Few people talk about the asthma epidemic; but if statistics could scream, the sound of the asthma numbers would be deafening.
Since 1980, the number of people affected by asthma has risen by 60 percent. Asthma-related deaths have gone up as well. At schools, inhalers are becoming almost as common as computers. About 25 million people in the United States, including 7 million children, suffer from asthma.
But what is causing this epidemic? No one is entirely sure, but expert recognize a variety of potential culprits: environmental toxins, smog, household cleaners, mold, poor air circulation, processed foods and allergies. Other possible causes include vitamin D deficiency, poor prenatal nutrition and even our obsession with being germ-free. Being overly cleanly may stunt immune system development and overexpose us to harsh chemical cleansers.
To make matters worse, there are few treatments for asthma. Inhalers — which usually deliver steroids, amphetamine-like drugs or other anti-inflammatory drugs — can head off a bad attack, but the relief is temporary. Some asthmatics have to use their devices several times a day. There are also more invasive procedures. These include bronchial thermoplasty, reserved for severe uncontrolled asthma, which uses heat to relax airway muscles, increasing lung capacity.
While these treatments can be useful, they are certainly not adequate from an integrative medical perspective. Fortunately, there are a variety of other approaches that can help asthmatics manage their disease.
Asthma causes a variety of symptoms, including coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath. Some asthma sufferers say an attack is like trying to breath with a bag over your head.
If you have asthma, identifying the factors that trigger your attacks is an important task. These could be household chemicals, emotional stress, strenuous exercise, cigarette smoke, dust mites, pet dander — they tend to be very individualized. The sooner you recognize these triggers, the sooner you can avoid them.
Allergies and sensitivities are often a complicating factor: It’s important for asthma sufferers to know if they have particular sensitivities. Attacks can be linked to foods like dairy products, eggs, soy, gluten and nuts. It’s a good idea for asthmatics to consult with an allergist, who can help them identify these potential triggers. If your allergen is airborne (dust or mold, for example), it’s critical to invest in a high-quality air-purification system.
Because asthma is caused by inflammation, an anti-inflammatory diet can also be helpful. Many people are adopting the Mediterranean diet for its potential to prevent heart disease and cancer. This approach, which includes lots of fruits and vegetables, cold-water fish such as salmon, whole grains, and olive oil, may also help curb asthma. Research conducted in New Zealand showed that asthma patients eating a Mediterranean diet experienced fewer symptoms.
There has been a lot of interest in herbal solutions to asthma. Botanicals can augment inhalers and other more traditional treatments, reducing the frequency of attacks.
A number of studies have investigated Boswellia serata, with good results. Known as Indian frankincense, Boswellia has been used for centuries to treat arthritis, also an inflammatory condition. In one study, 70 percent of patients receiving 300 mg ofBoswellia three times a day showed improved asthma symptoms.
Another well-studied asthma treatment is the nutrient choline, a precursor to acetylcholine, which is an important neurotransmitter. In a study conducted in India, participants taking choline significantly reduced their overall symptoms and increased the number of days they had no symptoms at all. Higher doses, 1,000 mg as opposed to 500 mg, seemed to improve the response.
French Maritime pinebark extract may also be useful. It has been shown to effectively treat asthma symptoms with no untoward side effects.
Honokiol, an herbal extract made from the bark of the Magnolia tree, which has been demonstrated to have powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects in preclinical studies, suggesting honokiol could also help control asthma symptoms.
Obviously, reducing inflammation has a profound impact on asthma. And a naturally derived compound, modified citrus pectin is often recommended to reduce inflammation. It works by binding and blocking a circulating inflammatory protein called galectin-3, a substance linked to asthma flare-ups. Modified citrus pectin supports immunity and safely removes toxins and heavy metals, two other important benefits that may help control asthma.
Ginger can be used to open airways: It relaxes smooth muscle cells. Lobelia has also been found to support lung function.
As yet, there are no long-term solutions for the asthma epidemic. Research is being conducted to learn more about why the condition has increased so dramatically in the U.S.
However, that’s not much comfort for people suffering right now.
The important thing to remember is that asthma is a very individualized disease. Attacks are set off by identifiable triggers, and people respond to different treatments. There is no easy formula.
So it’s important for each patient to test various approaches: Identify and reduce allergens. Experiment with diet and test a variety of supplements. In time, the right formula will become apparent, alleviating symptoms and improving quality of life.