Can’t breathe? … It’s not fun, is it?
Many kiwis are affected by this chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD), also known as asthma. In fact, one out of every seven children, and one in nine adults, suffer from asthma. If you are not affected by it, you’d likely know someone who carries an asthma inhaler or two in their bag.
The inflammation and mucous build-up in the airways can cause shortness of breath, coughing and inability to breathe (which can be life-threatening!). It can be caused by many factors, but it can usually be categorized into two groups; extrinsic and intrinsic.
Extrinsic asthma is usually based on reactions to allergens, such as pollens, dust or moulds, which raises the levels of immune proteins in your body called IgE. This is one of the major reasons why so many Kiwis are victims of this limiting condition. New Zealand has a very damp climate, plenty of pollen-producing vegetation, along with many houses lined with carpet. In such environment, dust mites thrive and moulds grow rampant, not to mention the pollen flying everywhere.
On the other hand, intrinsic asthma is caused by other factors such as cold weather, exercise and stress. Other common factors that cause asthma are medications (such as aspirin and ibuprofen), food colourings such as tartrazine, and of course, smoking.
Whatever the cause may be, when you have an asthma attack, you need immediate medical treatment. Common medications are inhalers such as Ventolin or Atrovent used acutely as short-acting relievers, Flixotide or Vicrom as preventers prior to exposure to risk factors such as exercise, and Serevent as a symptom controllers (used daily, usually morning and night to prevent onset of asthma attacks). Although these medications are very useful, and often life-saving, there are niggly side-effects, as with all medications. Some of the side-effects include headaches, rapid heart rate, yeast over-growth and other oral issues, particularly if the inhalers have been used for a long period of time. Antihistamines may also be prescribed for extrinsic asthma. However, they are also riddled with side effects after long-term use, such as headaches, fatigue and liver stress.
So what can we do naturally to improve your asthma without the side effects of pharmaceutical drugs? Below are top 5 natural health tips to guide you towards a life free from inhalers and antihistamines!
First and foremost, your best bet in reducing the risks of triggering an asthma attack is to reduce the environmental allergens as much as possible. Although pollen may be difficult to avoid, dust mites and moulds can be controlled when appropriate measures are taken. Reducing moisture build-up in your home using ventilation systems and dehumidifiers can help to reduce both dust mites and mould growth. Dust mites in your bed linens can be killed off by soaking your sheets in hot water (above 60 degrees Celsius for a few minutes), drying them in the sun, tumble dry, then vacuum off any of the debris from the sheets (ideally using vacuums with HEPA filter). Anti-allergen sheets and duvet covers are also available from your local stores. Your mattresses are slightly difficult, so hiring a steam cleaning company can help to eradicate dust mites from your mattresses. Don’t forget to regularly clean your home with HEPA filter-fitted vacuum and antibacterial spray. You can also make a nice home-made antifungal spray using vinegar, tea tree oil, lemon and water! Carpets may need to go, and animals may need to be kept outside, or at least out of your bedroom. And you must… and I mean you must, quit smoking!
Once the environmental factors are under control, now it is time to look at your food intolerances. Do note that this is not the same as allergies. Allergies are mostly immediate responses to allergens, resulting in skin rashes, mucous congestion and anaphylactic reactions. Intolerances are basically mild forms of allergy. The symptoms can range anywhere from bloating to tiredness, and the reactions may not present itself for up to 48 hours. This is why intolerances are much more difficult to track down! I would recommend performing an elimination diet, whereby common allergenic foods are eliminated for at least 3 weeks and slowly reintroduced back into your diet to observe potential reactions, or getting an intolerance test done. Intolerance tests can be done through your natural health practitioner, usually ranging from $100-$200. In the meantime, it would be best to avoid eggs, peanuts, shellfish, milk, chocolate, wheat and citrus fruit as they are particularly recognised as asthma-aggravating foods. Food additives such as Tartrazine (yellow #5) and sulfite preservatives (often found in wine, canned foods, ready meals and processed meats) are also common culprits in inducing asthma attacks. Lastly, high salt intake is also associated with increased reactivity of the bronchial airway. If you are going to use salt, you would be better off using Himalayan salt as it contains less sodium compared to the normal table salt.
There are many vitamins, minerals and other nutrients that can help to reduce asthma effectively. Here, I have noted the key nutrients you should know about. First up is the trusted vitamin C. Vitamin C is one of the most abundant antioxidants that resides in the lining of your airways, and studies have shown that many asthma sufferers are actually depleted in vitamin C levels. Even as little as 2 grams of vitamin C per day helps to lower histamine levels in your body, and therefore reducing asthma attacks. But do remember that taking vitamin C acutely during an attack is not likely to help. Rather, it should be used long-term to reduce the incidence of asthma attacks. Also, aim to choose products containing sodium ascorbate as the main ingredient, along with other forms of vitamin c (calcium ascorbate, citric acid) and bioflavonoids. These types of vitamin C are absorbed more readily into the body. Magnesium is another nutrient that helps to relax your bronchial pathway and prevent asthma attacks. Magnesium can also be used in acute situations, and taking up to 2g of magnesium sulfate on hourly basis can actually help to reverse asthma symptoms during an attack. I like to use potassium and magnesium aspartate combination for long-term asthma prevention. Omega 3 and vitamin D intake has also shown positive effects on reducing the inflammatory response in your body. The EPA and DHA found in fish oils are known to reduce inflammatory mediators, and vitamin D also helps to balance out hyperactive immune responses and support the overall health of your lungs.
Herbs such as tylophora asthmatica, liquorice, ephedra sinica (Ma huang) are all amazing herbs to help ease your breathing. Tylophora asthmatica is often used in Ayurvedic medicine, and as the name suggests, it is used commonly for treating asthma. The components of the herb assists in reducing inflammation, histamine release and avoid spasms in your bronchial muscles. Liquorice and Ma huang has similar anti-inflammatory and anti-allergic properties. Ma huang also shows effective relaxation effect on the bronchial airways. It is important to note that, however, when you are working with herbs, you would be best to purchase the products from qualified naturopaths or medical herbalists who are extensively educated in herbal medicine, so that they can make sure it will not interact with your medications and it is safe for you to use. Retail range products also lack in safety and quality control, with reported incidences of contaminated products and wrongly labelled plant species!
Lastly, breathing techniques that you can perform at home, such as Buteyko Breathing Techniques (BBT), can significantly help to prevent asthma attacks. Often enough, hyperventilation and/or dysfunctional breathing can worsen asthma symptoms. BBT teaches you to “breathe less”. You are essentially taught how to control your breathing through a range of breathing techniques, so that you can prevent yourself from hyperventilating.
BSc, BNatMed, MNZAMH, MNZSN
Qualified Naturopath, Medical Herbalist, Advanced Hemaview Practitioner