivities in 75% of them, and other studies have identified food allergy as the sole cause of asthma in up to 40% of adults. Dairy, eggs, wheat, gluten, citrus, peanuts, and chocolate are some of the most common offenders, although any food can be a potential allergen.
While most people think of a food allergy when someone eats a food such as a peanut and has immediate difficulty with breathing, a more common type of allergic reaction is delayed and more insidious in nature. Most people with this latter type of allergy are unaware they are allergic. Unfortunately hidden food allergy as a cause of asthma is almost completely ignored by the conventional medical community.
Food allergies can be effectively diagnosed with either a blood test or an elimination/challenge diet. While skin allergy testing is available for foods as well, it is not useful for diagnosing these delayed types of food allergies. Once the allergic foods are determined, they must be eliminated from the diet.
Reducing the spasticity of the airway is also an important goal. Magnesium is well known for its ability to relieve muscle spasm, and this includes the muscles that surround the airways of the lung. Green tea and the herbal medicine Lobelia are also effective bronchodilators.
Balancing the allergic/inflammatory pathways in the body is also very important. Omega-3 oils, which are found in fish and flax seeds, can be an effective way to do this. One study found that children who eat fish more than once per week have one third the risk of developing asthma as those who don’t eat fish regularly. Avoiding tartrazine dyes (found in many artificial colorings), preservatives, aspirin, ibuprofen, and other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs is also important as these substances promote the production of leukotrienes, potent inflammatory substances involved in asthma.
Nutrients that are important in the treatment of asthma include vitamins C, B6, and B12, and the minerals selenium and molybdenum. There have been 11 clinical studies since 1973 that have studied the use of vitamin C in the treatment of asthma, seven of which showed significant improvement. Vitamin B12 and molybdenum both act to reduce sensitivity to sulfites, a common ingredient of restaurant foods that aggravates asthma in an estimated 5-10% of sufferers.
Finally, many people with asthma don’t produce enough stomach acid, a condition which can lead to food allergies and decreased nutrient absorption. A 1931 study found that 80% of asthmatic children produce insufficient amounts of stomach acid. This problem can be corrected with hydrochloric acid supplements.
While all of the above natural substances can be used individually, the greatest benefit comes from a comprehensive treatment program that includes the use of appropriate herbs, nutrients, dietary modifications, and allergen elimination. Many people with mild to moderate asthma are able to reduce or even eliminate their need for prescription medications by following this approach. Asthma medications should not, however, be discontinued without first consulting a physician, as this can lead to a life-threatening emergency.
For more information on managing asthma naturally, see a naturopathic physician.