Spring -- it's a wonderful time of year. The sun is shining, flowers are in bloom and change is in the air. That said, many asthma sufferers cringe at this time of year because seasonal allergies often worsen asthma symptoms.
This is really no surprise. The mechanisms of seasonal allergies and asthma are closely related with more than 65% of asthmatic adults over 55 years suffering from at least one allergy.
Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Asthma
Asthma is generally divided into two categories: intrinsic and extrinsic asthma. Intrinsic asthma is triggered by something "inside" the body, including exercise, infection and even emotions such as laughing, crying or distress. Extrinsic asthma, also known as atopic or allergic asthma, is triggered by substances "outside" the body. These allergens are often the same substances that cause seasonal allergies, such as pollen, grass and ragweed.
Although the symptoms of seasonal allergies and asthma differ, the underlying mechanism is quite similar. Asthma and allergies are characterized by an overactive immune response to otherwise benign substances, such as pollen or ragweed, even cold air. Both intrinsic and extrinsic factors trigger the release of chemicals that mediate inflammation from specialized white blood cells known as mast cells (these chemicals include histamine and leukotrienes). It's the overproduction of these chemicals that's responsible for allergy and asthma symptoms.
Diet and Lifestyle Factors For Asthma
Understanding the underlying mechanisms give clues to how these conditions can be managed. Natural treatments should focus on avoiding offending allergens, including potential food allergens, while at the same time reducing inflammation and minimizing chemical mediators such as histamine.
For those with extrinsic asthma, the key to minimizing symptoms is to reduce the allergic burden. This can involve an allergy test to identify specific allergens and general recommendations like using an air filter in your home, washing clothes and sheets regularly and not wearing shoes inside the house.
Food allergies aren't often considered triggers for asthma, however studies have shown that individuals with grass pollen-allergic respiratory disease experience adverse food reactions more frequently than those without pollen allergies. This may happen due to cross reactions between specific foods and environmental allergens. Cross reaction in allergies is when proteins in one substance (i.e. pollen) are similar to the proteins in another substance (like a food). For example, adults with an allergy to birch pollen are more likely to experience a reaction to apples and stone fruits like cherries and nectarines.
A study of factory workers in Japan showed that healthy lifestyle habits reduced IgE levels - the allergic antibody - while an unhealthy lifestyle increased IgE. Lifestyle habits that tended to increase IgE levels included poor diet, smoking, alcohol consumption and stress.
Nutrients For Asthma
Research has found vitamin C to be helpful in alleviating exercise-induced bronchoconstriction. Given the safety and low cost of vitamin C, these findings suggest that physically active adults should try vitamin C if they experience exercise-induced asthma.
Magnesium is known to be a potent bronchodilator, which means it opens the airways. Low dietary magnesium may be related to both the incidence and progression of asthma. Adults who were given 340 mg magnesium daily for 6 months showed improvement in bronchial reactivity.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 supplements have been shown to lower IgE levels and reduce airway hyper-responsiveness in asthma sufferers. Participants in a trial taking 3.2g EPA and 2.0g DHA daily for 3 weeks (both are a fatty acids found in the flesh of coldwater fish) noticed a significant reduction in exercise-induced asthma and decreased need for inhalers.
In another study on overweight individuals with mild asthma, conjugated linoleic acid (a naturally occurring fatty acid that regulates immune and metabolic processes) was shown to significantly reduce airway hyper-responsiveness.
Antioxidant levels are often lower in those with asthma and several studies have associated low intake of antioxidant foods with worsening of asthma symptoms. In contrast, diets rich in antioxidants are associated with improved respiratory function and lower prevalence of asthma.
Adults who consume a Mediterranean diet rich in fresh fruit, vegetables, omega-3 fats, nuts and seeds appear to demonstrate improvements in asthma symptoms and overall quality of life. Also, taking an antioxidant supplement containing vitamins A, C, E, zinc and selenium every day for two months can lead to improvements in asthma control and lung function.
Herbal Therapies For Asthma
Nature provides a myriad of herbs to help us cope with allergies and asthma. These herbs often work by reducing inflammation and helping stabilize mast cells.
Boswellia is traditionally used in Aryuvedic medicine as an anti-inflammatory. The plant contains boswellic acid, which has been shown to inhibit bronchoconstriction. In a trial where participants were given 300 mg of boswellia 3 times a day for 6 weeks, 70% experienced a reduction in asthma symptoms, compared to just 27% of control subjects.
Turmeric (also known as curcuma longa) and its active ingredient curcumin are potent anti-inflammatory compounds effective in treating airway hyperresponsiveness in asthma and other allergic inflammatory diseases. Along with relieving asthma symptoms it can reduce the mix of saliva and mucus coughed up from the respiratory tract.
Editor's note: An acute asthma attack can be life threatening. Do not discontinue asthma medications without the proper guidance from a medical professional.
Dr. Tomah Phillips is a licensed Naturopathic Doctor at Kinetic Patterns Medical Clinic in Vancouver, BC. In addition to clinical practice, Dr. Tomah teaches Biomedical Sciences at the Boucher Institute of Naturopathic Medicine. He holds a BSc. in Physiology from McGill University and obtained his Naturopathic degree from the Boucher Institute of Naturopathic Medicine.
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