If you’ve ever seen someone having an asthma attack, you know it’s not pretty.
And, according to those who suffer with it, it can be one of the most scary experiences in life.
What Is Asthma?
Asthma comes from Greek words meaning either “panting” or “sharp breath.” It’s a chronic disease that affects the pathways that carry air in and out of your lungs. Those airways become inflamed and very sensitive to any of a variety of substances (in air, food, the environment) that are irritating or allergenic. That’s one reason asthma is so often linked to allergies.
When you have asthma, your immune system mistakenly identifies substances—pollens, dust, dander, foods, etc., as being dangerous and over-reacts, setting up a cascade of events that leads to inflammation in your lungs and a narrowing of your air passages. Muscles around the airways tighten up, less and less air can get in, the airways become even more swollen and narrow, and it becomes harder and harder to breathe.
According to Alan Gaby, MD, unrecognized food allergy (and or food intolerance) is a contributing factor in at least 75 percent of childhood asthmatics and about 40 percent of adult asthmatics. “As early as 1959, Albert H. Rowe, MD, a pioneer in the field of food allergy, successfully treated 95 asthmatic patients with dietary changes alone,” says Dr. Gaby.
At the top of the list of foods most likely to provoke asthma is dairy products. Other usual suspects include tree nuts, milk, eggs, soy, chocolate, wheat, corn, citrus fruits and fish. Tartrazine (yellow dye #5) is believed to be a trigger for thousands of people. And according to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, foods with sulfites — such as beer, dried food, processed potatoes, shrimp and wine — are known to trigger asthma symptoms in susceptible people.
But are there foods and supplements that can help calm the symptoms of asthma?
Actually, yes. Remember, asthma is an inflammatory condition, so making sure your diet contains foods rich in natural anti- inflammatories like omega-3’s (cold water fish, for example) is a really good idea. Researchers writing in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition reviewed research involving asthma and omega-3 supplements and stated, “fish oil supplementation may act to reduce inflammation and help open airways.” And research in the International Journal of Tuberculosis and Lung Diseases found that increased fish consumption and greater intake of omega-3’s in general (in relation to pro-inflammatory omega-6’s) reduced the chance of a child having asthma.
The plant flavonoid quercetin—found in apples and onions— is highly anti-inflammatory as is the spice turmeric. “In my experience, increasing the intake of plant-based fat (avocado, extra virgin olive oil, almonds), fruits, vegetables and whole grains can help considerably,” says Registered Dietitian and “Good Morning America” contributor Cynthia Sass, MPH, MA, RD, MS. Sass also feels that taking probiotic and omega-3 supplements can really help.
Another supplement that might be helpful is the oil of the shea nut. Shea nut oil extract with a high-tripertene content has been shown in over 30 clinical studies to be highly antiinflammatory. I’m very excited about this newly available supplement and will be talking about it a lot in future issues.
Low intakes of vitamin C from food or supplementation can lead to increased risks for asthma. A 2005 study done by researchers from the Asthma and Allergy Research Institute in Australia found the blood concentrations of vitamin C were markedly lower in patients with severe asthma. A review article in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition concluded, “symptoms of ongoing asthma in adults appear to be increased by exposure to environmental oxidants and decreased vitamin C supplementation.”
So asthmatics have a higher need for vitamin C than do members of the general population. One to two grams of vitamin C have been shown in studies to be the most helpful. This level is also helpful for those suffering from allergy or an excess of production of histamine.
Foods high in vitamin C include peppers (green and red), kale, leeks, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, guavas, orange or grapefruit juice, kiwis, peaches, oranges, strawberries and pineapples.
Following a Mediterranean diet has been shown to improve asthma control, possibly because of the high content of omega-3’s and vitamin C. A 2008 study in the Journal of Allergy found that high adherence to a Mediterranean diet reduced the risk of non-controlled asthma by a whopping 78 percent. Controlled asthmatics had significantly higher intakes of fresh fruit in their diet.
While you may not be able to completely wipe out asthma symptoms with food, emerging evidence points to the fact that higher intakes of omega-3s and vitamin C from food (especially fresh fruit) and supplements can certainly help. And, since these foods are so good for you anyway, they certainly couldn’t hurt!
Jonny Bowden, PhD, CNS
Jonny Bowden, PhD, CNS, (aka "The Rogue Nutritionist") is a nationally known expert on weight loss, nutrition and health. He is a board-certified nutritionist with a master’s degree in psychology and the author of nine books on health, healing, food and longevity including two best-sellers, “The 150 Healthiest Foods on Earth” and “Living Low Carb”. A frequent guest on television and radio, he has appeared on Fox News, CNN, MSNBC, ABC, NBC, and CBS as an expert on nutrition, weight loss, and longevity. He is a past member of the Editorial Advisory Board for Men’s Health magazine, is the Nutrition Editor for Pilates Style, and is a regular contributor to AOL, Vanity Fair Online, Clean Eating Magazine, Better Nutrition, and Total Health Magazine Online.