This amazing guest post was written by Dr. Sarah Brewer, a licensed Medical Doctor, a Registered Nutritionist, a Registered Nutritional Therapist! Check out her website here!
Asthma is an inflammatory disease of the lungs that produces scary symptoms of not being able to breathe.
Like other inflammatory diseases, symptoms are made worse by a modern diet that supplies an imbalance of dietary fats. Our ancestors evolved on a paleo, hunter-gatherer diet of green plants, wild animals, and fish which contained equal amounts of omega-6 fats (from natural vegetable oils) and omega-3 fats (from oily fish and wild game).
Our diet has changed enormously since Stone Age times and many people now eat seven times more omega-6s than omega-3s. This increases the production of inflammatory chemicals in the body that can worsen inflammation of the airways.
How To Control and Cure Your Asthma
1. Cut Back on Omega-6s
Most people with asthma would benefit from cutting back on their intake of omega-6s. This doesn’t mean cutting the out altogether, as they are essential for health and have important roles relating to hormone balance, skin health and mood regulation.
You just need to balance your intake by consuming less:
- Omega-6 vegetable oils such as safflower oil, grapeseed oil, sunflower oil, corn oil, cottonseed oil or soybean oil (Replace with healthier oils such as rapeseed, olive, walnut, almond, avocado, hemp seed or macadamia oils which contain good amounts of omega-3s and/or monounsaturated fats)
- Margarine based on omega-6 oils such as sunflower or safflower oil
- Convenience foods
- Manufactured goods such as cakes, sweets, and pastries.
2. Eat More Omega-3s
Omega-3 fatty acids are also essential for health and, unless you regularly eat oily fish twice a week, you are likely to benefit from eating more. Omega-3s damp down inflammation associated with asthma so that people who eat oily fish at least twice a week are half as likely to experience asthma, wheezing or chest tightness on waking than those who eat little oily fish – even when other factors such as smoking are taken into account.
Taking omega-3 fish oils can reduce the severity of exercise-induced asthma in those for whom physical activity triggers symptoms. Eating fish during pregnancy can also reduce the risk of asthma in offspring of mothers with a strong family history of asthma by 80%.
Beneficial omega-3s are found in:
- Oily fish such as mackerel, herring, salmon, trout, sardines, pilchards, fresh tuna (but not tinned)
- Wild game meat such as venison and buffalo
- Grass-fed beef
- Omega-3 enriched eggs
- Omega-3 fish oil supplements
3. Eat More Fruit and Vegetables
Fruit and vegetables provide powerful antioxidant polyphenols that protect plants against the inflammation and damage caused by ultraviolet light and attacks by insects, bacteria, and viruses.
When we eat them, these same plant antioxidants provide numerous health benefits, including damping down inflammation. People who eat at least 5 servings of fruit and vegetables per day have better lung function and are less likely to develop asthma than those who eat less – this effect is even stronger among smokers, whose need for antioxidants is greater.
Apples, for example, are a rich source of powerful antioxidants, including quercetin, which reduces histamine release and promotes bronchial relaxation.
Among children, those who eat the least vegetables are most likely to wheeze. Children who drink apple juice from concentrate, at least once a day, are almost half as likely to have asthma than those drinking apple juice less than once a month.
Similarly, adults who eat five or more apples per week have significantly better lung function than non-apple eaters and are 38% less likely to have asthma. Eating apples during pregnancy also appears to protect offspring from asthma.
4. Enjoy Dark Chocolate
Dark chocolate – a plant product – is a rich source of polyphenols and, gram for gram has five times more antioxidant activity than blueberries.
It also contains methylxanthines such as caffeine and theobromine which can suppress a cough and reduce airway spasm. Select dark chocolate providing at least 70% cocoa solids for the best effect. Drinking cocoa is also protective.
5. Drink Coffee
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Coffee is another rich source of methylxanthines and a regular coffee intake has been shown to reduce the chance of current asthma symptoms by 30% compared with those who do not drink coffee.
6. Foods to Avoid
Different people have different asthma triggers. Obviously, it’s important to avoid any foods to which you know you are sensitive, and which bring on your symptoms. As symptoms sometimes come on 24 hours after eating a culprit food, it’s not always easy to work out what your triggers are.
You may benefit from avoiding foods that are common triggers for asthma, which include cow’s milk, eggs, peanuts, wheat and citrus fruits, then reintroduce them, one at a time, every three or four days to see if any make your symptoms worse.
7. Additives to Avoid
Certain food ingredients can trigger asthma in some people, including sulfites, tartrazine, benzoates and monosodium glutamate.
Sulfites (sulphites) are antioxidant preservatives (numbered E220 to E229) used in foods, drinks, and some medications to preserve color. Dried apricots, for example, stay a nice bright orange color when sulfites are added, but turn rather brown and dingy without them.
As many as 1 in 10 people with asthma have a sulfite hypersensitivity. Those most at risk are people with chronic asthma, who are dependent on steroid treatments or who are sensitive to aspirin.
People with a sulfite sensitivity may develop the classic asthma symptoms of wheezing, chest tightness and shortness of breath when they consume food or drinks containing sulfites, or when inhaling sulfite fumes (for example when opening a bag of dried apricots).
The most likely reason is that sulfites dissolve in the mouth during chewing to form sulfuric acid and release sulfur dioxide gas. When inhaled into the lungs, this noxious gas acts as a direct irritant on hypersensitive airways to cause spasm.
Another possibility is that sulfites readily stick to proteins, and may alter them sufficiently that they are seen as ‘foreign.’ The body then mounts an attack against the foreign protein by producing a type of antibody called IgE. This can trigger the release of histamine, causing an allergic reaction that includes spasm of the airways.
Another theory is that some people only produce low levels of an enzyme (sulfite oxidase) which is needed to convert sulfites to inert sulfates.
To follow a sulfite elimination diet, you need to check labels and avoid those containing added sulfites.
One in five adults with asthma has a sensitivity to aspirin, which can trigger an attack. Similar substances, called salicylates, are present in many foods including some fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds, herbs and spices.
Although it is not proven that salicylates in food can trigger asthma, it is worth following a low-salicylate diet to see if this helps your asthma if no other dietary approach has helped.
Adults with asthma who develop aspirin sensitivity tend to be aged 20 to 40 or older – salicylate sensitivity is rare in children. They start to produce excess mucus with nasal inflammation (rhinitis) and sinusitis and often suffer from recurrent nasal polyps. They often lose their sense of smell (a condition called anosmia).
One of the ways in which salicylates work is by blocking the action of an enzyme, cyclooxygenase-1 (COX-1) which is involved in the breakdown of arachidonic acid. When aspirin switches off COX-1, arachidonic acid is broken down to produce increased quantities of leukotrienes, instead.
Leukotrienes are powerful inflammatory chemicals that cause inflammation in the nose, sinuses, and lungs, to trigger a runny nose, airway spasm, and wheezing. The result is a worsening of asthma and an accelerated growth of nasal polyps.
Common Dietary Sources of Salicylates
Potential Level: Exceptionally High
- Asparagus, Aniseed, cardamom, cayenne, celery seed, cinnamon, cloves, cumin, currants, curry powder, dates, dill, fenugreek, gherkins, ginger, liquorice, mace, marjoram, mint, mustard seed, oregano, paprika, pepper (black), prunes, raisins, raspberries, rosemary, sage, stock cubes, tarragon, thyme, turmeric, Worcestershire sauce, yeast extracts.
Potential Level: Very High
- Almonds, apricots, basil, commercial tomato sauces, honey, oranges, pineapple, tea leaves
Potential Level: High
- Cantaloupe melon, Champagne, chicory, coffee, cranberries, grapes, Green peppers, green olives, endive, courgette (zucchini), peanuts, pepper (white), pineapple, radish, strawberries, vanilla essence
Tartrazine, an azo dye used as a yellow food coloring, can also inhibit COX-1, to increase production of inflammatory chemicals (leukotrienes). Up to one in four people with salicylate-exacerbated asthma are also sensitive to tartrazine. When you consume too much tartrazine it triggers the release of histamine from mast cells in the respiratory tract, even if you are not normally sensitive to it.
This is a pharmacological, drug-like reaction. If you are sensitive to histamine, however, you react to much lower amounts of 1mg or less.
On food labels, tartrazine may appear as FD&C Yellow 5 or as additive number E102.
Some people with asthma are hypersensitive to benzoates. In one study involving 36 people with asthma, significant wheeziness occurred in 7 people, 5 of whom were also sensitive to aspirin. Other studies also suggest that those who are most at risk also have an aspirin/salicylate sensitivity.
The number of people affected is likely to be small, but if you are one of those who is susceptible to benzoates, eliminating them from your diet may help to reduce the frequency of your attacks.
Benzoates are among the most commonly used food preservatives (numbered E210 to E219). People with a benzoate sensitivity may develop the classic asthma symptoms of wheezing, chest tightness and shortness of breath when they consume food or drinks containing one of this class of preservatives.
The way in which benzoates can trigger asthma is unknown, but may involve the production of inflammatory chemicals in a similar way to aspirin and other salicylates
Monosodium glutamate (MSG) is a flavor enhancer which can trigger asthma in some people. Consuming MSG increases blood levels of the amino acid, glutamate, which acts as a building block for making the neurotransmitter, acetylcholine, which is believed to trigger symptoms.
In people whose asthma is sensitive to MSG, symptoms typically start 1 to 2 hours after ingestion and may come on as long as 12 hours afterward. In one study involving 32 people with asthma, 14 reacted to MSG, while in another only 2 out of 30 people experienced respiratory problems.
These discrepancies may be because symptoms only occur in those with a vitamin B6 deficiency, or when consuming MSG on an empty stomach, or with alcohol, which hasten MSG absorption.
MSG may be listed on food labels as monosodium glutamate, sodium glutamate, 2-aminoglutaric acid or as additive number E621. It is also present in flavorings described as hydrolyzed vegetable protein (HVP), hydrolyzed plant protein (HPP) and ‘Natural Flavour.’
When you have an inflammatory condition such as asthma, your need for antioxidants is greatly increased, and I believe it is impossible to consistently achieve the high level of antioxidant protection you need from dietary sources alone.
There are no miracle cures, but many supplements can reduce inflammation, promote relaxation of the airways and improve symptoms. NB Don’t take supplements during pregnancy or breastfeeding except under the advice of a medical herbalist or experienced nutritional therapist.
If taking any prescribed medications, please check with a pharmacist for any potential interactions. Always keep supplements out of the reach of children.
Vitamin C is the main antioxidant protecting lung airways. It reduces inflammation triggered by inhaled antigens and the release of histamine. Taking vitamin C for two weeks can reduce asthma attacks by a quarter compared with those taking placebo.
Lycopene is the red antioxidant carotenoid found in tomatoes, pawpaw, and pink grapefruit. It has been shown to help protect against exercise-related asthma in some people.
Magnesium relaxes smooth muscle in the airways to reduce constriction and spasm.
Omega-3 fish oils (EPA and DHA) reduce the production of inflammatory leukotrienes in the airways to reduce the severity of asthma symptoms and improve bronchial reactivity.
Green-lipped mussel extracts have an anti-inflammatory action to significantly reduce daytime wheeze.
Quercetin is an antioxidant that inhibits the release of histamine and has a relaxant effect on smooth muscle cells in the airways. It is one of the main reasons why apples are so beneficial for people with asthma.
Probiotics are digestive bacteria that prime the immune system to reduce allergic reactions. Taking probiotics during pregnancy and in infancy offers some protection against childhood asthma.
Pycnogenol – Extracts from the bark of the French maritime pine – contain a powerful array of antioxidants. Studies show it is as effective in preventing the release of histamine as the asthma drug, sodium cromoglicate and can block 70% of histamine release when airways are exposed to airborne allergens such as pollen.
9. Other Lifestyle Approaches
My book, Overcoming Asthma (Watkins) provides a wealth of information on how diet, supplements and complementary therapies can help overcome asthma symptoms. Everyone is different and no diet and lifestyle plan will suit all individuals.
For that reason, I’ve drawn up three different approaches: a Gentle, Moderate and Full-Strength program, each with their own recipe, supplement regime and breathing exercise plan.
The Gentle Program makes following an asthma-friendly diet and lifestyle as easy as possible. It provides recipes to help you eat more fruit, vegetables, and fish.
I suggest taking food supplements at the lowest doses shown to have a significant, beneficial effect on asthma symptoms. I also show you some useful breathing exercises and introduce you to complementary approaches used in aromatherapy and yoga.
The Moderate Program is designed for people whose symptoms are still troublesome, despite eating plenty of oily fish, nuts, fruit and vegetables, and despite cutting back on omega-6s.
I show you how to follow a low-sulfite diet and include a more intensive breath control regime based on the Buteyko method. I also introduce you to complementary approaches used in reflexology and meditation techniques.
The Full-Strength Program helps you to significantly reduce your exposure to dietary salicylates. I suggested food supplement doses at the higher end of the therapeutic range, and introduce complementary techniques such as Acupressure and breathing exercises based on yoga techniques known as Pranayama.
These programs are so effective you may start to notice positive changes in your breathing in as little as a week. Use them to make real changes to your health and your life.
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